On the day of the great DJ's death, I was in a charity shop in Notting Hill when a stranger came up to me and said: "Have you heard about John Peel?" I've been wondering, in retrospect, why the stranger should have spoken to me: it was hardly a day like 9/11, when strangers everywhere spoke to each other. The likely explanation is that the man was of an age with me, and took it for granted that I had been a Peel disciple in the late Seventies and early Eighties.
My persistent thought about Peel was that it was a very good job he played hard-core urban music, because otherwise he'd have looked suspiciously like a conservative country gentleman, with his four acres, his four children, his love of cars, his mill-owning father, his name truncated a la Tony Benn. The NME touchingly explained: "He was an 'old Salopian', which means he went to a posho [sic] private school in Shrewsbury."
There is no music underground today, but at the time of punk, The John Peel Show ghettoised me and my mates, making young iconoclasts out of people who would go on to be tax inspectors, chartered surveyors or, in the case of a person I will call Billy, a greengrocer.
Billy listened to the Peel show every night and wrote down chunks of the running order. He didn't look like a punk - in fact, he always wore smart casual clothes - but he didn't need to. His street credibility came from his love of the music. Whereas I always preferred American new wave, which John Peel seemed to find too arty and middle class (I remember him playing a Talking Heads track and sneering afterwards: "That hip enough for you?"), Billy liked true British punk, which was not so much music as a gauntlet thrown down.
The fascinating thing about Billy, to me, was that he was the son of a shopkeeper, and it was well known that he would be inheriting the family business. Shopkeepers weren't supposed to like dangerous, left-wing music. But then again I, the son of a Labour-voting railway worker, grew up in a culture hostile to shopkeepers, who were the archetypal small businessmen, guaranteed to be right-wing and Thatcherite (she herself, it will be recalled, was a grocer's daughter).
To refine this description of my prejudice . . . shopkeepers seemed at once stolid, conservative people, but also with a hint of frightening wildness. They rode the stormy seas of commerce, and their circumstances could change overnight. They often seemed larger than life, dominating my local amateur drama club and the clubhouse of the golf course.
I was always nervous when our local butcher leaned his huge red
body across the counter to place a dozen Smarties in my hand.
My dad had one shopkeeper friend - an overwhelming, charming man who ran the local grocer's. His business began to suffer with the arrival of a new supermarket. The supermarket undercut him on routine items such as toilet roll, but couldn't compete on all levels. My dad's friend stocked a better range of cheese, for example. People who had defected to the supermarket would continue to buy cheese from him, or try to, but he would see them off, saying: "If you're buying your bloody arse-wipe from the supermarket you can buy your bloody cheese there as well."
Back then, shopkeepers were the ideological enemy. But today, small independent shopkeepers are the darlings of the local left, as bulwarks against the big corporations. Tesco convenience stores have been opening on high streets all around my bit of north London, to the anger of many. The facades are hideous to look at: bright white, like fridges lain on their sides. I bought a joint of beef at the one near us last week. Readers will be relieved to hear that it smelled funny and tasted funnier.