Laughter and tears as Peel fans say farewell

UNSCRIPTED and, for the majority of the congregation, unexpected, the loud, raucous and unmistakable sound of Liverpool fans in full voice filled the cathedral, the chant louder and clearer, until, with one voice, it became You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Inside a packed St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds yesterday, as Peel’s coffin was slowly carried up the aisle to Fergal Sharkey’s modern masterpiece, shouts, cheers and a burst of applause could be heard from the 500-strong crowd listening in the cold and wet outside.

At the service, his fellow DJ Paul Gambaccini addressed Peel in his coffin and said: "You caught people at their most impressionable and their most emotional and gave them what mattered most to them, and they remembered it. Then you did it for the next generation."

Peel’s talent as a broadcaster, a lover and explorer of music and his ability to share it with others were just some of the reasons so many had gathered to mourn him. But it was a mark of his family and friends’ ability to share this "ordinary man" with others that made his funeral so special.

Many of those whose careers he had helped forge gathered in the cavernous interior of the 16th-century building to say their final goodbyes. They included Sharkey, the lead singer of the Undertones, the White Stripes and Jarvis Cocker, of Pulp. Elton John, who could not be there, sent yellow roses with the message: "Thank you for all the great music. You were a hero for so many, love Elton".

Fellow DJs from his 37-year career at Radio 1 - Gambaccini, Jo Whiley, Annie Nightingale and Mark Radcliffe - were among the 860 mourners. Comedians Gryff Rhys Jones and Phil Jupitus had gone to pay their respects as had "Whispering" Bob Harris, from the Old Grey Whistle Test and the rock star Robert Plant.

In a moving and at times hilarious service, his friends spoke of a witty family man who embraced life to the full.

Still addressing Peel’s coffin, Gambaccini said: "You’ve broken more artists than any broadcaster in the history of radio."

He said the Liverpool-born and Liverpool-loving DJ had been the first to play the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and recalled how he had a picture of the footballer Kenny Dalglish on his studio wall with the words, "God - A likeness".

Gambaccini said that, after realising that "really, the management weren’t listening" Peel had begun his ground-breaking midnight-2am slot at Radio 1 playing what he loved and had taken three generations with him.

To applause from the throng listening to the service on a PA system outside, he said: "We all know that there is a little less decency and a lot less music. For the last time, I say thanks, John."

From his thrice-weekly slots on Radio 1 to his Saturday morning Radio 4 programme, Home Truths, Peel always took his family into the lives of his listeners. Yesterday, they returned the favour, by leaving his friends and fans, many of whom were wearing red ties or scarfs in tribute to Peel’s love of Liverpool FC, with stories of the man they knew.

His brother, Alan, paid tribute to the family man he loved and recalled how Peel looked after him when their parents divorced and once gave him a sound piece of advice about sex. To laughter, he said: "He told me, ‘do remember that girls like it, too’."

He said that Peel’s wife, Sheila, and their four children had been touched and strengthened by the e-mails, letters, flowers and tributes that had "flooded in to Peel Acres" the pink 17th- century farmhouse in Great Finsborough where he lived and worked.

One of the most moving tributes came from Peel’s children, William, 28, "Dandra", 26, Thomas, 24, and Flossie, 22. Filled with the sort of humour for which their father was famous, it recalled life chez-Peel, the shambolic domestic bliss they shared and how much he meant to them.

Read by Charlie Bell, a family friend, it began with an apology that they could not read it themselves as they suffered from a trait inherited from their father which made them "weep uncontrollably" at such occasions.

They recalled how their mother had given Peel pocket money for 26 years and his delight, at the age of 55, when he opened his first bank account - he went out and bought a 1963 Chevrolet.

They also told of Peel being sent out to buy night lights for the children’s bedrooms, only to return with flashing disco lights. He was a hoarder, they said, who kept odd things, from 36 years of "mum’s shopping lists" to Kid Jensen’s postcards. "His collection of 2 coins which he gathered is going to pay for his gravestone."

The Peel offspring said their father had been happier than ever in the months before his death. The birth of his grandson, earlier this year, had been an occasion of great joy - he had wept uncontrollably then, too. They said they were proud that "he meant so much to so many" and ended by thanking their parents for bringing them up in the way they did. "We loved him very much and will miss him immeasurably," they said.

By the time Teenage Kicks thundered out of the speakers, the congregation, many in tears, were already on their feet. His coffin, carpeted in velvet-soft red roses and held aloft by pall-bearers, was followed by his wife, her head down, holding on to one of her sons for support. They were followed by the other three children, holding hands.

As he disappeared from view, for the last time, there was a heartfelt burst of applause - a thanks for everything.

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