Interview: Andy Kershaw, DJ
When I arrive at the publishers of his extraordinary life story, Andy Kershaw is with some of the staff and they're arguing, or rather, he's doing the shouting while everyone else takes their punishment, heads bowed.
Because this is happening behind glass walls it's not hard to conjure up an image of Kershaw in his old Radio 1 studio, raging against some BBC directive limiting the number of wilfully obscure country and western records he plays – or worse, the seating plan for the station's Christmas party positioning him next to Simon Bates, described in the book as "our much detested colleague".
"This entire industry," he tells me, meaning publishing, "is founded on pomposity and superciliousness. I'm regarded as a necessary but lucrative bit-of-rough by people who would much rather work for those blokes in baggy corduroys who write novels that no bugger reads. So where is she, then?"
I know who he means but I don't want to say. "Yes, they tell you they'll be quick but they always take bloody hours. They bring lights because that type, they tend to think of themselves as ... artists. It's all about their own self-importance and they're a right pain in the arse for sure."
Crikey, we only want a photograph.
Kershaw will announce that he's feeling pretty perky today. In fact, he says: "I've stopped drinking and I've never been in better shape. I'm not exaggerating, I've got more energy, enthusiasm and optimism than I've ever had in my life. And I'm a 28in waist again – how many 51-year-old blokes can say that?"
But he didn't quite declare himself to be chilled and relaxed and at peace with himself. On a baking afternoon in north London, he's still ranting about "my so-called editor" who wanted a shorter book than the 160,000-worder he submitted. In our cafe he almost gets into a fight with another customer, even though it's my personal space that's been invaded.
When we move onto the pavement the chat gets too physical – him jabbing me on the chest to make a point about the "strutting little inadequates" who uphold the laws of the Isle of Man, me taking evasive action – and our bench almost topples over.
Can nothing or no one soothe his fevered brow? Just then, two pretty blonde girls in shorts waft by. "Bloody 'ell," he gasps.
Kershaw is wearing shorts, too – 28in waist, don't forget – plus Timberlands and one of his ever-dependable plaid shirts. It's the uniform of the rock'n'roll foreign correspondent – a job he's fulfilled with flair, no little courage and some lunacy.
This image is reinforced by his "BBC box" – the mobile office carrying his laptop, notebook and loo roll – and the type of deep tan you don't get from lounging around the Costas. But his eyes are bloodshot and his cheeks puffy. It's been a helluva war, on all fronts.
In 2007 Kershaw's life, the personal and the professional, went into meltdown. Understandably he wasn't talking about any of it, but that didn't stop stories being written. I wrote one myself, suggesting that a melodramatic sequence of events – DJ discovers his show is to be moved nearer the graveyard slot, hits pub with a vengeance, gets banged up for breaching a restraining order at his ex-partner's home – sounded too Smashie & Nicey, too Alan Partridge, to be Kershaw.
After all, he was the DJ's DJ, the right-on one who championed African music, who not only played records on the radio but listened to them at home. He was supposed to be the new John Peel, not the new Tony Blackburn (older readers may remember Tone pleading on air, in vain, for his wife Tessa Wyatt to take him back).
But we didn't know the full story and Kershaw is only telling his version now. The Isle of Man with its annual TT Races is heaven-on-earth to a motorcycle nut like him, but the dream of a new life there swerved out of control the day his family arrived from London.
While he was treating the removal men to a drink – his seven-ton record collection requiring a truck of its own – Juliette Banner, the mother of his children Sonny and Dolly, found a text on his phone dating from the previous year's Womad Festival.
As he writes in his memoirs, No Off Switch, the message "alluded to leg-over in the Reading area" and he returned to find the new house empty.
By not deleting the text he had "compounded the insult of an infidelity with arrogance". I ask if this had been his only indiscretion in what was a 17-year relationship.
"No, there were two or three others. I'm not unique and neither was my relationship: it wasn't as fresh as on day one. By moving everyone to the Isle of Man I don't think I was running away from my libido but we'd landed in the middle of the North Sea, 250 miles away from temptation, and it should have been a fresh start."
Kershaw went to jail three times in five months for violating his restraining order. He says prison didn't frighten him. "I'm not scared of anything. Well, apart from landmines." Nevertheless, his situation was only worsening. Seeing Banner with her new man was bad; not seeing his children broke him.
"I was drinking to achieve oblivion. I didn't want to be dead but I didn't want to be awake either. Somewhere in between was preferable so when I did wake-up, hungover, the only way to feel anything approaching normal was to top up again with booze. But I was criminalised and repeatedly imprisoned, despite never laying a finger on anyone.
"The Isle of Man authorities connived with the judiciary and the police in this and, for the strategic advantage of my ex and her new partner, I was denied access to my children for the best part of two years."
When Kershaw talks about "strategic advantage" he sounds like he's back on the frontline in a war-zone or a hotspot (Simon Bates, it's safe to assume, doesn't have four North Korea stamps on his passport). When he represented himself in court you wonder if he remembered how he used to fight with his father over the latter's hopes he'd become a solicitor. But on this metaphorical motorbike ride, he'd yet to hit the tyre-wall.
"I was forced to go on the run for nine months. When I found out Juliette hadn't allowed the children to see any of my letters, I let rip to both her and her partner, breaking the order again, so I knew the police would come looking for me. I'd become the Merle Haggard character in Lonesome Fugitive, one of my favourite country songs."
Now on the mainland, Kershaw skulked between Northamptonshire, Anglesey and London. He hid out with friends, fellow bike fanatics and "Our Elizabeth", his DJ sister Liz.
A presenter of Live Aid (global audience: oh, 1.5 billion), Kershaw was hardly inconspicuous, but on the other hand his ability to melt across the Burundi border into Rwanda to file memorable reports on the latter's 1994 genocide for Radio 4's Today programme must have stood him in good stead.
"I became paranoid about fluorescent yellow, thinking the police were about to nab me, only to jump in doorways and see workmen or bloody Health & Safety officers pass."
He was arrested in Derby, only for the officers to deliberately order more paperwork so he could make good his escape, and he's convinced an off-duty sergeant on the Somerset pub skittles team he joined as a guest player knew perfectly well who he was, but didn't blow his cover.
Finding himself back on the Welsh coast the day his son tuned 11, he scraped "Happy Birthday Sonny" in 30ft letters in the sand facing the Isle of Man. Pals and complete strangers had shown great kindness in sheltering him.
But a low point came at a favourite riverside picnic spot where he'd been "Daddy at his best", teaching the kids how to catch minnows with bread in a bottle.
"I wept buckets, crying out their names," he says, with almost a tear in those sore-looking eyes now.
So how did it come to this for Andy Kershaw? Parents Jack and Eileen were head teachers, his mother also a Labour mayor, and for Andy and Liz this was a determinedly unswinging 1960s household, with the old man going as far as believing his son's burgeoning record collection (sneaked upstairs to his bedroom, mostly glam rock) to be "an indication of homosexuality". Then his father had an affair, closely followed by his mother's one.
His father never took him fishing or to a racetrack – two of his greatest passions. Did he resent that?
"No, because there were lots of other benefits to him being my father. This sounds cruel, but couples in their day had kids because it was expected of them. I got my energy and enthusiasm from Mum, though, and my curiosity from Dad and that was a good start in life."
During all his troubles – sparked he fully admits by him behaving like a "d***head" – his parents didn't want to know. "I had that a lot. You find out who your friends are in those situations. When I updated my phonebook recently only a third of the old numbers went back in. But I wasn't going to reject Mum – she's my mother. Dad was an ostrich, a coward by nature who didn't confront things. But we had a reconciliation before he died, when he saw me in better shape, and that cheered him no end."
Kershaw has loved and lost more than once. In the book ex-girlfriends are described as "stunning" "gorgeous" or "wonderful". Early on, he wouldn't have much success, returning to his Rochdale bedroom and his records. But by the time he'd become a DJ – also a presenter of TV's Old Grey Whistle Test – he was enjoying "an Olympian quantity of shallow but instantly gratifying sex". No, he didn't exploit his fame.
He asserts that when men are criticised for "philandering", the fact they act on "biological impulse" gets forgotten. "But I was too selfish and too randy," he admits with a shake of the head.
Kershaw can be brutally honest on the subject of his own failings, and how through his TV and radio shows he almost saw too much of the world, leaving him bored by the domestic. "I wasn't screwed up by the civil wars in Angola, Sierra Leone and Rwanda and another dozen madhouses," he writes. "But those experiences made it much harder to come home and show much of an interest in what Juliette reported to me over the dinner table of the staff politics of her restaurant."
This candour, when applied to his personal situation, is sad. But when it's applied to music with all of his no-nonsense Northernness, Kershaw is hilarious. He was let down by his first hero, Bob Dylan. Later, as an intrepid reporter, he would unmask the fan who famously shouted "Judas!" when Dylan went electric, but as a teenager, already questioning and snarky, he was almost moved to holler "Crimplene!" when, in 1978, His Bobness dressed badly and played worse. "He was bloody awful; I felt betrayed and crushed."
One by one the godheads fall: James Brown ("Most overrated in history"), Bob Geldof ("Nasty, malicious"), Bono ("Big bag of wind"), Live Aid ("Sanctimonious, self-satisfied, boring"), The Tube ("Smug, vacuous"), Michael Stipe (swore at Our Elizabeth, promptly challenged to a fight by her wee brother).
As a student at Leeds University Kershaw booked the bands and so witnessed primadonna behaviour close up. "I've never been predisposed to deference towards rock stars. They's flawed like the rest of us." And of course, he includes himself in that analysis.
Then there was John Peel, a broadcasting hero alongside Alan Whicker and John Noakes, but Kershaw in assessment of him is equally hard-nosed.
Peel, he claims, wasn't the great maverick he liked us to think. Privileged and public-school educated, he felt guilty at not coming from a "real" place like Liverpool, and reinvented his on-air persona at least twice to suit social change. He was self-obsessed, permanently in need of flattery and had no stomach for a fight with the BBC suits, unlike Kershaw.
"My real and natural predisposition to rebellion terrified the life out of him," he writes. But he was also a great friend and the pair had terrific fun in Room 318, the Corporation bunker nicknamed House at Poor Corner (Peel was Eeyeore, Kershaw Tigger), although its real genius was producer John Walters, one of the great unsung British eccentrics and wits who divided 20th-century society into two eras – "pre- and post-avocado" – and deserves a bio of his own.
Until that happens we must make do with Kershaw's. At times he displays some of the self-importance he exposes in others, but there are terrific chapters about how Room 318's self-confessed music snobs jousted with the feel-the-warmth-of-my-sincerity boys on Radio 1 daytime, including "Oooh Gary Davies", Bruno Brookes (who not only had a chauffeur but once instructed the flunky to purchase "a few yards of books" for his bare walls) and of course, Simon Bates.
When the perpetrator of "Our Tune" was starring in panto and Aladdin put a dagger to his throat, Kershaw the heckler shouted: "Oh for God's sake just do it!"
His mood has lightened considerably today and he's laughing at these memories, not least because while Brookes could simply order up reading material for decorative purposes, the wardens in his Isle of Man jail removed books from his cell because they constituted a fire risk. There are times in his life when it seemed as if he might spontaneously combust.
That he hasn't – time for one more boast – is down to "supreme effort, tenacity, self-control and inner courage – I'm as strong as a monkey's tail".
He wants another job on radio; in fact he doesn't know why he's not running the entire Beeb network. He'd quite like some new romance. But mostly he's happy just having his son back living with him and is hopeful he'll soon start seeing more of his daughter.
During his battle with the Isle of Man's Family Court, he was so hard up he had to walk the ten miles to hearings. "Look," he says, showing me a crumpled 5 note and some coins, "this is all I've got to my name today.
"I've gotten very used to somehow surviving on fresh air. At one point I thought I was going to have to sell my record collection but I've managed to keep it." A wry smile. Yes, it's Andy and his cherished vinyl, just like before.
No Off Switch is published by Profile Books, 18.99.
This article was first published in The Scotsman, 9 July, 2011
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