Being a failure taught me how to succeed

Revelations: John Peel, Radio Presenter, Port of Liverpool, 1960
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The Independent Culture
I WAS sitting in my cabin on board the SS Eugene Lykes, a freighter, bound for Houston from Liverpool. My dad was there saying goodbye, and I suddenly realised that the option that I'd picked was irreversible and that I had to go on to the States and cope when I got there.

I had no long-term plans at all. Having had a very ordered childhood, there was a kind of inevitability to life for me. I was brought up by a nanny, so I had very little contact with my parents. I was packed off to prep school at the age of seven and took my common entrance at 12 or 13. I failed mine, but because my father, his brother and both grandfathers had been to Shrewsbury, I was nodded through.

But I went into what was, in effect, a remedial class. I was not stupid or wicked, just lazy. I'd like to have been a bad lad, the kind who'd been caught in bed with cooks, but I was more absent-minded, prone to peering out of the window when I should be concentrating.

But I was very lucky: I had an amazing house-master, RHJ Brooke, who subsequently went into the church. He was unique at that time, in that he realised that not all boys were going to become distinguished academics but it was possible to try and nurture them. He put me in the study next to the House library because he quite liked the idea of my playing rock'n'roll records while the rest of them were in there listening to Ravel's "Bolero" or something like that. He liked the idea of having a faintly anarchic presence in the House. I had been threatened with expulsion on several occasions, and he'd gone to bat on my behalf, so I owe him a great deal.

But the expectation was that you'd go on to university, and I saw university as just being more of the same.

Perhaps realising that I couldn't be a success in the way that was expected of people in that school, I thought, well, the only way I can establish myself as an individual is by being a conspicuous failure.

I worked in the Cotton Exchange in Liverpool as an office boy, which I quite enjoyed (very physical work, undemanding, outrageously poorly paid), then went into the Army. Again, the option was there for me to attempt to achieve success - by becoming an officer, and most public schoolboys did become officers. So I like to think I was one of the first public schoolboys to fail to get a commission in HM's Forces - and this still gave me a certain kind of distinction. Having done nine or ten years in boarding school, two years of military service was a doddle, and also in the Army you were never required to do any thinking for yourself. So, up until the time I left the Army, all decisions were made for me.

I was at home on leave towards the end of my National Service and my father was asking me what I planned to do when I was demobbed. I told him I was quite happy to hang around for a while and watch the world go by. He said: "I'll send you to America if you'll go," and in the way that you do when you're 18 or 19, I said "Yes, go ahead and send me, Dad, see if I care". And he did.

Crossing the Gulf [of Mexico] was amazing because you saw porpoises and flying fish: also, the sunsets in the middle of the Atlantic were so extraordinary that you felt almost as if you were passing from one life to another. There were only six passengers, and I just used to lie on the deck and stare up into the sky in a pre-hippie sort of way.

Arriving at Galveston and setting off up the channel to Houston, the heat was 20 degrees hotter than anything I'd ever experienced before. The stench of oil was unbelievable - you couldn't escape from it. And arriving at Houston I was, quite clearly, somewhere very, very different. It really was like arriving on another planet. I didn't have a network of anything to fall back on, I was entirely on my own for the first time in my life.

My father was a cotton broker in Liverpool and gave me the addresses of several people in Dallas and Memphis. He wanted me to make contact with them, which I duly did. The idea was that they would educate me. I was 20. I spent a night in Houston, then went on up to Dallas to meet these people. And they just put me to work as cheap labour: they didn't bother to try and educate me.

It wasn't until the Beatles came along that I had the opportunity to get a proper radio job. I knew nothing about the Beatles, but the Americans assumed, rather sweetly, that because I came from approximately the same part of the world I must be a blood relative - and so I was a Beatle expert on a station called KMEN, in Dallas.

And then I was offered a job by a radio station in Oklahoma City called KOMA. Radio then was very different, and you would often inherit a name. My real name is Ravenscroft, and I was allowed to be Ravencroft.

One decision I made at a fairly early stage was that I didn't want to get involved in showbiz. I'm still quite a shy bloke, and part of the taking control of my own life involved not doing things that I didn't want to do. There's always the feeling that there are certain events you must go to because you just need to put your face about, or you might meet somebody important, or whatever, and when you realise that you don't have to do that, it's really rather wonderful.

Sheila and I knew John and Yoko a little bit at one stage, and liked them enormously. And when Elton John first started out, we exchanged postcards and letters ... and we used to know one of the Pink Floyd a bit. But there's something about the processes by which people become famous that I find essentially distasteful.

The trouble is that they're surrounded by people whose job it is to tell them that everything they do is wonderful and that they are beyond reproach, and I think that's quite damaging, particularly when they're very young and suggestible.

It was important when I realised that I didn't want to hang out with celebrities. The record industry and showbiz in general are perfectly happy to cooperate with us in this, and we're not invited to loads of exotic receptions, but we were once. I suppose, in a way, it's the same thing as me being much happier being 23558538 Gunner Ravenscroft J, than Second Lieutenant Ravenscroft.

When I was in Brooke's form (at Shrewsbury) I went from being bottom to top of everything, so if the right person had come along earlier in my education I might have done better.

But something else which I learned a few years ago is that you are as much the sum of your failures as of your successes: if you like doing what you do and who you are, then you should celebrate your failures as well. I mean, if I'd gone to university, I might now be an accountant in Cheshire, which I don't think I would like.

John Peel has his own record programme on Radio One, every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 8.40-10.30pm. He can also be heard on Radio Four on Saturday mornings, 9-10am, in `Home Truths'.

Veronica Groocock