Serpent's Tail, £18.99, 408pp. £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
No Off Switch: An Autobiography, By Andy Kershaw
Friday 08 July 2011
Five years ago Andy Kershaw's life unravelled horribly, thanks to that very modern nemesis, the carelessly undeleted text message. Moving into his new house on the Isle of Man with his family, the broadcaster was undone when his partner borrowed his mobile and saw evidence of what he refers to as "leg-over in Reading" a year earlier. It was of such little significance, he said, he hadn't even bothered to delete it. If the encounter was so devoid of meaning, why did he bother in the first place?
The answer appears to be, from his own evidence, that he's incapable of fidelity. He admits he's a "selfish dickhead", and the pages of No Off Switch are littered with apparently beautiful, intelligent women on whom he couldn't stop himself cheating. "I treated Melanie, the sweetest and most loving of girlfriends, disgracefully", is a typical statement.
Separated from his partner and children, he drank himself into rages, breached restraining orders and ended up a fugitive and jailbird. His glittering career ran aground and his life fell apart. He has gone some way to professional rehabilitation, partly through writing for this newspaper, and the excellent Radio 3 series Music Planet earlier this year showed that he's still got his broadcasting chops.
The unravelling makes for grim reading, and he shoehorns it into 25 pages near the end (he feels he was unfairly criminalised). Most of the book is an entertaining romp, from his days putting on concerts at Leeds University, his stint as boy wonder on the Old Grey Whistle Test and 20 award-stuffed years on BBC radio. His dispatches for From Our Own Correspondent were excellent, and he's clearly a talented bloke.
But my, does he know it. I met him once, and he was great company, but in the book he comes across as, well, full of himself. And hilariously opinionated: Elvis ("a competent easy-listening crooner"), James Brown ("one of the most over-rated artists in the history of popular music"), prog rock, the smoking ban, economics, football, religion, The Tube and its "smug" co-presenter Jools Holland, Live Aid and Live 8, Simple Minds, Radio 1 and most of its DJs: all get a good kicking. And he's not afraid to speak ill of the dead: his late friend John Peel, it turns out, wasn't the maverick we all thought, and refused, apparently, to support Kershaw during his struggles with the Radio 1 suits.
There are some terrific passages, like his description of a mad fortnight supervising preparations for a massive Rolling Stones gig in Leeds, his tales of tracking down hitherto obscure musicians in remote regions, and his hair-raising trips to places like Haiti, North Korea and Rwanda. For the past 25 years he has been one of the best things on radio – partly responsible for the "birth" of world music. Without him, artists of the stature of the Bhundu Boys and Ali Farka Toure would probably never have impacted on the wider world. I hope the Music Planet gig is only the start of a triumphant second half of his career. Whatever he broadcasts in future, I'm likely to be listening. I wouldn't want to be his girlfriend, though.
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