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No Off Switch, By Andy Kershaw
Many faces, but no time to look in the mirror
Sunday 10 July 2011
There are several Andy Kershaws in Andy Kershaw's autobiography.
There's the globe-trotting journalist and documentary maker, assimilating sounds and cultures and fearlessly reporting on some of the world's most volatile trouble spots; the ground-breaking radio DJ steeped in his own sense of superiority and waging a one-man battle against mediocrity; the ladies' man, keen to capitalise on his elevated status and indulge in, as he cringingly puts it, a "bit of leg-over". In the final chapters, there is also the lonely and broken Kershaw, fresh out of prison, on his uppers, and estranged from his family.
Kershaw has had one hell of a life, although reading his account of it, it's hard to know which of these characters is the real him. I know which one I prefer, and that's the music enthusiast dedicated to unearthing obscure treasures, a man who thinks nothing of hopping on a plane to Los Angeles to look up an old country-soul legend in order to invite him on to his radio show, or to Harare to acquaint himself with the sound of Zimbabwean jit dance music. Less appealing is the Kershaw that regards chavs as an "invasive species" and repeatedly rubbishes his Radio 1 colleagues. (John Peel, despite being described as a friend, gets a particularly rough ride.)
From his childhood in Rochdale as the offspring of deeply conservative parents, there was always a bonfire burning in Kershaw's belly. He claims to have bounced by accident from job to job, whether that be working as Billy Bragg's driver and roadie, or presenting The Old Grey Whistle Test, or setting up shop on Radio 1, but there's no disguising the ambition behind the trademark checked shirt.
The book stitches together some strange and comic escapades, such as Kershaw's painting and re-painting of a fence around a Rolling Stones concert, to fit with their site co-ordinator's definition of "grass-green", or his interview with John Hurt during Live Aid, in front of an audience of billions, executed without the slightest clue as to who he was.
While the book is heavy on anecdote it is, alas, light on reflection and self-awareness. When discussing his troubles with the BBC – considered too esoteric by his narrow-minded superiors, his Radio 1 show was axed in 2000 – Kershaw portrays himself as the only conscientious broadcaster on the planet. More alarmingly, he offers little sign of the trouble brewing with his partner Juliette Banner – with whom he had a 17-year relationship, but who merits little more than a paragraph – culminating in a series of restraining orders which, having been repeatedly broken, resulted in a spell in prison.
Self-analysis is not Kershaw's style, though you imagine it would go some way in helping a man who was deserted by his parents at the age of 16, who has seen unimaginable atrocities in Rwanda and who has struggled with alcoholism. As it is, No Off Switch leaves you wondering if he deserves a Nobel Prize for services to music or just a hefty boot up the backside.
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