Andy Kershaw: The DJ who came back from the wars
He brought world music to the masses, chased trouble around the globe, and more recently was a drunk and homeless. But things are looking up... Nick Duerden meets Andy Kershaw
Sitting at an outside table of a Turkish restaurant, Andy Kershaw puffs busily at a cigarette, orders a coffee and then, before taking his second sip, requests from the waitress a second. Having got a grip on his drinking, it seems only fair he should indulge his compulsion for caffeine. It is a Tuesday afternoon in London, a stone's throw from Broadcasting House, where he has spent three decades making inspired and inspiring programmes for Radios 1, 3 and 4, but he is here today to discuss the paperback publication of his autobiography, No Off Switch.
Perhaps fittingly for Kershaw, the book has not had a typical route from hardback to paperback. It was originally published last year by the independent imprint Serpent's Tail, but so appalled was he by their lack of marketing ("they didn't seem to care about it from the day it came out, despite, let's be frank, some fantastic reviews," he asserts) that he extricated himself from his contract and hawked the paperback rights elsewhere. This, as all too many authors will tell you, is not an easy thing to do, but little stands in Kershaw's way once he has made up his mind. "They didn't even ask for my advance back!" he laughs jubilantly.
It is now being published by Virgin, and Kershaw is about to set off on a one-man tour to promote it. "I'll be honest with you: initially, I was terrified of facing a live literary audience, but the people kept coming, kept laughing, and so what else was I to do but thoroughly enjoy it?"
The book is a fantastic romp, comprising one man's improbable rise through British media, from badly dressed political student to presenting Live Aid in front of a TV audience of billions; from being Radio 1's most belligerent maverick (and badly dressed) DJ, to being a war correspondent for the likes of Radio 4.
His esoteric approach to music was much like his approach to life: "It's an insatiable curiosity, basically, a nosiness," he says. "I think initially Radio 1 wanted another [John] Peel, but I got quickly bored of those awful, insipid demo tapes I was receiving from Liverpudlian indie acts, especially as I was beginning to discover properly fantastic, amazing music from Malawi, the Congo, South Africa. The way I saw it, this was music that would have an appeal way beyond the circle of African music aficionados. And the letters I received from enthusiastic listeners suggested I was right."
But the man born in Rochdale to teacher parents was never going to be content just playing records. He wanted to be an eyewitness to history, and so got on aeroplanes in search of stories in the kind of territories it would be difficult to get travel insurance for. "There was a certain inflexibility of mind within the BBC," he notes, "that presumed I couldn't possibly be a proper journalist because I was a DJ. Of course I bloody could! I didn't see many other so-called proper journalists knocking around the Rwandan genocide at the same time as I was, for example …"
Many of these trips – to North Korea, Malawi, Zimbabwe – were self-funded, and so taken was he by the instability of Haiti that he spent much of the 1990s based there, a latter-day Graham Greene covering hurricanes, revolts and unlikely drinks parties on the hotel terrace. "It is simultaneously the most exasperating and exhilarating place on earth," he says. "I love it."
His craving to be at the centre of events has not faded, and he last found himself in such a position in 2010. He had arrived in Thailand for a connecting flight home after making a radio documentary on the music of Indochina. But Bangkok was in the middle of an uprising by the so-called Red Shirts. While every other Westerner took cover, Kershaw was in his element. "I jumped into the nearest tuk tuk and screamed at the driver: 'Take me to the revolution!'"
The "world music" DJ subsequently delivered a worldwide scoop for The Independent. "A very proud moment, that," he beams, breaking off only to receive his lunch of lamb meatballs and chips, which, of course, he wolfs down with the gusto of a dog chasing a stick.
In 2008, Kershaw improbably became a staple of the red tops. His 17-year marriage had ended after his wife discovered a text on his phone alluding to a one-night stand the year before. The couple had just moved with their two children to the Isle of Man for a quieter life, but his wife promptly left him, and obtained a court order that he stay away from their children. Kershaw repeatedly broke the terms of the order, and was imprisoned three times, before going on the run and becoming the Isle of Man's most hunted fugitive.
The tabloids revelled in his public breakdown, his alcohol dependency and subsequent poverty (unable to work, he slept rough for a while), but what Kershaw found hardest to take was that he received much the same treatment from the broadsheets.
"Nobody, not even my allies within the serious media, bothered to look at what was really going on. All I wanted to do was see my children, so why was I in jail? Why was I on the run? It was ridiculous, insane."
He no longer lives on the Isle of Man, convinced it's a police state and, in his view, practically despotic. "The stories I could tell you," he seethes. If such views might get him into trouble, then, he shrugs, so what? "I don't mind ruffling feathers. I'm only telling the truth."
It's an approach he takes throughout his memoir, in which he is bracingly blunt about his dealings with the likes of Bob Geldof and Phil Collins, his fleeting relationship with a pre-Countdown Carol Vorderman, and just how naive and musically uneducated he found Billy Bragg to be when he tour-managed him back in the 1980s.
He also paints a candid picture of his de facto mentor at Radio 1, John Peel, as childishly grumpy, disloyal and almost insufferably paranoid.
"Yep, I ruffled a few feathers at the BBC over that," he chuckles, "but, again, I simply told the truth because no one else will. There has been a veneration of John Peel, especially since he died, but all the people who have challenged his mythology simply didn't know him at all. I did."
Two and a half hours – and four meatballs, two portions of chips, three coffees and eight cigarettes –since we first sat down, and he is still talking breathlessly, this heavily weathered 52-year-old with the energy levels of a toddler. The man is ferociously enthusiastic about everything – his life, his achievements, the cigarette he is smoking. When I ask him what he has coming up, he reaches for an A4 pad, and reads from a pre-prepared list.
"Well, I've got my driving licence back from the Isle of Man police, at last; I'm living in a motor home but I'm about to buy a place, probably in Yorkshire; Radio 4 want me to work with them again; I'm doing stuff for BBC1's The One Show; I'm working on a book of my collected journalism; and I've got the most amazing relationship with my kids. They are proud of me. I've got to tell you, I'm in the best physical and mental state of my life, and I'm so pleased to have got this book out of the way, all of it down on paper, the good and the bad. I can draw a line under it now, and get on with the rest of my life."
He pauses for less than a second. "Another coffee?"
9 November 1959 Born in Rochdale. Parents are teachers and go on to become headteachers.
1978 Studies politics at Leeds University. Spends more time booking bands than studying.
1982 Fails his degree but lands a job with Harvey Goldsmith, his first gig – managing the Rolling Stones' tour.
1983 Becomes Billy Bragg's driver and tour manager.
1984 Debuts on TV, presenting BBC rock show, The Old Grey Whistle Test.
1985 Co-hosts Live Aid.
1987 Joins Radio 1 to present indie rock; ends up broadcasting American folk and African music instead.
1989 Starts regularly presenting Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent.
2001 Starts broadcasting for Radio 3.
2008 Separates from his partner, Juliette Banner, is later jailed for breaking a restraining order.
2011 Publishes his autobiography, No Off Switch, in hardback.
2012 Prepares to return to Radio 4, while filing stories for The One Show.
'No Off Switch' by Andy Kershaw, is published by Virgin, priced £8.99
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