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?"

Curriculm vitae

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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?