John Walsh: Thank you, John Peel. I'm no longer ashamed


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The Independent Online

I saw with mixed feelings that John Peel's record collection is up for inspection by his adoring fans. The great DJ, whose Radio 1 show brought the most unearthly sounds to our ears, left a massive trove: 26,000 albums, 40,000 singles and tons of CDs, stashed in every room of his house except the kitchen and bedroom, the albums scrupulously filed in a cabinet.

The Arts Council is funding a pop-up website called The John Peel Project, which will allow you, every week from now to late autumn, to check out the first 100 file cards from each letter of the alphabet represented in the collection. Early inspectors have been nodding their heads over recondite names such AC Temple, Action Pact and The Accused, mentally ticking off which Peel-owned musical masterpieces they proudly own, or used to own, themselves.

There's my problem. I just know my own record collection wouldn't withstand the scrutiny of my peers (let alone my children's generation) for five seconds. What might be considered "quirky" or "unexpected" in Peel's collection – egregiously commercial albums by A-ha, for instance, or ABBA – will be smiled upon because it displays the, you know, oceanic catholicity of his taste. For the rest of us, they'd be embarrassing proof that one was once (or still is) a philistine, a birdbrain or a world-class onanist.

How can I explain my temporary attachment to so many twee singer-songwriters in 1970-72, when they seemed the only alternative to heavy metal? I bought Bridget St John's Songs for the Gentle Man in 1971 precisely because Peel recommended it; now it's one of a dozen waxings by breathy tweefolk (step right up there, Donovan, Ralph McTell, Iain Matthews) that would fill any pooh-poohing riffler with joy. Nor can I justify my purchase of Blodwyn Pig's Getting to This or anything by Barclay James Harvest or Blue Öyster Cult (and that's just the Bs) without bleating some excuse that I was "just experimenting".

I can endure people checking out my earliest singles because they have charm on their side. By rights, my first musical purchase should have been something by Howlin' Wolf or Chuck Berry. But even though it was "Anyone Who Had a Heart" by Cilla Black (written by Burt Bacharach, I'll have you know,) it has a lovely patina of age on it now, like snaps of its owner in a pram on Margate Beach. I could endure having posterity mulling over my year-long classical phase when I was 15 but I wouldn't want them to read too much into the presence in my collection of Mud's Greatest Hits, which was obviously a gift from a girl I didn't know very well.

Even harder to explain would be the records inherited from my parents' collection after they retired to Ireland, leaving me the family vinyl. All those battered discs of Jim Reeves, Matt Monro, Val Doonican and Bridie Gallagher, the tenor stylings of Father Sidney MacEwan (described in his sleevenotes as "a gay but simple man"), the soundtracks to South Pacific and Carousel, the Harry Belafonte calypsos about brown-skinned girls from Spanish Town, the novelty records of Peter Ustinov's after-dinner conversation or of a Hogmanay knees-up (complete with drunken speeches) starring the Ulster songbird Ottilie Patterson. Who'd bought this stuff? How could I explain to the casual passer-by that it wasn't (honest, guv) me?

There's a scene in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity in which the protagonist dines with his new girlfriend's pals at their house and later explains to her that he could never be friends with them because he found a Simple Minds album in their CD rack. I asked workmates if they found this (as I did) a scarily truthful scene. All the women said, "How can you be so ridiculously small-minded about something as trivial as musical taste?" All the men said, "God, yeah. I mean – Simple Minds?" Half the population is apparently stuck with a predisposition to sneer at people's records, as evidence that the owner has no brain, no soul or no moral compass. Perhaps discovering the vast eclecticism of John Peel's taste (A-ha? I mean, c'mon...) will make us grow up at last.

Man with all the right moves

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has made a new friend, a Russian millionaire businessman turned politician called Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who is nuts about chess. He used to run the small, impoverished, south-western Russian region of Kalmykia, and built a £30m Chess City complex in the capital, Elista, where world championships have been held. He dropped in on Assad this week. They played chess and struck a deal by which the Russian would arrange for chess to be taught in all Syrian schools.

Commentators have wondered why chess, or a visit from the head of a small Buddhist offshoot of the Russian Federation, should be on Assad's To-Do list right now. Is it because chess represents a comfortingly feudal world, where pawns are routinely sacrificed for the good of kings and queens, without causing trouble and rioting in the streets? The answer's a bit simpler: Ilyumzhinov is the guy who claimed to have been abducted by aliens in 1997. Remember? He said they dressed him in a yellow spacesuit, gave him a tour of their spaceship and "flew to some kind of star." He later explained how the encounter makes "a person start to realise that he is not alone in the Universe, and stops being egoistic, being the only one with a mind, on the Earth".

That must have brought some comfort to Assad, the most unpopular man on the planet. It's no surprise to find that Ilyumzhinov has also visited (and played chess with) Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi in years gone by. He's obviously a whiz at reassuring dictators that aliens would probably love them, even if nobody else does.