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The Olivetti Chronicles

January 21st, 2009 · Posted by Skuds in Life · 2 Comments · Life

I make no secret of my affection for the late John Peel.  I’m sure he would be the first to admit that he was far from perfect, but he was one of the few celebrities I could imagine seriously wanting to be.  The most obvious reason for his becoming a national treasure was his radio shows but I had not appreciated what an engaging writer he was.At the moment I am part-way through The Olivetti Chronicles, a book of collected columns written by Peel from the 70’s to the 21st Century.  I had not realised that he was a regular contributor to so many journals,  partly because many ofthem are publications I haven’t read.  I must have read some of the columns in Sounds in the 70s but can’t remember them, and must have read his pieces for the Observer, but again I can’t remember them.  All very surprising because the ones collected here are quite memorable.

Of course this is a selection, so you have to imagine that the contents were chosen to be the best and all the others could be absolute rubbish – but even if that were true I wouldn;t care.  So far I am thoroughly enjoying the book.

I think it is the way the tone can change from being straightforward to flights of lyrical whimsy, with both styles providing a constant supply of beautifully-turned phrases.  I am particularly enjoying the way Peel can go off on an assignment – to report on a concert for example – and write absolutely nothing that any normal reporter or reviewer would.  The quiet revolution of totally ignoring the conventions of reviewing are a wonder to behold.

Take this example, from a review of a Happy Mondays concert in 1988.  There is some discussion about the on-stage inter-band communication, some incredulity about how people now pretend to be Mancunians in the way that 60s posers all pretended to be scousers, and some observations about how many Japanese women there seem to be at interesting London concerts, and then it just finishes with:

I was too busy enjoying myself to note whether the Happy Mondays were playing selections from the new LP Bummed.  I expect they were.

Who else could get away with that sort of behaviour?

The only downside of the book is that reading so many newspaper or magazine columns together  draws your attention to the formula for a good column.  You get the same thing reading books of Dave Barry columns.

The formula – so easy to state but so difficult to replicate – is that you try to end with a little one-liner that refers back to a point in the opening line or even in the middle of the piece.  When reading an isolated column in its natural habitat it works almost sub-consciously, wrapping the whole thing up nicely with a sort of feeling that a circle has been closed.

Reading them en masse makes you notice the trick more and takes away some of the magic, but it is a price worth paying to be able to read some of these explorations of the Eurovision, Extreme Noise Terror or Billy Joel without having to look through microfishes of old copies of the Radio Times.

A good job of selection from Peel’s son, William.  Reading it is making me happy, but on another level regretful that Peel never got to write his autobiography himself.  You get the feeling he could have filled several volumes of  accessible yet interesting writing.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Jo

    I thought he wrote a large chunk of Margrave Of The Marshes?

  • Skuds

    He did. He wrote the first half, but if he had continued it would have been a *lot* longer. So he wrote half the published book but only a quarter or less of the book he planned.

    What I meant was that it was a shame he didn’t write it all himself but had to have it finished by the family.

    Such ambiguous wording is just one reason why I am only an amateur writer!