Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Why making a hero out of John Peel is really off-the-wall

Murky tales: the late John Peel
Murky tales: the late John Peel

The furore among the chattering classes over the mysterious removal of the Teenage Kicks mural – or graffiti, as it's better known – filled a nice gap towards the end of last week after the departure of the G8 leaders, providing an alternative theme for fury and desperation given the serious flop of the hunger protests.

Hands were thrown to Heaven, sculpted eyebrows were raised, eyeballs were rolled in cartoon fashion and exasperated cries went up from the hugely-talented liberal folk who dwell among us barbarians out of the goodness of their hearts, like a tribe of latter-day secular missionaries forsaking the wealth awaiting their gifts in London in order to work among the poor and needy in Northern Ireland, or, ahem, "the north".

While sectarian murals remained untouched on gable walls, the authorities chose instead to desecrate a motto which has, apparently, fed our dreams for a decade, giving us hope in darkness, affirming Life in the midst of Death, a beacon of the creative spirit in a dull, oppressive world lived in by the rest of us: "teenage dreams so hard to beat".

If only we did live in a world as uncomplicated as that. Alas, we don't. So, even as a photo of the now-erased graffito was hoisted on to the internet, along with it came the realisation that it was painted in the first place not as a tribute to The Undertones or to the song but as a tribute to the DJ John Peel.

Mr Peel had often declared Teenage Kicks to be his favourite song, thereby honouring The Undertones during the lost decades in which they were all but forgotten outside their home city of Derry-Londonderry. And legitimising, in the way London-based authority does, our own fond recollections of the band. It was alright to like The Undertones, because they weren't just a regional band like The Moondogs or Ruefrex, but were actually real, after all. John Peel liked them. His taste elevated them to "real band" status and made us all feel warm inside, as if we'd been made Head Boy or Girl or had been singled out for praise at Assembly.

How embarrassing all that was! How it exposed our own lack of self-confidence! How it emphasised our craven hankering after endorsement from the place where real artists, real bands, where real people live, for heaven's sake, real lives!

In a weird way only craven hearts could imagine, The Undertones and their most famous song became, overnight, a tribute to John Peel, not the other way round. Which brings me to the most disturbing heritage that gentleman has bequeathed to us, as well as his endorsement of the thrills of getting Teenage Kicks All Through The Night.

It would have been useful if at least one male person were to acknowledge that the late Mr Peel's reputation is embroiled in the murky tales and allegations which have emerged from the BBC since the death of Jimmy Savile. Indeed, Peel's track record of indulging in underage sexual activity on both sides of the Atlantic is well documented, and was well known for many years, largely from his own bragging testimony, but not completely from that source. There were revelations exposed prior to his death which, we see now, followed exactly the patterns of prolific seduction and abuse so graphically documented in Savilegate, Hallgate and so many other cases.

Indeed, Julie Burchill, in this as in so much else, was way ahead of her time in 1999, when she tackled the golden calf Peel had even then become, listing his abuses which, of course, at that time, were still regarded by The Lads as "fair game" opportunism and greeted with wry amusement.

Not now though. At least, not now in backward Ulster among our most sophisticated scions of art and culture who are busy with petitions to have the icon raised again, exactly as was, amid a dribbling, misguided, incontinent reverence for the greasy abuser Peel was and remains.

But then, Peel was "their" abuser, in a way, not "ours". He had been getting his "teenage kicks" for real. It's just he wasn't a teenager at the time.

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