John Peel and Home Truths

· culture ·

Like many other avid radio listeners, I was really sad to hear that John Peel had died. Many people have — rightly — focused on the loss to the music world because he was such an eclectic and enthusiastic champion of new music. However, I'll also really miss his Radio 4 programme, Home Truths.

Home Truths tends to divide opinion; you either love it passionately or hate it. It's certainly hard to describe to someone who hasn't heard it. It deals with 'family life' if you take the very broadest definition of both 'family' and 'life', and ranges massively in tone between very serious, tragic matters and utterly trivial and silly ones. As such it seems to mirror John Peel's eclectic music selections; just as he didn't see any problem in playing a death thrash metal track followed by a Delta blues track from the 1940s, he happily mixed interviews with people on very profound and serious matters with assorted mad correspondence from his listeners. It all worked somehow because he was the one threading it all together.

In a typical programme — though there really wasn't such a thing — you might hear John interviewing a woman who had self-harmed for most of her life and was trying to explain it to her children, or a family who had only just survived being blown up by a terrorist bomb, sandwiched between correspondence on the correct Latin translation of the lyrics of "How much is that doggie in the window?", or family euphemisms for having sex^1^. Listening to Home Truths frequently meant swinging wildly between feeling very moved and howling out loud with laughter.

John Peel was also an extraordinary interviewer. In fact, his talent was that he didn't really interview at all; he just talked to people and listened to what they had to say. There was no sense of him 'steering' the conversation that you often get with other interviewers. Indeed, he would often veer things slightly off-course himself, because he would chip in with his own anecdote, empathising with what they were saying. If the person was relating something dangerous or unwise that they had done, he could be gently disapproving, like an uncle who loves you but still likes to tell you what you should do.

Other people have acted as stand-ins for John Peel on the show from time to time — the most recent being David Stafford, who covered for Peel when he went to Peru. However good they are at their job, it just isn't the same without him. His sensitivity in interviews and his dry links between the pieces made the show. Also, listeners knew that if there was one person who would enjoy the love song they had written to their garage^2^, it was John Peel.

^1^ My favourite was 'looking at Lundy'. There was quite an explanation involved with that one...

^2^ Yes, really. I still sing it in my head sometimes, as it was hilarious and catchy. Immortal rhymes like, "Me and my garage/It's better than my marriage/From your concrete floor/To your up-and-over door", and "You look smashing/In your new lead flashing" don't grow on trees, you know.