A broadcaster by accident and a Radio One presenter, Andy Kershaw made a name for himself later reporting for Radio Four from the ‘Axis of Evil’ countries. And doing so very well. Is he a journalist or a disc jockey or a hybrid?Kershaw has just finished his autobiography No Off Switch. It is a well-written labour of love and recollection. I and the rest of a Coventry Conversations audience had a sneak preview. He held us spellbound for ninety minutes.
Good journalists are born. Kershaw wanted to be one from the age of nine in Rochdale, Lancashire. At 18, he bunked off school to go to the Isle of Man TT as a ‘witness to history’ – Mike Hailwood returning after injury. The first of many such days witnessing history. Writes John Mair…
Journalism took a back seat whilst he booked and mixed with the rock aristocracy as Entertainments Secretary of Leeds University Union. His book is full of tales of cash in hand deals, unreasonable demands from bands and Bob Geldof ripping down posters in Leeds advertising The Clash as ‘the greatest rock n roll band in the world’.
The Geldof/Kershaw froidure was to last several decades through Live Aid in 1985 – which Kershaw fronted for the BBC – to Live 8 in 2005 where pressure from Kershaw and others led to Geldof setting up a special stage for African musicians at the Eden Project in Cornwall: “he might as well have put up a sign saying grateful Darkies this way,” as Kershaw sarcastically put it.
The passion for journalism re-awakened at the height of his success at Radio One as the heir presumptive to the great John Peel. They shared an office with their legendary producer John Walters: “a radio station within a radio station” Kershaw labelled it.
A chance conversation with the doyenne of radio critics, Gillian Reynolds, about how to become a foreign correspondent led him to do just that. Kershaw developed a speciality in reporting from global troublespots.
In 1994, in Rwanda where he had gone instead of Burundi to which he had been sent by Today, he came under sustained fire and had to hide in a ditch: “An innate reaction came over me and I was focused on escaping safely rather than being in fear of losing my life.” But still he managed to rescue the tapes from the car above him. Like a true pro, he filed under fire.
Entry into North Korea took seven years to crack. Since then he has visited four times. That world is unreal, he told us: military parades at night, traffic policemen at intersections directing non-existent flows of cars and even more surreal experiences.
His most hilarious incident was with the controversialist Christopher Hitchens in a museum full of gifts given by other countries to Kim il Sung. One room had a stuffed alligator standing on one leg, holding a drinks tray, with a huge smile on its face. Hitchens and Kershaw could not resist finding the Venezuelan Gift – “Maracas from Caracas” as Hitchens labelled it. Kershaw’s nose for a story and eye for detail mark him out as a true hack.
He has had his good and bad times in recent years, including two spells in an Isle of Man prison for breaking a restraining order obtained by his former partner. He used the time inside to read books – so much so that the prison officers threatened to burn them.
Today, he is back in equilibrium, back on Radio Three in a series Music Planet (pictured above) and back as the man with No Off Switch.You don’t need to come to university to study journalism when you have proved you can witness and report history. Andy Kershaw sure has.
No Off Switch, Andy Kershaw’s autobiography is published by Serpent’s Tail in July 2011.
John Mair is a senior lecturer in journalism at Coventry University. He invented and runs the university’s weekly Coventry Conversations.