John Peel's Last Present

Seeing Danny Boyle turn on the neon sign in Salford reminded the author of the last time she saw John Peel.
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Seeing Danny Boyle turn on the neon sign in Salford reminded the author of the last time she saw John Peel.

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I loved to choose birthday gifts for John Peel.

I once found an ancient copper watering-can with a giant rosehead, completely disproportionate in size to the body of the can.. which I thought beautifully represented his nurturing spirit.

I knew that John would get off his train home a couple of stops early to gaze at the supernaturally beautiful sports cars at his local TVR garage. So I called them and asked if I could arrange for him to drive his favourite, a black TVR Tuscan. They delivered the car to his front door with an invitation to put it through it’s paces at Oulton Park.

I’d always consult Sheila, John’s wonderful wife, about these matters.

I gave a lot of thought to a gift for his 65th birthday.. and finally hit on the idea of a neon light with the words ‘Dream Dad’ written in pink neon letters.

I called Sheila. She loved the idea, and invited me to deliver the light and stay at Peel Acres for the weekend after she and John had returned from their trip to Peru.

I found a 72 year old neon sign maker in Birmingham. He was about to retire, but agreed to make this one final light, as it was a gift for John. He drove all the way from the Midlands to deliver it to my house in Kentish Town, and when it arrived I was absolutely blown away. It was so much bigger and more magical than I had imagined.

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I rarely ever change a carefully laid plan, (especially a plan like the one I had made with Sheila to visit Peel Acres.) But I decided in the heat of the moment, driven by some powerful impulse, that I must give the light to John that same night.

I called John’s production team, Louise and Hermeet. They were at Maida Vale with Super Furry Animals, but coming back to Radio 1’s HQ later that night.

So I took the light and set it up in the middle of the massive BBC boardroom table. The room was pitch dark and completely empty, so the neon letters ‘Dream Dad’ were just glowing in the centre of the room. That’s where this picture was taken.

We went out for what must have been only an hour or so, to a tapas place that John liked. I remember him pointing to a small backroom of a hotel over the road, a building that had been previously been owned by the BBC, and showing me where Bob Marley recorded his Peel Session. We spoke about fame, and John told me that Lennon would come, at the height of his celebrity, to stay with he and Sheila to take refuge from the chaos. He told me that night that he honestly believed he could have saved Elvis.. all Elvis really needed was a couple of months at Peel Acres to straighten him out.

It feels like a Last Supper to me, with hindsight, now…

I helped him carry the sign to his car.

I remember John said very quietly “that’s quite a present Mary Anne…” and then asked if he could keep the roll-up extension cable I’d brought with me to make sure I could reach a plug socket.. as he could really use a decent one. Haha!

It was the last night I ever spent with him before he died. If I’d have stuck with my original plan, he’d never have seen that light. He always knew how much he meant to me.. but I’m so glad I had a chance to spell it out one last time in giant pink neon letters…