Andy Kershaw reckons that he is the “luckiest bugger” he has ever met. I don’t think so. An hour listening to him is more than enough to show you exactly why he has had the life he has had, and more importantly, the life that he wanted. His energy and thirst to communicate are still working on overdrive in middle age and he is never still. Anecdotes pour out of him in an unstoppable rush, all fast, funny and to the point. People like to talk about having a passion for something, but few of them live it out as he has. When Andy heard Chuck Berry sing Promised Land he didn’t just go wow and trot down to the record shop, he went out to America and did the journey from North Virginia to California that the song describes. He didn’t just go to a lot of gigs as a student, he was promoting major rock gigs at Leeds University at the same time as completing his course, without even a sabbatical to help him find the time. His short list for his appearance on Desert Island Discs was four hundred songs long. He almost drowned surfing at Bridlington when he was very young- well if he could appreciate the Beach Boys surely it was obvious that he would be able to surf? This was before hearing Bob Dylan for the first time “blew him from the middle of the road and out into the undergrowth”. He remembers telling details in the way that only someone with real passion does. For example, Dylan didn’t just “go electric”, he toured with by far the biggest PA system that had ever been erected in the UK at that time. No wonder Billy Bragg wanted to work with him. Andy maintains that he was lucky to meet Billy Bragg before anybody else did, I think that works both ways.
The period of his life that he is most proud of, not surprisingly, are the years he spent sharing room 318 at Egton house and working with John Peel and the producer John Walters. It was there that he learned about “broadcasting not narrow casting” and his horizons were opened to all kinds of music, particularly world music. That love has led him all over the world to some of the most remote, war torn and least visited countries. He has reported from Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Haiti, and Angola. By the time we reached this point his enthusiasm had led to the session becoming short of time but he still managed to get to the heart of what is most puzzling to an outsider about North Korea, somewhere he has visited several times. He was told on one visit that he was one of only 38 westerners who had been allowed in that year and yet the people on the street showed absolutely no curiosity about him. Nobody even looked at him. There were no cultural reference points and no commercial activity. Michael Jackson and The Beatles are completely unknown. When he and Christopher Hitchens were escorted into a major library and introduced to the “man who knows everything” (a man who was later quizzed quite heavily by Christopher Hitchens to investigate this claim) the same two English language books came down the chute for them to look at as had been sent down on his previous visit. He has a wonderful photo of himself standing next to an impossibly vast heroic statue. All very strange indeed.
He is both passionate and fearless. Jimmy Saville was buried in Scarborough last year and people lined the foreshore in tribute but he had no problem sitting in Scarborough Library telling us his own view on the man. “National treasure my arse. If you knew the reality.”
He is now in training to be a wall of death rider, after becoming interested while making a documentary about the last remaining travelling walls, just for something to do occasionally when he feels like it. I hope that promoting his autobiography No Off Switch ( a perfect title- he really hasn’t got one) when it comes out in paperback later this year doesn’t prove too dull for him. He clearly loves people so that should carry him through. He went out for a fag before he did some book signing and he was still chatting to someone enthusiastically outside while he had his fag break. It is hard to believe that it wasn’t picked up by a major publisher until it had already come out in hardback, but that’s today’s publishing world for you.
Both of his parents were head teachers and he has inherited the intelligence, eye for detail and capacity for hard work that has to go with that role while adding his own sense of adventure, a capacity to take risks and a marvellous sense of fun. A remarkable man.