Saved from brutality by a knight in battered denims

16th December 1994 at 00:00
JOHN PEEL TALKS TO SUSAN THOMAS. I went to Shrewsbury School for the sons of gentlemen, though they didn't call it that. I was there at the same time as Willy Rushton, Paul Foot and Richard Ingrams. They were three or four years older than me and very exalted creatures, though we were all together once for a couple of weeks when we had measles or something.

This was in the 1950s though it might as well have been the 1880s. It was an extremely brutal place. I worked out that in my first term. I got beaten, on average, once every three days. It was not that I was a rebel - though I like to pretend I was - but that I was astonishingly stupid and forgetful, and there were so many things you could be beaten for.

You weren't allowed to put your hands in your pockets until you'd been there a year, or talk in the passageway until you'd been there three years, or stand inside the hearth until you were in your fourth year. And there were tests - on all the tiny details of school life, games played, goals scored, the chaplain's wife's first name. Three wrong answers and you were beaten.

I would add that I am not one of those ex-public school boys who carries into later life an enthusiasm for being beaten. I don't go to Soho and get people to beat me, though judging by the cards in the phone boxes around Broadcasting House, an astonishing number of people do.

In all of this, my housemaster, R H Brooke, was absolutely unique, totally at odds with that culture and the whole ethos of the school. He accepted that I would never do well academically (I only got a place at the school because all my male antecedents for generations had been there), and just encouraged me to be myself.

He looked a bit like the character Richard Wilson plays in One Foot in the Grave - the miserable, balding one, Victor Meldrew. And he liked to pretend that he was grumpy. On speech days when the other masters were all wearing their finest clothes, he'd be tramping round in awful old denims, working in the garden, shovelling manure.

And because of his naturally unconventional behaviour, everyone in the house worshipped him. At one time there were something like 34 trophies to be competed for by the 10 houses and we had 31 of them. Purely because we wanted to win them for him because there was a kind of loyalty, an atmosphere of affection.

He encouraged us to be individuals. I was interested in pop music and football but, though it was a "football" school, supporting a professional team was terrifically infra dig. I remember going to the school jazz society in the hope of finding someone who'd share my interest in rock'n'roll, but they were all sneering at me.

Brooke, on the other hand, seemed quite happy to have me playing Jean Vincent and Little Richard records. He put me in a study next to the house library and, without saying anything, made it clear that he felt it quite appropriate for me to play them as loud as I could while the others were listening to Beethoven's Ninth. And occasionally he'd invite me on to "top table" where there were prominent guests, with the unstated intention that I should be slightly rude to them in the course of the meal.

There is a photograph of the house taken at the time which is one of my most treasured possessions. It shows him looking grumpy and me looking like a very young Anthony Perkins with a very vulgar quiff. I look an absolute scoundrel. It was deliberate.

It seems that all the things I was encouraged to do were things I didn't want to do. For instance, my parents were always saying "Why can't you be more like so and so's son?". But I knew that so and so's son was routinely buggering small boys and I didn't want to be like him.

Until the third year, when I got into Brooke's class, I was routinely bottom of the form. It was a source of some pride to me, but I worked so hard for him that I came top of everything and he actually had to ask me to stop because I'd got so far ahead in French.

When he retired he went into the church and had a parish in Braintree at no great distance from my home. He often said "You must come over and visit me", but I was always too busy rushing about trying to get on the radio and before I knew it, and to my great regret, he was dead.

John Peel began his career as a disc jockey in Texas, joined Radio London in 1967 and has worked for BBC Radio 1 for more than 20 years. He was the first DJ to feature punk, reggae, hip hop and rap and currently has two shows, on Fridays from 10pm-1am and Saturdays 5pm-7pm

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