Thrills, spills and bellyaches

BROADCASTER Andy Kershaw was first contracted to write his memoirs in 1991.

Thrills, spills and bellyaches

But he waited another 20 years. Even by 1991, Kershaw had packed enough into his 32 years to interest both fans and the casual reader alike.

As entertainments secretary for Leeds University Union in the late 1970s, Kershaw brought high-profile rock acts such as the Who to the campus. He was then asked to manage the Rolling Stones’ epic 1982 Roundhay Park concert in Leeds. If this included creating a pond full of Japanese koi carp backstage, so be it.

In 1983, Kershaw was Billy Bragg’s driver, tour manager and roadie, which led to him presenting the classic TV music show, The Old Grey Whistle Test.

He co-presented Live Aid on BBC television, and famously interviewed actor John Hurt without knowing who he was.

Kershaw also shared an office with the legendary DJ John Peel, and in the late ’80s Kershaw opened the door to world music by championing such acts as Zimbabwe’s Bhundu Boys and Malian singer Ali Farka Touré.

But in the ’90s, the restless broadcaster swapped the cosy confines of the studio for some of the world’s hot spots. In 1994, Kershaw was an eyewitness to Rwanda’s genocide, filing a series of pieces for Radio 4’s Today programme.

In 1996, he reported from Angola’s civil war and from Sierra Leone in 2001.

Of his unfinished memoirs, Kershaw says: “I was too busy having a lot of the adventures and experiences which are now in this one. So I’m really glad I was late with my homework, because there would have been a fraction of the adventures and experiences in a book written in 1991 than there are in this one.”

Adventures? Yes, plenty. But in the middle of the last decade, Kershaw’s private life became the flash zone. In 2006, his partner of 17 years intercepted a text message detailing a fling with another woman. Kershaw’s partner walked out on him, taking their two children with her.

Kerhsaw was living on the Isle of Man, was drinking heavily, and was imprisoned three times for breaching a restraining order taken out by his wife. But Kershaw had no trepidation in writing about this period. “Not at all,” he says emphatically. “It was part of the history and it was a job of journalism. So it couldn’t be ignored or disregarded.

“And I’m not ashamed of that period at all. I stood up for what I believed to be right. That I should be allowed to see my children and, more particularly, children who wanted to see their dad.”

Kershaw reserves particular ire for Isle of Man officials. “All I know is I did the right thing and the infantile authorities on the Isle of Man treated me and my children appallingly. It wouldn’t have happened anywhere else on the British Isles,” he says.

“You know, everybody was very keen to examine my conduct. Nobody, not even the serious newspapers, for a second, bothered to examine the conduct of the Isle of Man authorities,” Kershaw says.

“And I was hardly unique in having had a nervous breakdown as a result of family disintegration. It happens to thousands of people all the time.”

Asked if he has any regrets, Kershaw prefers to look at the positives. “I’ve led a charmed life. I’m the luckiest person I know. I think I’ve stumbled from one moment of good fortune into another. I was also born — this is underlined for me, most emphatically, when I travel to a lot of the places I visit, usually in some of the poorer parts of the world — it’s always brought home to me that I was born with all the advantages in life. I’ve been very, very lucky. No, I don’t really have any regrets,” Kershaw says.

A beat.

“I regret not having been any good at bike racing.”

Kershaw is undoubtedly a man of many passions. Foremost among them is motorcycle racing. It’s the reason he moved to the Isle of Man, in order to follow the famous TT race.

“True road racing, which, of course, is a speciality of the Irish. And I love the Irish races, too. I come over to them. Places like Skerries. I love the racing on the country lanes in Ireland and I followed it since I was a child,” he says.

Legendary figures like Northern Ireland’s Joey and Robert Dunlop, subjects of the recent documentary Road inspire as much awe in him as a musical hero such as Bob Dylan.

What attracts him to this sport?

“It’s its implausibility,” he says. “From the very first time I ever saw it, when I was 14, the implausibility of somebody going so quickly in such a confined space. And particularly when they’re racing on the road, on a circuit that’s not a purpose-built track.

“Like, for example, with the Irish races or the Isle of Man, where they’re rushing between grass banks and stone walls and farm houses and lamp posts and telephone boxes and bus shelters at ridiculous speed. It’s the implausibility of it. And they manage to do it and do it so skilfully.”

Kershaw is undeterred by its danger.

“Well, life’s dangerous,” he says. “And with many sports it’s about the calculated risk in cheating that danger.”

No doubt it’s something he reminded himself of when reporting from war zones for Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent. His tone turns wistful.

“And then, later that same day or that evening, I’ll be sitting there on the terrace of my hotel in the heat of the African night, or the heat of a night in Port-au-Prince with a little shortwave radio, and I’ve heard the report I’ve filed earlier that day coming out on the programme, crackling out over a little shortwave radio. That’s really satisfying. Still. There’s a romance to it, as well.”

Is romance the key?

“Everything has to be romantic. I mean, even motorcycle racing or music. I’m always looking for that sense of ‘What the hell is this’?” he says.

* Andy Kershaw appears at the Maritime Hotel, Bantry, on Wednesday, July 9, as part of the West Cork Literary Festival.

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