Why John is urging people to give blood

By Rebecca SheppardEVEN though his deadpan tones have been broadcast to the nation for decades, veteran DJ John Peel seems to lose his way with words when emotion and film crews are involved.

By Rebecca Sheppard

EVEN though his deadpan tones have been broadcast to the nation for decades, veteran DJ John Peel seems to lose his way with words when emotion and film crews are involved.

For the presenter of Radio 1's late-night programme and Radio 4's Home Truths admits he took about 17 attempts to say 15 words for the National Blood Service's latest television advert.

However, his near-speechlessness is hardly surprising when he tells how the birth of his first son almost claimed the life of his wife, Sheila, after she haemorrhaged and needed a seven-pint transfusion of blood.


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Recording the advert meant Mr Peel, who lives near Stowmarket, had to brush aside his almost trademark aversion to self-promotion.

"If I get involved in anything, it's the local stuff. I'm just no good at it as I'm a shy man. They want you to be the face of it and jump about, but I'm no good at that," he said.

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"I did a Samaritans thing in Bury St Edmunds last Christmas and I was meant to be drumming up interest at a stall, but I just looked very self-conscious and ill at ease.

"But something like this I can do and, of course, there are very personal reasons behind it. It would have been churlish not to."

The advert, which Mr Peel, 65, has only once seen a glimpse of, was filmed in a laundrette in Camden Town, London, and features him along with a woman who represents every blood donor.

In the commercial, he said: "Without this woman, my wife Sheila would have died after giving birth to our son."

However, saying the sentence to the cameras was an uncomfortable experience for Mr Peel, who now has four children, as it meant recalling the events of the winter of 1976.

"It was quite difficult, I have to admit. Each time I had to say what I had to say, I got upset. It is not a situation I can describe without getting upset," he said.

Sure enough, the possible contemplation of what the couple can now understate as a "dramatic time", propelled his thoughts swiftly on.

"I got two pairs of socks out of it too," he threw into the conversation. "They had to buy socks to simulate the washing in the laundrette, so I have now got a couple of colourful socks.

"I do not normally buy clothes as I hate it. There was no fee for the advert, as there shouldn't be, but I said 'Can I take the socks?'

"At least you can identify them as a pair. I think they are supposed to be women's. Every now and then I have this explosion of colour round my ankles."

Mr Peel's dry sense of wit has entertained listeners to Radio 1 since the station began in 1967 and his ironic take on life was even present when William was born 28 years ago.

His wife had a lengthy labour in Ipswich Hospital and Mr Peel admitted he probably had not helped as he had been busy taking photographs of her.

"William exhibited the same tendencies as he exhibits today, he was very reluctant to come out – 'I'm staying here, I'll be down in a minute'," he said.

"Eventually he had to be taken out surgically so I did not see him being born and he was whisked away to the baby unit. "I was assured that he was okay, although he had jaundice. I ended up seeing him before Sheila did.

"The thing was, that I went in to see him and looked through the window. There were all these babies in incubators and I thought 'As long as its not that one there' and, of course, it was him.

"He was all purple and he looked like he had been put together by students. I asked if I could touch him and I put my hand in the side and this hand came out like a claw and grabbed my finger and I immediately burst into tears."

The family returned home, but then, when Mr Peel was in London and a friend was visiting his wife, she started haemorrhaging.

"Sheila went to bed and then another friend turned up to see her and by this stage she was drifting in and out of consciousness. They phoned the health centre and someone came out to her," he recalled.

Mrs Peel was taken to hospital and underwent a seven-pint blood transfusion – and her husband revealed how close his wife had come to dying.

"They did admit to me at the time that in another half an hour she would have been dead. She had a seven-pint transfusion, which, I think, is more blood than you've got in you," she said.

"It was a very traumatic experience. I was in London and one of our neighbours, he phoned me up and he pitched it exactly right so that I knew it was important to come home, but I didn't panic.

"I got to the hospital and then I found out how urgent it had been and how ill Sheila was. Then I went berserk."

Mrs Peel, 55, said they think the haemorrhaging had been caused as some of the placenta had been left in her body.

She added: "I did not realise how bad it was. There were blue lights and sirens going and I thought 'Hang on, this isn't right'. I was with William in the ambulance. I was feeding him, so he couldn't not be with me. I remember it was freezing cold as it was that bad winter of 1976."

Mrs Peel – whom her husband affectionately calls Pig – eventually recovered and in about two years she was pregnant again with their second child, Alexandra, now 26. Thomas, now 24, and Florence, now 22, were to follow.

Mr Peel said: "We assumed that was something that wouldn't happen again in a way. Perhaps we felt that we had got the bad bit over with and the rest would be plain sailing."

His wife added: "When I was pregnant with Alexandra I was exceedingly nervous and so our health centre monitored me like mad. In fact, she was the reverse to William and arrived too quickly."

Although the rest of their children were brought into the world without too much worry, it was the birth of their grandchild, Archie, to their daughter, Alexandra, last year that caused a few sleepless nights.

Mr Peel said: "We were worried more about her than Sheila. We kind of know more and as you get older you get jumpier."

His wife added: "You always worry more about your children whatever, whereas I never worry about myself. I never feared for myself. It's that protective instinct."

As their family and record collection grew, their house, which they have lived in for 33 years, expanded too. Even though all but one of their children have flown the nest, with William now in Newcastle, they remain close-knit.

However, the family has had to deal with two more health scares – Mrs Peel suffered a brain haemorrhage in 1997, from which she has fully recovered, and Mr Peel was diagnosed with diabetes on September 11, 2001, which he now shrugs off since getting used to giving himself injections.

And even though Mr Peel is now of pensioner age, he has no desire to retire and is as busy as ever, particularly with his alternative music slot three times a week on Radio 1.

He is also trying to find the time to write his autobiography. "I can only really do it if I start when I get up," he said.

"I write about 4,000 to 5,000 words in the morning, which isn't much when you think that the script for Home Truths is 3,500 words and I write that in three hours.

"It will be out at Christmas 2005, so I've got to hand in the manuscript in March. It's got to be about 100,000 words.

"There are 45,000 already and I've only just gone to America, which was in 1960, at which time I was 20, so I've got 45 years to do in 55,000 words."

While the National Blood Service's advert made Mr Peel think about the start of his parenthood, he has found that writing his autobiography has also led him to revise his opinion of his parents.

He said: "I had always thought – and it did not bother me at the time as it happened to everyone then because of the war and dad being away – that they weren't affectionate. You really do need that, even if you do not know that you do.

"I was reading a letter that my dad wrote to me a few weeks before he was diagnosed with cancer. He was living in north Wales and, at the time, I read it, but I hadn't read the subtext, which is 'Please come and see me'.

"I did not completely ignore it, but I hadn't noticed it at the time. My dad died after and he was only 61.

"I know other people die much younger, but I've always regretted it as he died before any of our children were born. It was an upsetting letter to read as you can't go back and do anything about it."

rebecca.sheppard@eadt.co.uk

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