Ipswich: Broadcaster, author and war correspondent Andy Kershaw talks living life at full-throttle
PUBLISHED: 10:07 03 October 2013 | UPDATED: 10:15 03 October 2013
From working with the greats of rock and roll to staring death in the face reporting on the Rwandan genocide, legendary broadcaster Andy Kershaw’s life is one without limits. He talks to Wayne Savage ahead of his appearance at this year’s Literary Ipswich festival and a new challenge.
“Yes, I’m taking that well-trodden career path from Radio 3 presenter to wall of death rider,” confirms the fearless freelance broadcaster and journalist.
“I used to watch these things as a kid and thought ‘that looks b***** exciting’. I made a documentary about the last two remaining walls of death operating in the UK for Radio 4 so got to know the people running them. When the opportunity presented itself I thought ‘well I’m going to have a go’.
“Walls of death used to be very commonplace but now... to get that training you have to do a certain amount of persuading. I had some lessons last year. I haven’t had any this year but I’m hoping to pick it up again.”
Bikes have been a passion of Kershaw’s since he was 11; road-racing is his favourite sport and he even spent time with the Californian-based Oakland Hell’s Angels.
“I was sent by The Observer to profile Sonny Barger, their leader. No longer with us, he was the world’s best known Hell’s Angel. I rode out with them for a week which was very exciting,” he laughs.
The winner of more Sony Radio Awards than any other broadcaster, Kershaw lives his life at full-throttle.
As a teenager he promoted major rock gigs at Leeds University. He was Billy Bragg’s driver and roadie, worked for the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen and has had a weekly BBC radio show for most of the last 25 years.
A serious foreign correspondent, he’s risked his life reporting from some of the world’s most perilous places including Iraq, Sierra Leone, North Korea, Angola, Kuwait and Haiti. One of very few journalists to be an eyewitness to the Rwanda genocide; he was lucky to get out of the country alive.
“Rwanda was very, very dangerous and very scary. Me and the Rwandan Patriotic Front guerrillas I was travelling with were ambushed on this very remote road.
“The vehicle ahead of ours went over an anti-tank mine which blew up... they pinned us down and opened fire. To escape we had to walk for - what I eventually was able to measure some years later when I went back - 11 miles in the dark with full kit down a road we knew was full of landmines.”
Kershaw’s full of stories like this.
During our chat we cover everything from him possibly being approached to spy for MI6 to how his first TV outside broadcast was presenting Live Aid in front of more than a billion watchers, where he interviewed John Hurt without knowing who he was.
We don’t get to how he once had to come to the rescue of Mike Tyson, being propositioned by Frankie Howerd and Little Richard, how he came to be the presenter of BBC 2’s Whistle Test by accident or what was so special about the jar of jam he gave Bob Dylan that the singer gave Kershaw his first ever British TV interview.
Leaving his economics A-level halfway through to see Dylan and skipping his first day of university to see BB King, music has always been a major passion of his. His record collection weighs more than seven tonnes.
“Perhaps a lot of it was denial in that my dad disapproved of it all, just because of his age really. Born in 1928 he didn’t really grasp rock and roll or pop music,” says Kershaw, a Radio1 DJ for 15 years whose dropping in 2000 resulted in an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons.
“We weren’t allowed to watch Top of the Pops or listen to radio pop when we were kids. My dad went on to produce not one but two Radio 1 DJs (sister Liz) which I think baffled him for the rest of his life.
“Music back then was a lot more engaged with the times than it is now. When I was first aware of music, in the late 1960s, the world was an exciting, fairly turbulent place and the music back then reflected that; it was much more relevant to what was going on.”
Kershaw’s autobiography, the aptly titled No Off Switch, has been praised by everybody from Pete Townshend to Michael Palin.
His live show, The Adventures of Andy Kershaw, is part of this year’s Literary Ipswich line-up. It comes to the council chamber of Ipswich Town Hall on October 5, 7.30pm.
“No far from it, that (reading extracts from his book) would be very dull. It’s (an) audio visual presentation of highlights of a career in broadcasting, foreign correspondence, the front-line of rock and roll and from the front-lines of more extreme countries,” he says.
“It’s about life, career, adventures and experiences and lasts about an hour-and-a-half with photos, clips of music and stuff. It’s a relatively new thing for me; I’d not done one of these 12 months ago. It’s not a talent I knew I had... I like the intimacy, the interaction with the audience. We’ll have fun.”
Busier than ever, Kershaw’s driven by the need for constant stimulation.
“And, in the case of foreign journalism, the stimulation there is very often to be an eye-witness to history. In my mind there are few greater privileges than that.
“As a lifelong, amateur historian and lifelong instinctive journalist, even if those experiences or the events you’re covering are actually quite unpleasant... I’ve seen the best of people more often than the worst. But that’s me, Mr Positive.
“Whether it’s with music, foreign adventures, personal relationships, even stuff like motorcycles or when I take a CD out of a box that I’ve not heard before, it’s that constant quest for that sensation of ‘what the f*** is this’.
“Somebody said about the book when it was first published ‘he’s lived ten lives to everyone else’s one’. What I find rather alarming is in a lot of these discussions I have about the book and my life so far is interviewers often speak in the past tense, as it’s all over. Far from it; yes it has been a fairly colourful ride so far but there’s plenty more to come I’m sure.”
In addition to Kershaw, there will also be talks by War Horse author Michael Morpurgo and Simon Mayo among others.
New writers Joe Dunthorne (Submarine and Wild Abandon), DW Wilson (Once You Break a Knuckle and Ballistics) and Sarah Ridgard (Seldom Seen) – have all caught the interest and imagination of critics and readers. They will be talking to Georgina Wroe at the Bright Futures event.
The 1953 East Anglian Great Flood provides the backdrop to two publications – Rachel Hore’s latest novel The Silent Tide and Patricia Rennoldson Smith’s factual account recalled by those who were there. The two authors will discuss how they drew inspiration from the region’s greatest natural disaster at a lunchtime talk.
A creative writing workshop with Peter Hobbs and a self-publishing workshop with Christopher Shevlin are essential for aspiring writers who are also invited to read their work at the Writers’ Café.
There’s also a literary walk exploring the streets where great writers lived and worked.
“The success of the literary programme within the Ip-art Festival has encouraged the launch of Literary Ipswich as an inspiring and enjoyable event in its own right,” said artistic director Sara Newman.
“I’m delighted with the range of authors coming to Literary Ipswich and the additional activities that we’ve been able to programme. We are confident the programme will catch the imagination of both new and familiar faces and hope it will be the beginning of a new and exciting chapter in the creation and appreciation of the written word in our region.”
Ipswich Town Hall Café will become a literary hub where you can with fellow booklovers, take part in a book swap, read the shortlisted entries for the young people’s short story prize and enjoy two exhibitions.
Flood - Photographs and Newspapers from 1953 provides fascinating background material to the lunchtime talk on the subject and Bill Brandt: Literary Britain, with East Anglian Connections is the chance to admire work by the leading photographer.
Hugh Pilkington will introduce both at a curator’s talk.
Literary Ipswich runs to October 6. Tickets are on sale from the Regent Theatre box office. For full details visit www.ip-lit.co.uk