Mark Radcliffe - on his battle with cancer, John Lennon and his radio career

Mark Radcliffe has written a book about pivotal songs in music and the musicians who performed them.
Mark Radcliffe has written a book about pivotal songs in music and the musicians who performed them.
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It was a sunny day in August last year when Mark Radcliffe’s world was turned on its head.

"I went to Macclesfield Hospital to get the results of a biopsy and I hadn’t gone with my wife I’d just gone on my own, and they said ‘have you got anyone with you?’ and you immediately think, ‘blimey this sounds serious.’ They told me it was cancer and I remember going outside and sitting by the duck pond and thinking ‘what does this mean?’”

Radcliffe is appearing at Ilkley Literature Festival and Off the Shelf, in Sheffield, next month.

Radcliffe is appearing at Ilkley Literature Festival and Off the Shelf, in Sheffield, next month.

He had already lost his father that year and suddenly, at the age of 60, faced the prospect of confronting his own mortality. He was diagnosed with head and neck cancer, though the prognosis was positive as it had been detected fairly early. “As it turned out it was a bit more developed and aggressive than they thought,” he says.

The gruelling treatment lasted until last December. “All the way through it I never really thought I wouldn’t make it – maybe everyone’s like that. But some people don’t make it. While I was having my treatment a friend of mine lost her battle with ovarian cancer in a matter of weeks. She was 51 and the randomness of it messes with your head a bit because you think ‘why am I still here and she isn’t?’ But I was upbeat because the alternative is to shut yourself away and go to bed, and what good does that do? You do have to believe there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

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“People tell you to stay positive and I found that strangely easy to do. The worst time was once you’ve finished the treatment and you’re not surrounded by people telling you that you’re doing really well and that you’re going to make it.”

Before he began his treatment he and a couple of old friends made a trip to Memphis and Nashville. “While we were there we went to Clarksville in Mississippi and stood at the crossroads of Highway 61 where the 20s bluesman Robert Johnson is said to have met the devil and entered a Faustian pact in return for earthly riches and talent.”

This visit stayed with him as he began his long, and arduous recovery. “I realised I was going to have a long lay off from being able to do any radio work, or even go out very much. I thought maybe to keep the brain active I’ll start doing some writing again, and this concept of the crossroads kind of materialised.”

His book, Crossroads, which he will be discussing at the Ilkley Literature Festival and Off the Shelf in Sheffield next month, looks at key songs in music and the musicians behind them. “I chose songs where I gauged that something had changed,” he says. “They say the devil has all the best tunes, although I do point out he doesn’t have Dancing Queen, or Happy by Pharrell Williams, so I don’t think that’s absolutely right.

“Some songs I talk about were to do with personal crossroads, like Tony Iommi accidentally chopping off the tips of his fingers just before he set off with Black Sabbath, which necessitated the re-tuning of the strings and gave them that distinctive sound that launched heavy metal.”

Another example is the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948, with ‘Lord Kitchener’ singing on the quayside London is the place for me. “That launched the calypso-Reggae rhythm into the British consciousness,” he says. “I also mention John Lennon and Imagine in the book and how it’s become fashionable to sneer at him – it’s easy to imagine no possessions when you’ve got a big white mansion and a Rolls Royce. But I think he was just allowing for the possibility of a better world and I started to think that way when I was writing the book and became a bit more philosophical.”

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Radcliffe’s love affair with music began early on. He was born in Bolton in 1958. His father was a journalist “who loved classical music” and wrote reviews for the Sunday Times and his mother played the piano. “From a very early age I was taken to classical concerts, and I was always fascinated by bands and Top of the Pops and as soon as I was old enough I started going to gigs and buying records.”

He joined his first band, The Berlin Airlift, when he was 14. “I’ve been in a band ever since,” he says. “I found that I belonged in a way that I hadn’t before. I wasn’t unhappy, or lonely, but I was never a good enough sportsman to be on the football or cricket team in a big way and I never really felt I belonged to anything until I formed a band and that became my gang. You don’t have to follow someone else’s rules, you can make it up as you go along, and that always seemed very appealing.”

Watching his “hero” David Bowie in Manchester in 1972 was another pivotal moment. “I went to see him and I remember that electrical pulse go through me. He was there in the flesh and the music was powering out of these giant speakers and it felt utterly exhilarating.”

Radcliffe studied literature and American Studies at Manchester University and went on to work as a producer at Piccadilly Radio. He was working in Manchester when the likes of Joy Division, The Smiths and The Stone Roses, ruled the roost. “I was very interested in what Tony Wilson was doing and Factory Records and Richard Boon at New Hormones, and I was playing in bands myself and very much into that whole scene. I said to Piccadilly Radio ‘we’ve got all this great music in Manchester, we really should be playing some of it.’ They said they didn’t know anything about it, and I said ‘I do’ and they said ‘can you present a radio show?’ I thought ‘well, how hard can it be?’ You’re only telling people what the records are going to be.”

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It’s been his job for the past 30 years. He worked with Marc Riley back in the 90s, and took over from Mike Harding as presenter of the BBC Radio Two’s The Folk Show.

He’s best known as one of half of the Radcliffe and Maconie show on BBC 6 Music, which he presents with Stuart Maconie. But he admits he was nervous about returning to the airwaves after such a lengthy layoff. “I had throat surgery which was agony and it takes a long time to recover and my voice got tired quickly and I wasn’t sure it was up to doing a three-hour show. But mercifully my voice seems fine.”

He’s now in remission and says writing the book helped focus his mind. “Some of the time I didn’t even feel able to read a book never mind write one, but other days I had nothing else to do and when I read it back I was really pleased that it wasn’t downbeat because I’d felt pretty low for a lot of the time I was doing it. So I think it was cathartic and I’m glad I found myself reaching towards the light.”

Mark Radcliffe is appearing at Kings Hall, Ilkley on Oct 5. Tickets cost £14. For details call 01943 816714 or go to http://www.ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk He is also appearing at Off the Shelf, The Foundry, University of Sheffield Students Union, on Oct 7. For details go to www.offtheshelf.org.uk