“Regrets, I have a few…” Not true. I don’t believe in regrets. But I do have one. The eulogy I delivered at a friend’s funeral. Pete Myers. Pete was my hero, mentor and friend. A larger than life character. We worked together in Hilversum, Holland, at Radio Nederland Wereldomroep, the Dutch equivalent of the BBC World Service, when I was in my mid-twenties and Pete was a legend, still in his prime but already of national treasure status.
I was trying to break into radio and had managed to blag (another story that I’ll tell on my blog sometime) a 6 month contract with Radio Netherlands. At the end of my time, Pete came to me and said he wanted to start a new show with me as co-presenter. And together we created ‘Asiascan’, a mix of current affairs, magazine-style items, and, well, fun. We had a loyal following, though how much they could glean from our shortwave broadcasts I’m not sure. I remember after a review we’d done of the then-new film ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ receiving a letter from a listener in India complementing our coverage of the movie, ‘My Beautiful Long Dress.’
Anyway, Pete and I had a ball, and over our two year collaboration, we became close friends. Pete was gay, loudly so. He believed that life was for living. He’d opened (or so he claimed – Pete never let a small issue of fact get in the way of a good story) the first nightclub in Turkey. He’d lived in Beirut during the unrest in Lebanon and on one occasion had answered a hammering at his door to heavily armed militiamen who ordered him to turn his music down as they were trying to have a civil war outside. And he’d been one of the original DJs on BBC Radio One:
That’s Pete on the extreme right edge, within touching distance of the legendary John Peel. I love this picture. Pete seems ever so slightly disconnected from the rest, as though he’s not quite with them. His own man. That was Pete. Oh, and the dark glasses. He wore sunglasses indoors long before celebs made it their thing. The celebs were jumping on a bandwagon that Pete had already got rolling.
Pete asked me to work with him because he’d heard a programme I’d done for Radio Netherlands called “That Reminds Me” in which the station’s presenters played songs that had been important to them and told the stories behind them. It was basically a rip-off of “Desert Island Discs”. On this show, God knows why, I’d told the story of how at university, some friends and I had filled a condom with water to see how much it could hold before bursting. (As far as I can remember it was about six litres, a much greater capacity than a condom would normally be called upon to accommodate.) Pete had heard this show, and sensed in me some raw talent that he could mould. And so he became my mentor.
I learned a hell of a lot from Pete. How to distil a report down to its most important elements, how a cue wasn’t just an introduction but a shop window to sell the accompanying story, and most importantly, how to breathe – from the diaphragm. Pete had the most beautiful voice. You know how when you have a sore throat, the soothing sensation you get when you trickle honey down your gullet? That’s what listening to Pete’s voice was like. A balm. My girlfriend’s mother rang me at the office one day. Pete answered. Knowing he was talking to my girlfriend’s mother, he schmoozed her over the phone, shamelessly flirting. (He was a shameless flirt, with men and women.) And even though she knew he was gay, she later told me that she’d been so affected by his voice, that after she rang off, she’d had to pour herself a glass of whisky. Pure Pete.
God, I loved working with him. I’d tend to get to the office first, even though I lived much further away. (I was in Amsterdam, Pete in Utrecht, the office in Hilversum, which is the Dutch word for ‘drab’.) Thirty years on, I can still remember the anticipation I felt when I’d hear him approach along the corridor. The clip clop of his horrifically uncool two tone shoes, then his peels of laughter as he gaily bantered with the Indonesians in the next office, or Maritiska, our PA. And before he’d even crossed the threshold, a smile would have started at the corner of my mouth.
Our office overlooked a volleyball court in the studio grounds, where the sound engineers would sometimes play during their lunch hour. In the heat of summer they’d strip to the waist. And Pete would stare appreciatively out of the window, occasionally sighing. I could see the appeal of the finer examples of the male physique and suggested to Pete that I thought I could be bisexual. “No, darling,” he purred, “you’re not interesting enough.” And that was that.
I left Radio Netherlands to go and work at Bush House, for the BBC World Service. I still saw Pete quite regularly. When he retired his friends threw a party for him, along the lines of “This Is Your Life”. My wife, Lisa (who isn’t the girlfriend referred to above) and I travelled over from the UK to be surprise guests. I’d miscalculated how long it takes to drive from Cambridge to Harwich (it’s further than you think, or than I’d thought anyway) and we only caught the ferry by driving the last few miles at speeds that were wildly irresponsible (but just within the limit in case there’s no statute of limitations in regard to speeding). But I had to be there. It was for Pete.
He contracted AIDS. I think he was in his late fifties. (Pete was always cagey about his age.) Friends told me the end was approaching and so I flew over to say goodbye. In his hospital bed he looked like those last pictures of Freddie Mercury, a desiccated husk. I sat at his bedside and fed him soup from a spoon. At one point he gestured that he wanted to say something to me. I leaned in close to his ear (he could only whisper by this stage), expecting him to say something meaningful about how much my friendship had meant to him. “You’re drowning me,” he rasped.
I held it together while I was with him, but when I left the hospital, I fell apart. I cried like I have never cried since, not even when my father died. Which isn’t to say I didn’t love my Dad, but he was in his mid 80s and lost to Alzheimer’s so his going was something of a blessing.
I flew back to the Netherlands for the funeral. Half a dozen of his friends and colleagues (actually, why make the distinction – if you’d been Pete’s colleague you couldn’t help but be a friend) had been invited to deliver a eulogy and I’d been accorded the honour of going first. In the week before the funeral I sat down a number of times to write it. I wanted to talk about the two tone shoes, the rows (oh, we had a few of those – one while pre-recording a Christmas special that the whole building knew about, and which brought our Head of Department scurrying to the studio to effect a détente), and the respect I had for this sweet, generous, inspiring human being. The words wouldn’t come. I couldn’t express my feelings for the man, nor get the tone right. Humour seemed inappropriate, but how else to conjure his memory? In retrospect, humour would have been the most fitting of tributes, because it would have been filled with joy, which was Pete to a T. But I was grieving, I didn’t have the laughter in me.
And so, on the day, I decided to wing it. When I’d worked with Pete, whenever I was struggling with a script, and airtime was approaching (we generally broadcast live which is a huge buzz) he would calmly counsel, “God will provide.” I hoped that on the occasion of Pete’s funeral the God I didn’t believe in might, that as I stared out at Pete’s coffin, below a huge blow-up photo of the man (and how Pete would have loved that!), the words would come.
They didn’t. I was shit. I came nowhere near to doing him justice. Everyone who followed me was brilliant. Honestly. I’m not just saying that to make my own failure seem greater. They nailed it. They were funny, told stories personal to them but which spoke of feelings we all shared. They brought Pete back to life.
After the funeral guests were given a sound recording of the service. (Well, we all worked in radio so it was easily enough done.) To this day I have not been able to listen to it. I’d like to. I’d especially like to listen to what Ginger da Silva said, cos I remember being particularly moved by her reminiscences. But I feel that if I’m going to listen to the others’ I ought to listen to my own dismal efforts. Can’t do it. My hero, who I let down.
So that’s my greatest regret. Which hopefully, with this tribute, I’ve gone some way to addressing.
Pete Myers (1939 – 1998). I loved him. Just not in that way. (I’m not interesting enough.)