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Monday
Jan222018

Michael Peel RIP

Sad news. Forest has lost a good friend and supporter.

I didn't know Michael Peel very well but he was undoubtedly quite a character.

A confirmed and unapologetic smoker, he first got in touch with us in 2013. (I believe he had lived abroad for several years.)

The following year he put his name down for Smoke On The Water but couldn't attend because he was "confined to a hospital bed" in what he called the "gulag at Addenbrooke's" in Cambridge. The cause, he said, was "something heart related".

A few months later he had recovered enough to join us at Boisdale for our 35th anniversary party. We had a brief chat and after the event he wrote:

Dear Forest and everyone involved in last night’s party,

I would like to thank you all for a simply excellent event at Boisdale last night. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Being somewhat infirm these days, I’m afraid I clambered upstairs and found a comfy seat [on the smoking terrace] and remained there. Nonetheless, the atmosphere was very vibrant.

I met several very amusing people and thought the entire Boisdale team was first-rate, especially the waiting staff upstairs who looked after me very well. Thank you all very much and I hope I will be able to attend and support other Forest events in the future as well as any campaigning for our freedoms.

Sadly ill health intervened again and he had to bow out of several more events. Last year he responded to another invitation by writing:

I wish I could make it but I am just out of hospital after 105 days and recovery is very slow. Trying to learn to walk again - painfully.

The prognosis, he added, wasn't very good.

Just been told unequivocally to stop smoking. As yet I've not made up my mind but, I think, I may have to as otherwise I might lose my right foot. However smoking is my one remaining true pleasure.

When I remarked (not insensitively, I hope) that his situation reminded me of the late Jeffrey Bernard, the Spectator's infamous Low Life columnist, Michael surprised me with the revelation that:

I became very good friends with Jeff. He was the first person I ever met in Soho, when I was just 16, in the then Yorkminster, now the French House. In 1968.

I was at school and simply got so pissed off one day that I rang for a taxi to go from Sussex up to London. I was lucky enough to have a taxi account. I demanded to go this place I'd heard of called Soho.

We saw two pubs up Dean Street from Shaftesbury Avenue. Fortunately, we stopped outside the second, as the first was then the rent-boys' pub.

I went in the door nearest Shaftesbury Avenue (a no-no in those days as that part of the pub was essentially a club), ordered a drink, and then Jeff started chatting to me.

At first I thought he was gay and trying to pick me up. He then offered to buy me a drink. I remember saying that I was a school boy and couldn't afford to buy him one back - I may come by taxi but only had about £3 and needed to get back on the milk train.

His response, that many people find hard to believe as he was renowned for being so mean, was to say: "This is Soho, when you have money you buy drinks and when you don't, other people buy you drinks."

I lived by that creed for many years, buying endless booze for young artists, etc, until I lost all my money and went from a net worth of £13 million to £97.13 in a day.

Later that same day, a Soho chum asked me how I was and I responded: "Shit, as I've just lost all my money." That was the last drink I bought in Soho for next four days I was in London.

And there was more:

Another lovely story, typical of Jeff's acerbic wit, was once when he was short of dosh, he worked behind the bar of Gerry's Club (aka the Den of Equity). A famous actress came down the stairs to the little landing that was 4 feet above the rest of the room but open to it, and started lording it over everyone in the room as to how she'd won this huge part in some play or film or other.

Jeff studiously ignored her. She went around the room making sure that everyone knew she'd won this big part and then started to make a grand exit from this little landing. At this point, Jeff piped up in his high squeaky voice: "Oh, she's off to learn her line."

Classic Jeff. A lot of people in Soho hated him but not me. It was like sitting at the feet of a master.

Michael also knew the American novelist, poet and literary critic John Updike:

In the USA I lived about half-a-mile from Updike and met him socially quite regularly. The first time was when I was invited by a mutual chum to play poker at his house.

I lived in a huge house that I rented sight unseen from a man I met in a bar. It had seven spare bedrooms and it’s own private beach at the bottom of the garden. It also had books in every room - including an entire shelf of limited editions by Updike. I thought to myself, if I'm going to meet him, I really ought to read something by him.

So in the middle of the night I went down to the drawing room to find a book. Lying across the top of the other books, as I say not just first editions but all personally inscribed by him with torn edges to the paper, was a thin dark purple book. I took it out and on the front of it was a pink triangle with the title: 'CUNTS by John Updike'.

Needless to say I took it upstairs and read it avidly - a 44-page eulogy to the female anatomy. I thought it was marvellous and so arranged to take it with me on my next European trip - on the promise that I'd take it back.

I took it wrapped up in bubble wrap and went to Jeff's flat - by this time he'd lost both his legs to diabetes - and gave it to him in front of his last muse. I made him swear not to have a drink anywhere near it - it was copy no 44 of 100.

Two weeks later, I returned to pick it up and asked him what he thought of it. "Bloody marvellous, I never realised Updike was that good." He became an avid fan.

Coincidentally, shortly after my return home, I saw John socially. I asked him if, now that he was so famous etc. didn't that work embarrass him a bit. "Not in the least," he said, "I am really proud of that piece. I wrote it for a student union."

He was tickled pink when I told him about Jeff Bernard loving it, as he then told me that he subscribed to the Spectator and the very first thing he read was Jeff's Low Life column.

When I suggested he should write a book, Michael dismissed the idea: "Memoirs should be written when one is dead. A sort of Soho creed."

In case you're wondering, I did ask him how he went from "circa £13m in net worth to £97 in one morning". He told me but added, "I'd rather this was kept reasonably confidential. It's history now and best left."

What I can reveal is what he described as his "biggest disappointment".

I clearly had to make massive changes to my lifestyle but, essentially, I don't regret it. The thing that hurt most was having to sell my wine cellar, which raised over £3m [to help repay private investors] despite the fact that I'd probably spent no more than £200k amassing my collection. I started in the early Seventies whilst at Cambridge - I used to buy '61 first growths for between £80-£120 per case!

Michael would post the occasional comment on the Friends of Forest Facebook page but it was only by following his personal page that you got a true sense of the man – including his sardonic wit and, distressingly, the acute and sometimes unbearable pain he experienced as his health deteriorated.

On December 23 he wrote:

Another sleepless night. I'm so exhausted that I am as weak as a kitten. What's really odd is that the pain is far worse in bed. Hence, since about 03:00 I've been sitting on my office chair that I occasionally nod off on.

Going to try to struggle through to Christmas Day and then, if necessary, go to A&E. It's clear that the painkillers I am on – Gabapentin, Co-codamol and Panadol – are not right for me. Oramorph does work but they only give me the smallest bottle - apparently I might become [a] junkie. Which is worse I ask myself? Having a heart attack induced by lack of sleep or withdrawal from a minor drug?

On Christmas Day, in a typically bullish (or ironic?) post, he commented:

Great. I'm in intensive care at West Middlesex Hospital.

Sadly, on January 9, his sister wrote:

To all of my little brother Michael's friends, I am so sorry to have to tell you this way but Michael died earlier today in West Middlesex Hospital. His pain, which he has had for so long, is over. Michael wasn't a religious person (as I am sure you all know) but I think he would like it if you had a drink and toast to him at The French House, his favourite watering hole in Soho.

What a nice idea. The French House is a short walk from our old office in Wardour Street so the next time I'm in Soho I will certainly drop by and do just that.

RIP, Michael.

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Reader Comments (5)

Sad to hear this, I had a good long chat with him in Lord North Street once, he had a sparkling with and was one of those people who it was easy to like even on the first occasion. Very astute man too. I don't know the French House but if I'm ever near there I'll look it up. RIP big man.

Monday, January 22, 2018 at 19:19 | Unregistered CommenterDick Puddlecote

I didn't know Michael but I am sorry to hear about his death. In honour of him and all the friends of smokers both living and dead, I will stop by The French House in Soho should I ever find myself in London in the future, but sadly I can only stand outside to honour him with a drink because I am not allowed inside unless I become someone else with no cigarette in my hand. Honouring a smoker's life by obeying antismokers indoors is no honourable tribute at all.

I am striking one up now in remembrance of someone clearly loved and well respected. Cheers.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018 at 11:25 | Unregistered Commenterpat nurse

Twiggy's ( Michael Peel) memorial to be held on Thursday 22nd Feb at The French House 3-7pm.

Sunday, January 28, 2018 at 19:26 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam Corbett

Memorial for Twiggy (Michael Peel) to be held on Thursday 22nd February 2018 at The French House, Soho, 3 till 7pm.
Thank you for writing about him here.

Monday, January 29, 2018 at 4:26 | Unregistered CommenterFrancis

Thanks for letting us know.

Monday, January 29, 2018 at 19:44 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

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