In the spring of 2004 I travelled to Suffolk to interview John Peel ahead of a gig the DJ was playing in Glasgow. At the time Peel was becoming something of a national treasure due to his presenting the Radio 4 show Home Truths. In the course of a long afternoon he was open about his family and his past. As David Cavanagh's new book about Peel, Good Night and Good Riddance is published it seems timely to revisit our conversation. Peel died in October that year - Teddy Jamieson

For a man who's been hailed as a godlike genius, John Peel does cut a rather unprepossessing figure these days. Overweight, balding, far too self-conscious, he says, to take his clothes off when our photographer suggests as much, the 64-year-old broadcaster has, if anything, a rather avuncular image. "I guess so," he admits. "You see loads of people like me driving post office vans."

And yet in the days leading up to my visit to Peel Acres in deepest, greenest Suffolk, there are screeds of friends and colleagues (mostly men, it must be said) who sound dead excited when I mention the prospect of an interview with the world's number one Mark E Smith aficionado. For a whole generation of music fans - generations, to be more accurate - Peel is still more than worthy of the quasi-deity tag accorded to him by the NME back in 1994. Interestingly, though, no one raves about his Radio 4 show Home Truths - which, probably more than anything (even more than the ring of those familiar lugubrious tones on their regular voiceover duties) has turned him into the nation's favourite uncle.

Actually, they sound more excited about the prospect than I am. It's not that I have any real animus towards Mr Peel - but, if truth be told, in my prime Radio 1 listening years (some time ago, it must be said) I tended to turn off after David "Kid" Jensen or Janice Long. Oh, and then there was that time he slagged off Prince during a particularly fractious end-of-the-year Round Table circa 1984.

Understandably enough, that particular Round Table broadcast hasn't lodged itself in Peel's own memory banks. Indeed, he's a little confused when I bring it up and mention that Paul Gambaccini was on it. "But we loved Gambo," he says. Comprehension dawns when I add the name Peter Powell, former drive-time Radio 1 DJ and now agent to Blue Peter presenters. "Peter Powell was a dick, I'm afraid," Peel says. "It was Peter who came to me and told me that I shouldn't be playing hip-hop when I first started playing that because it was the music of black criminals."

Powell isn't the only one to get it in the neck during the couple of hours we spend together. At one point, recalling his days in the army, Peel tells me that his commanding officer during basic training happened to be going out with his stepsister, "and he was enough of a prick that when I met him at home I was obliged to call him sir. I've often hoped that one of these days I'll find him in flames at the side of the road, begging me to piss on it to put it out, and I shall say, 'No, no. You carry on,' and pass by on the other side."

Such acerbity is worth remembering when you listen to Home Truths. It always seemed a curious vehicle for someone who once claimed his lords and masters at Radio 1 rather treated him as if he were the "Baader-Meinhof of British broadcasting". Peel's late friend and producer John Walters was one of the programme's greatest critics, characterising it as being about people who had refrigerators called Renfrewshire. You do need a high tolerance of whimsy to listen to it. It always feels populated by Alan Bennett characters who have the misfortune to have Jeffrey Archer as their dialogue coach.

While accepting that it is at times a little too fluffy, Peel remains a staunch advocate. "In the early days, the more people who told me I shouldn't be doing it, the more I decided perhaps I should. I don't like being told what to do by other people."

There probably isn't a lot of crossover between Peel's Radio 1 and Radio 4 audiences. But the thing is, he says, he sees no reason why he can't speak to both groups: "Who wants to be typecast?" And in a way it makes perfect sense. Playing the nation's favourite uncle is just the latest image change for someone who has always had a touch of the chameleon about him. Peel, after all, is a public- school boy with a posh accent from a well-off background, who parleyed his geographical origins (he comes from Heswall, across the Mersey from Liverpool) into a broadcasting career in Beatle-loving America. He returned to London as something of a hippy princeling (he even slept with Germaine Greer at one point; he says she forced herself on him, while she says he gave her an STD) before embracing punk, hip-hop and the wilder fringes of dance culture. In more recent years the likes of Pulp and the White Stripes have benefited from his patronage. How hard can it have been, then, to embrace suburbia?

And of course he lives, I suppose, a rather Radio 4 life. The father of four - William, Alexandra, Thomas and Florence are all now in their twenties - with his wife Sheila in Peel Acres, a thatched-roof country retreat (imagine rustic with a capital R) bought for ten and a half grand some 30 years ago. "We bought the house in 1970, I think," he says. "Bob Harris lived here for a while because he was homeless. He lived here with his first wife for a spell while we were living in London. When did we buy this house, Pig?"

Sheila, who has just appeared with his lunch - two eggs and a couple of slices of toast - knows exactly. "1971."

"What year did we get married?"

"1974. August 31."

"Yeah, I knew that. We got married the day after my birthday - quite deliberately so I'd not forget."

Pig, famously, is Peel's nickname for Sheila, because of her snorting laugh. He even wears a pig-shaped ring on his left hand, above guitar-plucker fingernails. When I arrive, Sheila is in the kitchen and Peel has been listening to records in his office with his producer Louise. There are a lot. He gets four sacks of mail full of CDs and demos every week. He once worked out that if he were to listen to everything he was sent in a week, night and day, 24/7, it would take him three weeks to hear it all. Louise helps introduce an element of quality control and presumably frees him up to work on his autobiography announced last September (the papers said he'll get £1.5m for his efforts).

The egg and toast, by the way, is a necessity. He's a diabetic - he was diagnosed on September 11, 2001; he'd just finished the blood test when he turned on the television to see the planes hit the World Trade Centre - and so has to eat at certain times. "It's a bugger. I've always been overweight, I'll concede that, but it's a bigger job just keeping your weight as it is." Later he'll give himself an injection in his stomach. Thankfully, he points out, nature has given him a wide target area.

Ostensibly we're here to talk about his upcoming appearances in Glasgow and Edinburgh as part of the Triptych music festival. He doesn't "play out" a lot these days, although there was a time when the Peel roadshow was a regular fixture at the nation's polytechnics. For a time he was even accompanied by a pair of go-go girls: "A couple of young women from Luton who thought it was going to be real showbiz and they'd get to meet Noel Edmonds and stuff. They were sorely disappointed." Once his children started putting in an appearance, he more or less knocked it on the head. "I thought I'd be more use to them here than sleeping in a lay-by somewhere on the A1."

It's tempting to view Peel's desire to be home during his children's formative years as a reaction to the absence of his own father when he was a child, though it's not a comparison he seems bothered about making. Still, the subject of his father's absence is one he has often talked about. He brings it up unprompted quite early in our conversation, apropos of a comment about his brother Alan's "extraordinary bottom-wiping technique" (don't ask).

According to the Daily Mail - not, admittedly, the most reliable source in such matters - Peel's childhood was "fundamentally loveless". As was the tenor of the times, he was brought up by a nanny rather than his parents - although his nanny, he says, was certainly loving.

His father, Bob, the owner of a failing cotton factory, was absent for Peel's first six years because he was fighting in the war. By the time he was back in the family home, Peel wasn't, having been packed off to prep school at the age of seven. "I never had the opportunity to form any kind of relationship with him," he says. It's obviously a source of some regret. His brother Alan knew him much better, he says, because he was born after his father came back from the war. "He was always clearly my dad's favourite - which is fair enough, because my dad knew him a lot better."

Peel wasn't his mother's favourite either. Not even her second favourite. She told him once over dinner that he came a distant third behind Alan and Francis. Hat Ravenscroft was an amazing woman, he says, but not a great mother. "You need somebody into whose arms you can fling yourself when distressed, and she certainly wasn't that kind of mother at all."

She was obviously something of a character. She was actually christened Joan, but at some time in the sixties she decided to become a Harriet and sent printed cards to everyone she knew informing them of her change of name. People who met her when she visited Peel's house inevitably warmed to her, he says. They'd say she was fantastic. "And she was, unless she was your mother. She drank more than she should have done and when she was pissed she used to say amazingly hostile things. To me specifically." The dinner-party conversation is an obvious example.

She'd beat him too. "But she thought that's what you were supposed to do, and she didn't do it savagely till I bled. But in a way it was the kind of ghastly ritual nature of it. I'd almost have preferred savagery and madness."

It should be said that there is no bitterness in any of this. Peel obviously reserves that for the Peter Powells of this world. "It's an important moment in your life when you stop feeling sorry for yourself and start feeling sorry for them [your parents]," says Peel, "because my brothers and I are actually quite nice people, if that doesn't sound smug."

Still, from his comments it's not hard to hear a greater fondness for his father than his mother. "I suppose he was more of an unknown quantity. I think they were both probably quite nice people - but f-ed up, as people are. There's that line - 'They f- you up, your mum and dad' - but they themselves were f-ed up for various reasons.

"My mum was an only child and she was rather plump. Her mum died when she was a year old. Again, it's a Home Truths story. The only picture she had of her mother, Ethel Parker, was a silhouette of the type which used to be quite popular on piers. A few years before my mum died, some aunt reared out of rural Ireland had a photograph of Ethel Parker and gave a copy to my mum - and she never looked at it. Not to my knowledge, anyway. She always claimed she never looked at it because she just couldn't bear, that late in life, discovering her mum wasn't how she had always imagined her to be."

As for Peel's own parental duties; well, he once said: "There isn't such a thing as a good dad, there's just a less bad dad." He still feels that way. "Anyone who says, 'Yes, I was a good father to my children,' I think you can say you're a complete dick and they probably hate you. I mean, I know that I got things wrong. The experts say never be sarcastic, but sometimes it's the only weapon you've got left. Obviously I won't know the extent of it until they write their own autobiographies."

The equanimity he shows towards his parents' failings (or absences) extends towards his school days too. At seven he decamped to prep school in north Wales, and then went on to public school at Shrewsbury. The whole experience, he admits, sounds positively Dickensian.

"School in those days was a pretty harrowing place. It could have been the 1850s rather than the 1950s. You did have to do things like line up naked in the morning as small boys and jump into a bathful of cold water which had been run the night before. Whoever was first in line would have to break the ice." People find this hard to believe, he says, but it's all true. "And there was an amazing amount of beating and brutality and bullying and stuff. There was not at that age [he's talking about prep school here] a lot of sexual harassment, which is one of those things people are rather hopeful when you're writing your autobiography that you will be able to detail. And it did happen, but not on an epic scale at all."

It happened to you? "Oh yes. It'll all be in the book. Or some of it. But not at prep school."

For a moment I don't think he's going to tell me any more, but he does. At prep school there were no problems. His best friend was Sparrow Harris, a boxer who in later years knew the Kray gang - "a useful friend to have". But at boarding school things were different. "I was quite cute as a 13-year-old - hard to imagine now." And his cuteness was noticed.

"Very few of them, I think, were what would now be seen as practising homosexuals, but they were practising being practising homosexuals and in the absence of women of any sort at all they just turned to cute boys as a kind of stopgap measure. And if you were a cute boy - and, implausible as it sounds, I was.

“The thing was that the only people you could turn to for protection from these people were the people who were doing it. It was mainly boy on boy. Although the tradition is that schools are full of predatory masters trying to get off with little lads, I never experienced that at all. The only time it did happen there was just a rather freakish thing where this guy liked having small boys sitting on his chest. He never touched them. I wasn't one of them, but he was caught in a public park in Shrewsbury with a small boy perched on his chest."

What he wants to emphasise, though, is that this dose of public- school initiation is not something that hangs over him at all. "You developed techniques for coping," he says, "and I don't see myself as having been scarred by any of these experiences."

Those coping techniques came in useful during national service too. He was able to teach them to the working-class squaddies from Clydebank with whom he served his time - once they'd stopped beating him up. "I sounded like minor royal aristocracy," he says. "I'd have beaten me up."

Anyone who has read Simon Garfield's wonderful behind-the-scenes book about Radio 1, The Nation's Favourite, would be hard-pressed not to see a public-school metaphor in the station's golden age, with the management cast as rather out-of-touch teachers, the big- name presenters (the Noel Edmondses, DLTs and Simon Bates of this world) as the full-of-themselves head boys, and Peel as some kind of surly kid at the back of the class. "Yeah, very much so," he agrees. "But I rather enjoyed playing that role - and of course you realise you were as much part of the function of the system as the people who were loved and admired. You were the safety valve. When people objected to the music policy, I was always brought out to demonstrate that the BBC didn't just play records that were in the charts. That makes you as much of a functionary as Noel Edmonds or anybody else."

He has a touching respect for his employers and is keen to tell me that he's never been told what to play by anybody in management in all his years at Radio 1. (Then again, some years ago, when there was some possibility of an extension to his slot, one controller told him: "I think we've done enough for the out-of-work yobbos.") He says these days there are more people at Radio 1 who are actually interested in music. (Was it DLT who famously didn't actually have any records at home?) And for someone who once called Tony Blackburn the antichrist, he even has kind words to say about the station's current oafish morning presenter, Chris Moyles: "I've never been keen on his programmes, but he's actually a nice bloke." I'll take his word for it.

Somewhere in his house Peel has a collection of old 78s by a cocktail pianist called Charlie Kunz, "kind of strict tempo". Kunz was his father's favourite. "If I ever put them on I always get very tearful because I think, my dad liked this. They disapproved of the music that I liked, but that's your function as a parent." Well, other parents. When your dad's John Peel, the only way to rebel would have been to get into Andrew Lloyd Webber - "That would have pissed me off" - but fortunately none of his four did. They just stole his Pixies records. As for Peel himself: "Everything changed when I heard Elvis. Hearing Elvis for the first time - people can't imagine it now. It's not the sort of experience people can have, that something comes along that does change your life in that way. Where there had been nothing there was suddenly something."

It took the Beatles to make him a broadcaster. He was in his mid- twenties and in America when Beatlemania exploded in the States. His Englishness - he knew enough to play up his vague Scouse connections - got him onto the radio, and that was just for starters. There's a story that, during his days in Dallas, American girls would be lined up outside his house. "The story is - as stories go - slightly exaggerated," he says. "A lot of girls did come round to the flat that I lived in, a shed at the bottom of somebody's garden which had been slave quarters in a previous century. They used to queue up outside, and sometimes they wanted to snog someone from England. But frustratingly, American girls of that period - as they do now, actually - had this strange notion of virginity as a tangible thing which you surrendered to your husband on your wedding night, as though it was something that could be kept in a drawer wrapped in silk. So they'd do anything except shag you. They'd give you a blowjob before they'd shag you."

Actually, maybe that's just as well. There were, he admits, an awful lot of those girls who were under age. Not all of them - his first girlfriend in the US was a red-headed air stewardess called Judy Garrison, he recalls. But most of the time - at that time in the early sixties, anyway - women were married by the time they were 20, or in college and only associating with college types, so the only available "pool of single, unconnected women was high school". At some point he realised this was actually dangerous behaviour.

Peel's first wife, Shirley Anne Milburn, was one of the girls who would come round. "She wasn't one of the shaggers or blow-jobbers, but she used to come round pretty regularly, just to talk about the Beatles, really, and I knew she didn't live very far away. And when I started to think, this is getting a bit of a dangerous way to be playing the game, I went to live with her and her family."

Shirley Anne was just 15 when they got married. It proved a disaster for both of them, he says. "Both her parents died within a month of each other and so we got married more as a mutual defence pact than anything else, really. I don't really like talking about it, to be honest, but it was an incredibly sad time. She had a shit time. I'm sure I wasn't blameless. She was just as f-ed-up as any 15- year-old who'd just lost her parents would be, and married some geezer from another planet."

Obviously, this was not the best foundation for married life. Shirley Anne accompanied Peel back to London in the late sixties; before long she returned to the States, where she married again and had a couple of children. But her life was blighted by depression and she died young.

For Peel it was second time lucky when it came to marriage. He met Sheila on a television show he did in the late sixties called How It Is. She was in the audience. Peel and Richard Neville, best known as the editor of Oz magazine, would come down on to the studio floor before filming and pretend to scope out camera positions while really scoping out the girls in the audience. "She was wearing dark green and she just looked so wonderful," says Peel. "I thought, I can't let her get away, and I devised a strategy for getting a note to her asking her to go out. She agreed to it reluctantly, but I persuaded her."

He says Sheila shares his love of music. Hard for her not to, you'd imagine. They both like a bit of "rousing vulgarity", he says. "We're both very keen on what used to be called happy hardcore." This year they celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary, the day after his 65th birthday. The pension is waiting, but he doesn't want to retire. Seeing the way he pegs up clothes at the photographer's request, it's obvious he's not what you would call domestic. Sheila tells me as much later. You can't imagine him spending the years ahead doing little jobs around the house. Anyway, he can't imagine anyone else doing what he does. "I don't think they could, to be honest, because they'd have to be my age and bring the same attitude to it. They'd have to have had their lives transformed by Elvis, not in a kind of scholarly way, but to be able to make the links between what I was playing last night and the fifties and sixties." It's maybe the only statement he makes during our conversation that is not self-deprecating.

Anyway, he's got other stuff to do. There's that autobiography to write. It's scheduled to appear next year, but you shouldn't hold your breath. How's it going? "I've started: 1,033 excellent words so far, 99,000 to go."

He's too busy enjoying the research: he's just dug up a load of letters from the likes of Elton John from his pre-fame days. David Bowie too - "some chatty letters about what he was doing at the weekend". In one, Bowie even seeks to tap some money for his arts lab in Beckenham. "Once they become famous, things do tend to change," Peel says. He recalls a tour with Bowie when the singer was billed below "that rarest of God's creatures, an Australian sitar player". The next time Peel saw him, he was a huge star. "He'd turned up in reception and I thought, I'll go and have a word with him, see what he's up to. I start to walk towards him and a huge black New Yorker says, 'Hey, asshole, where d'you think you're going?' I said, 'I'm just going to have a word with David.' 'Like f- you're going to have a word with David.' And you think, this is what happens in showbusiness?"

Is fame toxic? "I don't know many people who survived it, to be honest. People end up surrounded by other famous people and the only other people they meet apart from that are people whose job it is to tell them how wonderful they are. I don't think it's an enviable position to be in. I can still go into the village pub. D-list celebrity status is not terribly taxing. Being asked to open the local village fete, and that's it."

Village fetes and White Stripes sessions. Sounds like a Home Truths story, you could say. But then Peel is full of them.

Originally published in The Herald Magazine, April 24, 2004