The Olivetti Chronicles

Best known for his four decades of radio broadcasting as a DJ with the BBC, John Peel, champion of The Fall, was also a prolific music journalist who wrote articles, columns and reviews for newspapers and magazines as diverse as The Listener, Oz, Sounds, the Observer, the Independent, and the Radio Times, and all done on his beloved Olivetti typewriter.

A compilation of these articles, appropriately entitled The Olivetti Chronicles, was published posthumously in 2008 (sadly John died of a heart attack in 2004).

I was so intrigued I bought the book (a hard cover edition) and had it shipped over from England.


In an introduction to the book, Peel’s son, William Ravenscroft, writes:

“Dad, a sentimental man, insisted on using an OLIVETTI typewriter to write the majority of the articles contained in this book, despite the fact that it was so ancient that he could rarely find ink for it. As the supply of specially ordered compatible ink ribbons ran dry, he discovered a way to messily rethread the old ones and put them in backwards, reusing them until what he had written was barely visible.”

I enjoyed reading the book, but you would think, would you not, that a book entitled The Olivetti Chronicles would have within its pages at least one image of the typewriter in question? Or failing that, a reproduction of a typewritten article, playlist, or index card, as produced by Peel on said typewriter?

” … All of the albums on his seemingly endless shelves were assigned an index number that could be cross referenced to a filing cabinet filled with alphabetically ordered cards which Peel typed on his OLIVETTI typewriter.” (from an online article about Peel’s massive record collection)


But no – no typewriter-related imagery in the twenty-or-so photos provided in the book. To Peel’s credit, there are several  honourable typewriter mentions:

On page 27, in an article ‘Bores” written for Sounds magazine on February 7, 1976, Peel complains of a rash brought about by an allergy to some specific brand of soap or detergent:

“… I tell you all of this not to win your sympathy, but so that you’ll understand what I’m doing if I unexpectedly break away from the typewriter with a loud cry and rush around the room cursing, clawing at my multi-hued flesh the while.”

On page 39, in an article “Captain Beefheart 2” written for Sounds magazine, April 1, 1972 (Incidentally, “the Pig” is the name Peel gave to his wife Sheila due to her snorting laugh):

“SO HERE I SIT typing while the Pig drives a Land Rover full of John Walters and Helen round to a neighbouring hostelry… “

On page 104, in an article “God Save The Queen” written for Sounds magazine while watching England vs Argentina on TV, June 18, 1977:

“… Five minutes to half-time and only one scrawny undernourished paragraph to my credit. I was hoping that as the final whistle went I could tear this lot out of the typewriter with a great bellow of triumph…”

On page 116, in an article “Adrian Henri” writing about a picnic while on holiday in Ireland, Radio Times, January 20-26, 2001:

“On the way across the fields and surrounded by all this excessive loveliness – I originally typed in the words ‘the swooning air was heavy with butterflies’ but thought better of it – we had stumbled across the corpse of a cow.”

On page 199, in an article “Osmonds” written for Disc magazine, 1970-71:

“… So here is another letter, this one from Vitezslav Kotik of Prague. Mr Kotik’s name is covered with accents and strange devices, but there is no facility for reproducing them on this typewriter.”

On page 320, in an article “Virgin on the Ridiculous” written for Sounds magazine, June 4, 1977:

“… … I’m writing this in the Radio 1 typing pool again …

And that’s it. Nothing Olivetti-typewriter-specific in the whole book.

However, I did come across a letter typed by Peel (Olivetti Elite Victoria typeface?) and reproduced here with the permission of its recipient Daniel Williams


Apart from Dan’s letter, a Google search came up blank. Well almost blank. I did find one typewriter image …

John Peel with his record collection

Correct me if I’m wrong, but that typewriter looks like an OLYMPIA SM9! The text below is taken from the same WIKI page the image was taken from:

“… the show had settled into a kind of rut: two sessions per night, JP increasingly running the show and composing his own running orders (on his trusty OLIVETTI typewriter, as he would continue to do to the very end)…”

So the question is, are we missing one Olivetti typewriter, or is this the greatest typewriter faux pas in publishing history?


Epilogue: 20/06/2015:

It seems the faux pas was all mine. Two John Peel typewriters have so far emerged from hiding:


1998: An Adler Electric? (possibly on loan from the Radio 1 typing pool?) as found by Daniel Williams and Rob Messenger.


An Olivetti Lettera 25 missing its ribbon cover. Spotted by TypeTheClouds, and identified by I Dream Lo Tech (Ton S).



13 thoughts on “The Olivetti Chronicles

  1. Enjoyed your article. Reminds me of my grandfather who wrote his memorials and loads of very fine songs on his typewriter with no errors in it.


  2. Steve, I checked John’s partial-autobiography (completed after his death by the Pig) for typewriter references, and the only one I could find suggests that towards the end of his life, the Olivetti (or the Olympia in the photo) was replaced, presumably when there was no more ink left in those old ribbons:

    ‘There are those who find it really strange that I type my own running-orders (on a typewriter that I bought in Barcelona earlier this year that doesn’t have a + or a & but has a range of mildly amusing Spanish characters instead), but I counter their sophistries by pointing out that this is the only way I can be reasonably sure that the information I have before me as I drone away on the radio is accurate.’

    However, there is this image of John in his Radio 1 office in 1998 – you’ll better be able to identify the typewriter than me:


  3. This has intrigued me! I found a BBC documentary on youtube. At 3.14mins there’s a shot of a typewriter with a bit of paper covering the top, but it could be an Olivetti…

    I used to stay up late to listen to John Peel. He played some truly weird stuff and it was always great, even when it was rubbish!


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