When it is too painful to go forward any more, it is time to go back. And so it was that I found myself in the Oxfam bookshop down a little cobbled street, buying second-hand vinyl records. I had not gone into the Oxfam bookshop to buy vinyl records. I had gone in to see whether they stocked such a thing as a desk diary. I have been having an awful time since 1 January searching in vain for this most obsolete of items — an A4, one-page-to-a-day, wide-ruled desk diary.
‘Why don’t you just put all your appointments in your BlackBerry like a normal person?’ said a girlfriend snootily.
‘Because I don’t want to. I want to write them down. Then, when I look back over the pages in the months or years to come, I can orientate myself. I can remember things about any given day by looking at the style of my writing or the pen I used. Also, I like writing things by hand, I like turning pages. I don’t like pressing little buttons on my phone. I am a human being, not a number,’ I added, channelling Patrick McGoohan, as I usually do when thus frustrated.
‘Oh, but you need this app…’
‘Please do not speak to me of apps. I refuse to acknowledge that there is such a thing.’
‘That’s as maybe.’
Fortunately, the Oxfam bookshop not only looked like the past — on account of it having books in it — but it smelt of the past, too. In particular, it had the whiff of a slightly damp primary school classroom during breaktime on a rainy day when the children are cooped up with the wooden toys and the indoor sandpit. Breathing in the slightly fetid air infused me with a sudden sense that maybe, just maybe, despite the march of slick technology and everything hideously clever that was coming with it, including digital diaries, things might be alright, after all.
An old man in an anorak was sitting in a lumpy chair reading a paperback book. Possibly he had been there for hours and would be there until the shop closed. Certainly, he didn’t look like he was going to part with any money. And yet nobody of authority in the shop seemed in the least bit bothered about it. I felt a nice feeling somewhere in the region of my heart.
Then my heart positively soared when I noticed the vinyl records on a shelf along the back wall. Vinyl records. Yes, that was when I was last happy.
‘To hell with you, iTunes!’ I thought. ‘And while we’re at it, to hell with CDs!’
They were the biggest lie of all. Indestructible — hah! They barely withstood a week in a car CD-player without starting to stutter and stick, and the cases always fell apart. And because they were so unprepossessing, one never cared about putting them away properly, the way one did with records. And so Kris Kristofferson was always inside The Dixie Chicks and The Dixie Chicks were in Jeff Buckley and Jeff Buckley was in Strauss’s ‘Four Last Songs’ which was in The Marriage of Figaro, and so on until I could never, ever, find Fauré’s Requiem, which was terribly inconvenient during my insomniac period when it was the only thing that would get me to sleep. Yes, the whole CD thing was a huge betrayal, from which music has never recovered.
I began to look through the records and before long I had selected more than a dozen treasures, including a recording of Toscanini rehearsing Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera, Dame Janet Baker singing Schumann, Placido Domingo singing John Denver (it must have seemed like a good idea at the time), a Decca edition of Die Walküre, which boasts of being a ‘long playing microgroove full frequency range recording’, a BBC recording of Hancock’s 1959 broadcast of Twelve Angry Men and, most intriguingly of all, a record entitled ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’ by Max Jaffa.
All were immaculately preserved in their original outer sleeves and crisp paper inner sleeves. Some even had the pilfered plastic over-sleeve of the record shop. Someone had cared for these records. Someone had loved them, and listened to them from start to finish.
‘Oo, Frank Jaffa, yes, that’s a good one…’ said the dear, sweet man behind the counter, who took about 20 minutes to ring my choices through the till, commenting on each one as he added them up.
I can almost hear the crackle they will make when I put them on. First, I have to get my parent’s old record-player down from their attic and transport it to my flat, where there will be nowhere to put it. I also need to find out who Max, and indeed Frank, Jaffa were.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 2 February 2013