Towards the end of his life, John Betjeman was asked during a television interview if he had any regrets. Ravaged by Parkinson’s disease he tremblingly replied, ‘Not enough sex.’ The effect was at once comic, touching and desperately sad — like his best poems, in fact — and his words have haunted me ever since.
From what you read in the public prints, you might think that anyone who writes for The Spectator is endlessly at it, that condoms are supplied gratis with each miserly pay cheque, and that once this column is completed I will be taking my pick from any number of admiring lovelies.
Not a bit of it. All the action seems to be reserved for those in, ahem, senior positions, while your lowly columnist is left like a penniless child standing forlornly on the pavement and gazing longingly through the window of a temptingly stocked sweet shop.
In such circumstances one is forced to take one’s pleasures vicariously. It’s pathetic how grateful I am when any actress removes her clothes on stage for what the director doubtless mendaciously describes as ‘artistic reasons’. So my eyes lit up when I saw a report about the new Goldfrapp album, Supernature, in the Guardian, which has apparently got the critics ‘all steamed up’.
The cover features Alison Goldfrapp striking a provocative pose and wearing nothing except her black nail polish, while the contents have been variously described as ‘flushed, sexy and improbably beautiful’, ‘post-coital’ and blessed with ‘lashings of sexual frisson’. Needless to say I was down at HMV within minutes.
In fact, the album strikes me as a disappointment. Imagine a cross between T-Rex and the bland trip-hop outfit Morcheeba, and you’ll get some idea of what’s on offer — the odd hooky tune, loads of crunchy synthesisers and Ms Goldfrapp trying far too hard to sound as though she is recovering from the best orgasm of her life. Pure recorded Viagra it somehow ain’t.
It set me thinking, however, of records that do conjure up an urgent glow of sexuality. There are of course some obvious choices — Donna Summer’s moaning and groaning on ‘Love to Love You Baby’ and ‘I Feel Love’ have always done the trick for me, and I have a lingering soft spot, though that is hardly the mot juste, for Marvin Gaye’s splendidly unabashed Let’s Get It On. The album, incidentally, continues in the lubricious vein with tracks that include ‘Keep Gettin’ It On’ and ‘You Sure Love to Ball’. I’m not sure though that this disc would be a particularly good idea on that fraught first date when you’ve persuaded the object of your desire to come back home for ‘coffee’. Just a little too obvious, I think, and possibly arousing daunting bedroom expectations that might prove tough to satisfy. Just how long are you supposed to ‘Keep Gettin’ It On’ for?
But there is nothing that plunges one back into the past as potently as cheap music and the most improbable records conjure up the scent of sex for me.
When Pink Floyd were making the world-conquering, doom-laden Dark Side of the Moon, I doubt if Roger Waters turned to David Gilmour, gave a knowing wink, and observed that this was going to be a great making-out record. But I was 17 when it was first released, and seeing a lovely lissome 15-year-old called Mandy. As a result this excessively bleak music is redolent for me of delightful heavy petting sessions on a single bed in Surbiton, not quite being able to believe my own luck.
Wizzard’s exuberant ‘See My Baby Jive’ will always summon up that summer of love with R. in 1973 in which we relieved each other of our long-preserved virginity at last in a mission house in south London. The priest discovered us in bed together one morning, and delivered the classic line: ‘I’m not angry, just very disappointed.’ And Diana Ross’s achingly desolate ‘Touch Me in the Morning’ still brings me close to tears whenever I hear it because it poignantly sound-tracked the end of the affair.
I better not go on. Mrs Spencer has been known to read ‘Olden but golden’, and I don’t think she would welcome any further strolling down this amorous memory lane. Nevertheless, there is one record that will always capture her essence for me, the aching, urgent ‘Ballerina’, one of the greatest tracks on Van Morrison’s masterpiece, Astral Weeks.
My wife used to be a ballet dancer, and when we first got together I’d play the record repeatedly as I waited for her to come home from tour in the early hours of Sunday morning. Over the past 25 years, in Mrs Patrick Campbell’s great phrase, the hurly-burly of the chaise longue may have given way to the deep peace of the marital bed, but, as Van once sang, she still seems so young and bold to me, stepping lightly, just like a ballerina.
Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.