It comes as something of a shock to realise that I have known Liz Anderson, this magazine’s admirable arts editor, for almost 20 years. We first met in 1987, as junior sub-editors on the Telegraph’s arts pages, and sat trembling in shock and awe together as the arts page supremo, Miriam Gross, and her deputy, Marsha Dunstan, conducted furious rows over the page lay-out. It was the best spectator sport in town, but attended by the constant risk that some of the fire and ire crackling across the desk might suddenly be deflected our way. We kept our heads down.
Liz and I have kept in touch ever since, along with another much-loved refugee from the Telegraph’s arts pages, Kate Chisholm, and reunite for lunches that are hugely enjoyable and not nearly as frequent as I would wish. But there is something I have never dared say to Liz’s face. I’m just a tiny bit scared of her, too. Not as scared as I was of Miriam and Marsha, but, in spite of her delightful good humour, Liz sometimes makes me feel like a grubby schoolboy in her presence. She is, in short, a proper grown-up — a condition to which I have long aspired but never quite attained.
So it was with considerable nervousness that I filed last month’s ‘Olden but golden’ column. It was entirely devoted to the putative size of Mick Jagger’s penis, following some outrageous remarks on the subject from his old mucker Keith Richards. It was one of those pieces I regretted as soon as I had hit the send button. With the whole of pop music at my disposal, was this fourth-form smut the best I could manage?
After tanking up with three mugs of coffee and half-a-dozen roll-ups, as close as I can get now to Dutch courage, I phoned Liz. ‘Did you get the copy all right?’ I asked, trying to keep the nervous tremor out of my voice.
‘Yes, thank you,’ she replied, sounding like Mary Poppins at her most starchy, as if she had just discovered one of her charges devouring the whole bag of sugar rather than confining himself to the designated spoonful. ‘And very smutty it was, too. Could we have a clean column next time, please?’ I promised, blushing with shame, that I would do my best.
And, stone me, a couple of days later, I found myself in HMV and staring at the perfect ‘clean’ album. It’s a new double CD compilation aptly titled Golden Oldies. The cover features a picture of a teapot clad in a delightful hand-crocheted blue-and-white tea cosy, while a sticker declares that the collection is ‘For the Golden Oldie in Your Life!’
You should have seen the sneer on the Goth assistant’s face when I took it to the cash desk, but what riches it contains. There are a total of 63 hits from the Fifties and Sixties here that transported me straight back to my childhood, and most particularly to my grandparents’ bungalow in Sunbury-on-Thames. My mum, dad, sister and I went to tea there every Sunday — home-made potted meat and Victoria sponge a speciality — and sometimes listened to Auntie Kay’s Russ Conway and Frank Ifield records while waiting for the Sooty and Sweep Show on the telly.
Although Golden Oldies includes a smattering of classic rock’n’roll cuts —– including the magnificent ‘Shakin’ All Over’ by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, still sounding astonishingly fresh and raw 45 years on, the album is largely a celebration of the defiantly unhip and the long-forgotten. It’s packed with cheerful pop pap and middle-of-the-road ballads, many of which must have seemed old-fashioned on the day of their release, never mind several decades later.
As a boy who loved the Beatles and the Stones, I despised most of this music — it’s the kind of stuff that formed the staple fare of the BBC’s Light Programme. But time has lent it a curious enchantment. Songs that would once have sent me screaming from the room now seem delightful, bathed as they are in a rich, warm glow of nostalgia. I have been playing little else for weeks.
There’s dear old Frank Ifield, of course, yodelling his way through ‘I Remember You-oo’, a smattering of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, Doris Day hymning her ‘Secret Love’, and Kenny Ball, he of the swollen apple cheeks that always fascinated me as a child, performing ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’. But it’s the novelty and comedy numbers I love best. Here are the Avons, still sitting in the back seat and kissing and hugging with Fred, Morecambe and Wise infallibly cheering us up with ‘Bring Me Sunshine’, and B Bumble & the Stingers doing terrible things to Tchaikovsky in ‘Nut Rocker’.
Listening to these songs I can still smell Grandpa’s Digger Flake tobacco and feel the fizz in my mouth of the R. White’s lemonade Nanna always gave us as a treat. Never such innocence again.
Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.