I’m still trying to get on with the blasted novel, over which I have been procrastinating for several years now. Though there are occasional exhilarating hours when it proceeds apace, there are others when I sit at my desk, drinking cold coffee and smoking roll-ups, when I conclude that, on balance and all things considered, I’d rather slash my wrists than try to write another bloody word.
Never believe anyone who says they love writing. It’s mostly horrible. After 30 years on the job, I still think I’m going to be found out with every review I write, still feel the terror of what was once the blank piece of paper and is now the blank computer screen. And with a novel, the horrors are multiplied a hundredfold. Actually, since my reviews are usually 600 words in length and the novel — if I ever finish the bugger — is likely to be about 110,000 words, the horrors are multiplied by a factor of 183.3 (recurring) — always assuming I’ve got my sums right.
As you’ll gather, playing with the calculator is one of the many distractions available that enables one to delay the evil moment of actually trying to write something. Other delaying tactics include loading the washing-up machine (all those mugs of coffee), emptying and polishing the ashtray to a pristine shine before filling it up all over again, and stroking the cat for longer than he actually enjoys. This last activity often results in a vicious scratch, compounding one’s feelings of loneliness and self-pity.
The best distraction of all, however, is music. I find it impossible to write with music playing, even if it is only on quietly in the background. But when the going gets tough and my head is throbbing, I treat myself to half an hour off, sitting in my armchair and listening to jazz.
And, boy, have I got a lot of jazz to listen to. I was strolling along the South Bank to the National Theatre a few weeks ago and noticed that the MDC record shop, once located inside the Festival Hall, had relocated to swanky new premises just outside it. It’s long been a favourite browsing haunt of mine and offers some fantastic special deals on classical, jazz and world music.
But none more fantastic than the Ultimate Jazz Archive on the Membran label (3-86562-250-X) bafflingly subtitled ‘A Jazz Lunch for Your Ears’. All I can say is that it would be a heroically long lunch. The set comprises 168 CDs, 3,179 tracks, and ranges from Scott Joplin to Dizzy Gillespie. For copyright reasons, the cut-off point is 1955, but even that early finish will be too late for those who share the Philip Larkin view that jazz started going down the drain with the arrival of bebop in the Forties. There are 36 CDs of classic jazz, ragtime and Dixieland, 28 of blues, four of boogie-woogie, 60 ranging from swing to modern, 20 devoted to the big bands and a further 20 featuring the vocalists.
All the big names are here and the most famous of them — Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker among them — get two CDs apiece. But there are also umpteen discs featuring musicians of whom I’ve never previously even heard, let alone listened to.
And how much is this cornucopia, with every track digitally remastered from original sources in order to get the best out of recordings that date as far back as 1899? This is the moment when EU safety guidelines insist that I advise you to sit down in case you collapse with shock. The average mid-price CD costs about a tenner. What the music industry describes as super-budget CDs (on the Naxos label, for instance) go for about a fiver. So, at £5 a disc, you might assume this handsomely packaged set, complete with recording and personnel details for every track, and detailed biographies of all the featured artists, would set you back something in the region of £800. You’d be wrong. It’s on sale at the ridiculous price of £99, working out at less than 60 pence a disc. As my friend Alan says, you’d be robbing yourself blind if you didn’t buy it.
Better news yet, I’ve just phoned MDC (020 7620 0198) and they tell me they still have plenty in stock. I’ve been listening to nothing else for the past three weeks, and have still only scratched the surface. And the more I listen, the more I dig it. I’ve admired jazz from afar in the past. Now at last I’m beginning to feel it. The music’s working its way into my bloodstream.
Philip Larkin came up with a beautiful poem about one of his jazz idols, Sidney Bechet. ‘On me your music falls as they say love should,’ he wrote. ‘Like an enormous yes.’ Listening to Armstrong and Bechet, Beiderbecke and Basie, Ellington and Goodman, I can only echo that miraculous affirmative. Oh, play that thing!
Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.