I promise I’m going to come up with some hot musical recommendations this issue, but I must thank those Spectator readers who wrote about last month’s column in which I announced my intention to stop smoking.
The letters — all from reformed smokers — were full of kindness, sympathy and practical suggestions, and they have spurred me on. I was especially moved by a letter from a 91-year-old former prisoner of war on the Burma–Siam railway who said smoking had been a lifesaver during that terrible time. He continued to smoke during his working life, and found it a great help, and gave up when he retired at 60. Now he says he finds he doesn’t want whisky, either. One can’t help glumly wondering if life is merely a process of abandoning our pleasures.
Anyway, the hot news here is that although my stop-smoking deadline was 3 March, the day before my 51st birthday, it’s actually already ten days since I last had a fag. My dear old Mum gave me Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking, and, though it’s sometimes a tiresomely chippy and self-congratulatory read, it also contains a great deal of good sense and, more importantly, seems to have done the trick.
One of Carr’s main points, and it was one I’d worked out for myself the last time I gave up, before relapsing in the Priory, is that smoking is actually the least rewarding of habits. It offers almost no bang for your bucks. Drink a bottle of whisky, smoke a spliff, snort a line of cocaine, or get a fix of morphine, and at the very least you can say you’ve had a proper hit. All tobacco does is create a need that wasn’t there in the first place. You don’t smoke fags to get high, but merely to return to a state of normality. Cigarettes create the stress they claim to ease, and the only satisfaction is in scratching the itch that the addiction itself has created. I think Carr is also right to warn against nicotine patches and gum. It’s like telling an alkie that he must stop drinking but it’s perfectly OK to sniff other people’s drinks. It merely prolongs the agony. Cold turkey is the only way.
Quitting hasn’t been nearly as bad as I feared. You get occasional twinges, a passing feeling of empty vulnerability, but the claim I’ve frequently heard that giving up smoking is as traumatic as giving up heroin is manifest balderdash. I’ve seen people coming off smack, indeed I’ve seen people trying to do a kick-boxing class while coming off smack, and stopping smoking simply isn’t in the same league.
What giving up the fags does give you, surprisingly, is a rather enjoyable detached and slightly spaced-out feeling. It is hard to concentrate, and, yes, I have sometimes found the writing difficult. I also miss the camaraderie, the rueful jokes, and the us-against-the-world feeling, of fellow smokers.
But by and large it’s a small pain for a great gain. I really like being able to watch a DVD all the way through with my family, instead of repeatedly nipping out for a quick fag. I like being able to go into my study in the morning and not gagging on the smell of stale smoke. Above all, I like the feeling that I am master of my own fate, that I’m no longer in thrall to a silly, dangerous habit. Of course by the time you read this, I may have relapsed, and I’m particularly suspicious of Allen Carr’s insistence that those about to quit should make a solemn vow never to smoke again. Recovering alcoholics never say never, and talk instead about taking things one day at a time. I’m sure that is the best approach, not just to conquering addictions, but as a way of living life generally.
And so belatedly to music. I’m delighted to report that following my recommendation of the amazing Ultimate Jazz Archive in December, MDC Music has shifted no fewer than 250 sets of this wonderful 168-CD set, on offer at the ridiculous price of just £99 a throw. New stock is expected imminently and I can’t recommend the collection, covering everything from ragtime to bebop, too highly. A mail-order service is available. Phone 020 7620 0198 for full details.
Those of a more cautious disposition may prefer to check out the mail-order label Past Perfect. Its double CD Jazz Age — Hot Sounds of the Twenties and Thirties offers just what it says on the packet, and is the perfect introduction to Dixieland and Swing, featuring a wonderful range of artists and a refreshingly unpredictable choice of tracks. The same label’s Perfect Bebop is also an accessible and excellently annotated introduction to the style that shook jazz to its foundations in the 1940s. Against all my expectations, I’m enjoying the challenging sounds of bop more and more. Somehow it chimes with the occasional tension of not smoking. You can contact the label on 01869 325052 or at www.pastperfect.com.
Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.