Here in suburban Surrey it is already the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. The damson tree in our front garden is so weighed down with fruit that the branches almost reach the ground, as if it were impersonating a weeping willow, and my dear old mum has made two jars of delicious jam, with the promise of many more to come. The leaves on the great chestnut I see from my study window are beginning to turn, the lawn is sodden with rain and the summer holidays already seem a distant memory.
I find that it is always this time of year, rather than 1 January, that brings on reflections about the past, and the future. It’s a legacy, I suppose, of the start of the new academic year, of newly sharpened pencils and panics that you haven’t done nearly as much holiday reading as you were supposed to do. The thing I most resent about studying English at Oxford is that it so often turned books into a chore rather than a pleasure. One summer I had to read Spenser’s ‘The Faerie Queene’, and allocated four hours a day to the task for several weeks. I never got to the end, and frequently drifted deep into the arms of Morpheus. I have never picked up this epic snore-inducer since and can remember almost nothing about it.
Indeed, one of the big regrets of my life is that I was such a dutiful student at Oxford, working hard for what my tutor described as a ‘very solid upper second’, a result, he added, that was much better than he had expected. How much wiser I would have been had I aimed for an undistinguished third and had more fun. I don’t think anyone has ever asked me what class of degree I got, and the editor, Ted Adams, who gave me my first job, as a trainee reporter on the Surrey Advertiser, actually made me start work before the result came through, thus denying me one last summer of blissful idleness. No sooner had I got over the effects of an alcohol- and amphetamine-fuelled post-finals bender than I was back in harness as an indentured apprentice hack.
In a couple of weeks my son Ed sets off to university himself, to study music in Manchester, and I hope he gets the work/life balance better than I did and music doesn’t lose its charm through too much study. I’m going to miss him dreadfully, though I won’t miss the panics of getting him to the school bus stop every morning. In five years we never actually missed it, though on a couple of occasions there were James Bond-style chases from Hinchley Wood, where he was meant to get on, to the next stop in Long Ditton as we pursued the vehicle with gritted teeth after being held up at the traffic lights. Now I will be able to lie luxuriously in bed after overnight reviews, wanly rising at noon rather than dawn, but the house is going to seem very empty without him.
There will be music to fill the unaccustomed silence, however, and I cannot wait to get stuck in to a new and sumptuously packaged career-spanning box set of Louis Armstrong of which I have just taken delivery. And jazz has been a big part of my summer listening. Down in Dorset I spent hours listening to Muggsy Spanier, Bill Evans and big band swing. There were also a transcendent 45 minutes when I lay in a luxurious bubble bath after a long walk and listened to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, and realised for the first time what all the fuss was about. Suddenly music I’d long believed to be overrated clicked with me and I floated off into musical heaven.
But the most unexpected musical pleasure of recent months occurred when Mrs Spencer and I took a brief holiday in Lucerne — city breaks are one of the great consolations of middle age, we have discovered, especially in Switzerland where, unlike England, everything works.
We took a cog railway up into the mountains and walked through the high pastures, and the sound of the cowbells as the creatures fed on the grass created a minimalist symphony that was as hypnotic as anything by Philip Glass. Indeed, at one point we found a position at the head of a valley in which there were cows on either side of us on facing slopes, so that this sublime, randomly generated music in a variety of tones came over in stereophonic sound.
Since then I have been scouring the internet to discover if recordings exist of these deeply soothing and reassuring sounds, so far without success. Listening to the hypnotic music of Swiss cows would be a wonderful way of unwinding after a hard night at the theatre, and if there are any Speccie readers out there who have laid their hands on such a recording I would love to hear from them.
Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.