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Sounds for a cool Yule

17 December 2011

9:00 PM

17 December 2011

9:00 PM

One of the unwritten rules in our house is that Christmas should never be mentioned until a few days before the big day. Mrs Spencer gets into a state in the run-up to the festive season, not least because, as a teacher at the Royal Ballet School, she has rehearsals of The Nutcracker to attend at Covent Garden, in which the school’s pupils always appear, as well as end-of-term reports to write.

When she is in the thick of all this, the idea of writing Christmas cards, buying presents and planning the catering brings on acute anxiety attacks, and if I so much as mention how much I am looking forward to the festivities all hell can break out.

But secretly I am looking forward to it, tremendously. We always spend Christmas in Dorset and the feeling of relief and peace when we finally get there is overwhelming. Years ago there was a Hanif Kureishi film called London Kills Me, a title that increasingly reflects my own feeling about the capital, especially at this time of year.

In my drinking days, I used to hate the festive season because the pubs were always filled with office parties and there was no space, or peace, for serious boozers like me. It’s even worse now I am sober and I find myself surrounded by screaming bimbos, macho lads spoiling for a fight and amateur drinkers throwing up in shop doorways as I head back home after a West End first night. At this time of year, Leicester Square resembles a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Why I used to think getting wasted was a great idea is a mystery I still cannot fully fathom.

I got sober on 31 October 2000, and it was tough being on the wagon that first Christmas. Even now I get a pang when I see a bottle of a once-favoured brand of malt whisky, but it passes quickly when I remember what it used to do to me. The fact is that I could never drink like a gentleman. I drank like a greedy school kid working his way through a family-size tin of Quality Street all alone in his bedroom.

I suppose music has become a replacement addiction. Instead of soaking up the hard stuff alone in my study, I sit over the computer ordering too many CDs from Amazon. In this, I suppose, The Spectator could be described as my enabler. Of course I should order a load of new CDs, I tell myself. I’ve got a column to write.

One good thing about music, however, as Bob Marley observed in ‘Trench Town Rock’, is that ‘when it hits you feel no pain’. It brings joy and leaves no hangover in its wake. And at Christmas music seems particularly important and especially delightful.

To Mrs Spencer’s complete bafflement, my son Ed and I are always riveted by the Christmas edition of Top of the Pops featuring vintage footage of Slade, Wizzard and Wham! performing their Christmas hits. And I always wonder what happened to Roy Wood, presiding genius of both Wizzard and before that the Move, who wrote some of the greatest British pop songs ever to grace the charts and then seemed to disappear without trace. I still tremble with pleasure and nostalgia whenever I hear his great ‘See My Baby Jive’.

But for this Christmas I have found a couple of records that should go down well with Mrs Spencer and, I hope, Spectator readers too. Earlier this year a choir came to our local church in West Dorset and performed Allegri’s Miserere. It stirred my interest in Renaissance sacred music and no one does it better than Spectator columnist Peter Phillips and his Tallis Scholars. My brother-in-law listens to almost nothing else, which seems to me to be taking specialism too far, but Amazon is currently offering a terrific double CD featuring the best of the Tallis Scholars recordings for under a tenner, and their sacred polyphony should soothe even the most cantankerous family rows over the cooking time for the turkey.

The splendid nostalgia label Past Perfect, which specialises in music of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, has also come up trumps with a splendid album called Vintage Christmas including festive hits by the likes of Fats Waller, Nat King Cole and a particularly enjoyable ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town’ featuring Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. You can order online at or phone the lovely Kathy, who deals with mail-order requests on 01869 325052. While you’re about it request a copy of its superb double CD Jazz Age! It’s the best introduction to early jazz music I have come across and features a huge variety of artists from Jelly Roll Morton and Bix Beiderbecke to Basie, Ellington and the splendid Muggsy Spanier. For recordings this antique the sound quality is amazing and I can think of no better way of ensuring a cool Yule and a swinging 2012.
Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.

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