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Arts feature

Losing the plot

24 March 2012

1:00 PM

24 March 2012

1:00 PM

You know those sad, confused people you sometimes see, standing on street corners and shouting dementedly at passing cars. Well, the other week, that madman was me.

I was in Sheffield to cover the Crucible’s Michael Frayn season, and had risen early to write my review. And then my usually reliable laptop failed to come up with an email connection.

I kept trying, and failing, to get the copy across, then realised that unless I got a shift on I would miss my train. So I ordered a taxi and checked out. Only the taxi didn’t come and catching the train looked less and less likely. And it was then that I lost the plot entirely, shaking my fist at passing but occupied cabs, and shouting at God that I wished I were dead — all the symptoms of a certifiable nutter, in fact.

Eventually — and by this time tears of rage and frustration were streaming down my cheeks — the taxi arrived. To his credit the driver drove at a terrific lick and there was a remote possibility that I might catch the train. I ran up the steps and down to the platform, and there was the London train, looking as though it was patiently waiting especially for me.

I jumped aboard, surprised to discover that it was almost empty. Then the horrible truth dawned. I had indeed missed my train, and this was the next one to go. The trouble was I had one of those tickets that are only valid for a particular train — the one I had missed. I sought out the guard. She confirmed that a new single ticket would be required — a cool £66.50. And then she added the killer blow. It would, she said, be cheaper if I had a ‘senior railcard’. Did I have such a thing about me?

So that was it. The game was up. Though I still spend most of my life feeling like a mixed-up teenager, I now look like a pensioner. ‘Madam,’ I said, ‘you have just added insult to injury.’

As the journey got under way I realised that my behaviour over the past half-hour hadn’t exactly been grown-up, however old I now looked. And I thought of Gerry, the drama-therapist and counsellor who helped me most when I was trying to get off the booze at the Priory back in 2000. One of Gerry’s great themes was that you should learn to sit with discomfort, and accept it, and wait for it to pass, rather than trying to fix it with a drink — the advice that has helped me most in sobriety.

So I sat on the train with my discomfort, and sure enough it did pass. I even managed to get my copy filed. And then I sat through some more uncomfortable minutes when I remembered how vile I had been to Gerry in my early days at the Priory. There was a biography of him in the bumph we were given on arrival and it said that he had spent part of his career working as a stage director. Riled by his almost uncanny ability to understand me far better than I was able to do myself, I wrote him a horrible note saying I thought his drama therapy sessions were meretricious and questioned his claim to be a professional stage director. ‘I have been reviewing theatre for more than 20 years and I’ve never heard of you,’ I wrote. ‘Where did you direct? On the end of a pier?’ Just thinking about it still makes me blush but Gerry handsomely accepted my subsequent apology.

Gerry died the other week. He had a long and rewarding life, in jobs that included marine engineering and, yes, professional stage direction. But his greatest achievement was helping so many people to understand what made them tick and change their lives for the better.

His funeral in Wimbledon last week was deeply moving and there was also some terrific music. I once confided in Gerry after I got sober that I now smuggled CDs past my wife, just as I had once secretly brought bottles of Scotch into the house. Gerry admitted that he did the same with opera box sets. So I was expecting something operatic at the service. In fact, it turned out that Gerry was also a jazz fan, and the music included recordings of Mose Allison’s superb version of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ and Miles Davis’s splendid take on ‘My Funny Valentine’.

Naturally this set me wondering what music I would like at my funeral. Inappropriate though its paranoid atmosphere might be, I want ‘Gimme Shelter’ by the Stones, as it still makes me shiver with excitement whenever I hear it; Beethoven’s sublimely beautiful cavatina from his 13th quartet; and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five recording of ‘West End Blues’ with its amazing opening trumpet solo. Readers may have their own ideas on this matter and I would love to hear them.

Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.

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