Charles Spencer

Spendthrift fever

Spendthrift fever

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I’m trying to write a novel at the moment, which means, of course, that I am spending a great deal of time looking for other things to do. It’s amazing how attractive the washing-up seems in comparison with sitting in front of a computer screen, making things up and struggling to find the words to describe them.

In fact, I have just managed to waste two hours in a painstakingly detailed examination of my collection of classical music. I only started buying classical CDs about four years ago when I got out of the Priory and started trying to get through life without alcohol. I thought it would be a harmless hobby, and provide the required relaxation when the craving kicked in, but needless to say my addictive personality has turned it into an obsession.

The result is that I now have 1,967 classical CDs on my shelves and I’ve been doing the sums. Many of the records were budget price, others were purchased in sales, and CDs also come cheaper when they are part of a box set. Let’s assume an average price of £6.50 per disc, which feels about right. You generally get more bang for your bucks with classical music than with pop. Nevertheless, after tapping away at the calculator, I find that over the past four years I have spent an estimated £12,785 on classical CDs — quite enough for the new car the Spencer family so badly needs. And I’m not even going to think about the further sums blown on pop, rock, jazz, easy listening and the rest. This is yet another copy of The Spectator that is going to have to be hidden from my wife. If she reads this column, there will be hell to pay.

The other worry is whether I will ever manage to listen to all of this music. With an average playing time of 60 minutes per disc I find it would take me almost three months to get through my collection, listening non-stop, 24 hours a day. I reckon I actually spend about 14 hours a week listening to my classical records. So it would take me two years and eight months to get through them, always assuming that I played each disc only once. In fact, I get sudden enthusiasms, currently for Schubert’s orchestral and chamber music, and play the same records over and over again. What I actually have is enough music to last me a lifetime.

This madness must clearly stop, and I’m beginning to think that I might finally be coming to my senses. The other day, with a couple of hours to kill before going to the theatre, I spent the time, as so often, at HMV near Oxford Circus — the world’s largest music store. I trawled the classical department thoroughly and browsed through all the other sections, and miraculously managed to get out of the place without buying a single record — even though there was a sale on. For once, I realised that I already had more than enough at home.

Has the spendthrift fever really passed? Here’s another hopeful sign. There’s a terrific new album coming out on 14 February called Meridian 1970 (Forever Heavenly/ EMI Records) put together by Jon Savage, best known for his book about punk rock, England’s Dreaming.

It’s a collection of the music he and his mates listened to in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when they, like me, were in their mid-teens. What’s remarkable is that, although the whole record is a joy, much of it was entirely new to me, and this is my specialist period. There are scorching, but unfamiliar, tracks from such great bands as The Move, Little Feat, the Sir Douglas Quintet and The Byrds, and a reminder of just how good Rod Stewart once was on a spine-tingling rendition of the traditional ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’.

There are also wonderful songs from such virtual unknowns as Danny O’Keefe, Tommy Flanders and the extraordinary Meic Stevens, who comes over like a Welsh Syd Barrett, plus a lovely setting by Donovan of the early Yeats poem ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’. And listen out for Eric Clapton’s incredible wah-wah workout on Dave Mason’s ‘Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave’. It’s bliss.

In the old days, I’d have been down the shops or scouring eBay to buy the original albums from which this fine music is chosen. But in my new mood of unaccustomed abstinence, Savage’s inspired collection, pinpointing the poignant moment when the hippie dream started to turn darker and more paranoid, seems enough. I’ve been playing it since Christmas and haven’t tired of a single track. Veterans of the period should do themselves a favour and buy Meridian 1970 as soon as it hits the shelves. You can smell the grass and the patchouli oil as it plays.

Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.