Charles Spencer

Walking on air

For many years now I have maintained that, if I am ever sacked from the Daily Telegraph, I will become a minicab driver, an assertion usually met by jeers and sneers of derision.

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Minicab drivers have a bad reputation for being dishonest incompetents and worse — a current poster campaign suggests that if a woman gets into an unlicensed cab she has only herself to blame if she gets raped — but down here in suburban Surrey they couldn’t be more helpful or reliable as I have had recent cause to find out.

Just before Christmas, I skidded on ice in Dorset and my beloved VW Passat slid slowly and graciously into the iron railings of the picturesque bridge that runs over the River Brit in Netherbury. Having just driven off from a standing start, I was only travelling at a few miles an hour and time seemed suspended during my helpless slide across the ice. Then there was a slight crunch followed by something much worse, as the airbags went off, bursting through the dashboard and steering wheel and filling the car with smoke. The bloody things caused so much damage that the insurance company is now considering whether to write off the car.

This would be a disaster, not only because the Passat is the only car I’ve ever owned that I have really loved — it’s got leather seats that actually warm up in cold weather — but also because in my sorrow and confusion I forgot to retrieve the CDs stored in a handy compartment between the front seats when the breakdown lorry came to take the car away.

These are the records I simply couldn’t live or drive without and though almost all of them are replaceable they seem like dear old friends — Live/Dead and Europe ’72 by the Grateful Dead, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits, best of collections by The Stones, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie, plus a wonderful three-CD ‘ultimate soul’ box set and a selection of cool jazz. These recordings hardly mark me out as a man at the cutting edge of popular music but it is the stuff that means most to me, and which I have been living with for most of my adult life. I have never got tired of any of it.

With my car off the road, I have been using the local minicab service, a luxury I could get used to, but in my wife’s Golf I’ve made two epic journeys in the big freeze myself, first to drop my son off at his ten-day residential course with the National Youth Orchestra in Blackpool, and then to pick him up after their concert at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool and bring him home.

The local traffic news on the radio kept announcing terrible snarl-ups and horrible accidents and insisted that no journey should be attempted unless absolutely essential, but I had a clear, safe run on both trips. I enjoyed being Ed’s roadie and deeply envy his membership of the National Youth Orchestra in which he plays French horn. There is great camaraderie among the teenage musicians, and extraordinary respect for their principal conductor, the brilliant young Russian Vasily Petrenko, who doesn’t look much older than they are and is strongly tipped to become one of the world’s great conductors.

As well as being in charge of the NYO he is chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra where he is a local hero. On the coldest night of the year the superb art deco Philharmonic Hall in Hope Street was packed to the rafters, having sold out weeks in advance. You would not have imagined, watching these teenagers, that a winter vomiting virus had swept through the orchestra during the rehearsal period, temporarily laying low more than half the musicians. The challenging programme of Rachmaninov’s The Rock, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and Shostakovich’s Fifth symphony were all dispatched with flair and feeling, the Shostakovich in particular achieving an electrifying tension between the ‘heroic’ music the composer was required to write by the Stalinist authorities and an underlying sense of almost unbearable tension and fear.

There was an ecstatic standing ovation at the end, and rave reviews in the national press. There’s so much to grumble about in Britain at present but hearing these dedicated young musicians, and seeing my son’s radiant and excited face after the concert, offered a much-needed shot of joy and hope. After a four-hour drive through the snow and ice I was still walking on air by the time I unlocked our front door at 3.45 a.m. A little over three hours later the family mood was a good deal less ecstatic as we woke up an understandably grumpy Ed and told him it was time to get ready for school.

Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.