17 APRIL 2004, Page 45

Dark night of the soul

Charles Spencer

IT found myself in the depths of fear, guilt depression the other week, three old companions I thought I had put behind me when I gave up the drink, but who came rushing back to greet me with vile familiarity. The circumstances needn't detain us here — suffice it to say that I was entirely the author of my own unhappiness through a combination of vanity and greed, and that my actions also had an adverse impact on others.

I was luxuriously holed up in the Queen's Hotel in Leeds and, as the night loomed endlessly and sleeplessly ahead, I discovered that I had managed to run out of Golden Virginia, my prop and staff when the going gets rough, and indeed when the going is exceptionally smooth.

The centre of Leeds doesn't seem to have any all-night convenience stores, at least in any of the streets through which I feverishly prowled, so I ended up in the station bar. No hand-rolling tobacco on offer, but at least a packet of Bensons in the fag machine. The only trouble was that I hadn't got any change, and the barman couldn't give me any, at least not until someone bought a drink and gave him a reason to open the till.

I was in such a state that I didn't have the wit to order a Coke, so I simply stood around, fagless, and inhaled the old sweet smell of beer, whisky and stale smoke. How many times in the past, I thought, when I felt like shit, had I sought refuge in run-down dives like this? Dozens? No, make that hundreds.

Eventually a punter turned up and ordered a lager top, and the barman changed my crumpled fiver into quid coins. I banged them into the machine and fled to the hotel with my Bensons.

Back in my room, the thought crossed my mind that it would be the easiest thing in the world to phone room service and order up a bottle of Famous Grouse. Yes, it would mean the end of more than three years of contented sobriety, but it would also bring desired oblivion, a temporary end to the repetitively looping thoughts in my head and the sickening lurches in my stomach.

Mercifully, the 12-step programme kicked in. I said the serenity prayer, remembered where drink had taken me in the past, and made a cup of tea instead. But it was clear I wasn't going to sleep and I had long hours to kill. I had my Discman with me, along with some of my favourite CDs — the Grateful Dead, recorded live during their English tour in 1972, Sticky Fingers by the Stones, Al Green's greatest hits and Clifford Curzon playing the Mozart piano quartets with members of the Amadeus String Quartet. According to Congreve, music has charms to soothe a savage breast, but that night, at least, Congreve was wrong. I found I couldn't face listening to any of them, and that the only way to get through the night was to sit with the fear rather than try to escape from it. And having made this decision, at least some of the fear left me. It felt like a miracle.

I even dozed off for a bit, caught a train at dawn and, having arrived back in London, confessed to the complete cockup I had made of things. For me, at least, matters turned out to be not nearly as had as they might have been, and, though I still feel shaky. I'm on the mend, and enormously grateful that I was granted the strength not to pick up a drink.

I'm also glad I didn't play any music during that long dark night of the soul. Depression and fear leave a terrible taint on things. Had I played those records in the Queen's Hotel, I would now be unable to listen to the Dead's 'Dark Star' without reprising my guilt, or the Mozart piano quartets without revisiting the fear.

Oddly enough, more than a week later, I still don't want to listen to much music, which is why you are stuck with this disgracefully self-indulgent column, rather than helpful recommendations of wonderful records you really ought to own. But in its way, music has provided some comfort.

Like the guy in the Nick Hornby novel, I've found that the best way of calming shredded nerves in recent days has been by re-arranging my record collection. American and British rock and pop acts have been separated and arranged chronologically. Soul, country, reggae, blues, world and jazz have all been reorganised by genre, while the classical discs I've been blowing a fortune on recently are neatly ranged in their shelves, alphabetically, by composer, with special subsections for conductors, pianists and collections. A slightly sad way of passing the time, I acknowledge, but a curiously comforting one, creating the illusion that you actually have some control over your circumstances. And, with a bit of luck. normal 'Olden but golden' service will resume next month.

Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.