REBEL SONGS And, on foghorn vocals, Jessica Mitford... Elgy Gillespie reports
What can you do for kicks after you've run away with Churchill's nephew to fight in the Spanish Civil War, and faced down the House Un-American Activities Committee; agitated for Communism and braved white supremacists to protest against the death penalty in the American Deep South; organised a protest "pee-in" at a public maternity hospital, written several bestsellers, and worked in many jobs, from journalist to salesgirl?

Answer: record a rock 'n' roll album. Jessica Mitford, the author and muckraker extraordinaire, now 77 and best known for her books Hons and Rebels (1960) and The American Way of Death (1963), has formed a rock band, Decca & the Dectones, and released a version of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" on a tiny San Francisco record label called Don't Quit Your Day Job.

"It was sort of like a mad childhood dream to put this together," says the rebel bloom of British aristocracy. The funniest Mitford of them all has lost neither her comic instinct nor her accent. "I'd always dreamt of being a torch singer,'' she says. ``But nobody asked me."

Decca, as she's known in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, where she has lived for 40 years, had sung the Beatles song at a nightclub to raise money for a local book festival, pressed into it by her friend the poet Maya Angelou. She had yelled the chorus "Bang! Bang!" with such force that she was asked to do it again for Right to Rock, an anti-censorship campaign.

Angelou gave her the capacious, sequin-spangled costume that Mitford now wears, looking drop-dead dramatic, to launch a new career as a rock star. But not all critics have been complimentary about Mitford's voice, a shameless foghorn described by the local press as "a cross between British bar baritone and doily-edged Russian bass".

It was Angelou who exhorted her to keep singing, reminding her that she had once braved Franco and the FBI. And it was Angelou who coaxed Mitford on to a circus elephant for another local benefit, and sang "Right Said Fred" with her at the 50th wedding anniversary party for Decca and her husband Bob Treuhaft (at which their children, Dinky, a nurse, and Benj, a piano-tuner, performed satirical sketches of their parents' homelife), and pushed her into the recording studio to reprise "Maxwell's Silver Hammer", despite her having sustained a broken her ankle while cavorting on the dance-floor with her nephew Desmond Guinness.

No CD is complete without its merchandising, and ``Maxwell's Silver Hammer'' is accompanied by kazoos and souvenir T-shirts bearing the legend bang! bang! on the front and help! help! on the back. "Help! Help!'', the second song on the CD, is a ballad about a lifeboat heroine that Decca used to sing with her sisters on holiday in the Hebrides (she claims that crofters set out from adjacent islands to look for wrecks whenever the Mitford sisters reached the refrain). "Help! Help!'' is rendered here with wave and seagull noises. The CD cover bears the familiar photo of Decca as a determined child, about the time when she opened a "Running Away" savings account..

"Those Maxwell lyrics are brilliant...goofy, and soooo Beatlish," enthuses Mitford, suggesting by her tone that the Sixties were truly good to her. Currently, she's updating The American Way of Death with a new introduction and final chapter, and hoping to outrage the undertakers of North America all over again. Much to her disappointment, her 1992 follow-up, The American Way of Birth, apparently did not outrage anyone in obstetrics. Nobody attacked her blistering expos of American gynaecology, with the exception of one non-licensed "doctor" who preaches pre-natal education.

"Oh, it was such bliss when all the undertakers came out with virulent attacks on my other book - and so great for sales," sighs Mitford. "Unfortunately, the medical establishment kept mum this time. I wonder why?"

Political as ever, she was thrilled by the controversy stirred up last year in the United States by Christopher Hitchens's attack on Mother Theresa, and she was equally depressed by the victory of the Newt Gingrich-led Republicans in the Congressional elections. Although she left the Communist Party in the Fifties, and enjoys well-appointed restaurants (we were sitting in the very best, Chez Panisse, surrounded by gilt mirrors and fluted wine glasses and nice clothes), Decca swears that she's an unreconstructed pinko. She hasn't spoken to her sister Diana Mosley since the War, apart from a formal greeting at their sister Nancy's funeral. And after talking about Sonia Orwell's funeral, where ill was spoken of the dead, Mitford made out her own will.

"If there's any question of defamation, I shall stipulate that all my old journalism students be paid to come to the funeral and form a flying phalanx around the mourners.

"And if anyone says anything rude or nasty about me, I shall just ask for them to eject them speedily from the event, so that only praise gets heard by the mourners."

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