Interview: By George!
Why sex, Surrealism and Bessie Smith still work for George Melly. By John Walsh
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Saturday 08 November 1997
I apologise for starting a piece on George Melly with one of his Noel Coward anecdotes, but ecce homo: to meet the delightful Mr M is to encounter a constant blizzard of amusing tales. You soon learn that he would much rather swap literary stories, showbiz gossip and Green Room hilarities than talk soberly about his Life and Current Projects. It is rather hard to pin him down. Amazon explorers, fighting their way with machetes through tendrilous jungle of swamp vegetation and ceiling lianas, have an easier time of it than the hapless interviewer who tries to steer Mr Melly through thickets of anecdotal charm towards a straight answer about what he is up to these days.
Let us have some facts. He is 71. He is a jazz singer, a journalist and writer of shockingly confessional memoirs, a fly fisherman, a dandy and a deracinated Liverpudlian. He lives off the Portobello Road with his wife, Diana, and two cats called Ollie and Lettie. He suffers chronically from psoriasis and arthritis, and, by some further caprice of nature, has to avoid certain fruits; this is tiresome since it means he cannot touch a) strawberries or b) wine. He is rather deaf and sports a not-terribly- effective hearing aid on his right ear.
Our conversation was conducted at high-decibel pitch and its mildly lubricious nature may have put one or two fellow lunchers off their rocket leaves. Mr Melly's singing voice was described by John Mortimer as possessing "the raucous charm of an old Negress", but his lunch-time delivery is pure public-school plum, getting steadily grander and drawlier as his mouth fills up with food, and the vodka martini and Czech beer flow through his system like rain into parched earth.
He's always been rather grand, despite several attempts to write him off as a buffoonish old poof in a zoot suit (Private Eye used to call him "Jelly Belly"). When I lived in Putney, I used to catch Melly singing at the Half Moon pub next door. His introductions were tremendously stylish, like Leonard Sachs crossed with Anthony Burgess: "There are regrettably few songs that concern themselves with Terpsichorean rivalry, and even fewer that carry undertones of lesbian incest. So I'm happy to be able to sing you, `I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate'." Too fat to tap-dance, he used to mark the climax of "Happy Feet" by clasping the bass drum and languidly lifting one leg behind him, so that the drummer could beat a torrential solo on the base of one perfectly fitted co-respondent shoe.
"I'm reading a book about Bessie Smith at the moment, written like a love letter by Jackie Kay, who's a black Glaswegian woman poet. I believe her to be completely sincere because I also fell in love with Bessie Smith while being just a middle-class public schoolboy from Liverpool. She was my first big influence. When I started singing in the late Forties, I used to actually ask her to come down and enter me, her spirit that is. It was pretty far out. And I still play Bessie's songs every day. I have all her tapes. I play two of them while I'm getting dressed, or three if I've got a hangover. I know them all backwards and they never lose their magic."
Melly started singing at 21 and became vocalist with the Mick Mulligan Magnolia Jazz Band, whose raucous, whisky-drenched, sex-fuelled, smoke-enshrouded adventures in the Fifties are brilliantly recalled in Melly's first book, Owning Up. He was 19 when he met Edouard Mesens at the Barcelona restaurant in Beak Street, Soho, and found a creed for life.
Melly's interest in art had started abruptly while still a student at the super-liberal Stowe public school. He saw a Magritte painting called Le Viol (The Rape) depicting a woman's face as a naked body, with breasts for the eyes and pubic triangle for the mouth, and was entranced. It was published in The London Bulletin, edited by one ELT Mesens, a Belgian artist and maker of collages, who was a leading light of the international Surrealist movement. The movement was, in fact, falling apart, its members seduced away by the new religion of existentialism, or being banished for having impure ideological thoughts about, say, Stalinism or success. Melly knew nothing about all that. To him, Surrealism was a "revelation, the key to a magic kingdom where misery and regression were banished for ever and poetry reigned supreme. The Barcelona restaurant was one of those mountain caves where we brigands of the imagination were preparing to march against the forces of reason and overthrow those obscene myths whose function was to cretinise humanity." He came to all the meetings, and wound up working for Mesens in the London Gallery, crammed with classic Surrealist canvases, in Beak Street.
The story of his involvement with the brigands is told in Don't Tell Sybil: An Intimate Memoir of ELT Mesens (Heinemann, pounds 17.99), published this week. Despite the awful title, with its echo of Ian Botham's laddish autobiography, Don't Tell Kath, it's a confessional treat incorporating a potted history of the Surrealists.
There are some wonderful scenes: Rene Magritte coming to stay with Edward James, the eccentric patron, dining on eight miniature soles in a pink sauce and complaining to Edith Sitwell about his constipation; Melly being told by Mesens to cross the road and wish the officious proprietor of a new luggage emporium "Good luck" - and to keep doing it, back and forth across the road, over and over again, until the man was driven mad.
The "intimate" part of the memoir, since you ask, concerns Melly's sexual relationship with his employer and Mesens's wife Sybil, whose salary as chief buyer at Dickins & Jones bankrolled all three of them. One Sunday afternoon, as George and Edouard sat in the living room talking about sex, Sybil, suggested that, Oh, for goodness sake, why don't we go into the bedroom and do it? George, who until that point was a wildly promiscuous homosexual, agreed, and found, to his surprise, that he liked having sex with a woman (Edouard watched until it was his turn). Their menage a trois lasted six more sessions. He and the Belgian collagiste sought other threesomes and sometimes had sex together in succeeding years, but, effectively, Melly was a sexual convert. "It was just a matter of taste. It absolutely was not a moral decision. Suddenly, I just liked girls' legs better than boys' arses. Frankly, I didn't notice much difference, except that, when you're heterosexual, you can see the person's face." The restaurant went a bit quiet at this point. "Delicious, this soup," said Melly.
Talk to him about modern-day artists and he'll allow a connection with the days of Magritte and Andre Breton - but only up to a point. "I think Damien Hirst is very good, a really serious artist. His pieces - not his paintings, which are just silly - say a lot about morality, and are rather beautiful, though I don't know how long they'll stay beautiful. But I don't think they have much to do with Surrealism, which was an attempt to change the world." Weren't the installation pieces at the Royal Academy "Sensation" exhibition - the dismembered bodies, the eggs-on-a-sofa representation of femininity - Dadaist in their effects?
"They relate a little to Dada," Melly conceded, as if talking about a dysfunctional family, "but what you must remember is, Surrealism isn't just about what your hands can do. Breton referred to painting as `that lamentable expedient'. He relied on painting as a kind of signpost to the Surrealist mind." How committed had Melly been to the movement? "As a young man, I followed the Surrealists' example in such things as blasphemy. A friend and I would follow nuns in the street and pretend to be having an orgasm behind them. We'd go, `Ooh, Ohhhh, Je viens! Je viens!' It was very convincing. And on railway stations, there used to be these devices, a long ribbon of tinfoil you printed letters on - I think they were for identifying different kinds of rosebush. I used to print on them, `Everything that is squint-eyed, doddering and grotesque is summed up in the one word - GOD', and leave it there to be found. I'd never go into a church for any reason, for a wedding or a funeral. Now I go to memorial services."
Once a would-be anarchist (the political underbelly of Surrealism), he is frankly disappointed at the lack of any convincingly radical spirit in England.
"The anarchists were mostly sweet, charming, well-mannered, middle-class men and women of great idealism, who were sent to prison during the war for spreading disaffection among the troops. The English are just very bad at being as radical as, say, the French. I went to anarchist meetings in Liverpool. Very ill-attended - only one docker, one schoolteacher. And in the Navy I got into serious trouble for distributing anarchist literature. But all they did in the end was to confiscate the stuff and post it back when you were demobbed. Siberia it wasn't. They just wouldn't take it seriously."
Where did his wild streak come from? Melly's father was a wool broker who hated being in business. He loved shooting and fishing and would have loved to run an estate. He died in 1961. "The last thing he said to me was, `Do what you want. I never did.' He was remarkably tolerant of everything. My mother was terribly concerned about other people's opinions. Partly, it was to do with her being Jewish and marrying into my father's family, rather posh liberal Catholics. She wanted me to be Noel Coward, which may be why I imitate him so much."
Indeed. He imitates many people, as story after story unfolds across the table. Nor is he an anecdotalist on automatic pilot. His huge smile (like the Joker's in Batman) flashes gleefully at a punchline, his eyes crease with laughter, his huge bullfrog jowls dance briefly with delight. He'll tell you about Peter Langan, the violently unpredictable Irish owner of the brasserie, who was invited to stay at the Mellys' Welsh home "to dry out" and arrived, three days late, in a London taxi with a case of Bollinger. About meeting Cyril Connolly at a party of Sonia Orwell's: "Ah Melly," the great man said, "I read something by you the other day and I said to myself, `That's very true'..." "Gosh," replied Melly, "what was the article?" "I don't know," said Connolly vaguely. "Or was it on the radio?" (Pause). "Or was it by someone else?"
You hear how he fell out with Sir Roland Penrose, the man responsible for bringing Surrealism to England, because Penrose invited Prince Philip ("that saloon-bar philistine") to open a Picasso exhibition. You get an earful of his intense dislike of Salvador Dali for betraying the movement's noblest ideals and embracing Franco ("I just wouldn't have wanted to know him"), and his irritation with Max Ernst for denying his colleagues. "He lied about his connections. He said he wasn't a Surrealist but a lot of his friends were. And this was somebody I admired enormously." Melly shook his head at the iniquities of the art world, or possibly just the world. "Like many of the old guard, he couldn't keep up the fanatical purity of youth. But what's interesting about these artists is that, once they left the Surrealists, their work was never as good again."
There's an unexpected touch of the Stowe head prefect about George Melly at such moments. It's a little hard to square this coldly doctrinaire voice with the hard-core, 18-carat gourmand and sensualist, whom Dionysus and Sir John Falstaff would greet as a kindred spirit, who's been regaling us both for the last hour. But there you are. Right at the end, you learn that he has been offloading the fruits of one passion to subsidise another. "Yes, I've bought a mile of the River Usk in Wales. I used to go fishing with my father before the war. Then, when I was in Mick Mulligan's band, we toured Scotland and spent days by a trout stream. And from that early passion, I've now started selling off pictures to pay for it." How serious was he? His eyes bulged. "One could say that to get rid of a Magritte, a Klee watercolour and a Picasso drawing in order to acquire a mile of water means you're pretty serious about it."
As the tarte Tatin arrived, a thought struck him. "You know, I started life with an adolescent enthusiasm for three things - Surrealism, Bessie Smith and fly-fishing - and I finish up with exactly the same three. Isn't that extraordinary?" But before we can ruminate further on the circularity of life, he is off again, with the story about the Over-70s Conversazione Society, the handsome new member and the lady with Parkinson's Disease
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