Thursday, July 05, 2007
George Melly was one of the nicest people I ever interviewed.
His memoirs (Owning Up: The Trilogy, published by Penguin) are also without doubt the most entertaining autobiography I have ever read.
Hardly unexpected at 80, I suppose, but I still feel sad this morning.
From the Big Issue special "Grey Issue" guest-edited by pensioners, July 30 2001.
"Mellifluous: flowing with honey or sweetness: (of sounds) sweetly smooth." The word doesn't derive from the rich, rolling tones of George Melly, but it should have done. Even when simply speaking, his voice - which has made him a fixture at Ronnie Scott's for half a century ("I was too lazy to learn an instrument, so I decided to sing") - is rich enough to fill a room, silence all latecomers, sit them down and keep them spellbound for an hour or two. To the honey of Melly's sound, you'd probably have to add a decent tot of whisky - perhaps the Glenfiddich he is enjoying when we meet in his study at 2.30 in the afternoon.
Mellifluous or not, the voice is still very much in demand. Later in the week he's recording with Cleo Laine for the first time in his career, even though they've been knocking round teh same jazz clubs since the 1950s. A six-part celebration of his life begins this week on Radio 2. And he'll be puncutating kid's TV throughout the year as the voice of Red Riding Hood's wolf in a series of TV adverts - "A bee appears, and I have to say 'no offense Red, but I'd rather have a bowl of Honey Nut Loops'." It must be reassuring, I venture, to still be so much in demand?
"Flavour of the month," he harrumphs in slightly Eeyore-ish fashion. The upsurge in interest is down to Melly's forthcoming 75th birthday, which has caused producers to sit up and notice that we have a National Treasure in our midst.
He likes to quote Alan Bennett's line on the English attitude to age: "If you can eat a boiled egg unaided at teh age of 80, they think you're a genius". But to be able and willing at 75 to turn your hand to pretty much anything is better than most of us manage at any age. He made a triumphant appearance on the BBC's Room 101 recently, a programme not known for being aimed at the over-70s. Does he not believe in retirement?
He shakes his head. "It's important to continue to work if you can. But one cannot blame anyone for retiring if they've had a boring job."
Melly's never had a boring job. Even when National Service forced him in to the navy in the late-1940s (he managed to miss the war by the skin of his teeth) he spent his three-and-a-half years romping his way round Europe as, in his own words, "a convinced homosexual."
He came ashore to 1950s Soho, "London's naughty square mile", fell in with such vintage reprobates as Quentin Crisp, Lucien Freud and a generation of jazz musicians. Meanwhile, he says, "I began to move towards hetrosexuality", much against the wishes of his mother, an extraordinary old-fashioned fag-hag, who surrounded herself with boys from the London shows in the Melly's Liverpool family home. She "didn't like it when I went sleeping with dodgy girls all over the Midlands."
Even now, telling these tales for the umpteenth time, his delight in his own naughtiness is written across his face. Melly can't not be the centre of attention. And if the astonishingly colourful suits, kaftans and hats that are his trademark don't do it, he's quite prepared to be as indiscreet, and downright smutty as he possibly can. "I'm a frightful exhibitionist, I don't know why," he giggles. "I've always liked shocking people - I don't want to get lynched, but I do like making people react strongly, which they do less and less these days."
But he can still manage it. His memoirs, dealing with his favourite hobby of fly-fishing, came out last year. Hardly scandalous, you might think. But Melly manages it. In the first chapter he catches a large trout and masturbates on the riverbank in celebration. He chortles delightedly. "The wanking? Someone said I did it over the fish. I did not. I lay down and did it in honour of the fish. There is a difference you know!"
These days, however, he insists he's not up for anything. "Lacking Viagra, my sex drive is more or less dead now." He remains in a state of "happy companionship" of some 30 years with his wife Diana. Their house is very 'lived-in', and there is much evidence of a well-loved family. Melly inherited two children from Diana's first marriage ("I was so in love with her, I didn't mind about the children"), and later they had a son of their own. Lately, the Melly ranks have been swelled yet further by the arrival of his second grandchild, named Django. "I'm enjoying being a grandfather. I mean, I'm not soppy about it like old men in the cartoons, but it's very nice to see a double genetic jump. I don't see much of myself in him yet - he's only about two-and-a-half. My step-grandchild (that is my stepdaughter's child) and I share a terrible passion for Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
Does he feel he was a good father to his own children? A slightly sombre tone enters his voice, for the only time all afternoon. "I'm not a very good father really. Not really. I'm rather like my own father. 'As long as they're happy', was his motto. To which could be added, 'And I don't have to speak to them.' He was a lovely man, my father, and as I grew up I really liked him." In 1980, Melly's stepson Paddy died of a heroin overdose. In his last book, Melly recalled the horror of it, and his own reaction. "I retreated into drink, jazz, writing, the dream of the Surrealist Revolt, and above all, fishing."
Does he ever find himself getting down? Is there a gloomier side to the constant clowning? "I have never had a depressive side," he says almost apologetically. "I always think, however down you are, you're going to have to go up."
Does he find himself thinking more about the end of life, and what might lie beyond? "No. As an atheist, I don't believe in an afterlife. And I believe in it no less and no more than I did at 20."
So does he intend to go disgracefully into that good night? Sort of. Outrageous showman that he is, he's no Jeffrey Bernard, destined to sink into a gutter in Soho, looking at the stars all the way. Now, he's rooted in the suburbs, more funny uncle than Soho roue; the relative you always look forward to seeing at family parties, who makes sure everyone's glass is full, and has enough charm to get away with making outrageous comments to your pretty cousins.
Melly admits his days in the Naughty Mile are pretty much over now. "I don't go to Soho much - inevitably when I'm at Ronnie Scott's, and then I do the rounds, drop into the Colony Rooms and so on. But I don't go up for the night to get pissed. I couldn't conceive of such a thing these days."
So where do you get out of your head now? "Here." He gestures (whisky glass in hand) around his study, packed floor-to-ceiling with surrealist paintings, sculptures and installations.
"Something quite funny happened recently. I take this pill to make me pee, and I was walking back one night and suddently felt I was going to burst. I nipped up this little alleyway and had a pee on the side of a building. Part-way through, I heard a voice go: 'And what do we thing we're doing, Sir?' and I recognised that phraseology peculiar to all policemen. I said 'I'm sorry, officer, I wouldn't normally do this kind of thing, but I'm on these pills, you see.' Eventually he said, 'We'll overlook it this time, sir. But next time, try not to piss on the wall of the police station!'"
In George Melly's case, the old ones really are the best.