George Melly interview

Book and Magazine Collector, December 2003

Emblazoned across the front door of the jazz singer, writer and TV presenter George Melly’s narrow West London house, there’s a sign that proclaims “No Admittance To Ex-Convicts, Sexists or Tories”. Without being required to prove my non-membership of that far from exclusive club, his genial secretary ushered me down the hall and up the stairs. The flamboyant, septuagenarian Melly was waiting for me in his cosy sitting-room-cum-study, reclining in an armchair, surrounded by abundant evidence of his diverse interests, Surrealist paintings competing for wall-space with books about anything from early twentieth-century art to fishing. I commenced our discussion by asking my host whether a taste for literature was instilled in him by his parents. 

I was a very late developer, and I didn’t really learn to read until I was seven. But this is because people read to me, and I always found what they read more interesting than Janet and John or whatever you were meant to read. I suppose I was comparatively sophisticated about literature, but at the same time unable to go into it by myself. I had to depend on grown-ups who, luckily, had rather good taste or at least what one considers good taste in retrospect. 

Cousin Emma, a cousin of my grandmother’s, used to read me Beatrix Potter, who was one of those people I not only liked but now revere because they are not sentimental. They are realistic. They write beautiful prose. And I loved the watercolours. I will never forget her books, all of which Cousin Emma read to me. Later on, what I liked best were the great near-tragedies: Mr Todd and Tommy Brock, the one about the fox and the badger, I loved, although it’s extremely sinister. Also The Rolly-Poly Pudding — about the two rats who stole Tom Kitten and rolled him up in pastry and were going to cook him. Of course there’s a climactic rescue but nevertheless the tension is enormous. I didn’t like quite so much The Tailor of Gloucester. It’s a teeny-bit whimsical, but I like most of her books, apart from the very late ones… She was my first heroine as an author. 

I also loved Edward Lear. I loved the melancholy. I recognised then that these creatures, the poor “Pobble With No Toes” and so on, were not heroic, they were tragic.

Do you see your interest in Edwart Lear as the root of your subsequent predilection for Surrealism?

Oh, very much so. As was my interest in Pre-Raphaelitism, which always struck me as a very under the surface, Surrealistic art. Alongside Lear, I love Lewis Carroll. I didn’t really love him as a child. He was read to me, but I think you need to be more grown up to realise the absurdity of the images, the total nihilism. I love Alice and The Hunting of the Snark, but nothing much else of Carroll’s work. I don’t know whether you’ve ever read Sylvie and Bruno: horrible… really Christian propaganda. 

Though I’ve never been a bibiliophile, my mother had two handsome special editions of Shakespeare, presumably wedding presents, which impressed me. One was illustrated by Arthur Rackham and the other by Heath Robinson, whom most people think of as inventing absurd machines. He was also a rather skilful watercolourist. The illustrations were so beautiful that I fell in love with them as books.

Were you encouraged to express yourself artistically as a child? 

Well, I was quite keen on painting and drawing, even on writing. People liked what I wrote. Gradually, I began to read more. My father read me Kipling’s The Jungle Book. It’s very important imaginatively to me, I think. When was it that you had the first inklings that you might be able to write professionally? Oh, not for ages. I thought I might be a journalist on The Liverpool Daily Post or Echo which I saw every day, but I didn’t really consider it very seriously. I thought I might be a genius like children often do. I thought I might write Ulysses or Proust. Always aiming high, not aiming at Somerset Maugham. 

Right up to my adolescence I thought, “Yes, I’ll sit down one day and write the first sentence that will lead me to a masterpiece.” Wrong… More scrubbed up paper than you’d believe followed in my wake. 

Are there any books since childhood which, you feel, have helped to mould your personality? 

 I was very influenced by Lautrémont’s The Songs of Maldoror and all the Dada writers. I discovered Surrealism in the school holidays though a book by Herbert Read. I didn’t understand much of the text, but I looked at the pictures. As I’ve often said, it felt like going through the wainscoat in Lewis Carroll and finding a magic kingdom that one had always known about but had never seen. That was what Surrealism did for me. It opened the key to a another world. 

At about the same time, having been brought up as a sort of not particularly ardent Anglican, I suddenly discovered through Surrealism that it was perfectly possible to be enamoured with life, to love life and be convinced by life without believing in what Peter Nicholls so rightly called “the paranoid rugger player in the sky”. I’ve remained an atheist all my life. Not that there’s so much of that left. 

When I first moved to London in the Fifties, my landlord — who was a wonderful eccentric civil servant and a ghost writer — took The Times Literary Supplement. Through that, I discovered Cards of Identity by Nigel Dennis, which I found very attractive because it was determinedly atheist and extremely funny. I was equally fascinated by The Making of the Moon, his play about how religions originate. In an effort to suppress this native people, some form of Holy Communion had to be invented. But, in this case, potato crisps and tomato juice were used for the Host… 

I read and admired early Angus Wilson, too. I liked Colin MacInnes’s work as well. You knew Colin MacInnes, didn’t you? Awkward bugger, he was. But his three London books are, I think, pretty damn good. That is to say, Absolute Beginners (which was made into a terrible film), Mr Love and Justice, and City of Spades. They’re all books written from knowledge. He lived that life. He lived around Notting Hill when it was mostly black, mostly Rachmanised, not the fashionable enclave it is now. I admired Colin enormously. 

Are there any other Soho writers whom you admired?

Maclaren-Ross was a very good writer: an insufferable poseur, but I liked him. Paul Potts, I liked at a distance because he smelt terribly. Also Dylan Thomas, who is of course right out of favour now as a poet, but I think was a good poet. When he was good, he was very very good, so I loved that area. But Surrealism was my main inspiration. I’d put The Peasant of Paris by Aragon (who was later to become a Stalinist stooge) among my favourite books. I had to read it in translation because my French is awful.

Surely it must have given you an incentive to improve your French?

It’s never improved. It’s always been limited to ordering in a restaurant and asking the way, but it’s no good for a philosophical conversation. 

How were you earning a living in those early days in London? 

I worked in a gallery, run by E.L.T. Mesens. We’d always have one room full of Surrealism which nobody was very interested in then. But upstairs we used to let the rooms. And we let them to a couple, a Turkish mother and daughter who painted vaguely Matisse-like versions of the Near East. They knew T.S. Eliot, who turned up there. When Eliot came in, he put down his hat and went upstairs to look at the pictures. And my assistant — who was very gay — put on the hat and said in this drawling Essex accent, “Tell your grandchildren ‘I’ve put on Eliot’s hat.’ ” 

I really adored early Eliot. And I could see he was a great poet, even when he went religious in The Four Quartets. He was a great poet, but Auden used to write more for me, an upper-middle-class public schoolboy on the Left. I can quote whole passages of Auden. 

When you were working for Mesens, was that the point at which you started collecting pictures?

Yes, my father, much to my surprise because he wasn’t someone who threw money about, gave me £900 to buy some pictures. I bought the pictures of my choice, which were Magritte, Miro and a beautiful Picasso drawing of the Cubist period. All of which have gone. Not being very good at handling money, I’ve often been in trouble with the Income Tax people, so I had to sell the most valuable pictures in my collection. Mind you, the last Magritte I sold enabled me to buy a mile of fishing in Wales.

Have you done the same with books when you’ve been hard-up?

Oh, very much so. As I’ve said, I’m not a bibliophile. I think a book is its contents. There are many that I’ve sold. I know two or three dealers and I sell some very valuable books. For instance, Ernst’s Histoire naturelle and others. Every so often I try to thin the books out, because I’m not going to need them when I’m dead, am I? Many, I won’t read again.

Yes, but there’s always that worry when you sell a book that ten minutes after you’ve sold it you’re going to need it for something…

There’s always the local library… As I say, I’ve sold a lot of my books, but I don’t regret it. Why should I? I had them for twenty, thirty years. How often am I going to look at them? When I’m dead, my wife will probably sell all my books about Surrealism, which she has no interest in, but I really don’t mind… 

Of course I haven’t sold many jazz books because I need those for reference all the time. At the moment I’m using them for a series called Filthy Jazz, consisting of six half-hour programmes I’m doing for the BBC, each of which feature ten minutes’ narrative about the history of jazz. 

Do you read much writing about jazz?

Not for fun. 

Is there anyone who writes about jazz who, in your opinion, does so with sympathy and verve? 

I’m particularly interested in vocal jazz and the book on Besse Smith by Chris Albertson is incredibly good.

Was there ever a point when you were wavering in your commitment between writing and music? 

It wasn’t a conflict. People often say, “What’s the connection between Surrealism and jazz?” And I say, “Very little.” But the things I value in the Surrealists and in jazz are exactly the same… For instance, Bessy Smith sang, “My man’s got teeth like the lighthouse on the sea”, which is a pretty weird idea. Then the next line is “Every time he smiles, he turns them lights on me.” 

The initial image is extraordinary. There are many blues that have Surrealist lines, but Surrealism and jazz are separate interests. 

So how d’you fit together writing and performing? 

Well, I don’t write when I’m performing and I don’t perform when I’m writing.Going back to Besse Smith, are there any American books from that era which you really like? Not really. But I did read a lot of American books. I very much appreciated Dorothy Parker. She was very funny. I really loved what she wrote to an editor who said she was late with her copy. She said, “Tell the editor I’m too busy fucking or visa-versa.” And I was smitten, as all late adolescents of that period were, by The Catcher in the Rye, which was the anti grown-up book. I suppose it anticipates some of what the so-called Angry Young Men produced. 

I went to a lot of theatre in those days. I saw a lot of wonderful plays at the Royal Court, including Look Back in Anger. And I met Kingsley Amis when he was still lecturing at Swansea. I liked him very much. I still find his writing fascinating. I also enjoy his son’s work. I don’t know why Martin is under such constant attack. Like his father, he’s very good on his period, which is the druggy, acquisitive period. I think Money is a masterpiece. I really enjoyed Success as well. 

Did you come across Kingsley Amis in later life? 

Yes, often. When he was young, he used to pose as an angry writer, and when he was older he used to pose as a right-wing writer, but often I thought it was worth reading Kingsley because, even though his views were different from mine, he would suddenly focus on something and I’d say “That’s exactly how it is.” He wasn’t anything like as reactionary as people thought. And he loved jazz. So did Larkin, one of my favourite poets and, I think, one of the most insufferable human beings. I’ve nothing but admiration for him as a poet. In fact, in the book I’m trying to write now, I quote at the beginning The Old Fools, which is about senile people. Brilliant. And at the end, he says, not understanding how they feel, “Ah, but we’ll find out…” But he didn’t because he died of cancer early. He’s the greatest of modern poets. 

I like Ted Hughes, too. Being an atheist, I’m very fond of nature. I think he conveys just how brutal nature can be as well as beautiful. Thom Gunn and Adrian Henri are other poets I admire. Adrian was a great friend. He also painted much better than people appreciated. He had a retrospective at the Walker Art Gallery, which struck me as formidable, and I have one or two of his works. 

Do you still try to keep up with contemporary poetry and writing

No, I don’t read much modern fiction. My wife, on occasion, will hand me a book and say, “You’ll like this.” And usually I do like it, but I no longer feel the passion for contemporary literature. 

You have, however, alluded to your enduring passion for fishing. Do you collect books about it? 

All that shelf is full of them. I’ve also written a book about fishing called Hooked. It wasn’t a book about how you do it, but why… It’s a very personal book. For instance, I write about an incident about which I’ve never written or told people, an incident when I caught a trout which I was utterly enamoured of. You see, it was the first one I’d caught on that particular river. And I found my way into a sort of jungle of weeds and lay down and put the fish on a trunk and masturbated. 

Later on, there’s another section about how I get diarrhoea — sometimes disastrously — as soon as I put on waders. At the end of the chapter I say “And now wash your hands…”

When did Hooked come out? 

Fairly recently. About three years ago. It won the Fishing Writers’ Association’s First prize. I’m glad to say that it’s still selling very well.

Are there classic fishing books which you re-read? 

Yes, I re-read bits of Izaak Walton. And I’m a fan of another great fishing writer, Negley Farson, the travel writer and father of Dan Farson, author of The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon. I also like dipping into The Magic Wheel, an anthology of fishing writing, from which I discovered a wonderful poem called Death Is A Fisherman, which is a very beautiful, very perseptive metaphysical poem about how death sometimes hooks us one by one, and sometimes he puts a net out and catches a whole lot of us. 

I love reading about fishing, which has taken up a great deal of my past. I’m fascinated by the past. I must be, otherwise I wouldn’t have written three autobiographies. I don’t think I’ve ever escaped from the past. I know one or two people who claim to be indifferent to the past, but not me. 

Memoirs have become a fashionable genre, haven’t they? Do you read many of them?

Memoirs are what I like most, not novels. I’ve read many, some very impressive such as those written by Noel Coward and Graham Greene. I’m fascinated by Art of This Century, the book by Peggy Guggenheim, someone I knew very well. 

Did you come across her through the gallery where you worked? 

No, I met her through friends and we got on like a house on fire. Indeed, I was the last person to interview her before she died. That was just after she’d brought out the new edition of Art of This Century, the edition where all the made-up names were replaced by the real ones.

Have you any more memoirs planned?

Yes. I’m writing about old age and I’m finding it very difficult because my memory now is — as you’ve probably noticed — like an old colander. My memory of the past is fine, but the recent past can be troublesome. I mean, I can remember exactly what happened at my prep school, though I remember very little of what happened yesterday afternoon. The new book’s perspective is totally different from its predecessors. The earlier volumes are about the past, but this one is about the present and one’s inevitable physical deterioration. But I’m relieved to say I show no signs of that disease where you forget everything. I don’t want to… I don’t want to turn into one of Larkin’s Old Fools.  

Reproduced by kind permission of Warners Group Publications.

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