Melly, George

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Melly, George

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Melly, (Alan) George Heywood (1926–2007), writer and singer, was born on 17 August 1926 at The Grange, St Michael's Hamlet, Toxteth, Liverpool, the elder son and eldest of three children of Francis Heywood Melly (1900–1961), wool broker, and his wife, Edith Maud (Maudie), née Isaac (1891–1983). At the time of his birth registration his parents lived at 26 Linnet Lane, Liverpool. His father was a businessman who would rather have been a hunter and an angler. He later advised his son: 'Always do what you want to. I never did' (The Times, 17 Dec 2003). Melly's Jewish mother, to whom he owed his early love of theatre and music hall, was aspirational on her son's behalf. 'She wanted me to be Noël Coward, which may be why I imitate him so much' (The Independent, 8 Nov 1997). Sent as a boarder to Stowe School, Melly came home 'spouting Eliot and Auden and raving about Picasso and Matisse'. He also discovered surrealism in a magazine reproduction of René Magritte's Le viol (a female face with breasts for eyes and pudenda for a mouth). 'For me', he later said, 'Surrealism was a revelation, the key to a magic kingdom where misery and regression were banished for ever and poetry reigned supreme' (Daily Telegraph, 8 Nov 1997). It was an aesthetic that would rule his life. But he also found the release of jazz, in the person of Bessie Smith singing 'Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer)': 'This woman roaring around, singing that line made me think, "Well, this is what I want!"' (Daily Telegraph, 5 June 2004). In 1944 Melly enlisted in the Royal Navy, in and out of whose uniform he pursued a series of homosexual encounters. But it was art that truly caught his subversive instincts. At a surrealist 'séance' in the Barcelona restaurant in Soho he met E. L. T. Mesens, Magritte's friend and editor of the London Bulletin. Melly was engaged at Mesens's London Gallery in Beak Street, and became involved in a love triangle with Mesens and his wife, Sybil. Melly found he preferred women to men: 'It was just a matter of taste … not a moral decision. Suddenly, I just liked girls' legs better than boys' arses' (The Independent, 8 Nov 1997). Back in civilian life Melly turned to performance as a new means of expression. Joining Mick Mulligan's Magnolia Jazz Band, he sang 'revivalist' 1920s jazz classics, using Benzedrine to stay up all night and occasionally sleeping in brothels. Soho was his adoptive, nocturnal home, 'a scruffy, warm, belching, argumentative, groping, spewing-up, cadging, toothbrush-in-pocket, warm-beer-gulping world' (Owning Up, 284–5). Melly met his first wife, Elizabeth Victoria (Vicky) Vaughan, a fashion model, in a Soho club. She was the daughter of Henry Owen Vaughan, radio dealer. They married in Edinburgh on 26 April 1955 and had one daughter, Pandora, but within a year she had left him for a man with whom Melly himself had already had an affair, and the marriage ended in divorce in 1962. In that year he met Diana Margaret Campion Dawson (b. 1937) at the Colony Room, his favoured Soho dive. She was the daughter of Geoffrey Campion Dawson, railway clerk, and the former wife of Michael H. St George Ashe. She had changed her surname to Melly by deed poll by the time they married on 7 May 1963, two days before their son, Tom, was born. By now Melly's jazz career—he had recorded for Decca—was overshadowed by a new pop culture that he would address in his influential survey Revolt into Style (1970). For the first time a writer took pop culture seriously, applying historical perspective and examining its post-war eruption from Colin MacInnes to the Rolling Stones. 'Pop in this country evolved from its primitive beginnings (1956–7), through its classic period (1963–6) towards its noisy and brilliant decadence (1969–?)', Melly wrote. 'It lit up the contemporary landscape as if by a series of magnesium flares … the evolution of a new kind of culture, neither "popular" nor mandarin' (Revolt into Style, 123). Revolt into Style both reflected and was mirrored in Melly's music criticism of the period. Typically his journalism was unconstrained, and ran from lucrative speech balloons for the Daily Mail's 'Flook' cartoon to film and television criticism for The Observer. He lectured most passionately on his beloved surrealists; and turned to scriptwriting with 'swinging London' screenplays like Smashing Time (1967) and Take a Girl Like You (1970), the latter based on Kingsley Amis's novel, directed by Jonathan Miller, and starring Hayley Mills and Oliver Reed. The sixties suited Melly. He was arrested at a 'Ban the bomb' march, and in 1971 testified at the infamous Oz trial, when the magazine was prosecuted for obscenity. The trial judge, Michael Argyle, asked Melly: 'For those of us who don't have the benefit of a classical education, what do you mean by the word "cunnilinctus"?' (New Statesman, 14 Aug 2008). Melly also returned to jazz, singing with John Chiltern's Feetwarmers, and in 1972 recorded an album, Nuts, of Fats Waller and Count Basie classics. The follow-up, Son of Nuts (1973), included his signature tune, 'Good Time George', written by Chiltern. In 1974 Melly resigned from The Observer and joined Chiltern's band full time, adopting his trademark razor-sharp 1930s suits and outrageous fedoras. It was a pop cultural silhouette, ironic and self-referential. Nor did age abate his sense of anarchy. He fell out with Roland Penrose, surrealist and founder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, when Penrose invited the duke of Edinburgh to open a Picasso exhibition. He subsequently turned down a CBE: 'I didn't see the point of accepting an honour from a Hanoverian sovereign of a former empire' (The Guardian, 18 Feb 2004). Melly had published his first volume of memoirs, Owning Up, in 1965. A rumbustious, picaresque account of his town and provincial jazz tours, the book was both filthy and hilarious. It was followed by a prequel in the shape of Rum, Bum and Concertina (1977), which dealt with his disreputable naval service and offered such memorable scenes as Melly, the put-upon rating, being defended below decks by a tough seaman: '"Anyone who says a word against fucking Picasso", he murmured gently, "gets fucking done over"' (Owning Up, 320). A third volume, Scouse Mouse (1984), retold his Liverpudlian upbringing and underlined, in a wonderfully unsentimental yet nostalgic manner, how far he had travelled. In all three books he was at pains to strike a deliberately outrageous tone, one that enhanced rather than concealed his essentially humane and affectionate personality. Melly also wrote a witty account, with Barry Fantoni, of his milieu in The Media Mob (1980). His sensitive biography of the outsider artist Scottie Wilson, It's All Writ Out for You, appeared in 1986—a theme pursued in Tribe of One: Great Naïve and Primitive Painters of the British Isles, with Michael Wood, in 1991. He edited Edward James's Swans Reflecting Elephants: My Early Years (1982), an evocation of the great surrealist patron; and in 1997 published Don't Tell Sybil: an Intimate Memoir of ELT Mesens. Hooked! (2000) was enlivened with a passage about masturbating over a trout. 'I put that bit in early because not many people are interested in reviewing a fishing book unless something startles them' (Scotland on Sunday, 1 July 2001). In later years Melly remained a man about town despite being arthritic and quite deaf, sporting a hearing aid that gave him the air of a portly Johnny Ray. In 2005 the publication of his wife Diana Melly's frank memoir, Take a Girl Like Me, reminded the public of the bohemian nature of their lives together, and apart. Melly's own Slowing Down (2005) examined his own decrepitude with unerring honesty and lack of reticence. Despite ill health he performed into his old age, and remained steadfastly in the public eye. In a late interview for the Daily Telegraph he declared 'I'm still a surrealist in the way that I'm still an anarchist. I don't mock the naivety of my youth. I only envy it' (Daily Telegraph, 8 Nov 1997). He died on 5 July 2007 at his home, 81 Frithville Gardens, Shepherd's Bush, London. He had refused treatment for lung cancer, and his wife Diana arranged for four of his mistresses to visit him on his deathbed. He was carried to the West London crematorium in a white cardboard coffin, decorated with paintings, drawings, and poems from his family and friends.

Source: Philip Hoare, 'Melly, (Alan) George Heywood (1926–2007)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Jan 2011; online edn, May 2011 [, accessed 6 Aug 2015] Note Author: Philip Hoare


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