- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2005

It must have been nearly 10 years ago that I found myself walking down a Soho street late one evening, a few paces behind the writer, singer and wit, George Melly. There was not the remotest chance of mistaking him for anyone else. How many people ever step out in public in a florid, red and white zoot suit?

I knew where he was heading. It was December, and at this time of year, for the past three decades, he has played a festive residency at Ronnie Scott’s, still one of the world’s best jazz clubs. I was heading there myself to hear the show, so I followed the genial apparition all the way to the doors. I wish now that I had tried to say hello to him, but from the way he was languidly humming a blues to himself, I had a feeling he did not wish to be disturbed. Besides, I invariably find that meeting artists I admire always puts a terrible strain on my small talk.

His shows are a memorable example of the English eccentric at play. Educated at Stowe public school (alma mater to David Niven), Mr. Melly possesses the assured accent of the ruling class. Yet his greatest passion is the music of Bessie Smith. Year after year, he brings her songs to life, throwing in the occasional Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton number as well. The idea of a portly and rather camp 70-something Englishman performing this kind of material seems ludicrous in theory. In the flesh, Good Time George, as he is known to his fans, makes it all seem entirely natural.

Mr. Melly happens to be much more than a singer, however. A fine journalist and art critic (he hung out with the surrealists in his youth) he was in his time an unusually cultivated television pundit as well. In short he is something of a Renaissance man. (When I looked up his entry just now in the on-line reference guide, Wikipedia, he was listed under the categories of jazz , surrealism, anarchism, Liverpudlians and bisexual musicians. Quite a list.)

Yet it is no disrespect to his talents as a footloose singer to observe that it is for his series of autobiographies that he most deserves to be remembered. In books such as “Owning Up,” “Scouse Mouse” and the wonderfully titled, “Rum, Bum & Concertina,” he has left us an unforgettable portrait of a life spent at the fringes of respectability. An instinctive rebel, he is a charming and much less pretentious Anglo-Saxon version of Jean Genet. As far as I know, Genet didn’t know the words to that ancient evergreen “You’ve Got The Right Key But The Wrong Keyhole.”

There is an undeniably elegaic tone to the latest instalment of Mr. Melly’s memoirs. The title tells you all you need to know: “Slowing Down.” With his 80th birthday on the horizon, he still holds court at Ronnie Scott’s, but his eyesight is giving him trouble, and he is deaf too, which means he can no longer indulge his lifelong passion for theater and the cinema. As for carnal pursuits — of which there were many, even in late middle age — well, let us say that the spirit is willing but the flesh has thrown in the towel.

Like John Mortimer, who not so long ago published a very similar volume of autobiography, “The Summer of a Dormouse,” Mr. Melly is candid, humorous and entirely devoid of self-pity: “In my late seventies I am still able to play at senility, enjoying supportive friends, singing, albeit seated and wearing an eye-patch, drinking Irish whiskey, fly-fishing for trout, looking at works of art and listening to Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues. I imagine this will be the last to go.”

There are unmistakeable signs of aging in the prose — Mr. Melly has a habit of being distracted almost in mid-sentence. But “Slowing Down” still represents a stylish closing chapter in one of the most raffish series of autobiographies of the post-World War II era.

I haven’t heard him at Ronnie Scott’s lately. Maybe I should make a booking as soon as possible. After all, he is our secular Santa Claus.

As is well known, the newly elected Tory leader, David Cameron, went to an even grander school than Mr. Melly. The first Old Etonian to lead the party in four decades, Mr. Cameron has spent the first days of his tenure presenting himself as a down-to-earth man of the people. He has been calling for more women and ethnic minorities to be placed on constituency short-lists; he urged an end to “Punch and Judy” style politics in the House of Commons; he has even turned up for a major interview at the BBC without a tie.

All right, it was only a radio interview, but the symbolism was telling all the same.

Is this all about marketing and less about substance? I’m not sure. As I’ve said before, Mr. Cameron wouldn’t have been my choice for the leadership. I preferred his older, more experienced rival, David Davis, who is now staying on in his role as Shadow Home Secretary. Old fashioned tribalism played a part in my decision, I must admit.

Aside from having a much more impressive track record in business and politics (his erstwhile rival is an ex-public relations man who has only been in Parliament for four years) Mr. Davis comes from a blue-collar, single-parent background much like my own. Mr. Cameron, in contrast, belongs to the sleek metropolitan circle known as the “Notting Hill set.” Somehow it’s all too appropriate that his wife is a baronet’s daughter and director of a fashionable Bond Street stationery firm.

But I’m willing to be proved wrong. Maybe class counts for less to the generation coming up behind me. I can’t quite get used to the sad truth that the Conservatives are being led by a man who is nearly a decade younger than me. Mr. Cameron’s supporters argue that Britain has evolved into a much more aspirational place, where millions of “ordinary” people yearn to lead the cappucino-and-polenta life of a typical denizen of Notting Hill. (Actually, property prices being what they are, the typical resident is now an American banker who lights his cigars with 10 pound notes, but you get my drift.) If George Melly can impersonate a black American blues singer, why shouldn’t Mr. Cameron start calling himself “Dave”? We’ll see. Something tells me we are in for a very interesting New Year.

Clive Davis writes for The Times of London. His weblog is at www.clivedavis-online.com.



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