Authors: George Melly
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #General, #Music, #Genres & Styles, #Jazz
In 1850 Andrè himself set off for Egypt with his wife, his two sons, and his only daughter on an enterprise unconnected with commerce. It had long been his ambition to attempt to discover the source of the Nile, visiting its antiquities and adding to his collection of beetles
On their way back, on 1 January 1851, he was struck down by a fever from which, at 6.15pm some five days later, having first established the exact time by the angle of the sun, he died, and was buried in the native cemetery in the village of Gagee. His wife and family, after much difficulty and some danger, sadly returned to Cairo and embarked for Liverpool.
André’s daughter, Louisa, never married, but his sons, Charles, the elder, and George, my great-grandfather, both did. Charles, a melancholy philanthropist with an interest in good works in general and an obsessional passion for providing drinking fountains for the working classes, bought a house for his mother and siblings on Mossley Hill, some five miles from the city centre. It was called Riverslea, and the original building was in a restrained and rather charming Regency Gothic, although Charles was to tack on a wing in the heavy Victorian revivalist taste with castellations and a tower. Riverslea stood in its own considerable grounds. Its owner, after increasing bouts of mental illness, eventually took his own life. He left eight children.
When Charles’s brother, George, married in the 1850s, he deserted Riverslea and set himself up in a large and solid Georgian house in Chatham Street within walking distance of his place of business. He was of a very different temperament from his earnest father and his gloomy, if worthy, brother. He became, until his financial interests made it impracticable, the Liberal MP for Stoke-upon-Trent; he was a JP, a keen sportsman and a lively writer of amusing, if mildly snobbish, memoirs, privately printed and handsomely bound. He had seven children. His youngest son, Samuel Heywood Melly, was my grandfather.
By the time I was born the family had divided firmly, and not without a certain tart rivalry, into the Riverslea and Chatham Street Mellys; although the latter were in fact the cadet branch, they considered themselves top dogs. Both Riverslea and Chatham Street were still occupied in 1926 and were to remain so until the middle 1940s.
I don’t know much about my mother’s family. There are no records going back to the fifteenth century. There were rumours, not much aired, of a Polish pedlar, but unlike the Mellys’ Genoese hawker this one was rather too recent to be a source of pride, nor was he believed to be descended from a famous explorer. But while the origins of my maternal grandfather, Albert Edward Isaac, may have been obscure, everything I have heard about him suggests an honourable, intelligent and very lovable man.
Teaching the piano didn’t make him rich, but it provided a living sufficient to support his wife and three children in modest comfort and to employ a cook and a housemaid. His interests were broad. He was very well read – Dickens was a passion with him – and he delivered several lectures (‘The Poetry of Robert Browning’, ‘The Modern Theatre’) to the Liverpool Philomathic Society which were later published as pamphlets. He was also a keen amateur Shakespearean actor, an interest he shared with his wife and more particularly his daughter, and a considerable wit. His photographs show a handsome man with neat but luxuriant moustache. His expression is mild but alert.
My parents married about eighteen months before my birth after facing initial opposition from my father’s family. There were three reasons for this. My mother was eight years older than my father. Her mother, a widow since
had very little money; and she was Jewish. I don’t know which of these objections was primary. The Chatham Street Mellys were not, so far as I know, particularly anti-Semitic by the standards of the twenties; their tradition was Unitarian and Liberal although, by that time, they had become both Conservative and C. of E. They were on the other hand rich, and the rich tend to favour ‘a good match’. I dare say that at thirty-two they felt my mother was rather old to start a family. At all events they did what they could to break it up.
My father was then in shipping. He worked for Lamport & Holt, a firm of which his Uncle George had been Managing Director. The family arranged for him to be sent ‘on business’ to their office in South America for a year. He wrote to my mother on the voyage out: ‘They are playing our tune – “Swanee”.’
I asked him later what he remembered of South America. He only recalled, with some horror, an abattoir built like a helter-skelter; the cattle walking up a ramp snaking round the outside, to be slaughtered as they entered through a door at the top and dismembered by stages inside until their carcasses were carried out, ready to be frozen, at the base. As the animals, with their foreboding of death, were reluctant to move, they were sprinkled constantly with water and then touched with an electric prod at the base of the ramp, transmitting a visible blue flash along their wet flanks right up to the top. The shock made them push, panic-stricken, forward and upwards to their doom. Although he enjoyed shooting and fishing, my father detested gratuitous cruelty and the image remained with him always; a glimpse of hell in the otherwise even landscape of his life, for he was still training in 1918 and never saw the trenches.
When he returned to Liverpool from South America he remained obstinate in his determination to marry my mother and eventually his family caved in. His Uncle George gave her a rather fine diamond spray as a peace offering. He said it was ‘to bury the hatchet’.
There were no religious objections to their union. My mother’s father had been mildly orthodox but he had died, much mourned, when she was nineteen. His widow and younger son, Alan, eventually became Liberal Jews. The elder son Fred gave up religion altogether, but my mother converted, almost instantly, to the Church of England, possibly because she was a passionate dancer and some of the best dances in Liverpool were held on Friday nights.
Although there was money in the background, my father at twenty-six earned very little. My parents took a tiny flat in Linnet Lane and could afford only one cook-housemaid, an almost unheard of privation for the middle classes in 1926. My mother grew enormous during her pregnancy. When she got into bed my father would say: ‘The
is now in dock.’
At the time of his marriage, as my father had shown no aptitude or liking for shipping, my grandfather bought him a partnership in a firm of woolbrokers, founded by his late Uncle Hugh, and registered as ‘Seward & Melly’. Here he was his own boss but, although well liked, he never displayed much enthusiasm for business. He told me once that he would have chosen to manage a country estate but that the family wouldn’t hear of it. Burdened by expectations – he was to inherit a considerable fortune from his mother only a few years before his own early death in 1961 – he did what was expected of him. His last words to me were: ‘Always do what you want to. I never did.’
I was in Liverpool recently, singing for two nights at Kirklands, originally an elegant nineteenth-century bakery, now a wine bar with a music room above it. I stayed, as I usually do, with the painter and poet Adrian Henri and his companion, the poet Carol Ann Duffy. Before my second gig, Adrian having left to recite his poems somewhere in Cumbria, I invited Carol Ann to dine with me in a bistro in Lark Lane in the suburb of Sefton Park and as it was a fine evening in late March, I suggested we took a short bus ride to the gates of Prince’s Park and walked from there. Carol Ann didn’t know this part of Liverpool very well, but I did. It was where I lived until I left to work in London in the late forties.
We caught the bus opposite The Rialto, a ‘Moorish’ cinema built during the twenties and now a furniture store, and moved smoothly up Prince’s Boulevard. There is a statue of a Victorian statesman at each end of the tree-lined yellow gravel walk running up its centre, and I could see the ghosts of the tramlines where the 33 used to rattle and sway from the Pier Head to distant Garston. My maternal grandmother always advised her friends to wait for a 33. It took, in her view, ‘a prettier way’ than either the 1 or the 45 which ran to the Dingle through slums and dilapidated shops closer to the river.
Prince’s Park, an alternative childhood walk to the far larger, almost adjacent Sefton Park, is long and narrow, surrounded by the backs of big houses and mansion blocks, and enclosing a chain of artificial lakes, duck-strewn and the colour of Brown Windsor soup, fenced in by croquet-hoop-like railings. At the entrance to the lakes is a small gravestone commemorating ‘Judy, the children’s friend’, a donkey which died at an advanced age in 192.4. My mother, wearing a sailor’s blouse and a wide straw hat, had ridden on Judy as a child. On the edge of the largest of the lakes is a disused boathouse in the style of a Swiss chalet; a mode much favoured at the turn of the century for park-keepers’ lodges and other small municipal buildings connected with recreation. At the end of the lakes the park, shedding its shrubs and marshalled flower beds, widens out into a bare and scruffy valley with trees on the further slope. Carol Ann and I left the park and, crossing UHet Road, entered the district of Lark Lane itself.
Ullet Road is, I was always being told, a corruption of Owlet Road and, given that Linnet Lane runs off it at right angles to meet Lark Lane, I think this is probably the case. At the other end of Ullet Road is the Dingle where the 33, leaving ‘the prettier way’ behind it, joined up again with the 1 and 45 emerging from the slums to service Aigburth Road. Ahead of us, enclosed within this rectangle, lay my childhood.
Most of the suburb consists of Victorian and Edwardian family houses with quite large gardens, but within it is a smaller, more consistent grid of streets and it was through these we strolled. Built presumably by a firm of speculative architects, the three-storeyed terraces are named after the novels of Sir Walter Scott and display late nineteenth-century romanticism on an absurdly miniature scale. Of red or yellow brick, detailed in local sandstone or ceramic tiling, bulging with bay windows, bristling with useless little towers and pinnacles, they pay homage to the fag-end of the Pre-Raphaelite dream of Medieval England. Crossing Tristram, Waverley and Bertram Roads, walking down Marmion Road, we emerged into Ivanhoe Road where my parents, having given up their flat in Linnet Lane before I had time to become conscious of my surroundings, had rented Number 22.
I pointed it out to Carol Ann, telling her that there used to be a dairy behind the house with its own cows. Born into the age of the great milk combines, she found this hard to believe so we turned the corner. There was the arch into Hogg’s Dairy with the name still painted on a fading sign over the entrance and the cowsheds surrounding the small yard. Furthermore, although the cows are long gone, it is still in use as a piggery. We walked inside and the pigs, with their beady eyes, grunted and strained up at us from their odoriferous pens inside the sheds. A man in his thirties came out of the office built into the side of the deep arch. I asked him about Tommy Hogg who smelt sourly of milk and was something of a ladies’ man, walking out successively with several of our maids. ‘My Uncle Tommy,’ he said. ‘He died two years ago.’
The cows had lodged there only in the winter. It was one of the signs that summer had arrived to watch them, herded by Tommy and his father, lowing their way down busy Aigburth Road to graze in the fields of a small farm which lay between the river and Aigburth Vale. Despite the ‘Picture Houses’, trams and shops, little pockets of rural life persisted then at the ends of cobbled ‘unadopted’ lanes. We said goodbye to Tommy Hogg’s nephew.
Repassing our ‘entry’, the local name for those narrow high-walled alleys skirting the back-yards, we crossed Ivanhoe Road. There was what used to be a fire station on the opposite corner, an elaborate little Ruritanian building. I once dreamt that my mother, screaming silently, gave birth to a child in one of its empty rooms with me present but unable to help. Another thirty yards and we were in Lark Lane itself, the great sandstone gate-posts to Sefton Park visible at the far end.
Lark Lane is a shopping street. Some of the shops I remember are still there, although most have changed their names: a grocer’s, a fishmonger’s, a florist’s, two cake shops, several tobacconists and sweet shops, a saddler’s (gone), a wine merchant’s, an undertaker’s, and a small Gothic police station. Most of the shops delivered. They knew their customers by name, and had pretended to admire them in their prams, and the under-takers measured them up when they died.
As we were still a bit early for dinner, Carol Ann and I went into The Albert, a handsome, chateau-like public house built in the 1880s with a walled bowling green behind it. My father had used The Albert almost every day of his adult life and twice on Sundays. Inside, some disastrous ‘improvements’ have been made in recent years. The old smoke room is now a smart cocktail lounge, the engraved mirrors are gone and so are the bronze horses rearing up on the high mantelpiece over a coal fire, but there is still the barley-sugar Corinthian column in the public, the fine mahogany bar, the elaborate plaster-work ceilings, orange with tobacco smoke. We had a couple of drinks and I thought of my father sitting with his circle: Jack and Maisy Forster, ‘Boy’ Henshaw., Copper and Donald Carmichael, ‘the Major’.
Lark Lane had its quota of unfortunates when I was young: an errand boy with so large a goitre bulging from his neck that he had to lean sideways on his heavy bicycle to keep his balance; an old woman whose feet in their surgical boots were turned inwards so that she had to lift one above the other to move forwards; a huge man, the son of a police sergeant, who was simple and had been, so they said, castrated because he had molested children. Despite this he had alarmed my parents by offering to take my younger brother to ‘see some chickens’, but Bill had sensibly refused and run safely home. There was another simpleton, harmless and much loved. He was small and wore a huge cap. His name was ‘Silly Syd’ and he would stand up in the local cinemas during the ice-cream interval and shout out: ‘Give me a penny, I’m daft.’