Authors: George Melly
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #General, #Music, #Genres & Styles, #Jazz
On the first floor, up the dog-legged staircase with its carpet rods and a gate fixed across the top to stop us falling down, there was a different pattern of rooms. In the front were the nursery and the night-nursery. The night-nursery, where our nanny slept with us when we were still young, has become vague, but the nursery is as clear as if I had just left it. The floor was of dark green cork, the walls white, the furniture apple-green. There was a gas fire with a tall fender guard and in front of it a grubby, faded white rug with animals on it. There was a big toy cupboard, a table with cane-bottomed chairs, a child’s table, round with four legs, and two little chairs; one curved with arms, the other with a rush seat like Van Gogh’s. There was a shelf of books, mostly tattered copies of Beatrix Potter, a small sand tray with tin animals, and a big chest, once my father’s tuck-box, containing a large number of wooden building blocks. There was a wind-up gramophone and a few old records, a framed print of Margaret Tarrant’s sugary ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. There were dark green blinds instead of curtains, and an ottoman in front of the windows.
Behind the nursery was my parents’ bedroom, which overlooked the back-yard and the roof of Hogg’s dairy. The general effect was blue largely because of the shiny blue eiderdowns on the twin beds with their dark polished headboards rounded at the corners. Twin beds for married couples, like calling the drawing-room ‘the lounge’, were a further proof of being ‘modern’. My grandparents’ generation still slept in a double bed which my parents believed to be unhygienic. Between the beds was a cupboard with a chamber-pot in it and a small drawer below containing medicines; a far from hygienic arrangement I should have thought. Although the bathroom was next door to them, my mother and father always used the pot, though my mother, as a further proof of her modernity, emptied it herself every morning instead of leaving it to the maids as my grandparents did. Over the beds were two nineteenth-century lithographs: sly Pandora and her box, and Lady Hamilton looking rather distraught. The originals were perhaps by Reynolds or Gainsborough. My mother believed them to be valuable because they were wedding presents from a rich woman. Over the gas fire was a water-colour, a gift of a local artist and ‘rather modern’. It represented barges on the Seine. There was a tall mahogany wardrobe with mirrors, a quite good chest of drawers and a dressing-table in the window with silver hair brushes and a cut-glass scent spray with a bulb. My mother’s jewel case had very little in it: a few rings, some art-deco clips, some earrings, a string of pearls, and Uncle George’s ‘peace offering’. There was a Coty powder box which was round and had a pattern of little black and orange powder puffs on it. This pattern was very important to me, but it wasn’t until I saw one recently in an antique shop (£5), that I realised what the black and orange shapes represented.
The bathroom, with the only indoor lavatory, was pretty functional. My father used a heavy safety razor with a one-edged blade which he honed on a special leather strap. There was a loofah, a sponge and a pumice-stone on the wooden rack over the claw-footed bath. No bathroom was then complete without these objects.
My father’s dressing-room built out over the back kitchen was tiny, although later I was to sleep in it in a child’s wooden bed of Swiss origin that had been handed down from my great-grandfather. Before this it had little in it except a wardrobe and a chest of drawers with a mirror above. On the chest was a cedar-wood Chinese ‘mess-box’ full of collar-studs, stiffeners, golf-tees and, as I discovered later, a solitary French letter, surely by that time unreliable, which once I had learnt its function I used to show my giggling and impressed school friends. There were also some racing binoculars in a leather case, his crested hair brushes and a bottle of Bay Rum, a lotion he was later to blame for his bald patch. His use of Bay Rum with its spicy smell was untypical, imposed by a legacy of several crates left to him by a deceased acquaintance. He never used aftershaves or deodorants even after they became acceptable. He rated them on a level with carrying a pocket comb, one of his few serious taboos. There was a single picture in his dressing-room. It contained three stages of a cock fight, the cocks a collage of real feathers with only their beaks and claws drawn in. Along the walls of the bedroom floor were spidery etchings of harbours and shipping.
The top floor, under the fanciful eaves, contained the two maids’ bedrooms, mysterious, seldom visited territory with fluff under the iron bedsteads and worn parquet-patterned linoleum. There was awashbasin but no bath so I presume they used the one downstairs, but when and how often I could not say. The curtains were thin, the wallpaper dingy.
I can seldom remember fresh flowers in the house. Owing to the Depression, my parents felt increasingly badly off, but in the hall there was an earthenware jug with Cape Gooseberries and Honesty.
It would be absurd not to admit to the obsessive spirit in my remembering so minutely the contents and decoration of an unremarkable terrace house some fifty years ago, but I have always tended to understand people initially through the objects they accumulate and the manner in which they display or conceal them.
My father’s discretion is for me implicit in the way he stored his rods and guns – the proof of his frustrated desire for a country life – in the chest in the hall, while the French letter he concealed in his ‘mess-box’ was indicative of his low sexual drive. Similarly my mother’s thwarted theatrical ambitions, only partially alleviated by her involvement in amateur dramatics, were more openly expressed by the display of the signed photographs of past and present members of the Liverpool rep on the top of the piano ‘off a ship’, but these conclusions are of course retrospective.
It is impossible for an adult to paint with the naivety of a child; the huge parents with their great heads and stick-like limbs, the neat formalised house, far too small to contain them, the grinning sun smiling down. It is equally beyond me to recreate how I saw my parents when I was very young, but there are two tableaux which do so for me.
The nursery at breakfast time: Bella and I seated in front of a different dish every day: fish cakes, grilled tomatoes on fried bread, kedgeree, eggs in various forms. My father liked to eat with me before he left for the office, standing in front of the window with a bowl of Grapenuts, and staring abstractedly into Ivanhoe Road. He usually said little but some mornings there would be the sound of intermittent muffled hooting from the tugs on the Mersey a mile or so away. His response to this was always identical. Joining the words together he would observe, ‘It’s foggy on the river.’
I have the impression that this response was not his originally, but something he remembered from his own Edwardian childhood. His life was much ruled by such formal responses. Many snatches of verse, the choruses of music-hall and popular songs, repetitive physical gestures (rubbing the skin between the base of the left thumb and forefinger with the thumb of the opposite hand), seemed to act as runes against the dangerous chaos of life. Potentially clever, it was as if he had deliberately trained himself to aim low. It made him an easy companion. His lack of competitiveness prevented any tension between us as I grew older. He was genuinely pleased at anything his children achieved but, on the negative side, offered us no incentive. ‘As long as they’re happy’ was his reaction to whatever we did or didn’t do. Good-looking, and with an easy charm and a quiet wit, he was ruled by lethargy. My mother used to say, and he didn’t contradict her: ‘Tom’s motto is never do today what you can put off until tomorrow week.’
She on the contrary was intensely ambitious and, I believe, very highly sexed. In neither direction was she fulfilled. Her ambitions were displaced; it was her children to whom she looked in order to realise them. Her sexuality was inhibited by her fear of the opinion of others. Only once, she told me later, was she nearly unfaithful to my father. In Chester at a dance (Tom must have been away fishing) a young man tried to persuade her to spend the night in an hotel. She was tempted to accept but finally refused on the grounds that she would have been forced to return home next morning in her evening dress. She sublimated her libido by a series of what she called ‘affairs’ with young homosexuals, revelling in their confidences and delighting in their company. This suited my father very well as there were comparatively few plays, and certainly no ballets, that he wished to see.
Every evening when my father was at The Albert I would be taken down to spend an hour with my mother in the lounge. She would put on a very elaborate performance for my benefit, reading a certain amount,
The Jungle Books
were my favourite, imitating music-hall and cabaret artistes, and speaking of her early life in a rather indiscreet and grown-up way which widened its scope rapidly as I grew older and proved myself a precocious pupil at her knee.
I especially liked her to ‘do’ accents. Her Liverpool was perfect, her cockney adequate, if stagey, and she could manage a fair approximation of Welsh, Lancashire, Scottish and Irish. It amused her to imitate a woman called Alice Delysia, who performed mono-logues in English with a French accent, but what impressed me most was when she recreated an American colonel she had met during the war. ‘Lady,’ she’d say with a broad twang, ‘do you mind if I spit in the fire?’ and she would then swing round to face the grate and pretend to expectorate. For a long time afterwards I was convinced that all Americans indulged in this inexplicable custom. In fact, despite her ear for accents, my mother had never been abroad except once, as a child, to the Isle of Man. She claimed, although a strong swimmer, to be afraid of the sea, but I believe it was more a question of insularity.
‘Everyone says I’d adore New York,’ she told me, ‘and that New York would adore me, but…’ Everyone in this case was a few of her more cosmopolitan friends. She did however go to London once a year and, on her return, loaded with toys from Hamleys, would paint it in glowing colours. ‘I did five shows in four days,’ she’d tell us, ‘and had supper twice at the Savoy with Rex Evans.’ Rex Evans was a night-club owner of the period, a plump and bespectacled man who performed sophisticated songs at the piano. He stood high in her pantheon. My father was delighted that Rex Evans should take my mother to the Savoy. He himself was rather intimidated by London and would never go there if he could avoid it. As to the Savoy, he would have considered that a waste of money, as in some ways, and especially when it came to eating out, he was almost comically mean.
There was another aspect of those evenings I spent with my mother about which I had mixed feelings, and that was her recitation of several late-Victorian poems recalled from her childhood which she would send up in such a way that I soon realized that I was meant to be amused by their pathos, but which nevertheless moved me to furtive tears. One told of a cockney orphan girl returning to her sick little brother with some flowers presented her by ‘a bang-up lady’ who had learnt of his plight. ‘Flowers in ‘eaven? I suppose so,’ she replies in answer to his loaded question. Predictably, in the final verse, he is in a position to find out the answer
this theological conundrum.
Starving waifs watching a banquet; ‘naughty little Briar Rose’ who saved a village from flooding at the cost of her own, until then worthless, life; and a criminal ‘Burglar Bill’ who breaks into a doll’s house at the request of a winsome tot; were others who figured in her repertoire. I dare say she knew she upset me with these mawkish poems, but was unable to resist so receptive an audience. As a child, she told me, she had once recited a poem about the Boer War, then in progress, at a benefit concert. She had no idea what it meant but had even so reduced many of her audience to tears.
‘You’ve seen them dragging the guns along at the Agricultural Hall,’ she’d lisped, ‘But nobody saw them at Ladysmith when the shells began to fall’; and as the widows and mothers who had lost husbands and sons ‘in far Natal’ sobbed into their black-edged handkerchiefs, she experienced a glow of pride.
While not beautiful or even pretty, my mother was both animated and vivacious. She should have been an actress, but her mother wouldn’t have it. Once, and it was typical of my grandmother, she had taken my mother aged sixteen to an audition held by a Shakespearian actor-manager who was so impressed that he offered her an immediate position in his company. ‘I wouldn’t dream of allowing Maud to go on the stage,’ said my grandmother; ‘I just wanted to find out how good she was.’
My mother told this as a kind of joke at her mother’s expense, but I believe it had upset her profoundly. She also maintained she wouldn’t have liked acting anyway as she had too jealous and envious a temperament, but I didn’t believe her, even then.
When my father came home from The Albert, he and my mother would go up and change for dinner and Bella took me away to be given Horlicks and ginger biscuits and got ready for bed. My parents always came in to hear my prayers and kiss me goodnight, and I fell asleep thinking of the dying boy with flowers and the drowning Briar Rose and the American colonel spitting in the fire.
Although my parents employed a series of house parlour-maids wearing black uniforms, aprons and caps, I can recall none of them during my early childhood. The people I remember clearly were my nanny Bella and the cook, Minnie Roberts, partly no doubt because they came and went several times throughout my childhood, sometimes on a temporary, sometimes on a more permanent basis, and remained in contact with the family throughout.
Bella had red hair and was given to what my mother called ‘moods’. Nevertheless she was admitted to be ‘superior’, that is to say, quiet rather than raucous, and with a minimal Liverpool accent, although she did say ‘buke’ and ‘luke’ instead of ‘book’ and ‘look’, and was so convinced this was correct that she tried to teach me to do the same. She was firm but fair and had a strong sense of humour although when she was amused she would compress her lips and shake with silent laughter as though reluctant to display her teeth. She was a strong believer in routine insisting, before I was old enough to use the lavatory, that I sat on my pot until I’d been a ‘good boy’ or, if nothing was forthcoming, dosing me on syrup of figs. Every morning she-cleaned out my earholes with a twist of cotton wool, its tip coated in vaseline, and examined my tongue. She tried to make me eat everything up, and put me reluctantly to rest every afternoon for precisely one hour.