Authors: George Melly
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #General, #Music, #Genres & Styles, #Jazz
During the German breakthrough in 1940 Lily and her husband were trapped in Vichy France. Her husband too was Jewish and they were by then quite old. We heard after the war that they had died of malnutrition.
Lily, who loved comfort, had stayed at the Adelphi during her visit. The Griff put up very few people as the only route to her spare-room was through the ‘boys’ room’ with its distinctive smell of cleaning fluid and shoe polish. Both Fred and Alan were very particular about their appearance. Nevertheless there was an annual visit from her middle-aged niece, Cis Pollack, who was married to one of the Clifton Pollacks and whose son Phil was to become housemaster there in his turn. No one could call Cis beautiful; she resembled an elderly Harpo Marx. But she was one of those rare people whose inner qualities are immediately discernible. Children were drawn to her as to a toyshop window. She had a great sense of fun and adored teasing my grandmother whom she always called ‘Auntie’. She was involved with a charity for East End Jewish girls and was constantly being asked to their weddings. At one of these, she told us, the father-in-law of her erstwhile protegee stood up and asked: ‘Who’ll swap a bitta fat for a roast potater?’ Cis lived to a great age, dying at her son’s house in Clifton; a move she effected with some reluctance as she was devoted to her own little house in Cricklewood. When I was doing a gig in Bristol during the seventies I visited her only a week or two before she died. She was in bed, very frail, and wandering in her mind, but the sweetness, almost saint-like in its charisma, was as powerful as ever.
The Griff’s only other regular guest was another niece, Lulu Davis, who lived with her sister Emmy in Birmingham, or Warwickshire as the Griff would have it. Lulu was my godmother and allegedly well off. I thought of her as rather dashing, but this may have been connected with her name. One of Uncle Fred’s pieces on the ukelele was a song of the twenties called ‘Don’t bring Lulu’. It was about a man who is giving a party. His friends are welcome to turn up with any companion of their choice – ‘Rose with the turned-up nose’, ‘Peg with the wooden leg’ – but the eponymous heroine is barred. She ‘knocks things off the shelf. She ‘always wants to do just what we don’t want her to’ and generally creates havoc. Lulu Davis certainly appeared conventional enough in her behaviour, but for a child a song is as real as a person. After all, if Uncle Fred could take part in ritual Masonic murders, there was no reason why Lulu, back in Birmingham, mightn’t revert to knocking things off the shelf.
But this was only speculation. What I knew for a fact was that Lulu was extremely mean. She would give us sixpence where other relatives would hand over half-a-crown and, considering I was her godson, her birthday presents were so meagre that I was even more reluctant than usual to write her a thank-you letter. My mother, rather beadily, told me that it was ‘worth keeping in her good books’ as I might well be mentioned in her will. I eventually blew it on my nineteenth birthday when she sent me a packet of Gold Flake. I was stationed in Malvern in a naval camp, and I wrote to her a postcard pointing out that as Malvern was quite near Birmingham she could have hitch-hiked over and saved herself the stamp. Naturally enough I never heard from her again and, when she died, no lawyer wrote to advise me to get in touch if I wished to hear something to my advantage.
My mother was a little more forthcoming about her relations, but only when they had amused her in some way.
There were three Jewish Irish cousins, elderly women as poor as synagogue mice who lived in London, and whom she liked to imitate. When she visited them, one of them would always press a pound in her hand and cut short protestations by saying: ‘Now don’t annoy me’, in her strong Dublin brogue. They were upset when she failed to marry Jack Eliot Cohen, a match they supported on the grounds that ‘it will please your Uncle Lou’. Uncle Lou was another, Liverpool-based, brother of the Griff’s but I learnt nothing more about him, except that he had been married to a lady called Auntie Reb who had provided enormous Edwardian teas for Maud and her brothers, and was always worried that there wasn’t enough to satisfy ‘the de-ah children’.
When Maud became engaged to my father they went to London, and she took him to visit the Irish cousins. They had forgiven her for failing to please her Uncle Lou, but feigned indignation on Tom’s behalf for having to meet them.
‘What will your fiance think of you?’ they cried. ‘Bringing him to meet all your relations!’
There was also a rich first cousin of Maud’s, a girl called Joan Harvey-Samuel who later married a military man and who spent her entire life complaining about everything. She had her own lady’s maid whose shortcomings were a constant irritant to her. She would begin most of the conversations she had with my mother in their teens with the phrase ‘that dreadful maid Rose!’
With all these I became, at one remove, familiar. They would figure briefly in my mother’s entertainments for me in the lounge at Ivanhoe Road after tea. They would pop up like characters in a radio comedy series, recognised and loved for their catchphrases: ‘Now don’t annoy me’, ‘the de-ah children’, ‘that dreadful maid Rose’.
More substantial were her tales of her Uncle Fred Harvey-Samuel, the barrister who had lived in Wimpole Street and who was so concerned that the Griff, if she was determined to work in a station lavatory, should only be employed at a main-line terminus. Even the Griff occasionally mentioned him because he had ‘passed out first in all England’, a feat which put him on a level with the signed artist’s proofs. He sounded an impressive, if somewhat intimidating, figure offering Maud, a nervous young provincial girl with her hair only just up, a temporary glimpse into the great world of London with liveried servants and a carriage at the door.
Maud told me of smart dinner parties where the sweets were enormous architectural confections which, despite her sweet tooth, she felt obliged to refuse in favour of milk pudding in case the insertion of an ill-judged spoon should cause the whole trembling edifice to topple off the plate and on to the carpet. She was, I gathered, in some awe of her Uncle Fred as he could be witheringly sarcastic.
He was a keen bridge player and one evening, when the only guests were another couple eager for a few rubbers, regretted her inability to make up a four. Maud was able to tell him that since her last visit she had in fact learnt to play, as the Griff had told her it was selfish not to. She and her uncle were partners. The stakes were high, and partly from nerves, partly from lack of ability, she played extremely badly. When the beaming guests had departed with their winnings, her uncle poured himself a stiff brandy and soda. After sweeping up his moustache, he turned to her and remarked mildly: ‘Did Edith say it was selfish of you not to learn bridge?’ She blushed crimson and burst into tears.
Yet she was fond of him and regretted, following his early death, that the life he’d shown her was no longer open to her, the door closed. On the rare occasions when she and Tom were in London together, and inevitably got lost, she would always say: ‘I think we’re somewhere near Uncle Fred’s.’ For the rest of his life, whether on a North Wales by-pass or the outskirts of Nottingham, if ever my father wasn’t sure of the way, he would repeat this sentence to himself.
In Liverpool, by the time I was old enough to take in people, there were very few relations of my mother’s living there. Off Lark Lane, in a small flat facing Sefton Park, was a sad, freckled cousin called Dodo, a middle-aged spinster whose only companion was a small and harmless dog of puggish origins called Terror. Poor Dodo, like her aunt the Griff, suffered from deep depressions only, in her case, with no one close to turn to. In the middle thirties, shortly after it had become necessary to put down the blind and incontinent Terror, poor Dodo gassed herself.
Maud’s other Liverpudlian cousins were two unmarried sisters, Winnie and Ethel Mussons. They both had sallow complexions, and high mournful voices tinged by the sing-song Liverpool accent. Ethel, in particular, had been Maud’s great friend and confidante before the war. They had gone to dances together, and always met next morning at Sissons tea-rooms for what my mother called ‘a thorough committee’. They discussed, with appalled relish, the outrages of one ‘Racer’ Marsh, so named because she was considered ‘fast’.
‘Did you see?’ Ethel remarked at one ‘committee’ after a dance at the Wellington Rooms. ‘Racer Marsh had
Sometimes Ethel would ring up my mother, breathless to transmit some piece of scandalous intelligence. When Maud asked her who on earth had told her, Ethel, after a pause, would usually reply, ‘Now I come to think it over – you did.’
Ethel and Maud went ice-skating together, played lawn-tennis at the Mersey Bowman in Sefton Park, and discussed men endlessly, if innocently; Maud believed until well into her teens that you conceived a baby by kissing, a theory which gave her many moments of anxiety. They were both ‘keen’ on a man called Jimmy Duncan who, for some reason, was considered unsuitable. I asked Uncle Alan why this should have been so. He thought for some time. ‘I can’t imagine,’ he told me eventually, ‘he always struck me as a thoroughly decent feller.’ Perhaps it was simply because he wasn’t Jewish and my grandfather was still alive.
Maud told me that Jimmy Duncan, when he had friends with him, would sometimes ring her up at home to get her to belch ‘God Save the King’ down the telephone, an unladylike accomplishment of hers which occasionally featured at my request in her after-tea divertissements.
After the war and her eventual marriage, my mother and Ethel became less close. Towards the end of the thirties, presumably for financial reasons, the Mussons opened a cake shop in Lark Lane. It was called Sugar and Spice and was in competition with the long-established Miss Stephenson’s a few doors up. My mother felt obliged to patronise Sugar and Spice but would furtively slink into Miss Stephenson’s as well. Miss Stephenson herself, a formidable old lady with a striking resemblance to Queen Victoria, was noted for her brandy snaps for which Maud had conceived an almost indecent passion. Ethel’s cakes, while pure and wholesome, had a somewhat amateur look to them.
The Griff, who unlike Maud didn’t care what people thought of her, remained completely faithful to Miss Stephenson despite her family ties with the rival establishment. Her imperious behaviour in local shops was a continuous embarrassment to my mother. Once, in Irwin’s, the grocers, when a plain assistant hurried forward to attend to her, she announced that she ‘wished to be served by the pretty young lady’.
A first cousin of my father’s, a plump, bespectacled, kindly, noisy, mildly pompous man called Willie Bert Rawdon Smith, devoted his later years, following his retirement to Coniston Water, to writing a small pamphlet called ‘The George Mellys’. His object, given in the preface, was ‘to enlighten the next generation about the last, who either never knew them, or only knew them when children and therefore more for what they had in their pockets than for what they were’. The main body of the work does indeed deal with the Chatham Street Mellys, but there is a section on the Riversleas, and notes on those servants who remained with the family over a long period. I must admit that from my point of view it’s a very useful crib.
Willie Bert’s mother was a Melly, but I believe his obsession with the family was not merely due to a desire to be associated with a more unusual name than his own. Of his mother Beatrice, he writes:
In 1881 she married Francis Rawdon Smith (1851-1930), a member of a Liverpool family then living in Shropshire. He was an only child and thoroughly spoilt. The marriage ended by her leaving her husband in 1891. A deed of separation was drawn up giving her the custody of the four children… Owing to what was then an invidious position she did not go into Society much.
Could it have been this which made him so much more obsessive about his connection with the Mellys than most of those who bore the name? Certainly my father, the direct male heir, showed no great interest in the minutiae of his family history. Nor was he beyond teasing Willie Bert on the subject.
When my Great-Uncle Bill died in the forties, leaving 90 Chatham Street to the University and the drawing-room furniture to the museum, there was one object which Willie Bert felt merited special consideration. This was a massive and enormous book supported on an elaborate if spindly brass lectern. It had been presented to my great-great-grandfather, George Melly, by the electorate of Stokerupon-Trent after business reasons had forced him to retire as their MP. The tortoiseshell front was decorated with oval china plaques representing the crests of the Five Towns, and inside were stiff board pages, tile-like designs by local art students, much influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, with affixed sepia photographs of the town halls and other places of interest. With its Gothic hinges and gilt edges, it was a grotesque monument to Victorian decorative excess. The museum, perhaps wrongly, was not interested in it.
Willie Bert wrote earnestly to my father soliciting his views as to what should be done with it. My father, who was in the navy stationed at Troon, replied on a postcard: ‘I feel it should be returned to Stoke-on-Trent so that the sins of the fathers should be visited on the sons.’
Willie Bert was not amused and perhaps this accounts for his note on Tom in ‘The George Mellys’: ‘He had an acute vein of humour.’ There are several such concealed barbs in his pamphlet. Of his Uncle George, the son of the MP, he wrote ‘… he did not suffer fools gladly.’ Had he perhaps been put in his place by Georgefor his neurotic determination to insist endlessly on his close connection with the family?
Concerning my grandfather, Samuel Heywood Melly (1871 – 1937) > there are no hidden gibes. The tone oh the contrary is a shade patronising. He describes him as:’… a very small man standing at 5 feet 3 inches but very neatly made’. He remarks that ‘His interests were the Territorial Army, fishing and shooting especially the former’, but then adds: ‘He never had a chance to make as much of a mark as he might have done in business being completely overshadowed by his more brilliant brother George.’ He hints, too, at a psychological explanation: ‘He also suffered from having five mothers in his babyhood; his three sisters who were from seventeen to thirteen years old when he was born, his own mother, and Libby the nurse.’ He notes that he married my grandmother, Edith Matilda Court, in 1898.