Read Slowing Down Online

Authors: George Melly

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #General

Slowing Down

BOOK: Slowing Down
3.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Slowing Down

Slowing Down


Drawings by Maggi Hambling


an imprint of



Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3
(a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)
Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland
(a division of Penguin Books Ltd)
Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road,
Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd)
Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre,
Panchsheel Park, New Delhi – 110 017, India
Penguin Group (NZ), cnr Airborne and Rosedale Roads, Albany,
Auckland 1310, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd)
Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue,
Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

First published 2005

Copyright © George Melly, 2005

The moral right of the author has been asserted

‘The Old Fools’ from
Collected Poems
by Philip Larkin, reprinted by permission of Faber & Faber.
‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ and ‘Secrets’ from
Collected Poems
by W. H. Auden,
reprinted by permission of Faber & Faber.
‘East Coker III’ from
Four Quartets
by T. S. Eliot, reprinted by permission of Faber & Faber.
Surrealist Games
, edited by Mel Gooding, reprinted by permission of Redstone Press,
7a St Lawrence Terrace, London W10 5SU.

Drawings of George Melly by Maggi Hambling, copyright © Maggi Hambling

All rights reserved
Without limiting the rights under copyright
reserved above, no part of this publication may be
reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system,
or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical,
photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior
written permission of both the copyright owner and
the above publisher of this book

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

EISBN: 978–0–141–90066–7

To most of my family and all my true friends


1 Old Fools’ Time
2 A Prisoner on Remand
3 A Fair Cop
4 The Oldest Living Surrealist in the World
5 One Last Disadvantage
6 The Fairies and the Goblins
7 ‘George Melly – God Help Us!’
8 Up at Ronnie’s
9 Ronnie
10 Discomforts and Pleasures
11 ‘Alas I Waver to and fro’
12 Treats

1. Old Fools’ Time

The Old Fools

What do they think has happened, the old fools,

To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose

It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and


And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember

Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,

They could alter things back to when they danced all


Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some


Or do they fancy there’s really been no change,

And they’ve always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,

Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming

Watching light move? If they don’t (and they can’t) it’s


Why aren’t they screaming?

At death, you break up: the bits that were you

Start speeding away from each other for ever

With no one to see. It’s only oblivion, true:

We had it before, but then it was going to end,

And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour

To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower

Of being here. Next time you can’t pretend

There’ll be anything else. And these are the first signs:

Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power

Of choosing gone. Their looks show that they’re for it:

Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines –

How can they ignore it?

Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms

Inside your head, and people in them, acting.

People you know, yet can’t quite name; each looms

Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,

Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting

A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only

The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,

The blown bush at the window, or the sun’s

Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely

Rain-cased midsummer evening. That is where they live:

Not here and now, but where all happened once.

This is why they give

An air of baffled absence, trying to be there

Yet being here. For the rooms grow farther, leaving

Incompetent cold, the constant wear and tear

Of taken breath, and them crouching below

Extinction’s alp, the old fools, never perceiving

How near it is. This must be what keeps them quiet:

The peak that stays in view wherever we go

For them is rising ground. Can they never tell

What is dragging them back, and how it will end?

Not at night?

Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout

The whole hideous inverted childhood? Well,

We shall find out.

Philip Larkin

Well, ‘We shall find out.’ Only Larkin didn’t. Cancer, that ravenous shark, took him first. I only hope that before the end, they turned him into an instant junkie. His muse may have deserted him some time before, his views are hard to take, but unnecessary pain, if avoidable, is indefensible. He was without what they used to call, and perhaps still do, ‘the consolation of faith’.

… the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever

As an almost life-long atheist myself, I find it reassuring to come across others, in this case whatever his shortcomings as a human being, as a prop to one’s own non-faith. Better cancer – not much better but better nevertheless – than to become a smelly old mindless cabbage dribbling at one end and leaking at the other.

Another man, whom, in this case, I admire unreservedly, is the late Spanish film-maker Luis Buñuel. I’ve just re-read his autobiography
My Last Breath
My Last Sigh
in ostrich-minded America) which, with the help of his friend and colleague Jean-Claude Carrière, he completed not long before his death in 1983. In it he made the following admirably sensible request: ‘Some doctors do help us to die, but most are only money-makers who live by the canons of an impersonal technology. If they would only let us die when the moment
comes and help us to go more easily. Respect for human life becomes absurd when it leads to insufferable suffering.’

Ever honest, early in that same last testament he admits that in his seventies (he made his last film in 1976) he enjoyed what he called ‘playing at senility’, but became, as his final decade passed by, ‘increasingly conscious of my decrepitude’ and ‘only happy at home following my routine’, the twin peaks of his day being two dry martinis, always his favourite tipple, one before lunch, the other before dinner, although he admits to sometimes cheating and drinking the latter before its designated hour. Later anyway he was forced to substitute the martinis with red wine.

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 last will be the last to go.

I have, however, put the block on my tendency to flirt. This is partly from observing others of my generation failing to recognize how pathetic they look ogling young women, and confirmed by watching myself on a video tape rolling my eyes at a pretty chat-show hostess. On the other hand I still look forward to what I think of as ‘treats’, the equivalent of a child anticipating a visit to a circus or pantomime (my choices here date me like the rings on a tree stump).

I have realized recently that I share some defects with most of my generation. This very morning I rang up two old friends. One, a few years older than I, couldn’t remember the title of a play he had seen quite recently (a general failing of mine also) and, as he struggled to find it in that jumbled

‘I have, however, put the block on my tendency to flirt’

filing cabinet we oldies call our brains, I recognized his mounting irritation. I would bet also that some time later, and for no logical reason, it surfaced.

The Frankenstein compulsion in scientists, angrily recognized by Buñuel, was confirmed for me on Waterloo station only a few weeks ago. Returning from the country and on my way to a friend’s sixtieth birthday party in NW1 (a treat), I went into a large stationer’s to buy him a card to accompany a bottle of malt whisky in its protective and decorative drum. As is usual these days, there were many cards designed for special recipients: the newborn, or at any rate their parents, toddlers, ‘cool’ teenagers, engaged couples (The longest sentence in the English language? ‘I do’), rose-cheeked grandparents on their retirement, but there wasn’t, and I’d half expected it, a card aimed specifically at anyone of sixty, today an unremarkable age. There were, on the other hand, several, mostly smothered in rose-clad cottages in low relief, for centenarians!

To justify these cards economically implies a substantial number of potential recipients, and they’ve promised us that soon a hundred and fifty to two hundred will be the norm, but why? What for? What will be, to use a fashionable cliché, ‘the quality’ of the double centenarians’ lives? One thing’s for sure: the Queen, famous for turning off lights at Buckingham Palace and having torn sheets repaired, will surely stop sending telegrams, or their more expensive modern equivalents, to those who have survived a mere century.

I bought one of these cards for my friend and wrote underneath the Patience Strong-like verse, the famous and refreshingly cynical and accurate riddle:

Q: Who wants to live to be a hundred?

A: Someone of ninety-nine.

Of course there are some people who enjoy life well into old fools’ territory. Like heavy smokers who can always cite an uncle who lived into his nineties on sixty full-strength Capstans a day, only to be eventually run over, when drunk, by a bus, most of us know or have known someone who kept all their marbles into their nineties, and enjoyed every day as it came.

In my case it was Eileen Agar, a witty and beautiful old painter who claimed to have one abstract leg and one surrealist, who had slept in the same bed (but not at the same time) as Picasso, who drank champagne every day, and whose funeral was conducted by a close friend who was a Catholic priest. As he knew that she was an atheist, there were no prayers or hymns. I bet he prayed for her in silence though.

BOOK: Slowing Down
3.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Job by Doris O'Connor
The Soldier's Song by Alan Monaghan
A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley
Mind Games by Kiersten White
The Grail Tree by Jonathan Gash
The Steel Tsar by Michael Moorcock