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October 07, 2005

Zenga Longmore on Take A Girl Like Me - Diana Melly

Posted by Zenga Longmore

Take A Girl Like Me
by Diana Melly
Pp. 280. London: Chatto & Windus
Hardback, £14.99

Diana Melly's autobiography needs to be read at least three times. The first perusal renders the reader in so gasping a state of astonishment that the brain short circuits itself and seizes up in a sort of coma. The second ingestion induces a state of semi-euphoria. By the third bout one's deranged condition has mellowed into a manageable state of bewilderment.

The power behind this book lies in the artless, almost childlike way in which Mrs Melly describes her outrageous life with jazz rogue husband, George. Diana's writing style has the same guileless quality that my seven year old daughter displays when writing school essays entitled "What I Did Over the Weekend".

In the first chapter Diana states very simply that after leaving her first husband she found a room for herself and her nine month old son, Patrick:

During the day Patrick went to a crèche, at night he was left alone. Sometimes after leaving the coffee bar where I worked I went out dancing. Then Patrick got measles and I had to stop work. The money ran out and I sent Patrick, now two, to live with my aunt in Essex.
Well, what can one say but, "poor Patrick". Poor, poor Patrick, indeed. Twenty four years later he was dead of a suicidal heroine overdose. What did Diana do when she discovered her neglected son had taken his own life?
I shot down to Swansea, Lewis [her lover] and sex.
Whilst in Swansea, she reports that she and Lewis fantasized over pornographic magazines which featured obscene photographs of her late son's girlfriend and yes, her late son himself - the same Patrick who had recently died in so gruesome and tragic a manner. Even after a third reading, there are moments when the book drops from the reader's nerveless fingers.

However, there is something hugely fascinating about this autobiography which sweeps us along the swinging sixties, through to the drug-crazed seventies, across the money-grabbing eighties and into the caring, politically correct nineties. Strangely enough, perhaps because he insisted on editing out the interesting bits, George Melly's character does not spring to life. We hear of his endless stream of girlfriends, putative boyfriends, his love of surrealism and his passion for jazz, but his personality remains uncannily mysterious. Only occasionally does the odd anecdote give us an insight into the inner-workings of the English jazz musician's mind:
While travelling in the bandwagon, the Mulligan band (for whom Melly was a vocalist) would award themselves points whenever they had the opportunity to run over a disabled person. It was six points for a blind man and eight if he was on crutches and the same for a pregnant woman.
This was the swinging sixties, an age, Diana explains:
before feminism and the British jazz world was as full of male chauvinists as other more conventional worlds.
Paradoxically, the British jazz world was also burning with prejudice against the people whose music was being busily (and often badly) copied. Black people, they seemed to think, were all very well in the old days but only if they were providing the music that could be imitated. Young black people are regarded with derision and scorn. A West African friend of mine, a timid young woman and talented blues belter, once asked to sing with an English jazz band in Brighton. She was shooed away with the words:
You! Sing with our band! On your bike, love. No reggae here, thank you very much.
It has always puzzled me why anyone would want to listen to George Melly warbling feeble imitations of Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey, when one could listen to the great singers themselves.

George's chaotic escapades with his lovers almost rival his wife's shenanigans with her children. A girlfriend whom Diana re-named Greckle proved:

rather a handful. She had gone round the house, emptied it of all the pills she could find and got into bed with George, saying, "I just want to die in your arms".
Prior to Greckle, we are treated to a startlingly unbelievable story concerning England's finest poetess, the witty Molly Parkin. Molly, according to Diana, stayed with the Mellys for a short time after the death of Patrick. Refusing an offer to sleep on the floor, Diana claims Molly said:
Listen, girl, you haven't got the picture. I'm with George now. You've lost your child and you're about to lose your husband, so go back to your mental home.
Although Ms Parkin has not sued for libel, I find this tale impossible to believe. One wonders how many other stories in this book are fantasies created in the mind of an author whose main aspiration is to shock.

However, it has to be said that the passages in this memoir that do not centre on tangled sex lives and drug-crazed cavortings reveal a great warmth and adorability lurking in the centre of Diana's soul. She rescues and befriends a fox cub which she raises with the care and consideration that should possibly have been reserved for her own children. Even more valiantly, she rescues and befriends the formidable writer Jean Rhys, who ends up by displaying far less gratitude than the fox. In between devoting herself to unpredictable canines and elderly female novelists, Mrs Melly brings up the two children of a mother who died of a heroin overdose.

Furthermore, she frequently finds herself mothering a succession of her husband's demanding girlfriends, and her own selection of boyfriends who range from teenagers to batty old men.

The blurb says that this autobiography makes you glad to be alive. It does. After trotting alongside the heels of Diana Melly as she whirls from one turbulent event after the other, the reader indulges in a glorious glow of self-satisfaction at having led so boring and uneventful a life.

Zenga Longmore writes for The Spectator, The Oldie, and The Daily Telegraph. She is an actress and blues singer and the author of Tap-taps To Trinidad. To read her previous pieces on jazz for the Social Affairs Unit, see Jazz.

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