Wednesday, 17 August 2016

A cry against conformity, a shriek against boredom

"[Camp is] always, and at whatever cost, a cry against conformity, a shriek against boredom, a testament to the potential uniqueness of each of us and our rights to that uniqueness." George Melly, from the preface of Camp - the Lie that tells the Truth by Philip Core [one of my favourite books of all time].

The epithet "Camp" could have been invented for Mr George Melly, whose 90th birthday it would have been today. Paradoxically "Good-Time George" was not particularly effeminate, nor robustly homosexual (although he had many "flings" - as recounted in detail in his first volume of autobiography Rum, Bum and Concertina), yet he exuded a flamboyantly defiant air of swagger against the po-faced world of Jazz purists, perpetually displaying his "love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration" [to quote Susan Sontag's epic Notes on Camp], and was eternally adored for it - equally by those who were "in on the joke", and by those who merely appreciated the work of a supremely talented "English eccentric" and raconteur.

Who else but George - a huge fan of the likes of Bessie Smith and her contemporaries - would dare to perform (with his gravelly baritone voice) a Trad-Jazz cover of Jelly-Roll Morton and Lizzie Miles's I Hate A Man Like You, gender references intact? And that was just one among a huge repertoire of boundary-pushing, somewhat smutty covers he did, not least I Want My Fanny Brown:

He even sang lead vocals on a song about an archetypal "Dirty Old Man", Old Codger, the b-side of Walk On By by The Stranglers...

Who but George would bring lurid, luminously-coloured zoot-suits and velvet fedoras to the stage at venues ranging from Ronnie Scott's legendary West End venue to cabaret clubs in New York to the Reading Festival? He even took it a step further when the mood suited him, according to his obituary in The Telegraph:

On one occasion at Ronnie Scott’s Melly had decided to perform in full drag, and sent John Chilton on to the stage to tell the audience that he was indisposed - but that, luckily, his aunt Georgina, who knew all of his songs, would valiantly fill the gap. "Georgina" duly swept on stage, and the disguise was so complete that the audience was wholly deceived.

He was uncompromising in his anti-religious stance (Mr Melly was at one time President of the British Humanist Society), spoke voluminously about personal freedoms - in particular his support for the permissive society in the 60s - and, as well as myriad fellow Trad-Jazzers, counted among his friends a coterie of like-minded "eccentrics" including Molly Parkin, Francis Bacon, Maggi Hambling, Peggy Guggenheim and even Rene Magritte.

"Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style - but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the "off," of things-being-what-they-are-not." [Sontag again]

And, for those of you of more of an "artistic" bent, why not join George in a special BBC Arena documentary about his love for Surrealism? Here's The Journey", or The Memoirs of a Self-Confessed Surrealist:

Alan George Heywood Melly (17th August 1926 – 5th July 2007)

More of the marvellous Mr Melly here, here and here.


  1. I miss these larger than life characters that filled the screen in my childhood. Why don't we have characters like this any more?

    1. Too many people are too bloody busy showing off on FB and other social media to actually do anything outrageous in their real life. Apart from Roisin Murphy, of course :-)


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