All That Jazz; at 77, Jazz Musician GEORGE MELLY Is Still Touring with His Band. and Though He Is Now a Little Creaky and Hard of Hearing, He Tells MARY RIDDELL That He's Not Yet Ready to Hang Up His Famous Homburg Hat

Article excerpt


George Melly is not one for gadgets. He has never learned to work a video recorder, and the thought of carrying a mobile phone appals him. 'My wife says, "But what if you collapse when you're out fishing? No one might find you for hours." I tell her that I'd much rather die by the river bank than in hospital, particularly if I've just caught a fat trout. It would be a better headline, wouldn't it?' For a man nicknamed Good-time George, who has lived flamboyantly for 77 years, a final exit lacking in panache would be unthinkable.

Not that he is any more morbid or less vigorous than he always was. Until recently he played with the jazz band, The Feetwarmers, but, when his music partner of 30 years, John Chilton, retired, George joined a new band called Digby Fairweather's Half Dozen.

Somehow he still manages to juggle his roles as musician, lecturer, art expert, writer and bon viveur. While one interviewer called him 'the most civilised person in London', in any first encounter with George, the notion of Renaissance Man does not spring instantly to mind.

He is a little creaky now. But still, he wears infirmity as heroically as the loud pinstripes, homburg hats and splashy ties he has always favoured.

Not even partial deafness, a series of eye operations, ulcers or baleful doctors exhorting him to drink less have much curbed his style or good humour. Just occasionally, the irksome business of getting older bothers him.

'At my age, you stop talking about sex and start talking about what's wrong with you,' he grumbles. 'I had chronic bronchitis, so I had to give up smoking. That was the first blow. I used to drink a ridiculous amount, but someone said to me that I risked becoming a terrible bore. So now I only have a double Irish whiskey before I go on stage to wash down two Pro Plus [caffeine] tablets. Then there's another double whiskey in the interval and as many as I want once I get off stage.' Since this is only lunchtime, George is even more restrained.

First, a Campari, then a Guinness, since wine is bad for his arthritis.

And finally, after oysters and jellied eels, a glass of Calvados. 'I have chosen the cheapest on the list, so I'll have a large one,' he says virtuously.

In everything, his tastes are epicurean. He has been married for almost 40 years to his second wife, Diana, and their life together, which began as a passionate romance and progressed through affairs, tragedy and unhappiness, seems to have finished up in what sounds like a truce, or - as he describes it - a 'very goodnatured' compact. Some time ago, they sold their fabulous mansion in Wales, complete with a fly-fishing beat for George, and bought a house in Berkshire, which they visit separately, to avoid tripping over one another.

In London, they own a large house in Shepherd's Bush, where they live a segregated existence.

'Diana has the ground floor and kitchen, and she sleeps downstairs. I have the drawing room with my desk in it and a separate bedroom and bathroom.

We have totally separate quarters, but we meet for supper to discuss anything that needs talking about. I am devoted to Diana.' One wonders, given the domestic apartheid, whether she feels the same about him.

'Well, I can hardly speak for her,' he says. 'She is wonderful, but she has not had an easy life.' I would guess that Diana Melly has arranged her existence so that she is close to, but not swamped by, a husband with the capacity to be infuriating, demanding and doting simultaneously. From their first meeting, the Mellys were smitten with one another. His first wife, Victoria, had fallen in love with a film director, and his stormy marriage was drawing to a close. Diana, 11 years his junior, had two children, Paddy and Candy, from previous marriages. Within a week, the Mellys were inseparable. Although they had a son, Tom, their relationship appeared centred on one another almost to the exclusion - at least in George's case - of the children. …