OWNING UP by George Melly (1965)
Encapsulate the book in one sentence?
Bisexual surrealist looks back with fondness on spending the Fifties whizzing about the British countryside with a jazz band, drinking crates of brown ale and sleeping with ‘scrubbers.’
When did I buy it? Where and why did I buy it?
A couple of years ago. A Penguin edition from the Seventies and a steal for 99p. I’d seen an amazing TV documentary about the last days of this eccentric character, who with the last of his strength was embarking on a final concert tour and still chatting up old flames. The idea of reading a memoir of his glory days seemed irresistible. But the book has sat waiting for me for almost two years..!
What’s your verdict?
This is a great, scurrilous read. He’s committing all these tales to posterity in 1965 and taking great delight in celebrating and skewering his fellow musicians and various other figures he bumped into during his ramshackle, rather drunken career. He relishes the lewdness and the outrageousness and paints a fabulous picture of a slightly disreptuable Britain – of dance halls and knocking shops and festivals and jamborees. But there’s a great erudition at work too, as he explains the history of jazz to us, almost as an aside.
What genre would you say it is?
It’s no-holds-barred showbiz memoir of the rarest, most valuable sort. By a showbiz person who can write like an angel showing the world their arse.
What surprises did it hold – if any?
Lots! The jazz world seems to later generations old hat and a bit dull. But what a bunch they were – these in-fighting radicals, traditionalists, revivalists and modernists! Zooming about in their camper vans and causing riots in galleries and pubs and dance halls.
What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you?
There’s an account of the band’s wagon coming off the road and over a bridge, plummeting twenty feet into a shallow stream. Mostly unhurt, the band members seek help from reluctant locals, and it’s only when the female backing singer is taken into hospital that her injuries are apparent. She’s got long slivers of glass in her back, piercing her lungs. It’s a horrifying realization, amongst the near-hysterical giggles.
Have you read anything else by this author? Or anything this book reminds you of?
No, but now I feel like I want to read the other memoirs he published.
What will you do with this copy now?
Is it available today?
Yes, the first three volumes of autobiography Melly published are available as a very cheap ebook from Penguin under the umbrella title, ‘Owning Up.’ The earlier volumes are about childhood and his years at sea.
Give me a good quote:
After an early gig in Manchester he is almost beaten up by a gang of thugs:
“I was anaesthetized by fear. I subconsciously did the only thing that might work and it did. I took out of my pocket a small book of the sound poems of the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, explained what they were, and began to read.”