Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Melly's Navy lark is a rum read

Rum, Bum and Concertina by George Melly

George Melly was one of that great tradition of English eccentrics – unconventional in so many ways, and worthy of national treasure status for that alone.

Rum, Bum and Concertina is the second volume of his memoirs, and with its title evoking the author's version of 'wine, women and song', it covers the years of his national service in the Navy, a service he joined because he thought that the bellbottom trousers that sailors wore were more becoming than other uniforms.

There isn't a huge amount of concertina here – but there's no shortage of rum and bum.

The book relates some of his many sexual experiences, from Melly's initially considering himself 100% gay to his first introduction to straight pleasures, thanks to the wife of a very liberally-minded couple (and her husband, who was entirely accepting and encouraging of the arrangement).

The book is peopled, as one would expect, with extraordinary characters – although it begins in the later stages of WWII, the world it portrays could hardly be further from that stiff upper-lipped ideal of Englishness, as conveyed by so many films both of the era itself and later.

And when the anarchist surrealist Naval rating started visiting London regularly, it was to a Bohemian world that included Fitzrovia, the corner of London where Bloomsbury meets Soho, which was thus christened by MP Tom Driberg, and where Melly encountered, amongst others, a drunken Dylan Thomas and England’s stately homo, Quentin Crisp.

And even the Navy, given the time, seems to have been remarkably tolerant of homosexuality, which going on these memoirs, seems to have been quite prevalent, even though it would be more than 20 years before decriminalisation.

The book also includes a fascinating explanation of the term: 'shake a leg'. Apparently, the Navy had, in earlier years, allowed women to spend the night on board. When the call went up in the morning to rise, any sailor with a woman in his hammock would be allowed an extra hour there. And to check this, the call would go up: 'Shake a leg!' At which any women present would pop a leg over the edge of the hammock, thus revealing the presence of a female of the species. Although this was rendered slightly more complicated when some sailors took to shaving their legs in an effort to gain their extra hour kip without requiring a female companion.

Jazz, of course, features. But mostly in terms of Melly reporting that he and some shipmate listened to some records. Only rarely are there hints of his future career, when he describes having given very rare (at the time) singing performances.

Huge fun – very funny – and as fascinating an evocation of an era as Scouse Mouse, the first volume, is of that period.

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