George Melly

By Jeremy Miles

AS he cruises with practised aplomb into his 80th year, jazz singer, writer, broadcaster, raconteur, art connoisseur and one-time anarchist George Melly still seems an extraordinarily busy man.

Despite failing health, the irrepressible Melly says he has no intention of giving up his life as a hard-gigging jazzer.

When I caught up with him at his Notting Hill home, he had just returned from performing for five nights on a cruise ship and was finalising plans for his thirty-second consecutive Christmas season at Ronnie Scott's Club in Soho.

On Friday night he arrives in Bournemouth to play The End of the Week Show at the town's Pavilion Ballroom.

As he says: "There is nothing like the adrenaline of live performance to give you a buzz when you're feeling old and tired and I'm afraid I do feel old and do feel tired sometimes these days."

He doesn't do as many gigs as before but adds: "I have no intention of giving up unless it's for medical or undertaker-related reasons."

Bronchitis, an irregular heart and "various other problems" have taken their toll.

"I've spent an awful lot of time in hospitals being probed, prodded and X-rayed. I don't think they can believe that I'm as well as I am."

And, despite having started smoking again after years of abstinence, he says: "The undertakers can wait, they can twiddle their thumbs."

In addition to the smoking, George is still extremely partial to a drink, although he says he has cut down his once prodigious alcohol intake.

But he's anxious to let me know that he still has his moments. "I haven't gone teetotal, God forbid!" he exclaims before adding swiftly: "Not that I believe in him. I'm an atheist.

"I got very drunk once this year, by accident really. It was after a gig and people kept bringing me enormous whiskeys. When I got home I found I was bouncing off the walls, pulling over tables and breaking things.

"That's the only time I've been drunk like that for about three years."

He says that several falls (he blames bronchitis rather than drink) caused a variety of injuries.

"I kept cutting myself. But it's all right, you know - it mends and it gives you a rather piratical look."

This image is helped by an eyepatch . "The retina came off," he explains, as though he were talking about a button coming off a suit.

"A very nice surgeon sewed it back on, but unfortunately it doesn't quite focus with the other one so I see double sometimes."

The eye-patch helps him avoid confusion. "If I'm reaching for a glass or whatever it's nice to know that I'm going to get hold of the real thing rather than a secondary image."

It is clear that, at 79, George is happy to grow old disgracefully.

His autobiography, Slowing Down, due out in the autumn, is not, he stresses, a riposte to Take a Girl Like Me, the recent autobiography by his wife Diana.

"I actually started writing mine first but I work very slowly these days and I kept missing the deadlines."

Although Diana's book paints a brutally honest, no-holds-barred view of their unconventional 42-year marriage, including George's affairs, he feels he has come out of it rather well.

"I think she's quite fond of me in a way," he says. "When I first met her she was extremely erotic and she writes very honestly about that but then later on she turned into the Wing Commander as I call her."

He returns to the subject of old age and tells me he's written a living will saying that under no circumstances does he want to be kept alive unnecessarily.

"If I'm full of tubes and being kept alive by a machine I don't want to go on and if I end up crying a lot like some old people do, poor sods, I don't want to go on either.

" I want to live while I've still got elements of enjoyment in my life whether they're fishing, smoking, drinking or eating nice things.

"I don't want to die like my mother did as a cabbage dribbling at both ends with no memory."

George Melly appears with Digby Fairweather's Half Dozen at the Bournemouth Pavilion Ballroom on Friday night. Tel 0870 111 3000.

© Jeremy Miles 2022