Giving Hysteria a Bad Name

Jenny Diski

  • Take a Girl like Me: Life with George by Diana Melly
    Chatto, 280 pp, £14.99, July 2005, ISBN 0 7011 7906 6
  • Slowing Down by George Melly
    Viking, 221 pp, £17.99, October 2005, ISBN 0 670 91409 6

In some Eastern mystical traditions there is a route to enlightenment called ‘the Path of Blame’. The idea is to abandon any outward or inward claim to superiority, to disdain the admiration of the world and discard visible social niceties – even, or especially, if it means appearing to deserve the contempt of others. Explaining the way of the disciple taking the Path of Blame, Patrick Laude (a professor at Georgetown University and writer on Sufism) suggests that a typical malamati would eagerly confess along with Hamlet: ‘I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me.’ Through public scorn lies true spiritual growth. Not everyone is convinced by the strategy. Al-Hujwiri, writing in the 11th century, takes another view of the Path of Blame: ‘In my opinion, to seek blame is mere ostentation, and ostentation is mere hypocrisy. The ostentatious man purposely acts in such a way as to win popularity, while the malamati purposely acts in such a way that the people reject him. Both have their thoughts fixed on mankind and do not pass beyond that sphere.’

Not that I’m suggesting that Diana Melly is a Sufi, indeed there’s very little to suggest any path at all in her life, but the several possible responses a reader might have to Take a Girl like Me are much the same as for those encountering a seeker on the Path of Blame. In a review of the book in the Independent, Rhoda Koenig, learning from Diana Melly that she has forgiven herself for the neglect and death by heroin overdose of her son Patrick, wonders tartly if the real question shouldn’t be whether God has forgiven her. This is a reasonable response to the entire book; either that or the more secular version, which would be to close the book, put it firmly out of your mind and try to think about something that might attach you more strongly to an affection for humanity. This, if Diana Melly did happen to be on a spiritual quest (a foot soldier, say, on the Path of Blame), would be not just the honest, but the required reader-response. The strongest argument for such a reaction is that it is very difficult to react in any other way. Satisfying, too: we all need someone we can’t forgive. If she was actually a malamati it would be essential that we didn’t know, and equally essential that our responses were not tempered with ‘understanding’ of the psychological or Christian sort, or it would spoil her whole spiritual development thing (as well as our sanctimonious pleasure). In which case, I apologise for suggesting any possible alternative to dismissing her book for the monstrous piece of self-serving narcissism that it appears to be.

However, there is the likelihood that Diana Melly is not in fact treading a spiritual path (only perhaps leading us up a garden one), and therefore two further motives for her book are conceivable: one is that this is a full confession, revealing to the world the true nature of the author, who, somewhat in the manner of St Augustine, offers her behaviour and thoughtlessness naked and shorn of excuses as a public expression of her mature contrition and conversion; or it might simply be the old but effective autobiographical trick that al-Hujwiri cottoned on to of ostentatiously exhibiting her faults so that the world can admire her searing honesty, with the result that blame and distaste are finally trumped by a chorus of approval from guilty, fallible readers, who are only too happy to believe that telling the awful truth makes everything all right. Enabling, I think they call it.

Diana Melly begins her story, subtitled ‘Life with George’ (already, I’m afraid, looking around for justification) with the information that in 1961, when she met George Melly, she was 24, married to her second husband and had two children, Patrick aged six, and Candy, seven months. A brief detour takes us to her first marriage at 16 to ‘an imaginative, feckless Irishman of aristocratic origins’ who she left when Patrick was a toddler. She waitressed at night and had some success modelling (‘Some people thought I was beautiful, but not everyone’). We have only arrived at page 3 (large print and two photographs of the young Diana on page 2) when we read:

During the day Patrick went to a crèche, at night he was left alone. Sometimes after leaving the coffee bar where I worked I went out dancing. Then Patrick got measles and I had to stop work. The money ran out and I sent Patrick, now two, to live with my aunt in Essex. After leaving Patrick, I went to live with a writer called Michael Alexander who took me to Afghanistan.

Several ‘engagements’ (author’s inverted commas) on and she is living with Johnnie, but he wanted a child of his own before Patrick returned to live with them. So ‘when my aunt brought Patrick to the London flat, our daughter Candy was already three months old.’ Peter Pan had the windows locked against him when he tried to go home and saw a new baby in his cot; at least they let Patrick in. But Johnnie was a journalist and six weeks after Patrick arrived, his paper sent him to Paris. ‘I went too but we left the children behind: Candy with my mother and Patrick back with my aunt. Johnnie had given two reasons for not wanting the children to come: money, and the busy social life that we would have to lead.’

And we’re only at the bottom of page 3. In some way this is an extraordinary and brilliant book (even if it does read like dictation). You read on because you are waiting. You wait and wait. The story goes on. Johnnie leaves. It’s back to mother’s bed-sitting room for them all, and mother baby-sitting while Diana goes off to Muriel’s. George the jazzman arrives. She moves in, the children move in, an au pair moves in, another boy is born, the children go to progressive boarding-schools and Diana spends the next ten years or so accompanying George to his gigs, keeping him firmly in view at all times in a futile attempt to stop him sleeping with other women. We’re a third of the way through the book now, and still there is no word of . . . now, this is interesting . . . I have been reading on in the expectation that there will be, I suppose, remorse, something that acknowledges her breathtaking blindness to the needs of others. Nothing. Not a thing. Just the accumulated detail of her worry about George being faithful, where she went, what she did, which famous people she knew. And it begins to seem remarkable. She is not apologising, not explaining.

The absence of regret or rationalisation is like a palpable presence, and, reading, I scanned every word in case I missed the faintest whisper of it. There are occasional teases, but they always bring you up short, laughing at your near relief, at your petit-bourgeois emotional requirement. Patrick, we are told, turned into a troubled boy, experimenting with cannabis, rebellious ‘like many teenagers’ and ‘as parents we were very strict in our way; we didn’t negotiate or suggest ways in which Patrick could earn more freedom, so he pushed harder and was always being punished.’ Then: ‘That September Patrick started his first term at Monkton Wylde and I drove him down to the school. On the lonely drive back I felt relief that he was safe’ – ah, you think, now it’s beginning, the I’m-nice-underneath request for forgiveness; and then comes the kicker – ‘and no longer a source of worry to me.’

There’s a magnificence in this. All parents have been crap parents, and very few of us want to look long and hard at our worst moments, but to read this plain, even pure narrative of self-absorption is to sense something of the catharsis that an audience of ancient Greek unconscious mother-lovers felt when they watched the first night of Oedipus Rex. The lack of apology, once you get accustomed to it, is cleansing.

When she realised that George would not be faithful no matter how carefully she watched, she moved out of the marital bed (though she remained firmly the head wife) and began a sort of sex life of her own. Her first lover was 17 when the affair began on a holiday in France, so young in fact that he asked George’s permission before he felt able to continue the relationship with Diana back in London. If only the swollen-footed-one had thought of that. Other affairs followed, mostly with young men and all desultory. The point of it isn’t clear; it doesn’t sound as though the earth moved for her in bed and conversation didn’t sparkle. It is more as if they were surrogate children who had to be looked after and bossed about. Is ‘surrogate’ the word for something you import into your life when you’ve got three of the real thing already?

The story continues: a day-by-day sense of pointlessness alleviated by more pointlessness. She mentions writing a novel but only in passing – it isn’t as important as the big argument she had with Molly Parkin, who threatened to take George off with her. She worked for the drug charity Release when it was at its most alternative-cool but was not popular with the other volunteers, who regarded her as a dilettante who wanted to take over. She was good at raising money though. When she got a $4000 grant for Release from the Ford Foundation to study comparative drug treatments in the UK and US, she took $2000 of it and went off to visit rehab centres, doctors and lawyers in the States. That’s a $2000 research trip (about £850) in 1971, when the first rung of a London schoolteacher’s annual salary was less than £1000. We aren’t told of the results of the research, only that she went and recommenced an affair when she returned.

At the heart of this unhurried but sour drift towards old age and death is that curious period in the late 1950s and 1960s when acting out neurosis, particularly in young women, was de rigueur. Even those who had poetry to write, songs to sing or pictures to paint of their own (rather than tagging along with the men to be muse or abused) were demented on drugs or drink or just demented. It was the behaviour of choice, just as neurasthenia and hysteria had been ways for women in the previous century – trapped, bullied or plain overlooked – to make themselves visible and worthy of interest to interesting men. I remember (coming to it just a little later than Diana Melly, but already well-versed in the theory and practice) how it seemed to me impossible to be interesting without being mad.

Diana Melly was of her time. She went to sleep clutching razor blades, became obsessed with her knickers, wept, screamed, sacked nannies about whom she became paranoid, was hospitalised and endured a course of ECT. When (Patrick upstairs doing his homework, the other children in bed) she saw on the news that a militant had been hanged in Rhodesia, she thought: ‘I had to identify more closely.’ So she decided that if she took an overdose and was stomach-pumped ‘the action of swallowing the tube would be similar to strangulation.’ She tipped all her Valium into herself and explained to George and then to the hospital doctors what she had done, but having obediently pumped her they found no trace of drugs. When she was discharged from the hospital ‘it was discovered that I couldn’t walk.’ This is a gold standard of 1960s flakiness; the kind of behaviour that gives hysteria a bad name. But George (also of his time) liked ‘difficult women’ and, depending how you look at it, was endlessly kind or colluding. Both, I suppose. But at this point she offers the first shadow of psychological explanation in the form of a poem by George, written in 1966, called ‘Poem of Love and Hope’, dedicated to Diana. It bifurcates his wife into the grown-up woman he loves and an inner damaged saboteur

. . . a small deserted girl
Whose pain, and fear, and sense of desolation
Have made her want to try and kill my wife.

Love turns out to be the way to defeat the enemy within:

The child can grow and so become the woman
She thinks she wants to hurt, and I can love
Not one nor yet the other, but them both;
Kiss the tired, happy child and then turn to my wife.

I think collusion rather than kindness. And though he doubtless meant well, her fear of his unfaithfulness must have taken on a new menace at the suggestion that he might be unfaithful to her with her own inner self.

The presence of the poem is a foreshadowing of the real disappointment to come in Chapter 18, entitled ‘A Sort of Excuse’. The memoir comes crashing down from its amoral high ground with an account of Diana Melly’s childhood story that explains everything we have read and makes the damaged child mother to the woman. Of course, her miserable girlhood mirrors the neglect and abandonment of her own children. It turns out that she has the perfect defence, after all; she is self-centred and hopeless because she has to be. Just like the rest of us. No, this is what I am, take it or leave it. Her children are the victims of a victim, and the pattern will out; there is no escaping the return of the repressed. But if only she had resisted telling us her back story, if she had kept her justification of herself to herself, the book would have been a one-off, the like of which still remains to be written.

Actually, George Melly gets quite close to it in Slowing Down, published a couple of months after his wife’s book and a perfect palate-cleanser. It’s a calm, unapologetic itemisation of the body growing old, as well as a response (fortuitous, probably, since George’s book was finished only after its third deadline) to Take a Girl like Me. It is all amiability, vague and smiling, taking it as it comes. You sense that Melly’s attraction to Dadaism was as much about its unsurprised acceptance of the weirdness of the world as any intellectual commitment to its manifesto. He could be and do whatever he liked and let others do the same with a faraway smile on his face. This is also a kind of evenness that must be hell to live with. Many of Diana’s complaints are about George going along with whatever anyone wanted of him – women usually – and a terrible indecisiveness when those desires conflicted, as they must. He wants an easy life, and he also wants to please: therefore everyone around him is in a rage while George sits baffled at the still centre of the fury. It helps (him) that he is deaf. There’s no end of things that he can’t hear. Screams of frustration, for example. Of his marriage he says: ‘Our marriage began passionately and is finishing with compassion. She makes sure I do what I have to do, go where I’m meant to go, and I still love her very much.’ But he takes a view of his declining physical powers that mirrors Montaigne in its plain confronting of the facts and the shrug that acknowledges necessity.

He is impotent, his memory is patchy, he can’t cope with technology, doesn’t have much of an appetite, suffers from psoriasis and takes a cornucopia of pills. St Mary’s hospital, Paddington is like a second home. He lists the departments that take a special interest in him: hearing, endocrinology, chest and allergy clinic, cardiology, hepatology and haematology. He also became familiar with the oncology clinic when a tumour was found on his lung a few years ago. He listened to (or failed to hear) what the doctor and Diana had to say about treatment and announced that he was going to do nothing about it. No radiology, no chemo, no surgery, no prayers and no giving up cigarettes. Diana wept and mourned him to her friends. Months later he had another scan and the tumour had disappeared. He’s in extra time.

The book ambles around, wandering from a description of a TV documentary he saw the other night on tapeworms, to Blake and André Breton’s views on God, to his old days on the road with the Footwarmers, and his revived career belting out ‘Old Rocking Chair’s Got Me’ sitting on a very necessary chair because his knees can’t stand the standing, let alone the stomping. He tells an anecdote about being nearly arrested for peeing against a wall in the Uxbridge Road. He was let off, having explained about his little white pills which cause urgent bladder emptying, though with a caution: ‘But next time try not to choose the wall of a police station.’ But utterly self-involved though he is, other people loom hugely. Whole chapters are devoted to friends; newish ones like the photographer Michael Woods and old, lost friends like Ronnie Scott, who is memorialised and mythified with affection.

He makes a point of responding to Diana’s hatred of one particular girlfriend, nicknamed – by Diana – Greckel. According to Diana, Greckel is the cause of most of her suffering. Greckel made scenes and, as George acknowledges, gets foully drunk. Twice George almost left Diana to live with Greckel and twice he backed out, ultimately unable to sever his ties with his wife. Even so, he won’t give her up or let Diana’s description of her as ‘a fiend’ stand without correction. ‘My obsessive relationship with Greckel will never waver,’ he told an Observer interviewer the other day, ‘but I won’t ever again suggest leaving Diana . . . I still love her very much.’ George must drive everyone mad, loving everyone as he does. Diana’s acerbity fermented over years of George’s large capacity for liking the world and its inhabitants. After having been a pool of tears mopped up patiently by George in the first half of the marriage, she is now known as the Wing Commander, ordering, arranging, being in charge. She is essential to George’s everyday pill-taking, hospital-visiting, diary-forgetting life. She couldn’t manage without him.