Born within months of each other, both raised under constant scrutiny by powerful grandparents, both made into vehicles for their mothers’ repressed artistic ambitions: the early histories of George Melly and Russell Baker run strikingly in parallel. Their books reveal an even more striking coincidence of form. Melly chooses, in his closing paragraph, to play affectionately along with his mother’s happy delusion that she is fifty years back in the past and the conjuror is coming to tea. Baker begins and ends his story with a baroque variation on exactly the same theme. Senility, that affliction so often viewed with embarrassed horror, is seen by Baker as yet another manifestation of his mother’s courageous resourcefulness – she turned herself into her own time-machine.
Early memory for Melly is like coming-to after a major operation. Baker likens it to waking from slumber: his earliest memory is of two huge eyes glaring from a monstrous skull. He screamed, and the monster emitted a terrifying rumble, whereupon his mother came and shooed away the cow from his crib. While baby George was being dandled in palaces of silver, velvet and mahogany, little Russell was being initiated into a world very similar to that inhabited by his Virginian ancestors in the days before the Civil War. Baker’s mother and grandmother worked without benefit of electricity, gas or plumbing. While their menfolk laboured in the fields, they killed chickens, canned vegetables, scrubbed floors, baked bread, chopped wood and hauled water. After days of such serf-like toil, says Baker, it was surprising that these women had energy left to nourish their mutual disdain.
This disdain was not merely a matter of mothers and daughters-in-law. It reflected two conflicting views of life, or at least of the duty of the male. For the grandmother, shown in a wedding photograph resting her hand on her husband’s shoulder rather as Winston Churchill used to grip the arm of his chair, the duty of the male was to provide. For Elizabeth Baker, an incisive young woman who had trained as a teacher, the male’s job was to ‘make something’ of himself. The domestic inappropriateness of this view was quickly overshadowed by the economic hopelessness in which she and her brood were suddenly engulfed. A diabetic before the age of insulin, her husband died after five years of marriage. In a state of shock she gave away a daughter and accepted a brother’s offer of sanctuary in New Jersey. Teaching jobs were not exactly plentiful in 1931: Growing Up is as much a chronicle of his mother’s cruelly dashed hopes as of Baker’s hard-won rise to fame.
The hospitable brother was a waif made good who took many other relatives under his roof as Hoover’s temporary ‘depression’ turned into the Depression. One uncle was a big-talking timber merchant who never sold a plank, another an intelligent drone who had retired for good at 23. The family’s one big (but impossibly distant) success story was a cousin who wrote a column in the New York Times. Each Sunday they passed this eagerly from hand to hand, but nobody actually read it: they all found it stupefyingly boring. Baker writes of this household as Dickens might have done, with amusement and affection. ‘At New Street we lived on coffee and talk. Talking was the great Depression pastime. Unlike the movies, talk was free, and a great river of talk flowed through the house, rising at suppertime, and cresting as my bedtime approached before subsiding into a murmur that trickled long past midnight.’ On the other hand, his account of his mother’s abortive courtship by a Danish widower is as poignant a tragedy as any in Dickens. Oluf, an industrious but temporarily embarrassed entrepreneur, was ready to go anywhere, work any hours, and he kept his intended informed of his progress. His letters, gauche and misspelt, make pitiful reading, as pride and courage are worn down by waves of despair. One day he wrote telling her to write no more. Why? What had she done? ‘You have not done anything to me, but the Deprescion has ... Please forget all about me, I am lost and going ... Please try to feind a man good anof for you ...’ Then he simply disappeared into the Depression.
All this young Russell only half-understood at the time. One of his recurrent concerns – and one of his reasons for writing this book – is that children’s curiosity about their parents’ past tends to awaken too late for it to be satisfied. He writes with real remorse of his mother’s second husband, a kindly engine-driver whom he tormented for years: all the arrogant young 15-year-old could see was an uneducated dolt. But Baker had by then many reasons for being possessive and bitter. As ‘the man of the family’ he had augmented its income by doing paper rounds since he was eight, but there had come an awful moment when he, his sister and his mother had had to take a cart to collect government surplus food ‘on relief’. (On their way home, pretending to each other to be too hot, they had taken off their coats to hide the incriminating packages.)
‘Writing runs in the family,’ Elizabeth had always said. The process by which the gift passed from mother to son began with a piece of homework entitled ‘Wheat’. Baker’s teacher was delighted and sent it to the local newspaper as an example of what an 11-year-old could do; the paper printed it under the byline ‘Russell Baker’; the real author had been Elizabeth, who had taken her son’s first draft and rewritten it entirely. The pivotal stage came four years later, when Baker, offered a choice of essay subjects by a notoriously dull master, suddenly found himself impelled to use one as a springboard into the past. ‘I wanted to put it down simply for my own joy, not for Mr Fleagle ... I wanted to relive the pleasure of an evening at New Street. To write it as I wanted, however, would violate all the rules of formal composition I’d learned in school, and Mr Fleagle would surely give it a failing grade.’ Mr Fleagle didn’t, of course. He read it to the class, who were vastly entertained. If Baker had then even a quarter of the deftly evocative gift he has now, the essay would have been a good one. That was the moment he discovered his vocation.
The most exhilarating chapter of Growing Up deals with his apprenticeship as a pilot. The reckless tutors who put their lives in his inept hands seem to have had no inkling of his small-town lack of sophistication. ‘It’s like driving a car,’ said one. ‘You know how it is when you let in the clutch? Real smooth and easy.’ Baker nodded knowingly, never having driven a car. After a day of far from immaculate Immelman turns, another explained: ‘It’s just like handling a girl’s breast. You’ve got to be gentle.’ More nods from Baker, who had not yet touched one of those dangerous objects.
Sex? It’s all there and in place, though reined in by what one must assume to be Southern good manners. Baker is candid, but he is also discreet as a cat: in this respect, the contrast with his Liverpudlian coeval could hardly be more striking. George Melly has been letting it all hang out in print since the publication of his first autobiographical volume in 1965. Owning Up was Melly’s personal history of the explosive growth of British jazz in the Fifties. It also recorded an endless round of grotty digs, stink-bomb socks, vomitings into washbasins, peeings out of windows, and knee-trembles with scrubbers (in those days, the word simply meant loyal groupies) under bridges, up alleyways and anywhere else convenient. His next autobiographical volume, funnier and more assured, appeared 12 years later: Rum, Bum and Concertina looked back to his sexually ambivalent days in bell-bottoms, chronicling, with cartwheeling confidence, his picaresque progress as a Lower Deck funster and as a smart young surrealist-about-town. With Scouse Mouse, he goes back into the mists of time, his unflaggingly comic vision now tinged with a more sedate nostalgia.
The opening chapters of this book are filled with descriptions of Melly’s pleasantly eccentric forebears, of noisy family gatherings, and of the indoor and outdoor furniture of their solid, capitalist world. It reads a little like the designer’s script for a television costume-drama. Sights and sounds are lovingly recorded, as are the minutiae of which he was always so delightedly aware. He recalls a stuffed thrush and a golf ball inside a small glass dome with a brass plaque which read: ‘In 1903 W. R. Melly drove off the 3rd tee at Formby Golf Club. His ball struck a thrush in the air, killing it instantly, and holed in one.’ He recalls a fiendishly ingenious German mousetrap in the form of a Gothic cathedral, and a musical box in the form of a lettuce whose leaves parted to reveal a life-sized rabbit whose nose twitched in time to the music. He is ravished in retrospect by the splendour of an Edwardian lavatory, and by the elegant simplicities of a municipal tram.
His father, who habitually took a back seat in life, died after telling him: ‘Always do what you want to do. I never did.’ Melly obeyed. The principal characters in his costume drama are, of course, his mother and himself. Not driven by the hardship which made Baker’s relationship with his mother so tempestuous, George and his mother Maud could afford to bask in constant reciprocal approval. Maud’s true ambition, only half-admitted, had been to go on the stage, but she seems to have compensated satisfactorily by surrounding herself with stage celebrities (including Robert Helpmann and Frederick Ashton), by indulging in amateur dramatics, and by amusing her family with assorted comic turns, such as a belched version of ‘God Save the King’. Even as a tot, George stuck close to her sophisticated, largely homosexual coterie, and would sometimes be dug out of bed to delight them with his imitations of louche popular singers. He often didn’t know what they meant, he says, ‘but I had listened very carefully to the intonation and, by exaggerating it, unconsciously emphasised the double entendres.’ His first thespian appearance was at a Hogmanay party as Douggie Duck, a character from a children’s strip in the Daily Mail. As the adults didn’t know about Douggie Duck, this was a flop. His next appearance, as Mickey Mouse, was so successful that he demanded to be photographed. (That picture is on the dust-jacket: the book cries out for pictures of its colourful supporting cast.) Through George, Maud’s hopes were thereafter purposefully fulfilled.
Scouse Mouse, like its two preceding volumes, is notable for consistency of tone. Melly talks of the objectifying capacity which comes with age, but the reader has a strong sense both of the extrovert little boy in the mature writer and of the amused intelligence behind the infant gaze. Early on in the book there are intimations of his later penchant for flamboyant social gestures. ‘The trams smelt of stale sweat and urine but it was never a smell I disliked. It seemed to suggest to me a dangerous freedom.’ Going to and from his prep school, he was accustomed to being duffed up by gangs of oiks. He didn’t enjoy this, but he envied the oiks their marauding life-style, as did, he hints, his Marlborough-educated father.
But back to school and, naturally, unnatural sex. Rubbing up, a communal pleasure to which Melly was introduced at the age of nine, was among his contemporaries uncontaminated by romantic feelings of any sort. The headmaster/proprietor, one W.W. Twyne, was a misanthropic Latinist, prone in moments of anger to slipper his entire school, ‘explaining to each boy, as the blow descended, the individual shortcoming which justified his inclusion in this holocaust’. Melly’s portrait of this disturbed personality is hilarious and sharply observed. Twyne used to sum up the Montessori System as ‘a pimply youth in a velvet suit doing crochet in a deckchair’. In his aggressive loathing for anything ‘effeminate’ he was a type: throughout the Thirties, Forties and Fifties many thousands of Twynes were entrusted with the middle-class soul, as many are still. It is only mildly surprising to discover that Hallam Tennyson, five years older than Melly, suffered under a Twyne-in-all-but-name; it is piquant to note that Tennyson was nearly sent to Stowe, where he and Melly Major might just have overlapped.
Writing about his schooldays, Tennyson manages a certain amount of wry humour, but this quality entirely deserts him when he talks about his family. Whereas Melly’s homosexuality largely evaporated with the belated onset of adulthood, Tennyson’s has tormented him all his life, and he lays most of the blame for this on the fact that his wayward but forceful mother had wanted him to be a girl. The Haunted Mindwas originally to be called ‘Man on a Crossing’ but, as he observes,‘the mood in which it was written has changed.’ Indeed it has: embarked on as a piece of therapy, the book has achieved its goal to the extent that it seems to have been written by two quite different people. Tennyson’s account of his origins, and of the way he believes his parents’ neuroses have been handed on to him is pompous, clinical and less illuminating than he seems to think it is. His account of his adult life (his mother drops quickly out of the picture) is given in a voice which becomes progressively more interesting and humane.
After Eton and Balliol, Tennyson’s radical sympathies led him to become a conscientious objector and, as with so many other social and sexual misfits, the war was one of his happiest times. He worked with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit in the Mediterranean, then went to help relieve poverty in Bengal: these sections of his memoir make fascinating reading. He married and had children. He became a Wimbledon umpire. He came out. On the staff of the BBC throughout the Sixties and early Seventies, he was responsible for many good programmes, as well as for running an excellent training scheme. His distaste for the philistine opportunism which has more recently permeated the upper reaches of that organisation is expressed with dignity and without rancour. Now, though emotionally close to his family, he lives alone, letting rooms to odds and sods. In all important respects he comes over as a thoroughly decent man.
But haunted. And how. By the ghost of his great-grandfather. By the fear of being rated a nonentity, or of being found to be a fraud. By his mistrust of emotion, with its powerful illogicality. By the fear of criticism, despite his masochistic tendencies. ‘I share with my Victorian ancestor a neurasthenic allergy to criticism. I would walk a mile to avoid having to read an unfavourable review ...’ (Oops, I had better watch out.) But haunted, above all, by the endless desire for a male who will ‘accept’ him sexually. He is nothing if not a trier. His forty-year search for that creature has not slowed down. He is probably still, as he writes this book, maybe even as he reads this review (well, it’s basically favourable), engaging in delightful/disturbing/lacerating encounters. He writes with distaste of ‘gay pride’, but with persuasive power on the predicament of promiscuous homosexuals. He goes into more detail than one might wish about his more grotesque private hang-ups (an envious obsession with young men’s armpit hair, for example). He seems doomed to make a fool of himself again and again, forever seeing the silly side of his last-but-one incarnation. Poor, driven man. But he doesn’t sound unhappy. And he has achieved his other overriding aim, which was to escape from his suffocating niche in the bosom of the ruling class.