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Misty-Eyed with Good-Time George
by Yvonne Mallett
When my old school friend, Emmie, and I met up after a gap of some 30 years the catch-up stories came thick and fast. And when they were over, we inevitably tip-toed into ‘do you remember when?’ territory.
Not that it was school itself that was the attraction – oh, no. It was the après school we were keen to re-visit.
We were besotted by jazz. We used to hoard our pocket money so that when the time came we could jump out of our gym slips and into something less comfortable to get to wherever there was jazz. The music was always good. And some of it was even better. We went to anything from high-school bands to top names like Humph, or Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes. We kept pace with every development: trad, mainstream and modern. But the number one attraction for our money was the late great George Melly. We may have been dumb with admiration during his performance but we’d re-run his every note and move for days afterwards.
One night when he was playing within striking distance we got to the venue as it opened and bagged ourselves a table a few feet from the band.
We were dressed to kill and, mercifully, looked nothing like our schoolgirl selves. Lips were being worn untainted by lipstick in those days but we made up for that with half-a-ton of mascara each. Back then mascara came in small blocks (a bit like shoe polish). You had to spit into it and lather it up with a brush before lathering it on to your eyelashes.
Photograph © Sandy Pringle
That night our idol came and saw and conquered us where we sat, misty-eyed with love, spikey-eyed with too much mascara. We knew he had seen us because in the interval, as if it had been planned by our willpower alone, George took three strides from the stage and sat down, without hesitation, at our table.
He was all smiles and friendliness. We were all frozen and silent – but not for long. Everyone was looking at us, their envious expressions clearly saying: “Who are they?”
Emmie was the first to recover from this happy shock – and how!
While I sat nonchalantly, contributing a few – very few – words of conversation, Emmie managed a creditable stream of chatter. George even laughed a few times. I was beginning to see Emmie in a new light – sophisticated, at ease and, it must be acknowledged, obviously a lot more attractive to men than I was.
Sophistication being the name of the game, I’m afraid we smoked a lot more than was reasonable just because George was happy to light cigarettes for us. At one moment in this thrilling process there was a sudden fizzing sound and a faint smell of burning. I had leaned too close to the lighter and my left eyelids were soldered together, courtesy of the mascara.
This was disappointing. The vision of loveliness that was George was now blurred and one-sided. I tried and tried to open my eye. Impossible. I had no choice; I had to slink away to the Ladies, where it took plenty of soap and hot water to prise my eyelids apart. By the time I’d gone to work with a fresh application of make-up and returned to the table, George and Emmie were talking and laughing like old chums, and I’d been relegated to the bit-part role of gooseberry.
There was no stopping them. They chattered on in animated mode while I tried to look bored to cover my frustration. And then George asked us what we did for a living. Emmie had no hesitation at all in explaining that we were still at school.
George made his excuses and left.
The instant his back was turned Emmie swooped on the ghastly dog-ends (not a filter tip to be seen), scooped them into her handkerchief and shoved them into her bag. For months, even years, later we’d pore over those old trophies and reminisce about the night we had George to ourselves. Emmie kept these old dog-ends until even the smell had faded.
After school Emmie and I went different ways but, both of us married, we met briefly in Canada where we each then lived, although on opposite sides of that vast country. Many years later, both of us back in London once more, we managed to meet up again and the embers of our old, close friendship were quickly reignited. Sadly, George is no longer with us but, unlike those unforgettable old dog-ends, his music still burns bright.
Our thanks to Yvonne Mallett who writes short stories, sings and has been listening to live jazz since before she left school.
Here is a brief clip from a 1959 interview with George in which he is asked: "Do you enjoy teenage adulation?". George replies: "I don't get very much teenage adulation, I'm afraid."
Here's a video of George Melly with John Chilton's Feetwarmers on Bernard Manning's television show singing Boogie Woogie Man
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