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Straight, gay, bisexual? Who cares? The Liberal Democrats may be imploding after recent revelations, but the writer and jazz singer George Melly, seduced in his youth by an older couple, has no regrets about the 70 years he's spent proving that variety is the spice of life
Published: 28 January 2006
It is for me an odd phenomenon that in my three volumes of autobiography I was as frank as I was able about my diverse sexual periods, and yet it is only with my most recent, and possibly last book, Slowing Down, that my 70 years or so of largely joyful variations on this or that aspect of sexuality have occupied a large part of my interrogation by journalists. Bisexuality did, after all, occupy a considerable part of my life - and, like Edith Piaf, without regrets.
Firstly, however, I would like to counter a few entirely mistaken attitudes - held by those, for example, for whom any alternative to heterosexuality is "unnatural''. Not in nature, it isn't. I read only last week that stallions, housed together without mares, soon divide into "males" and "females", some passive, some active, the former adopting all the flirtatious come-ons of the real females.
As for homophobes, I suspect that many of them are rigorously suppressed gays themselves, others the templates of their hyper-respectable parents or the mores of the more uptight suburbs.
On another level there are those whose bisexuality is combined with the seduction of pre-adolescent children, and indeed with sadistic motives often ending in torture and murder. "Paedophilia" has become a witchhunt, and is in most cases rightly deplored, but the old maths master who gently smacks the bottom of a boy or squeezes the thigh of a pretty pupil who gets a sum wrong should only be the subject of much ribaldry.
The worst and most scandalous recent example of victimisation was the humiliation of Michael Jackson. The salacious press couldn't believe their luck. Their victim, while admittedly sleeping with small boys, was reduced to despair (my wife, a rather severe moralist these days, remarked that she could imagine nothing more exciting for a hero-worshipping lad than to be played with by Michael Jackson). He was found guilty by the press and, while a certain humanity affected the judge, Jackson is probably damaged mentally for life.
I do believe that there are "evil people'', whether their behaviour has roots in their childhood or no. But condemning all "paedophilia", from the mass murderer to the bum-smacking old usher, is over the top. Alan Bennett's recent play The History Boys deals sensitively with this issue. And we should not forget how at the end of the 19th century homosexuality was an object of British hysteria. The judge in the Oscar Wilde case declared he would sooner try "a decent murder''. The recent civil partnership celebrated by Elton John and his partner would have been greeted in 1900 with total disbelief.
So I hope having made my own attitude clear, having thrown aside what I think of as dead wood, let us celebrate bisexuality according to my lights. Beauty comes into it, a particular kind of beauty. The faces of those I found entirely attractive tended to be feminine without being effeminate. I liked big sensuous mouths, astounding eyes, long lashes, well- placed ears and long necks. On the other hand I preferred masculine bodies, thin rather than fat, but not those of exaggerated "sculptured'' muscles. Long, elegant legs - but then, in my gay or heterosexual periods I've always been a "leg man''. One of my fantasies during my gay episode was of black boxers in white socks.
Of course in Britain there has always been a tolerance towards female impersonators, from the Victoria and Edwardian music hall onwards. The pantomime, too, is a festival of transvestism, with its glamorous female "principal boy'' and the usually grotesque "dame'', yet there are camp comics who have aroused the hostility of the more severe members of gay lib: Danny La Rue, Larry Grayson, John Inman and others were all attacked for making a joke of homosexuality. But I believe that this has led to greater tolerance through laughter.
I've often wondered about the boys who played women in the Shakespearean and early Stuart theatre. Were they the loved ones of male actors? In the heyday of ancient Greece, boys were the true loves of adult and educated men, a fact carefully concealed by the teachers of old- fashioned classical history in Dr Arnold's day. There have been attempts to defend bisexuality. The novelist and essayist Colin MacInnes (Absolute Beginners) wrote a piece in the critical magazine Encounter entitled "Love Him Love Her''. While no doubt sincere, this piece was undoubtedly hypocritical. As far as I know, Colin - and I knew him very well - was entirely gay, with a special penchant for black men (Cassius Clay, as he was called then, was his dream lover).
My first bisexual experience was with a middle-aged man and his attractive but no longer young wife (I've written a portrait of the husband in Don't Tell Sybil). His name was ELT Mesens - Eduard - and he was a fanatical businessman, exceptionally severe with me when I worked for him later in his gallery, but equally a poet - and a good one - a collagist, an exhibition organiser, a brilliant collector and a bad drunk. This eventually killed him at the age of 69.
His attempt to revive Surrealism during the post-war indifference to the movement was a complete failure. The intellectuals (many of them gay) who had found it "amusing'' before the war thought of it now as old hat. Only a few young poets and a handful of painters remained faithful, and they had very little money to keep a commercial venture going. Neo-romanticism was the new fashion, spiced up by a little decorative Cubism and pretty colours. It was all we could sell, and later, in desperation, ELT allowed artists to hire the rooms. Meanwhile, in the cellars languished masterpieces by Ernst, Tanguy, Arp, Delvaux, etc - and especially Magritte, ELT's almost lifelong friend and supporter.
So it closed down; the directors, all rich men, withdrew their support, but ELT and Sybil held on to their own wonderful collection - and several decades later the movement was (dread word) reassessed and the pair became multimillionaires.
A further complication was that André Breton, Surrealism's saintlike leader and originator of the movement, forbade any contact with his early comrades Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard, who had become at various times Stalinists, while others were expelled or resigned for becoming official war artists or accepting prizes and money given by state organisations, or for deliberately commercialising their works.
ELT was forced for a time to live largely on his wife, she earning a good living as chief buyer for a great store. He was soon in demand to organise important exhibitions, which he executed with great knowledge and precision. Before he died his last words to me, shouted, were: "I remain a Surrealist to my fingernails!''
My sexual initiation by this couple had come several years earlier, when I was still in the Navy; Le petit marin was Sybil's affectionate nickname for me. The gallery, still crippled by commercial building regulations in the post-war years, was only half-built, but their flat on the top floor was complete. One grey Sunday afternoon Eduard and I were in the living room, discussing, as was his wont, sex. Sybil, who was in an armchair reading, as was her custom, a detective novel, suddenly intervened: "Instead of talking about it, why don't we go into the bedroom and do it?''
Later I came to believe that this proposition had been rehearsed, but at the time I thought of it as spontaneous. So we went into the bedroom and "did it'', me apprehensive because I'd never had a woman before. I needn't have worried. ELT, stripped naked to his socks, as in early pornography, shouted with evident satisfaction: "You are fucking my wife!'' I acquitted myself without difficulty and later he took my place while I sat near by, and after that we got into bed together and dozed and made love à trois, with gentle satisfaction.
What I learnt that afternoon above Brook Street W1 was that women were not all frigid virgins and would not only say "yes'' but even "would you''. I felt somehow a more complete grown-up.
While Sybil was still very attractive, Eduard was far from my physical ideal. With his plump face and immaculately combed hair he resembled one of his idols, Maurice Chevalier. Indeed, all surrealists dressed like their bourgeois enemy, the better to shock them, and society had accepted "bohemianism'' as something quaint, somehow licensed among "mad artists''.
ELT had been a member of the movement in its golden age, a friend of great poets and painters. In my eyes this gave him considerable glamour, and he still visited Breton when in Paris. Several years before, on my first visit to the movement's then secretary, Simon Watson Taylor, I had hypocritically attacked homosexuality, having read somewhere of Breton's almost insane homophobia. Simon disabused me.
Breton aside, many of the Surrealists were bisexual and Eluard, in particular, offered his second wife, Nusch, to his friends - including, I gathered, ELT himself and Picasso. Orgies, too, were not unknown.
ELT, especially in his cups, was interested in men - he was, indeed, arrested in a public lavatory by one of those odious personages of the time, a police agent provocateur, dressed, as was their practice, as a handsome, possibly gay, civilian. He charged Eduard with expressing too much interest in his penis over the marble stall. Sybil spoke up for him in court, and her respectable appearance and professional occupation got him off.
Much later on, after the gallery had closed, he asked me to help him hang the collection in their new flat off Baker Street. Here he expected our mutual sexual collaboration to continue, and to include certain fantasies. I had to put up with these with concealed disgust.
Both before and after our troilism I slept with many men and women I liked but by no means fancied. This, I rationalised, was because to refuse would have made them feel rejected - and I reckoned that I would eventually be glad to receive similar kindnesses. And so I'm for ever grateful to ELT and Sybil. I continued along these lines until I fell in love with my second wife - a love which continued for several passionate years before it died away, although she now looks after me and makes sure I don't miss my appointments.
I remember so much with delight - including even a threesome with young lesbians. I've always found them attractive, probably because of their androgynous appearance. In more recent times beautiful young men have again entered my fantasies and take up their role in mental orgies with a cast of night nurses, handsome young blacks and pin-up girls from The Sun. No pain for anyone, though. Just imagined pleasure.
Thank you Eduard, thank you Sybil.
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