Miss Perfect

Take a Girl Like Me

Diana Melly <em>Chatto & Windus, 280pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 0701179066

Marrying George Melly set the tone and tempo for the rest of Diana Melly's life. Not that she gave it much thought at the time. "Who's the sexy mouse?" George inquired one night at Muriel's drinking club in Soho. The answer was Diana, who had taken to sitting on top of the piano to make her legs look longer. Things moved fast: "Later on that evening George and I made love on Hampstead Heath. The following day we met in a pub and rather casually decided that somehow we would live together." Oh, yes, and each of them was already married, Diana for the second time, with a child by each husband. It was 1961 and she was 24 years old.

Was that how it was in the 1960s? Well, yes and no. And this delicious book explains how it was for Diana. George was already a larger-than-life figure - a jazzman, cartoonist, authority on surrealism, lover of pictures and women, possessor of an extravagant imagination. His exuberance and audacity would make him a regular on television talk shows - including Late Night Line-Up, for which I was a presenter. He would be, by turns (and sometimes, it seemed, all at once), a tele-vision critic, film critic, lecturer, angler, campaigner and performer. Life would be a roller-coaster ride for Diana, but she was ready: "There is a side to George that has always been attracted to unstable, needy women - and that was me."

The tale she tells is beguilingly honest and direct. There is plenty of mischief and bad behaviour, but she is never judgemental. That's how it was in the 1960s. We were finding new ways to be open in our personal lives and to make new things possible in the world. So Diana and George took a sequence of lovers, broke the windows of South Africa House and, during the miners' strike of 1984, set up a food centre. There was a price to pay, however: Diana's account becomes increasingly thoughtful and sad. She was already suicidal by the mid-1960s, and writes of ECT treatment, Freudian analysis and a Valium overdose. The drugs she took were not always therapeutic. Always, somewhere, there is the sound of sobbing.

We learn little of her early background: she grew up in a bungalow in Essex, with a mother who was a housekeeper in Hampstead. During the Second World War she was sent to a convent boarding school. She left at 14 for a ragbag of jobs - model, shop assistant, nightclub hostess. Then, at 16, she married. The sepia tones of these events can't match the technicolour of her marriage to George. Their early rapture gave way to infidelities - with Mel the doctor, with Jeremy the sociologist, with 17-year-old Billy and (perhaps most inappropriately) with Lewis, a High Tory Welsh mining engineer. Yet always she talks as if "falling in love" excused all and was the one imperative to which she had to respond. The 1960s were a bit like that for everyone, only more so than most for Diana.

This was a time when women were trying to find their own independence yet were still forced, even by the conventions of Bohemia, to live through their menfolk. George gave Diana freedom, security and space. She took jobs as a waitress, with the drugs charity Release, even driving a taxi. She clearly had formidable organisational skills - her nickname was "Miss Perfect" - but never made a career. It was George who made her lifestyle possible. Famous names spill from these pages: Francis Bacon, Kenneth Tynan, Mike Nichols, Emma Tennant, Anne Wollheim, Sonia Orwell. As a taxi driver, Diana is called to the home of her friends Rachel and Jonathan Miller, where Susan Sontag is having lunch. She advertises a room to let: Martin Amis replies.

More poignantly, she becomes a lifeline to the highly manipulative Jean Rhys, who takes her to stay at the Danieli in Venice. She converts a tumbledown tower in the Brecon Beacons - ideal for George's passion for fishing - and takes in another sponger, Bruce Chatwin. Neither of them lifts a finger to help. She writes movingly of Chatwin's death from Aids while staying at Shirley Conran's house in France. Slowly, Diana unwittingly reveals her great talent for friendship. In the course of an unstructured life, her compassionate nature matures and endures, to the bene-fit of a great many people - most of all, surely, George Melly himself.

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Islam: the tide of change