MULTI-TALENTED George Melly – jazz singer, raconteur, writer, expert on surrealism and dedicated humanist – died today aged 80. He had been suffering lung cancer and dementia, but was still performing at various gigs around the UK during the earlier part of this year.
I first met George around 30 years ago when he was performing at the famous Ronnie Scott Jazz Club in Soho, and remember asking him to sing George and Ira Gershwin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So (De things dat yo’ liable to read in de Bible It ain’t necessarily) He did so with enormous gusto.
I had great pleasure in meeting this flamboyant, warm-hearted man again in 2002 when he and I, together with a number of prominent atheists, gathered on the steps of St Martin in the Fields church in Trafalgar Square to read aloud the “blasphemous” poem, The Love that Dares to Speak its Name by James Kirkup, in which it was suggested that Jesus was gay.
The poem led to the infamous prosecution of Gay News in 1977 for blasphemy, and inspired the formation of the Gay Humanist Group (now the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association.) George was a Vice President of Galha, and also an honorary associate of the National Secular Society.
The public reading was held both to mark the 25th anniversary of the trial, and to challenge the police to prosecute the readers for repeating the “blasphemy”.
Outraged Christians, including the clown prince of British evangelism, Stephen Green of Christian Voice, tried to drown out the 2002 reading, and demanded that the readers be prosecuted. But the demonstration, which was filmed by the police, failed to lead to any action by the Director of Public Prosecutions.
After the event, which attracted world-wide media coverage, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell declared:
We have won an important victory for free speech and the right to protest. No one was arrested. The police didn’t even take our names and addresses. The blasphemy law is now a dead letter. If the authorities are not prepared to enforce the law, they should abolish it.
A trial would have involved all those who read and published the poem, including several of Britain’s leading writers, academics and MPs.
The blasphemy law gives the Christian religion privileged protection against criticism and dissent. No other institution enjoys such sweeping powers to suppress the expression of opinions and ideas.
Later that year, in an interview with the New Humanist Magazine, Melly – waggish as always – said
I remain completely faithful to humanism and will tell God so when I leave the building.