Featuring artwork by Melinda, Steve Scoles talks to Melinda Gebbie as she pulls together her memoirs…
Melinda Gebbie is working out who she is. Artist, activist, rape survivor, traveller, adventurer, storyteller, low budget explorer armed with a flask of cheap wine and some coloured pencils… and not least creative collaborator and wife to Northampton writer Alan Moore. When it comes to working out who she is Mel has plenty of choice.
This isn’t some kind of mid-life crisis (although she does own an all carbon fibre mountain bike for negotiating Northampton’s potholed roads in comfort – an item straight out of my own mid-life crisis fantasies). This is the process of her memoirs taking shape and there is quite a narrative to lay out.
She welcomes me into her studio in the home she shares with Alan. It is like an Aladdin’s Cave within an Aladdin’s Cave: books, artworks, artefacts, figurines and sculptures surround you. The living room is Alan’s workspace and the shadows are deeper. In Mel’s studio the light has a clarity that is both comforting and merciless – nothing can hide in the shadows here, not even you.
She’s very concerned that I’ve got a cool drink and that I’m well. Her dark eyes twinkle with laughter but can switch in a heartbeat – when her simmering, unforgiving anger at America, the country of her birth, emerges for instance. She’s not passive in the face of injustice or a good cause that needs support.
The next piece of work we will see from Mel will be the collaboration with Alan on a graphic novella to benefit the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire. It is a tender celebration of the lives that have been lost and Mel’s artwork – carefully considered to avoid traumatic trigger images – is beautiful.
Mel comes from San Francisco where she experienced the unravelling carnival of the end of 60s idealism. Her memoirs will describe growing up in the midst of that disintegrating counterculture and the adventures that ensued.
“They were all from diaries done copiously over the years, more to prove to myself when
I didn’t know who I was any more, who that person was,” says Mel.
“I started writing a diary in my twenties. I thought if I write about my life it will get more interesting. And it did. What if I live my life as if it is a really exciting life? Not excitement like Grace Jones glamorous type excitement. It’s just some girl from some town getting into some shit. There were all kinds of people in our group, some of them were good talkers, some of them were good to look at, they just had to be interesting. It’s like a no frills Happy Shopper explorer. Some pencils and a flask of cheap wine and we’re off.”
Mel’s habit of going beyond the ins and outs of daily life in her diary to record things like the way people spoke have left her with a huge resource to draw upon for her memoirs.
“This has been a very long project. I transcribed everything by hand then realised that was stupid but I always had something against typing so I couldn’t make myself type. I had four different typists. It’s been edited by a really hot pro, Donna Bond, she did a spiffing job. She corrected my dates and even the names of obscure people I hung with so she was great.
“There was 1300 pages of pure transcription, I whacked off (edited away) 800 of them. The format I think is going to be two books of about 300 pages each. The first one will be about my life in San Francisco until I left it in 1984 and the next will be about the weird land of England up until Alan and I met and started working together.”
Readers should not expect misty-eyed nostalgia for the hippy era.
“Living in San Francisco in the late 60s, 70s, 80s, everything was a madhouse. All the seeds of the glorious Trump days that are upon us were sown back then in that crazy ass chaos.
“The clothes were terrible and the films were terrible and everybody had just fallen off the textured wagon of playing with eastern belief systems and just fell back into everybody just squealing about shiny bright things. It was very lost.
“People who had never been there, never visited the place, think the 70s must be lovely just like people think: “Weren’t the 40s lovely the fashions were great!
“I think there will be a lot of interest in it from people who want to know more about the 60s and 70s, I was in San Francisco, I was a hippy then I was a punk so I joined up with whatever was going and stuff like that, met a lot of interesting people because San Francisco was a small community. There was only a whisper of the beats but there were some interesting buildings and a sense of place.
“I read On The Road when I was 14 – now that’s what I call writing – it was all joy and kineticism and a great realm of newness. I went across America on route 66 with my then lover Honey on a little yellow Yamaha. She sold it when we got to Florida because we were tired of crawling out of the hotel windows because we couldn’t pay. We were broke a lot of the time, we went without food, we gave blood twice a day, we got robbed.
“We slept on a beach on an island which belonged to Richard Nixon. We got woken up by a cop who shouted at us: ‘You cannot stay here this island belongs to Richard M Nixon, you will leave this property immediately.’ Two scrubby looking, weird smelling, matted hair women. I did stuff that others girls didn’t do.”
Mel’s first encounter with England came via Cambridge.
She explains: “I came to Cambridge with a weird geezer (Adam Cornford) I met in San Francisco. We eventually got married and immediately split up, but that was good because I had had a taste of the Cambridge mandarinate as he referred to them and had a chance to be like a downstairs maid in an upper class family situation. I asked my ex’s mother why none of her friends had spoken to me at the table and she said oh that’s because you weren’t introduced.
“All my life I have bounced around doing the splits between what would be considered high culture by some people and what would be considered low culture by other people. I got a chance to make up my own mind based on how people acted with each other. That’s the only important thing. All this fol-de-rol about Philip Green destroying people’s pensions so he can get a bigger boat – that is depravity in its true form.
“I wouldn’t have come if I wasn’t with my ex and visiting his family. It was just a visit, we weren’t married then. I loved Cambridge because I didn’t know anybody and continued not to know anybody there, so it wasn’t like a hotbed of socialising for me. I was rather more outside the snow globe looking in, and I was certainly made to feel unwelcome, but that was fun because my ex-husband was a skittish, library-fed, nervy intellectual blue blood of sorts and his family were casually, imperialistically snobby. His mother spoke between her teeth so she looked rather like she was chewing rather than asking for cigarettes.
“I exposed as much as I could of that whole situation, I would talk about the unwed mothers of a certain family, so I underlined what was crap in these people by making them feel uncomfortable. Their phone manners were atrocious all of them except for one or two.
“Claire Riles was lovely, and her father was a very important astronomer, but she was the one really decent girl I met while I was there.
“There were a couple of years of doing that. It was visually very beautiful and always emotionally like a sort of a painted set, you know everyone listening to the Archers and having only salad oil on their lettuce because anything else was completely unacceptable.”
Despite the cold atmosphere of the Cambridge set, Mel found the UK and attractive place to be.
“When I first came here I thought everybody looked so lovely and skinny on the tube trains and everybody looked so sharply dressed compared to Americans, they’ve always been the bumpkin half brother of England in terms of fashion. Everybody looked miles smaller in their clothing sizes.
“I remember London, Soho in about ‘85, people went to pubs with their own friends and who were most of the time about the same income. I didn’t hear people moaning about how they wanted to be rich. People in their 20s and 30s, they were talking about the things they wanted to do and they were laughing with their friends. I think England was a more contented country when I came here.
“I had just come from a country that was covered in a psychosis of ‘I’m in a film’. This kind of self-conscious, playing of characters. A lot of people in the underground played characters and would act like them because they didn’t have a centred place to come from. I’ve done this, I’ve helped this person, this has happened, I went through this, no they would act like they were tough but all they were were a lot of weak fantasising drug and alcohol dependent potential incel people from the future. Yeah, me want now, that was always the American message – me want now and nobody is going to stand in my way – not my son, not my daughter, not my best friend, not my husband. It’s me first and everybody else last.”
Mel worked on the animated film When The Wind Blows in 1986, among 14 other artists, hand painting cells and rendering the Raymond Briggs classic. She socialised with Soho’s bohemians.
“So I go to England and people have communities. I see them gathering and being happy. It seemed to be very happy. The kids or the grown ups who worked in the financial district – I didn’t see them. I saw people in Soho who were mostly in the arts or who knows, something interesting.”
The uneasy dynamic between the US and the UK is fascinating to Mel.
She says: “English culture has the support, it’s so much older than culture in America, it knows how to abide, it knows how to be patient to work for the best as it can and rushing it does no good. Things happen at a certain pace.”
However she feels like she has seen a change in the decades she has spent here.
“All these films came from America, all these things about being feral, about being a hit and run driver for fun, stuff about being a pack of coyotes on the prowl, whether it be rapey or shooty or whatever it was. The old west. This awful inundation of all these kind of ways of being cruel and not being someone who identifies with a group at all, and that infection came to England because it forced itself on England, because actually America wants England to like it, because America is a lost little ten-year-old and it’s made a big mess and its pooed itself from head to toe and now it wants mummy to fix it up, now that it’s intimidated mummy and told mummy that it hates her and it wants to come over and smash her face. But then sometimes it needs to suck on her a bit too, and it can’t bloody decide which it wants, but it wants both at once… That’s what I believe has happened to England.”
Book Two of the memoirs will focus on England.
“I had a little adventure in S&M land as part of my second book, there’s no use not mentioning it, I won’t go into detail – adults only – it’s nothing like 50 Shades of Grey because these things actually happened…” she says with a mischievous laugh.
“England is a fascinating place and it used to be a lot more repressed and I’m not saying I think repression is good, not by any means, but there used to be more prudency in the English imagination because it isn’t a vast country. It isn’t like America where you can go from state to state killing people and destroying lives and keep on doing it for 25 years before someone says ‘hey I remember those ears from somewhere’. You are pretty much followed around by your narrative in this country and of course none of the leaders can really get away with an awful lot. Especially now. That’s a good thing.”
She sees the Brexit vote as evidence that the American influence has crept in too far.
“The Brexit thing, how did that ever happen? I’ve got to say England, darling, you’ve really not stood up to my expectations. This Brexit thing was about as stupid as America does, and that’s really saying stupid. I’ve asked a lot of people how did they think it happened? Where was the information supposed to be that everybody could see a clear black and white picture?
“If you could call a government concerned about how it looks in front of the people, then England used to do a lot better job. You would think that the bankers weren’t up to shit. We just have to wait for them all to disintegrate and go down the drain with America. I can’t even think about that country without wearing a nose clip.
“I said to one of my oldest friends Cathy, she’s about my age (let ‘em guess): ‘You’ve noticed that America is going down the tubes, we are the generation who if we are not part of the sluice then we are going to be in the front row watching it happen. You have to accept that America is going down dear. It will be up to the 18-year-olds to try to figure this mess out.
“There is a dynamic of ridicule here which I have seen at work. I don’t say this with any feeling at all because I was very anti-American when I came here and when people were abusive towards me for being an American I thought ‘well good on ya, I hope England will always hate America’. Instead to some extent it’s become its bitch and thats a huge comedown for England. England never had to bend over – in my opinion – I don’t know the intricacies of politics. Perhaps it was a thing about America and its bloody missiles, it usually is. Again size over quality. Don’t ever deal with Americans, hire us, invite us to some of your parties but don’t ever let Americans tell you what to do.
“The young ones are the inheritors of all this wrongdoing. My generation sleepwalked into disaster and guided the next generation into sleepwalking into disaster. They aren’t a part of it and they aren’t asleep. I think it will all have to devolve into a bunch of broken glass and blood and fire and floods and all that shit. But whatever it takes it is going to have to happen for things to start anew.”
Lost Girls is the joint Gebbie-Moore masterpiece, a fascinating and fearless exploration of humanity through the medium of pornography and a spectacular showcase for Mel’s artistic talent. It took 16 years of work and culminated in the couple’s marriage.
But for working on her memoirs and bringing those characters to life, Mel has found it helpful to have a bolthole in Brighton to work in, in addition to home in Northampton.
She laughs: “The book is the main thing. If you live with a champion swimmer and every day you go out to the paddling pool and try to get a little better at frog kicking… I can only get with my own language if I am isolated from the undertow of a certain culturally-valuable husband. It’s not his fault but still…”
What impresses you is the work ethic and the sacrifices made to drive the creative process with no template to work to and no instruction manual to tell you whether you are getting it right.
Mel’s intention is to record a time and place honestly, rather than sit in judgement.
She says: “The main thing I really want the readers to make up their own minds about all of us. I have written some of it in the third person. It was much easier to make fun of myself and why the whole crazy scene kept not fitting together because the same things kept not being done… One of the things about doing your memoirs you realise that life is long if you’re busy doing stuff.”