Rum, Bum and Concertina

Source: George Melly, Rum, Bum and Concertina (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977), p. 41

Text: In the newspapers and on the newsreel in the cinema where I went to see James Cagney in The Roaring Twenties, they showed us for the first time the appalling images of Belsen: the stumbling living skeletons with their bald heads and huge empty eyes, the bulldozers scooping up the mounds of dead. As far as I can remember, they hardly affected me, seeming no more real than the briefly illuminated bug-a-boos in the Skegness ghost train. How could I weep over a poem and remain indifferent to this proof of what humanity is capable of? I am unable to answer. In this respect the nineteen-year-old self that I am trying to recreate or understand is a total and repellent stranger. What did he feel as the camera explored the gas-chambers and the ovens? I can’t remember. I’d like to think it was too horrible to grasp, but fear that it may be simply because I can’t face up to my own self-centred lack of imagination. I wrote home praising The Roaring Twenties.

Comments: George Melly (1926-2007) was a British jazz singer, critic and humorist. He joined the Royal Navy after the Second World War, and was stationed at Skegness in Lincolnshire at the time of this incident in his memoir. Newsreels of the liberation of Belsen were shown in British cinemas from 30 April 1945.

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