Monday, May 28, 2007

Who Are You Calling "Nellie"?

Yesterday Sir John Major called on his successor to quit Downing Street and hand over power to Gordon Brown as soon as possible. In an interview with the Guardian, the former Tory prime minister criticized Tony Blair's drawn-out departure from office, mocking him for being "in the middle of the longest farewell since Dame Nellie Melba quit the stage."

Major's invocation of Melba, the great Australian soprano (1861-1931) who gave her name both to thin, dry toast and a dessert concoction of peaches and ice cream, was brilliant. Certainly he was right in using Melba as an example of "the long goodbye": in 1924, forty years after her professional debut, Melba announced her farewell to opera but continued to perform through much of 1928. There are additional unflattering parallels between the singer and politician: George Bernard Shaw initially found Melba "hard, shallow, self-sufficient and altogether unsympathetic," epithets that have sometimes been hurled at Blair by his opponents.

Major was also diabolically clever in his use of Melba instead of a contemporary example of the protracted retirement tour (Cher, say, or Barbra Streisand). Her first name, "Nellie," is a common euphemism for effeminate men and Major pointedly included the honorific "Dame." In one fell swoop, Major managed to cast aspersions both on his rival's seeming diva-like reluctance to leave the stage and on his masculinity. (For an amusing discussion of the wide range of negative slang meanings associated with the name "Nellie," see Michael Quinion's "Alas Poor Nell" at World Wide Words.)

Yet there are positive parallels between Melba and Blair, as well. One biographer has noted Melba's "splendid constitution and tenacity of purpose, allied with exceptional powers of concentration and attention to detail" as well as her "charismatic personality" that enabled her to stay at the forefront of her profession for so long -- traits shared by the soon-to-be-ex prime minister.

Major's remarks run against the British public mood. A Guardian/ICM poll published on Thursday showed that most voters think Blair should continue in his job until 27 June. Only 28% of voters said that they wanted Brown to take office now, with 71% of Labour supporters saying they were happy to wait.

Does Major's self-insertion into the public eye now have anything to do with the fact that he is on a book tour to promote his new history of cricket? (In 1997, following the Conservatives' worst electoral defeat in living memory, Major assuaged his disappointment by attending a cricket match at the Oval.)

Perhaps the one truly "doing a Melba" is Major himself.

Shown here: Madame Melba (1901-02) by Rupert Bunny, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne


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