UNDER KEN WOOD
By NEIL TITLEY
© N Titley 2016
Prologue – South End Green
REQUIEM FOR THE MAGDALA – The Story of a Hampstead Tavern
Where Eagles Dared
Murder and the Magdala
Private Godfrey and the Dame of Soho
Garland and Mercer
Laureates and Spies
The Silver Fox
The Hoffmeister and Kelly
The Harvey Brothers
Five Funerals and a Resurrection
Crime and Punishment
Bob the Bag and Cornish Pat
The Branch Offices
The Mulls Kid
Extra Photographs – Magdala Locals in the 1990s
Prologue – South End Green
In comparison to some parts of London, South End Green (hence known as SEG for the sake of brevity) was a bit of a late starter. Admittedly Pond Street dates back at least to the Middle Ages when it was the path that linked Havistock Hill to the pond that then covered a large section of the present Green. But mostly the area was built up in the 18th and 19th centuries, a semi-detached adjunct to its more elevated and aged neighbour, Hampstead Village.
The population of the district was enhanced by two particular sets of migrants. Artists from John Constable to Mark Gertler were attracted by the light and the relative affordability (in their day) of property around Hampstead and the Heath. Then in the 1930s, it became the refuge for many of the Jews fleeing Nazi Europe; this exiled intelligentsia greatly enhanced local life. What was Europe’s loss was Hampstead’s gain. Latterly, psychoanalysts have provided another wave of settlement.
In the 20th century it survived two vigorous attempts to destroy it. During World War Two, the district was unfortunate in that its one great natural feature, Parliament Hill, was on moonlit nights the only visible guide that German pilots could use to navigate their position and check whether they were north of central London and could therefore turn for home. In order to make their return trip faster they would jettison any remaining bombs on the locality immediately below them. Although never suffering the carpet bombing that the East End and Dockland underwent, the area was hit repeatedly by individual missiles and became a patchwork of bombsites. Gospel Oak Primary School on Mansfield Rd suffered one of the worst attacks and was destroyed during the 1940 Blitz. These sites were mostly rebuilt in post-war architectural style and materials. Hence the SEG district acquired its strange variations whereby 1950s brick boxes stand in stark contrast to the neighbouring and un-bombed Victorian terraces on either side.
The second attempt at destruction came in 1966 with a plan to build an elevated motorway ring road that would have passed directly through and above SEG. Today one has to visit such blackspots of urban blight as those under the Westway or Hammersmith flyover to appreciate what was intended. Thankfully the idea was shelved amidst a storm of protest by the local community led by the newly formed South End Green Association (SEGA).
In some ways, SEGA was typical of the populace – fiercely and justifiably protective of what is one of the most extraordinary places in London. Hampstead became notorious in corporate eyes for being one of only two towns in the world that tried to resist the full might of the Macdonald’s fast food chain and refuse to allow them to insert an outlet on its streets (Martha’s Vineyard in the USA was the other). Although after ten years of legal battle it was forced to surrender, it is noticeable that the Macdonald’s branch that opened in subsequent triumph now has been quietly closed.
Although rarely identified as such, the area has been an anonymous background to a variety of cinema films. ‘Scenes of a Sexual Nature’ (2006) was set entirely on the Heath; the old Town Hall on Haverstock Hill featured in ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ (1994); and to a local, films such as the 2006 pair ‘Venus’ with Peter O’Toole and ‘Notes on a Scandal’ with Judi Dench almost have a home movie feel about them. ‘Les Bicyclettes de Belsize’, a short film made in 1968, although a dreadful mishmash of period trends, gives an unparalleled picture of Hampstead streets in the 1960s.
What has distinguished SEG through the years is that it has been a borderland between the wealthy world of the Hampstead hill slopes and the less opulent council estates to the south. The pubs especially have been a neutral mixing ground where both communities have been more than adequately represented.
The Hampstead ‘muesli belt’ life style is, of course, a well-known stereotype. Left-wing yet well-heeled, principled but well-protected – the fourth richest constituency in the UK but which nonetheless remains a marginal seat and has voted Labour for most of the elections since 1966.
This contradiction can lead to odd results. For instance, recent overheard conversations have included such comments as:
In a SEG café: “Sebastian and I went to that ‘War on World Poverty’ lunch last Friday. The scallops were definitely undercooked.”
And reported on Facebook as happening in the SEG Marks and Spencer: “Oh, Hermione, do hurry up and choose one of them. Mango juice or pomegranate cordial? This indecision is eating into oboe practice”.
Some children in Hampstead seem to grow up differently. Reputedly one infant’s first word was: ‘Taxi!’
A 1970s ‘Time Out’ magazine cartoon once summed it up – an irritated father snapping at his recalcitrant nine-year-old: “One more word out of you, Isolde, and I’m taking you to the Little Angel Marionette Theatre!”
However, to see SEG simply in those terms would be to misrepresent the place. The streets until quite recently had a genuine Steptoesque rag-and-bone man complete with horse and cart making his weekly round. Another common sight was Jan the French onion seller with his bicycle festooned with his wares. [A colleague notes: ‘It might be worth mentioning that the onion seller related to me in French and after some beer that he actually lived in Norbury not Normandy as some of his customers believed’.]
But even less typical of the stereotype were the old ‘hard men’ of the district. Although one such character may have been more show than strength – he once stubbed a cigarette out on his own thigh to the appalled admiration of a group of pub witnesses. It later turned out that he had a wooden leg.
But there was no denying the toughness of some of the locals. When the police attempted to arrest one of them, it took eight large constables to subdue him sufficiently to carry him to a police wagon. The Load of Hay on Haverstock Hill was called the ‘Noble Art’ between 1965 and 1974 in honour of the boxing club behind it. It was reported that the famous British fighter Henry Cooper (the man who floored Muhammed Ali), visited the club in the early 1970s and afterwards walked down the hill to have a drink in the Elephant’s Head in Camden Town. The pub landlord managed to lift him off the floor using only his teeth.
South End Green and its environs are drenched with historical connections. One of the first stories recognisably connected to the Green concerned the eighteenth century playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. It appears that one night after a drink-fuelled session at a friend’s house in the Vale of Health, he managed to walk down the hill as far as the corner of the present Pond St and South End Rd before collapsing in a heap. The local watch arrested him and marched him back to the lock-up in Hampstead Village. When they demanded his name he announced loftily that he was ‘William Wilberforce’.
In more romantic vein, the poet John Keats famously courted Fanny Brawne and wrote his great poem ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ at their shared house in the eponymous Keats Grove. The fact that Keats and a friend lived in one side of the house while the Brawne family lived in the other suggests that cramped accommodation in North London is nothing new.
Standing on the brow of Parliament Hill (sometimes known as Kite Hill), one can spot the habitats of the three men who might arguably be said to have dominated 20th century thought more than any others. In a semi-circle starting from the west it is possible to see the spire of Hampstead church – a short distance from that is 20, Maresfield Gardens, the home (now a museum) of the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud. Directly south in Gower St (now buried under University College London) was the home between 1838 and 1842 of the naturalist and father of evolutionary theory Charles Darwin. Looking slightly to the south-west is Maitland Park Rd, the last home of the Communist philosopher Karl Marx; he and his friend Friedrich Engels were known for their frequent walks up to Parliament Hill, crossing over the Roderick Rd footbridge. A more visible monument to Marx was erected towards the east in Highgate Cemetery.
His imposing grave has had its own chequered history. It was the setting for a famous scene in the film ‘Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment’ starring David Warner. In 1970, an attempt was made to blow it up with a home-made bomb. Although little damage was done other than to the surrounding paving stones, an anonymous letter was received that read: ‘And when you’ve repaired the statue of that commie bastard, we’ll blow it up again’. So far, they have not.
In 1895, the playwright and wit Oscar Wilde was on bail between his trials and was undecided whether to flee from England or to stay and face prison. He was living in Chelsea and feeling depressed. His friend Frank Harris put him in a carriage and drove him up to South End Green for a walk to the top of Parliament Hill, hoping that the sight of the panorama of London might help Wilde to choose escape. It did not work and Wilde stayed on to become the most prominent martyr of the anti-homosexual laws. His boyfriend Lord Alfred Douglas (aka ‘Bosie’) later lived in Church Row in Hampstead Village.
Another renowned (and more justifiable) recipient of British justice was the murderer Dr Crippen. Having killed his wife (although recently doubts have been raised about this), he collected his mistress Ethel Le Neve from her lodgings on Agincourt Rd, just off South End Green, and departed on their ultimately unsuccessful escape bid across the Atlantic. Before they left, Crippen, Ethel, and her landlady Mrs Jackson had a farewell drink at the Stag on Fleet Rd. (Another notorious killer who had a connection to the area was the infamous John Christie, the perpetrator of the Rillington Place murders. At one point he worked at the old tram depot on the site of the present Byron Mews.)
Close by the Stag, on Lawn Rd, is the Isoken Building. Built in 1934, this was a monument to the ideals of socialism and an experiment in minimalist group living. It consisted of 34 flats that shared a communal bar/restaurant and various domestic services. Among its famous residents were the sculptor Henry Moore, the architect Walter Gropius, and the crime writer Agatha Christie. (Oddly enough, years later a real life murder took place in the building – but long after Agatha’s departure.) Regular visitors at the bar were the artists Piet Mondrian, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson (all inhabitants of Park Hill Rd before their departure for St Ives in 1939). Sunbathing on the roof was allowed at the Isoken but only if you were nude. The socialist side of the idea suffered from an early onset of the Hampstead Left syndrome. Their communal cook was Philip Harbin, a maestro of food and destined to become one of the first celebrity TV chefs in the 1950s. Also it appears that a necessity of socialist domestic life included hiring a communal butler.
During its heyday of the mid-1930s, one of the Isoken flats was occupied by Dr Arnold Deutsch. Deutsch was an Austrian academic and a Soviet agent, his main achievement being the recruitment and training of the ‘Cambridge’ Five spy ring, led by Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and Kim Philby. Having built this team, Deutsch was recalled to Moscow in 1937 and died in obscure circumstances in the early 1940s, probably captured and shot by the Nazis after parachuting into Austria.
The writer George Orwell was another inhabitant of South End Green during the 1930s. He lived above and worked in a bookshop in Warwick Mansions on the corner of Pond St (coincidentally the scene of Sheridan’s arrest) and later lived at No 77 Parliament Hill, a period he described in his book ‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’.
The clock on the White Horse pub that he mentions in this book has been recently restored.
Whereas the genuine spy Arnold Deutsch escaped surveillance by the authorities, Orwell was being watched by the Special Branch during this time and marked down as ‘a man of advanced communist views’.
Warwick Mansions figured again in the classic sci-fi book ‘The Day of the Triffids’ written by John Wyndham about 1950. There is a scene where the hero escapes the killer Triffid plants by escaping from ‘a provision store’, climbing into an alleyway, and stealing a car from ‘a garage workshop’. The provision store has been identified by Wyndham’s biographer Prof David Ketterer as being the Co-op grocery, now a Starbucks café; the alleyway as being the passageway to the rear of Warwick Mansions with a gated entrance on Pond St; and the garage was a business called Alpine Motors, now closed and re-developed in Maryon Mews. The rather grim passageway has now been commemorated with a plaque and a re-naming as ‘Triffid Alley’.
This particular Starbucks also played a part in the excellent modern thriller ‘The Hollow Man’ by Oliver Harris (2011) in which the customers of the café undergo a sniper attack (the wounded are treated in the Magdala Tavern). There can be few Starbucks in the world to have undergone fictional attacks from both snipers and Triffids.
Another literary connection lies across the road in the underground toilets by the 24 bus terminus. Built in 1897 they featured in the film ‘Prick Up Your Ears’ starring Gary Oldman as the 1960s playwright Joe Orton. Orton was a libidinous homosexual who enjoyed ‘cottaging’, the practice of cruising around public toilets looking for random gay sex. The South End Green lavatories were one of his favourite spots. He was murdered in 1967 by his lover Kenneth Halliwell, who then committed suicide. The conveniences were restored recently but the suggestion that they should be renamed ‘The Joe Orton Memorial Gents’ was rejected.
Further up East Heath Rd, the author of ‘Room at the Top’ and a leading ‘Angry Young Man’ of the 1950s John Braine spent his last days living in a basement flat on Downshire Hill. All his life he had been a professional Northerner railing endlessly against the egregious Hampsteadites and their ‘decadent rotten’ world. Then in 1983, broken by a bitter divorce, with many financial problems and half dead from illness, he arrived in the heart of enemy territory. An amazing transformation came over him and, as he described in his last book ‘These Golden Days’, he fell in love with his life-long detestation. He said that now he would cheerfully fall on his knees and worship the very pavements of Hampstead. Unfortunately, due to his total refusal to abandon cigarettes, he did not live long to celebrate this new lease of happiness.
Around the corner from Downshire Hill in Willow Rd the neo-Brutalist architect and tower block designer Erno Goldfinger constructed his own home (now a National Trust property) on the site of some 18th century cottages. In 1939 their destruction and the building of their decidedly un-18th century replacement led to much opposition by local Hampstead residents, among them the James Bond creator Ian Fleming. Goldfinger was an unpopular man, humourless, a known bully, and given to intemperate rages. Fleming, probably as a reaction to both Erno’s character and architecture, gave the name ‘Auric Goldfinger’ to one of the most horrible villains in the Bond spectrum. An infuriated Erno threatened to sue for defamation, which drove an equally angry Fleming to suggest changing the name to ‘Goldprick’. Fortunately for the future of the Bond franchise both parties backed off from confrontation. Erno Goldfinger lived on in Willow Rd till his death in 1987. Throughout his later years he was plagued by prank phone calls claiming to be messages from ‘007’.
The American Jim Henson was a much gentler figure who lived at 50 Downshire Hill House and opened a workshop at 1b Downshire Hill in 1977. To the delight of children (and others) worldwide, this became the birthplace of Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog, and the rest of the Muppets – a huge television success that spread over decades. However, due to the foul smell of the foam latex that Henson used for his creatures, complaints from the neighbours led to his enforced removal to Oval Rd in Swiss Cottage. Henson died young aged 54 in 1990 – there is a bench on Hampstead Heath dedicated to his memory.
The comic actor Marty Feldman, perhaps best known for his portrayal of ‘Igor’ in Mel Brooks’ film ‘Young Frankenstein’, also has a local memorial. Walking south down Hampstead High Street, on the left near Gayton Rd, there is an alleyway called ‘Marty’s Yard’. When Feldman died in 1982, his friend the architect Ted Levy named the cul-de-sac after him.
Feldman had lived nearby in a vast Gothic mansion on the corner of Well Rd and East Heath Rd; the house had previously belonged to the Victorian flush lavatory inventor Thomas Crapper. More recently it became the home of the pop star Boy George.
Shane Macgowan, the lead singer of the Irish band ‘the Pogues’ also lived locally in a house on Savernake Rd. His unique dental display was said to have been created after the collision of his teeth with the bar counter of the Old Eagle in Camden Town.
At the former church facing St Stephens at the top of Pond St, the Beatles mentor Sir George Martin built his Air Studios from which countless recordings have been made – not least by Oasis, another band who migrated to the area.
A more tenuous connection to the rock world concerns the wild life of Hampstead Heath. It is rumoured that when the great rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix died in London, his pet parakeets were released on the Heath where they prospered and bred. It is certainly true that the Heath has a parrot population though whether their early days were spent listening to ‘Purple Haze’ is debateable.
The rock singer George Michael on the other hand has an undeniable link to the area. In the early hours of Sunday July 4th 2010, in a state of some confusion, he managed to drive his car off Roslyn Hill and into the frontage of a photographic shop named ‘Snappy Snaps’. The next day, someone scrawled the graffiti ‘WHAM’ over the damaged brickwork – a reference to George Michael’s original pop group. Since then this junction of Roslyn Hill and Willoughby Rd has been known informally as ‘Wham Corner’.
Although slightly off the South End Green patch and more of a Camden Town girl, the singer Amy Winehouse has been one of the most mourned of rock stars, possibly because of her youth when she died. She was a deeply loyal constituent of the Camden scene and even at the height of her fame would work behind the bar of the Hawley Arms just for the craic.
On one occasion however she almost wrecked the tourist trade of the Borough. She was receiving an award in New York that was being televised live before a world audience of about half a billion people when she half-heard the news that the Lock was on fire. Under the influence of a lot of drink and shocked to the core that her beloved Camden was in danger, she staggered to the microphone and announced in horror that ‘the whole of Camden Town has been burnt to the ground’. This announcement was greeted with equal horror by the tourist department of Camden Council who knew that while only a small part of the area had been affected, Amy’s statement to the world would cost the Lock dear in cancelled holidays, shopping trips, music gigs, etc., etc.
Probably the most famous local politician was the one-time leader of the Labour Party during the early 1980s. Michael Foot was a common sight around South End Green. He would spend time choosing his vegetables at the stall outside Hampstead Overground station before climbing on to the 24 bus to travel to the House of Commons. At the age of 81 he could still be seen, dressed in blue jeans, trainers, and black leather jacket ambling over the Heath accompanied by his dog ‘Dizzy’. Although he never became Prime Minister of Britain he remained one of the great Parliamentary orators, a considerable author, a stalwart of the Left, and a thoroughly nice man.
A much sadder case concerned the offspring of the Conservative Chancellor and Home Secretary Reginald Maudling. Maudling himself had a chequered career leaving office under a cloud after the Poulson scandal of 1972. In 1999 the body of his son William Maudling was found on the ground at the bottom of Bacton Tower near Mansfield Rd. He had been an ‘unemployed and of no fixed abode’ heroin addict and apparently had thrown himself off a high balcony of the building.
Parliament Hill was lucky enough to acquire its own Poet Laureate when John Betjeman was born just off Gordon House Rd. Although the family was to move to a house further up Highgate West Hill, he later recalled his childhood days in his poem ‘Parliament Hill Fields’:
‘…..when we heard a mile beyond,
Silver music from the bandstand, barking dogs by Highgate Pond;
Up the hill where stucco houses in Virginia creeper drown
And my childish wave of pity, seeing children carrying down
Sheaves of drooping dandelions to the courts of Kentish Town’.
(This same bandstand was witness to a very different scene in the summers of 1968 and 1969. To its eternal credit, Camden Council sponsored a series of all-night rock shows. The bands played for free and there was no admission charge. The stages were located at the foot of the hill and in the bandstand itself with the audience scattered on the slopes of Parliament Hill above.
The first show in September 1968 starred the Jefferson Airplane and Fairport Convention – and was policed successfully by the Hells Angels. Owing to lack of publicity and fairly constant rainfall, the audience was small but enthusiastic. The next year was better organised and featured three concerts. The first night had Pink Floyd as headliners, the second had Procol Harum, and the third Fleetwood Mac. These concerts began at 10pm and lasted till 3am. At the final show it appears that Fleetwood Mac were interrupted by ‘drunken elements in the crowd’.)
Less well known than Betjeman but still a considerable figure around the Village in his day, Keidrych Rees was the heart of the London branch of literary Wales. He moved to Hampstead in 1935 and spent his life developing Welsh talent through his influence and his magazine ‘Wales’. During WWII he served with a Welsh anti-aircraft battery and later as a war correspondent in Europe. On the occasion of his first marriage his best man was the poet Dylan Thomas – who was forced to borrow a suit in order to carry out his duties. Later, Keidrych was a familiar figure sitting in his large straw hat in the bar of the Coach and Horses after a day presiding over his Heath St bookshop.
Antony Wilson was another bookseller of local renown who started his career as manager of the Belsize Bookshop on Havistock Hill. He went on to found and run the Highgate Bookshop from 1966 until 1990. Antony suffered from bi-polar disorders that led him from the depths of gloomy isolation to the heights of manic excitement. He contributed greatly to the world of theatre by becoming an ‘angel’, financially backing many shows, in particular those of Andrew Lloyd-Webber. For some reason he took against Lloyd-Webber’s musical collaborator, Sir Tim Rice, claiming that he was an indifferent lyricist who just got very lucky in his professional partnerships. In one of his black moods he once described Rice as ‘the Ringo Starr of musical theatre’.
Amidst the famous names that became part of Hampstead life, there were two characters almost unknown outside the borough but unmissable within it. ‘Bronco’ was the protégé of the comedian Peter Cook (a long term resident of Perrins Court in the Village) who said that he reminded him of his own comic creation ‘E.L. Wisty’. Recognisable in that he habitually wore a long coat and a wide hat, Bronco arrived in Hampstead about 1968 and earned some money by playing the piano, mostly Mozart from memory. He became well known for his addiction to tea, never without a supply of teabags, sugar, and a teaspoon for the occasions when hot water might turn up. He was estimated to drink between 30 and 40 cups a day. Peter Cook said that he would appoint Bronco as ‘Minister of Tea’ in any future government that Cook might lead.
The luminary of various bizarre political parties and a neighbour of Cook, ‘Rainbow George’ Weiss was the third member of this glorious trio. One of his recordings of their conversation concerned an occasion when Cook and Bronco arrived at 3am at George’s house in order to cook a tin of beans. Unfortunately none of them had the faintest notion of how to work George’s cooker. Bronco eventually died of pneumonia in the Royal Free Hospital (as opposed to Peter Cook who was said to have died of ‘pure boredom’). At his funeral the 1950s singer and another veteran loser-of-deposits-in-parliamentary-elections Ronnie Carroll sang ‘Danny Boy’, and the TV quiz show host Henry Kelly declared that: “This is the first time I’ve been in Bronco’s company and not lost £2 out of it”. Bronco’s ashes were interred in a tea caddy.
Whereas Bronco tended to haunt the Village area, ‘The Biscuit Man’ stayed mostly around Belsize Park. John Rhodes was also conspicuous by his dress, invariably wearing a battered hat, bedroom slippers and using a tree branch as a walking aid. He had been raised in respectable fashion, his father being a popular crime fiction writer who lived near South End Green, and Rhodes himself having had an Oxford education. After spending time in jail as a conscientious objector, he became a writer with a huge output of poems, novels, and plays. Unfortunately he never found a publisher for any of this work. After he was banned from the Flask pub for showing a barmaid an erotic poem, he dashed off an indignant letter to the Spectator magazine. This is believed to be the only occasion on which he was published.
His Belsize bedsit, devoid of modern devices and heated only by an elderly gas cooker, was piled high with the unpublished work. He became a regular visitor to St Peter’s Church in Belsize Square, not through religious conviction but because if he arrived five minutes before the end of services it allowed him to consume all the biscuits intended for the congregation. Hence his name ‘The Biscuit Man’. Although ubiquitous at any literary events in the neighbourhood, Rhodes was a solitary figure whose world became even more solitary due to the amount of pubs from which he was banned. It was rumoured that he had been banished from one Hampstead bar because he had corrected the landlord’s grammar.
South End Green and its hinterland has been (and is) home to an army of the famous. Not surprisingly, writers in particular have been drawn to the area. It is one of the very few places in the world where one can be reading a book in one’s front room or in a café and when you glance out of the window you spot the author walking past. Just to name a few from the recent past, the doyen of Caribbean writers George Lamming (who rented a bedsit on Parliament Hill), the Poet Laureate Ted Hughes (who lived in Roderick Rd prior to moving with Sylvia Plath to Primrose Hill), John Le Carré (East Heath Rd), Margaret Drabble (Heath Hurst Rd), Deborah Moggach (writer of ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’) and the Booker Prize winner Alan Hollinghurst (Tanza Rd).
At one time there was a veritable literary nest near to the Roderick Rd footbridge where one could find the homes of Maggie O’Farrell (Somerset Maugham prize winner) and her husband William Sutcliffe (author of the wonderful novel about New Age travellers in India ‘Are You Experienced’); the biographer Ann Wroe (‘Pilate’ and ‘Being Shelley’) and her novelist son Simon Wroe (‘Chop Chop’); plus Charles Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter and a considerable poet and author in her own right Ruth Padel.
On the Heath, one might have seen another celebrity couple, the novelist Margaret Forster and her husband Hunter Davis (the biographer of the Beatles, amongst much else). The critic Al Alvarez was often in evidence, as was the novelist Fay Weldon. Also around were Jon Hillaby (the man who walked across Britain and wrote some fascinating books about his travels), and John Healy (a remarkable writer and man who survived a former life of chronic alcoholism, prison, and 15 years as a vagrant on the Camden streets, to become a chess champion and the author of a superb autobiography ‘The Grass Arena’, now a Penguin Modern Classic). The director, ‘Beyond the Fringe’ performer, writer and general polymath (once memorably described as ‘looking like a bereaved moose’) Dr Jonathan Miller could also be spotted on the Heath occasionally.
With this background it was not surprising that in 2005 Parliament Hill became host to an extraordinary sculpture by Giancarlo Neri called ‘The Writer’. It consisted of a thirty foot high table and chair that loomed over the Highgate ponds. Its aesthetic meaning remained obscure but it provided a practical setting for the couple who, using ropes, managed to climb on to the table surface in order to consummate their passion under the stars – allegedly.
In the early 1970s, the South End Green pub the Railway (now the Garden Gate) was home to a group of Americans who were on the run from the Vietnam War and at risk of being drafted into the army back in the USA. They were a colourful crowd led by a huge bear of a man called Rich, and his sidekick called Ritchie. One man who hung out with them was Sam Shepherd, later to become a respected playwright, Hollywood actor, and writing collaborator with Bob Dylan on his song ‘Brownsville Girl’. Coincidentally at this time, the Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen was a regular at the High St pub the King William.
A major television event, John Le Carre’s famous spy series ‘Smiley’s People’ was rooted in SEG. The opening scenes were of a murder on the Heath, while the star Alec Guinness was filmed in the old phone box by the fountain and mentioning his location as ‘South End Green’. Guinness was an intensely private man who hated being recognised outside of his professional life. During the filming of ‘Smiley’s People’ the production company installed him in an upstairs flat at the Railway (Garden Gate) pub. After one day’s shooting when Guinness appeared at the door of the pub the entire clientele rose to its feet to applaud him. Horrified he ran through the bar and scurried up the stairs. Subsequently he flitted through the public bar like an apprehensive ghost.
The list of resident actors around South End Green, past and present, is lengthy. Just the mention of a few names show the range – the brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch (‘Sherlock’); Gemma Jones (a stalwart of the screen from ‘Duchess of Duke St’ to ‘Bridget Jones’); that master of the lupine stare John Woodvine; the cinema actor and redoubtable defender of the local library Lee Montague; the lamented star of ‘Young Winston’ Simon Ward; and Dame Janet Suzman (the epitome of beleaguered motherhood in both of her main films ‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’ and the epic ‘Nicholas and Alexandra’). It is no wonder that the local MP from 1992 till 2015 should have been the film star Glenda Jackson.
[Built and opened in 1914, SEG had its own (later three screen) cinema situated on the site of the current Marks and Spencer food store. It was closed in 2001 leading to an anarchic interregnum over control of the empty auditorium. A group of artists led by Daisy Campbell and her remarkable father, the actor and director Ken Campbell, tried to establish the space as an ad hoc arts project featuring actors, a picture gallery, writing workshops, jugglers and a café. This laudable attempt was interrupted when up to 400 revellers broke into the building for a weekend of what was reported as ‘rave dancing on the stage, drinking in the aisles, dope smoking, and sleeping in the foyers’. After a forty eight hour binge the raiders departed. The Arts Project picked up the pieces and were about to present their main theatrical event when the new owners Marks and Spencer ordered them to leave before it could be performed. The only drama that did take place (and the very last performance in the cinema’s 87-year-old existence) was a one man show about Oscar Wilde.
Daisy Campbell mentioned one story about the amazing life and world of her father Ken Campbell. She managed eventually to persuade him to try and catch up with modern technology and buy a laptop computer. Ken went out to buy it but discovered on the way that for the same money he could buy a parrot – which he bought instead. An acquaintance said that three pictures allegedly painted by the parrot have recently been sold to a collector.
In reference to the Everyman in the village, the comedian Michael McIntyre (a new arrival) commented: “Hampstead is the only place I know where the local cinema provides you with your own sofa.”]
In a more eclectic group, over the years, the Green has been home to such figures as the pop singer Lynsey de Paul (Oak Village, off Mansfield Rd) and her boyfriend the Hollywood film star James Coburn; her neighbour, Monty Python performer and celebrated world traveller Michael Palin; the comic and actor Russell Brand (Courthope Rd); the jazzman George Melly (Savernake Rd); the guitarist John Williams (Parliament Hill; the outstanding historian Eric Hobsbawm (Nassington Rd); the comedian David Baddiel (also Nassington Rd); the impressionist Jon Culshaw (Parliament Hill); the author and dogged champion of the Arts Lord Melvyn Bragg (Hampstead Hill Gardens); the father of the Kenyan nation Jomo Kenyatta (South Hill Park); and the comedian and creator of ‘The Office’ Ricky Gervais (Willoughby Rd).
Until his sad death, the film director Anthony Minghella (‘The English Patient’, ‘Cold Mountain’) regularly ate his breakfast at Polly’s Café on the Green; where also the BBC’s Piers Plowright, the master producer of great radio for decades, would sip coffee and peruse the newspaper. In the 1980s the virtuoso violinist Nigel Kennedy once gave a private performance from the top floor of the house next to Orwell’s one-time bookshop, the sound of Vivaldi floating down to the Fountain below.
The poet Adrian Mitchell (Roderick Rd and later Parliament Hill) was one of the most popular figures of SEG till his death in 2009. Mitchell was known both for his fierce left-wing attacks in such poems as ‘Tell Me Lies About Vietnam’ and for his gentler love poetry as in the splendid verse to his wife Celia:
“When I am sad and weary/ When I think all hope has gone/
When I walk along High Holborn/ I think of you with nothing on.”
He also wrote a verse drama called ‘Mind Your Head’ based around life on the 24 bus – the venerable route that links SEG to Pimlico and the Thames Embankment. It included the lines:
“There’s the garden where Keats heard the nightingale/
There’s a scruffy little pub where they still serve ale” (the Magdala Tavern).
South End Green, in short, is star-spangled. A place where a pub regular can boast without exaggeration that: “My dog has had his head stroked by Bill Oddie, Emma Thompson, two Dr Who’s, and Alistair Campbell. And his lead once got tangled round Gwyneth Paltrow’s right leg.”
REQUIEM FOR THE MAGDALA
The Story of a Hampstead Tavern
Where Eagles Dared
A pub grows organically from its surroundings and its customers and it is not surprising that the Magdala, emerging as it did from SEG, had its share of famous patrons. One film stands out as being THE Magdala film – ‘Where Eagles Dare’. From the acting credits it would appear that at some point a casting director had walked into the saloon bar and recruited everyone inside to join the film. Led by Richard Burton (resident at 6 Lyndhurst Rd from 1949 till 1956, and famously married to Elizabeth Taylor, born at 8 Wildwood Rd near the Spaniards Inn), the other stars included Patrick Wymark, William Squire, Peter Barkworth, and Derren Nesbit.
Wymark in particular was a devotee of the ‘Mag’ until his death aged 44 in 1970 – it became his home-from-home. He was famous for his portrayal of a devious but charismatic businessman in the hugely popular 1960s TV series ‘The Power Game’, despite being described by his wife the playwright Olwyn Wymark, as ‘the most inefficient, dreamy muddler in the world’. Olwyn used to say that she felt odd in the Mag ‘knowing that Patrick has slept with every woman in the pub’. Derren Nesbit specialised in playing ‘nasty Nazi’ parts, as he did in ‘Where Eagles Dare’ – he was lucky to survive the filming as in one scene the explosives strapped to his chest exploded upwards instead of outwards and nearly blinding him. In the 1990s he went on to run a wine bar on nearby Fleet Rd. Peter Barkworth remained a well-liked local living in Flask Walk in the Village, while William Squire has a memorial bench on the Heath.
The pub also played host to actors who somehow had avoided being conscripted into ‘Where Eagles Dare’. The impeccably aristocratic James Villiers; the character actor Thomas Heathcote; Kenneth Haigh (the original ‘Jimmy Porter’ of ‘Look Back in Anger’ and ‘Joe Lambton’ in ‘Room at the Top’); Norman Rossington (who by performing in the films ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Double Trouble’ became the only actor to appear on screen with both Elvis Presley and the Beatles); and the major film star Bob Hoskins (who rented a room on Parliament Hill in his early acting days at Unity Theatre in Camden).
Another pub regular was the rotund actor Paul Whitsun-Jones who excelled in playing comic authority figures but also had a serious role in the excellent military film ‘Tunes of Glory’. He died in 1974, but his widow Sylvia remained in the area and became a well-known member of the saloon bar. (Danish-born, she would sometimes recall her wartime childhood. On one occasion in 1940 she was walking in the countryside and looked up to see the sky filled with German paratroopers equipped with bicycles. As they landed in the fields one soldier winked at her before cycling on to occupy her country.)
Ronald Fraser was a first rate actor and also a renowned frequenter of the pubs of the area. From his early days in Sir Donald Wolfit’s company, his career spanned a lifetime of films and TV (including ‘Pennies From Heaven’ and ‘Brideshead Revisited’). In his last years he became involved with the TV host Chris Evans and his popular TV programme called ‘TFI Friday’. Evans based his show around a reconstruction of his genuine local, the Haverstock Arms on Haverstock Hill. Regulars were recruited as extras, the landlord was installed as ‘The Landlord’, and Ronnie Fraser became a fixture as a Falstaffian ‘Lord of Love’ despite (or because of) his advanced years and alcoholic intake. It is reported that Fraser once phoned for a taxi to take him from the Load of Hay pub to the Sir Richard Steele – a distance of roughly fifty yards.
Maybe one of the real attractions of the Magdala was the deep-rooted democracy of the clientele. One evening a trio were spotted sitting at a table together chatting about life and the weather – Jim Broadbent, Sylvester McCoy, and Ernie. An Oscar winner, a Dr Who, and the local taxi driver.
Murder and the Magdala
The Magdala had an interesting story from its birth. In 1868 the Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia captured and enslaved the British envoy after Queen Victoria had rejected the Emperor’s offer of marriage. During the subsequent rescue mission and invasion of the country by a British army led by Sir Robert Napier, the Emperor was killed and his mountain palace at Magdala Hill was ransacked and destroyed. One member of the expedition was a British sergeant who managed to liberate enough riches to enable him to build the tavern that he named in honour of the victory.
[A strange offshoot of this happened in 1992. Vesna Stojanac was a Serbian visitor to Hampstead who fell in love with the Mag. On her return to Belgrade, she renamed her video shop after the pub. So a Serbian video shop ended up being named after an Ethiopian mountain via a London pub.
In a further link, the present writer once had a drink in a grass hut in Addis Ababa that was called the Magdala Bar.]
For the next ninety years the Magdala remained a popular establishment especially with the visitors to the large fairs that took place on Hampstead Heath. The area gained its Victorian nickname of ‘Appy ‘Ampstead.
Then the event took place for which the Mag is perhaps best known – and it was anything but ‘Appy. On the evening of Easter Sunday 1955, a night club hostess named Ruth Ellis shot down and killed her lover a racing driver named David Blakeley outside the pub door. It was an obvious crime of passion but that bore no weight with the courts of the day. Ellis pleaded guilty and became the last woman to be executed in Britain. The famed hangman Albert Pierrepoint carried out the sentence. This case reverberated throughout Britain and, in part, led to the abolition of the death penalty in the 1960s. Several films and plays have made reference to the case, notably Miranda Richardson’s portrayal of Ellis in the film ‘Dance with a Stranger’.
Less well known is that the murder for which the penultimate woman to be hanged, also by Pierrepoint, was found guilty had occurred at No 11, South Hill Park, a few yards from the Magdala (No 2a, South Hill Park). A Cypriot woman, Styllou Christofi, had killed her daughter-in-law by strangulation and had then tried to burn down the house. She was executed in December 1954, just four months before the Ellis murder.
The Ruth Ellis story has never been forgotten locally. The Guardian journalist Marcel Berlin wrote that it would have needed Wembley Stadium to accommodate all the raconteurs who claimed to have been eye-witnesses. However, one genuine witness was a Daily Mirror journalist who lived nearby. She was known, in reference to the long-running strip cartoon, as ‘Jane of the Mirror’. On the night in question Jane, having consumed a considerable amount of liquor, rose to leave. Wobbling to the door, she opened it and, barking in disapproval “Excuse me” at what looked like a prone drunk, stepped over the body lying in her path. She returned home and went to sleep. Next day she arrived at the Mirror offices to discover that she had stepped over the ‘crime of the decade’ scoop.
A further connected story concerned the popular Irish landlady of the pub, the redoubtable Mary Watson. Around the early 1990s, the operators of the ‘Murder Coach’ tours, (usually visiting the Kray Brothers’ Blind Beggar pub and the Jack the Ripper alleys of the East End and aimed mostly at the Japanese tourist market), decided to include the Magdala in their itinerary.
On the night before their first visit, Mary was presiding over a late night ‘lock in’. About 2am, she announced: “Do you know something, them tourists have got nothing to look at when they do get here!” Turning to her barman she instructed: “Liam, go and get me bradawl from upstairs!” Accompanied by a few imbibers, she went outside the bar and started drilling holes in the wall. “There we are, much more interesting” she explained as we returned inside. The next day, she erected a sign beside her handiwork that read:
‘In 1954, Ruth Ellis shot Derek Bentley, producing these bullet holes. Ruth Ellis became the last woman to be hanged in Britain.’
Quite apart from the wrong date, Mary had mixed up ‘Derek Bentley’ (the man hanged for the Croydon police shooting – immortalised in the film ‘Let Him Have It’), with the true victim ‘David Blakely’. However no one seemed to mind and the tourists went away quite happy. Mary commissioned a new sign that managed to name the correct victim. As the years passed these ‘bullet holes’ have been accepted as genuine by many newspapers and BBC TV London News.
[Mary made many efforts to drum up trade. One of them was to redecorate the saloon bar. During the preparation it was found that the rich dark brown colour of the ceiling was not the original décor, which had been cream. The brown stemmed from decades of nicotine drifting up from the cigarettes below.
Another (misguided) idea was to try to clear the pub of dogs. A few evenings later she came downstairs to find six sleeping Labradors sprawled across the floor underneath her ‘NO DOGS’ notice. She reversed her embargo and instead made sure that a bowl of water was always placed on the floor for canine clientele.
If she felt that the atmosphere of the bar had grown too staid she would march in bearing a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a bottle of brandy in the other to top up the customers’ drinks until an acceptable level of inebriation had been achieved.
The one area on which she did not spend much time was pub food, which mostly consisted of packets of pork scratchings and ancient scotch eggs. A visitor described a meal of Mary’s meat pie as “like trying to eat a tortoise”.
Her most persistent scheme to raise awareness of the pub was her discovery of the Magdala Ghost. Although it seems that Mary was the only person ever to witness this phenomenon, she managed to keep the local press curious about her experiences for some years. She reported that the ghost was ‘headless and shadowy’ and frequently would emerge from her bedroom wall before disappearing again into the ceiling.
When she informed the Japanese tourist firm about this, they sent some researchers to the pub to film the apparition. Mary said that: “As they were looking around the cellar, one of the girls became hysterical and said that she had been touched. Then they all ran to their van and showered themselves with salt. Apparently, it keeps ghosts at bay.” For her own part, she relied on a bottle of holy water provided by her priest. When it was suggested that the ghost be exorcised, Mary came out strongly against the idea, saying that the priest had declared that such an attempt would only anger it. The ghost remained and the tourist trade prospered.]
But despite the famous events and illustrious clientele, the real tale of the Magdala lies in the stories connected to the all-weather hard core regulars – the foot soldiers of history perhaps but nevertheless vast personalities within the confines of the bar. Most of the following stories are based around the Mag or environs during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.
The pub originally consisted of three ground floor bars – reducing to two when the snug bar disappeared during the 1970s. Perhaps it was the social mixture of the area (already mentioned) that generated some of the Magdala’s dynamism. This was reflected in the informal titles given to the public bar – ‘The Villains’ Bar’ – and the saloon bar – ‘The Wallies’ Bar’ – although there was easy access between the two.
Before anything else, it must be admitted that maybe the Magdala was not to everyone’s taste. One set of internet reviewers claimed that despite their liking for the customers ‘because they are eccentrics’, ‘the furniture was old and worn and even worse the beer was flat and tasteless’ and even the customers whose company they enjoyed were ‘terrible singers’. A one-time chair of SEGA said that ‘the pub was dingy and sometimes rowdy’, while another reviewer said that the saloon bar ‘was infested with drunken septuagenarians who rather lowered the tone’.
But then again, in the words of the late Bishop of Ely: “Sod ‘em”.
Any pub reflects its landlord and the Mag was lucky over the years to have attracted many hosts who have appreciated the special quality of SEG. Fred – José – Sue – the East End girls – John and Tracy – all played their part. But the Mag was especially fortunate in attracting two woman who were in it for the long haul. Mary Watson lasted from 1989 till 1997, to be followed by Christiana Grant (née Baehr) from 1997 till 2014. They, more than any others, presided over its ramshackle life with sympathy and tolerance.
Tolerance was an attribute that was a necessity to successfully control the Magdala. Its clientele was unusual. A theatre lecturer at the Central School of Speech and Drama in Belsize Park made a habit of sending his students along to the saloon bar to sit and observe its denizens in order to give them ideas on how to express the more bizarre aspects of human nature. In return, the denizens re-christened his revered establishment as the ‘Central School of Screech and Trauma’.
One of the most interesting incidents to involve a local stalwart occurred in 2000 when the professional bagpiper Dave Brookes (a veteran of dozens of Burns Nights and St Andrews’ Days) was arrested for practising his instrument on Hampstead Heath. Although the sound of distant pipes was a welcome distraction to most people, inevitably somebody complained to the City of London Corporation and Mr Brooks was arrested for breaching a by-law banning the use of musical instruments. He unearthed a novel defence to this charge arguing that in 1747 following the Battle of Culloden the bagpipes were banned in England and Scotland and defined as a weapon of war; therefore it was not a musical instrument. The magistrates accepted this defence but promptly re-arrested him for carrying an offensive weapon.
Overheard at the saloon bar counter:
“When you ask a woman to describe her ideal man, after a while you realise that she is describing an intelligent Labrador with a wallet.”
Perhaps the most redoubtable family to have connections to the Magdala were the Hepburns – one scion of which, George, regularly dropped in for a drink on most weekends. His mother was the poetess Anna Wickham who lived in a large house towards the top of Parliament Hill. Born in 1883 Anna was a resplendent example of Hampstead bohemian life in the first half of the 20th century. Although born in Wimbledon she spent much of her early years in Australia. Returning to London in 1904 she became a singer and performed at the Paris Opera. She also studied drama. After her marriage to the lawyer Patrick Hepburn and the birth of her four sons, she took up poetry and her first collection was published in 1911.
Her life then took on what was described at the time as ‘a disorganised aspect’ and, during her separation from Patrick, she became involved in a series of affairs (at one point two lovers fought a duel over her and while in Paris she fell for the notorious lesbian Natalie Barney). She managed to mingle the flamboyant life of the Café Royal and Fitzrovia with her more serious support for the suffragettes. In Hampstead she became friends with DH Lawrence and his wife Frieda, Edith Sitwell, and the artist David Bomberg, all of whom were regular visitors to her home. In 1935, Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin stayed with her on Parliament Hill – a period during which Dylan would use the Magdala as a starting point and as a postscript to his pub tours of North London. Patrick Hepburn died in 1929 while Anna continued to live with her sons at their home until her death by suicide in 1947.
If Anna was an unusual woman, her son James was one of the most remarkable men to have crossed the pub threshold. As a youth he visited Paris with his mother where he mingled with such people as Sylvia Beach (the creator of the Shakespeare and Co bookshop), the lesbian novelist Djuna Barnes, and the ‘Queen of Bohemia’ Nina Hamnett. He also met the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley, and beat him at chess. Crowley sulked for weeks at this reverse.
After leaving school James worked first on the railways but then decided on a theatrical career, performing with both Stanley Holloway and Noel Coward. In 1928, while on tour he celebrated his 21st birthday in a New York speakeasy. Enthused by the example of Fred Astaire, he joined up with his brother John to form the very successful tap dancing team the ‘The Hepburn Brothers’ who toured the USA and Europe. Olivia Manning, author of ‘The Fortunes of War’, remembered meeting them in Bucharest in 1938 during the febrile pre-war atmosphere that she recreated in her famous Balkan Trilogy books.
In 1939 he joined the RAF as a tail-gunner, navigator, and pilot and was awarded the DFC in 1943. Remarkably he flew over Hiroshima only a few days after the nuclear attack in 1945. He operated as a pilot throughout the period of the Berlin airlift, then as a publicity stunt became only the second man to fly round the world from east to west. Later he became a civil servant engaged on secret work at the Ministry of Defence.
He retired from the MOD in 1977 and aged 70 took up a job in Heals’ bedding factory. Always a staunch socialist, he became a valued member of the Hampstead Labour Party. His stepdaughter married the Monty Python comedian Terry Jones. Right up to his death aged 88 in 1995, James remained active and on occasion would demonstrate his tap-dancing skills on the pavement outside the Magdala.
His brother George also lived all his life in the family home on Parliament Hill. A much less active man than James, George never lost his childlike innocent charm even in his nineties. In his youth he also met his mother’s vast range of famous friends and was involved in a tragi-comic incident involving one of them.
The alcoholic writer Malcolm Lowry, author of ‘Under the Volcano’, was staying as a guest with the family. One morning in the throes of drink, while stroking George’s pet rabbit Lowry accidentally broke its neck. Mortified and in panic he stuffed the corpse into his briefcase and rushed out of the house without reporting the accident. Going straight to a literary luncheon he was bewildered over what to do with the body and finally asked a waiter to dispose of it. His fellow luncheon guests were somewhat perplexed at this exchange. Lowry never owned up and George did not discover what had happened to his pet until years later.
During World War Two, George joined the Veterinary Corps and spent the conflict caring for horses and camels in the Middle East. On his return to Parliament Hill he underwent the most traumatic event of his life. In 1947, his mother asked him to pop down to the shops in SEG on an errand. On his return he found that she had hanged herself. He said that on the discovery he ran to the street and ‘howled like a dog’.
George never involved himself in much activity later in his life, content to earn his living in a variety of jobs as a labourer or bookshop assistant and occasionally writing his own poetry. He married a Dutch lady named Louise in 1964 and lived a quiet life. When he died in 2011, their daughter Jessica said that George adored Parliament Hill and its surroundings. “He didn’t want to let go of who he was. Those Hampstead streets became a part of him”.
Annie and Ken are a couple who for many years rented the top flat in the Hepburns’ large house and who also spent much time in the saloon bar of the Magdala. Born in Scotland, Annie came south to London and established herself as a top class stage manager in theatre, opera and TV. She became close friends with many of the stars, including the operatic aristocracy of José Carreras and Luciano Pavorotti (known back stage as ‘Big Lucy’). Her partner Ken was an unusual member of the Magdala world. Until his retirement he had been an Inspector in the British Transport police who acted as bodyguard to many notables on their train journeys. In this capacity he was one of the police representatives who presided over the opening of the Channel Tunnel and had the job of liaising with the French police in the matter. He received the MBE for his services.
Later they left the Hepburn house and London and established themselves in the Latin Quarter of Paris where they still reside. Ken did undergo an unfortunate experience with the Parisian police however. One day a pickpocket stole his wallet and Ken went to report the theft at the local station. While they were taking his details it dawned on ‘les flics’ that they were dealing with an English policeman who had been robbed. Ken became the butt of an onslaught of gleeful chauvinism. “Ha, so zee gendarme Anglais weeshes the police of La France to rescue his money for heem, does he?”
Ken remains the source of some wonderful stories about his career in the police. On one occasion he and a colleague were on a drinking binge in a London pub when they noticed a theft taking place. Leaping up they grabbed the culprit and arrested him. However they then realised that they were both too drunk to drive the police car but did not wish to publicise their condition by phoning for back up. Not without some embarrassment, they asked their prisoner whether he could drive them all to the police station. This he proceeded to do and duly was charged and arraigned for trial. During the hearing and in a spirit of goodwill he announced that he wished to thank his arresting officers for their courtesy and especially for allowing him to drive their police car back to the station. On hearing this, the magistrates ordered the prisoner to be taken away for psychological tests.
Private Godfrey and the Dame of Soho
Alan Booth was a regular back in the 1970s, but now long gone. He was a man with a rather sweet nature, but who lived a life of unremitting poverty and who suffered from a genteel but impenetrable vagueness (in some ways he was reminiscent of the character of Private Godfrey in ‘Dad’s Army’.)
On one occasion after he had committed some minor offence, the details of which had escaped him, he had been summoned to the local magistrates’ court. By mistake he arrived at the wrong court and therefore turned up about one and a half hours late for the case. The magistrate, who was well known locally as a rabid sadist, addressed him.
“Mr. Booth, as you appear to have a certain contempt both for the Court and for the clock, I am going to place you where you will have no alternative but to be punctual next week. I therefore remand you in custody until next Wednesday.”
Booth, with no previous experience of incarceration, was taken off to Brixton Prison. On arrival in his cell, he saw a notice on the wall, announcing that remand prisoners were allowed cigarettes, magazines and a half bottle of wine. He didn’t realise that these goods had to be supplied by friends and relations on the outside. Accordingly, he rang the cell bell and eventually a warder arrived.
“Yes, Booth? What’s the matter?”
“Ah, I’m most awfully sorry to trouble you, my dear fellow, but could I possibly have my bottle of wine now, please? I would prefer a decent Chablis, if you would be so kind?”
The warder’s reply was not recorded.
Another regular, Tony Elworthy, reported that one day he was strolling through SEG with Booth who asked him rather shyly:
“Would you care to repair to my room for a cup of tea?”
Elworthy nodded assent, whereupon Booth pondered a moment then added: “I wonder if you might care to partake of a sandwich also? A sausage sandwich?”
Again Elworthy nodded: “Yes, that would be very nice.”
Booth led him into a local butchers’ shop and announced to the butcher:
“Ah, my good man, I wish to purchase one sausage, if you would be so kind.”
The butcher, who obviously knew him well, sighed and turned to prepare the order.
Elworthy felt rather embarrassed at this.
“But surely, Alan, wouldn’t you like to have one as well? I’d feel rather mean eating a sandwich if you didn’t join me.”
“Well, yes.” Booth mused “Yes, indeed, why not? Butcher, I say, please would you make that TWO sausages.”
The butcher, without looking up, muttered: “‘Aving a party, are we?”
Jamie J-B was a contemporary of Alan Booth. Although established on Parliament Hill and a confirmed Magdala regular, she was also something of a survivor/refugee from the Soho of the 1950s and 60s. She had been a member of the Colony Room club and had a stack of stories about the place in its greatest days. The Colony was a very cramped one-room drinking club on the first floor of a house in Dean St, presided over by a consecutive trio of owner/landlords: originally, the exceedingly foul-mouthed lesbian Muriel Belcher, then the vituperative Ian Board (known as ‘Ida’), and finally the more laid back Michael Wojas. Known for the hideous shade of green that adorned its walls, the club was an artists’ haven for afternoon drinking and outrageous behaviour. Its original gang of patrons included Lucian Freud, John Deakin, Frank Auerbach, George Melly, and most notably Francis Bacon.
[The present writer was once a guest in the Colony and was taken to meet Francis Bacon. Unfortunately, Mr Bacon was curled up on the floor in a drunken stupor at the time, so the introduction never took place. The Colony was that kind of club.]
When the elder statesmen of London’s art world drifted off into respectability or death, the younger set took over – Damien Hurst, Tracy Emin, Sarah Lucas, abetted by others such as Suggs, Billy Bragg, Kate Moss, Lisa Stansfield, etc. In a disaster for Soho, the Colony Room was closed down in 2008 when its lease ran out.
Jamie lived in a flat near the club. This location often led to problems. Once, a club inmate informed the police (incorrectly) that a man whom they wished to interrogate was staying with her. They arrived at dawn and with almost no warning broke their way inside. What they did not realise was that Jamie had been doing some repairs to the flat and had removed the floorboards from the corridor leading in from the front door. The first three police having smashed in the door then charged inside only to hurtle down into the void between the bare joists.
One of the Colony drinkers became so comatose one evening that Jamie very kindly offered to house him overnight. With difficulty she carried him to the flat and installed him in her bath to sleep it off. At three in the morning she was woken up by a fearful racket coming from the bathroom. She hastened out to find that her guest was having an epileptic fit. To make things even louder, the bath was made of tin, and the guest was a disabled man who was equipped with a tin leg.
The reason for the popularity of the Colony Room was based on the British licensing laws that since the First World War had restricted pub opening time to lunchtimes and post 6pm periods. In 1995 the laws were changed to allow pubs to open all day and stay open late at weekends. Prior to this, the more determined drinkers were forced to find alternative watering holes.
For the Magdalites the late night spot was the Marathon Café opposite the Round House in Chalk Farm which stayed open till circa 3am and was the scene of numerous tense confrontations sometimes resulting in drunken brawls.
The afternoon (3pm till 6pm) venue of choice was the Tunnel Club – next to Belsize Park tube station and approached along a lengthy corridor that gave the club its name. There one could find a fascinating mixture of the unemployed, resting actors and gentlemen involved in ventures of borderline legality. When the writer Leon Griffeths created his TV series ‘Minder’ (starring George Cole and Dennis Waterman), he based his fictional ‘Winchester Club’ partly on a club in Swiss Cottage called ‘The Eton’ and partly on the Tunnel Club.
Garland and Mercer
Two Magdalites who could have fitted very well into the world of ‘Minder’ had an almost paternal/filial relationship. Robin Garland was a sometime Downing College Cambridge student who had abandoned any desire for a career back in the 1950s. He somehow survived partly due to his imposingly patrician presence and also by a series of ventures supported by unusually creative accountancy. When a plan failed as it inevitably did, Garland had a nearly fool-proof exit strategy. He would first defend himself in court (on one august occasion, the Old Bailey); then if this looked like failing, he would retire rapidly to the Isle of Wight where he could rely on a local pub to cover his tracks. Then, if his opponents seemed to be approaching the Solent area, he would make his final retreat to a psychiatric hospital near Bristol where he would claim asylum based on a long-off episode of childhood trauma. Once the heat had died down he would return to London and start anew.
His friend and one-time acolyte was Steve Mercer. Steve also came from a privileged middle-class background but was dogged by ill-health through most of his life. His diabetes and latterly his deteriorating sight rendered him ill-suited to work other than through the good offices of his mentor Robin Garland.
One of their dual operations was the establishment of a taxi firm entitled ‘Luxury Limousines at your Service’. Soon after opening, Robin turned up in answer to a booking by two elderly ladies to take them to the airport. He leaned over from the driver’s seat to open the passenger door for them. As he did so, the passenger door fell off. The passengers decided to cancel their trip in the ‘Luxury Limousine’.
Always an observant man, Robin Garland noticed that motor cycle couriers arrived at the foyers of the numerous businesses on Piccadilly bearing parcels. Invariably the receptionists would hand over petty cash to the riders and then, without opening them, send the parcels on to their post rooms. Robin decided that if he sent in Steven Mercer, dressed in motor cycle garb and carrying an (empty) parcel, this would be an excellent way to collect petty cash from each of the airlines, banks, and assorted offices around the West End. This started as a fine scam, but ended in disaster due to the problem of Mercer’s fading vision. Even the dullest receptionist became suspicious at the sight of a motor cycle courier using a white stick to tap his way across the foyer.
Another of Garland’s plans ended with Mercer spending three weeks on remand in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison.
The invention of the credit card proved to be fertile territory for Robin’s enterprises and he was rarely without a fistful of them. He noticed one night that a female drinker was sitting alone and very upset. Never without a soft spot for misfortune, he sat beside her to offer comfort: “There, there, dear lady, do have a cheque card.”
An acquaintance reported: “A month ago Garland announced that he was starting a business. He had acquired an office and a telephone but no idea what business he was going to set up.”
His long-separated wife Anna was a spirited woman who occasionally looked into the pub. Robin mentioned that one morning she had rushed down Parliament Hill in a fury while chasing after her current lover. Catching up with him she reached up and seized the toupee off the top of his head. She then flung it into the air and accidentally through an open window where it landed on a table in front of a gentleman eating his breakfast.
Overheard at the saloon bar counter:
“He was furious! Furious! The veins were standing out on his teeth.”
Laureates and Spies
Two of the saloon bar customers became famous to some degree because of their family connections. The literary agent Olwyn Hughes was, of course, the sister of the Poet Laureate Ted Hughes. Olwyn was excellent company in the pub – imposing and extrovert and, at the same time, both a femme fatale and one of the boys. She was fairly indiscriminate in her approaches to both sexes for overnight companionship. To a large extent her world revolved around the tragic event in 1963 when her brother’s wife Sylvia Plath committed suicide at their home in nearby Primrose Hill.
For the rest of her life Olwyn was involved in helping to raise Ted and Sylvia’s children, to acting as an agent for her brother’s poetry, and to defending his character. This latter role became necessary after various American feminists decided that Sylvia Plath was a martyr to their cause. In order to create a martyr it is necessary to have an oppressor and Ted Hughes was chosen for the role. Olwyn thoroughly resented this assumption and fought all her life to correct it, sometimes treating the pub to her views in her richly nicotine-coated drawl. She loathed feminism and described Sylvia Plath as ‘a complete bitch’.
John Philby’s life in some ways was even more circumscribed by his family links. He had been a 19-year-old student at Hornsey College of Art when his father, Kim Philby, was exposed as the leader of the Cambridge ring of spies (recruited by Arnold Deutsch of South End Green) and as the traitor known as ‘The Third Man’. John became and remained thereafter the son of one of the most hated men in Britain. Although he didn’t realise it, his life had always been surrounded by the trappings of espionage. His father later told him that when he was a child, the fellow spy Guy Burgess had kept a standard-issue KGB revolver and camera hidden under John’s bed.
Despite Kim’s defection, John remained fond of his father and visited him in Moscow several times. Notwithstanding his commitment to the Soviet cause, Kim Philby missed Marmite and Colman’s mustard, commodities that John was able to supply on these trips. At the end of one visit John and Kim were waiting at Moscow Airport for John’s return trip to London when they were seized by Russian officials, handed a bottle of vodka, and pushed into a cupboard. The British ambassador was booked on the same flight and the authorities wished to avoid a diplomatic incident.
John was a popular figure in the pub with most people ignoring his exotic connections. Perhaps the only occasions that hinted at his past were after John joined the Magdala Cricket Team. Whenever the side went out to field, the captain would always place John Philby at third man.
The Silver Fox
It is sometimes said that ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man’. In 1984, the hour was the Miners’ Strike and the man was Dave Gravelle, aka ‘the Silver Fox’. Although home to every possible shade of political opinion from the Nazis to Stalin (usually proclaimed at full volume) the Magdala by and large remained true to the left wing traditions of Hampstead. Arguably the Miners’ Strike was the most important event in post-war British history. It decided the century-old battle over whether organised labour or global capitalism would control the country. It was a tumultuous time with passions raised to fever pitch and nowhere more so than in South End Green.
Although far from the main coalfields, there was a small but significant mining district in East Kent around the town of Deal. Their workers were among the most determined of the strikers and were the last people to surrender in 1985. Given its known political stance, they naturally gravitated to the Mag and chose it as their London headquarters for the duration. From here they organised street bucket collections and various fund raising schemes. Dave Gravelle, although a local, had come from a mining family and became committed to the cause. If the Mag customers flagged in their efforts, Dave was there to rouse and enthuse. Dave was a tough heavily-built Londoner who had spent a short period at Her Majesty’s pleasure; his time doing porridge had stirred a deep-rooted morality and he emerged from the nick with something of a born-again idealism for social justice. (This could on occasion veer towards the incongruous with a Cockney hard nut grimly enforcing liberal values: “If they want to ‘ave their origami class in ‘ere, they’re bleedin’ gonna GET their origami class in ‘ere!!! ROIGHT????????”)
Dave’s main efforts concerned arranging home and away cricket matches between the Magdala team and the Betteshangar Colliery team to raise cash for the miners’ charities. The away match was quite successful as the Magdala managed to borrow some decent cricketers from other hostelries and the result of the match was a draw. By agreement the match had only lasted three hours and ended before 5pm to allow the teams and their supporters to adjourn to the Magnet pub in Deal for a necessary five hours of recuperative drinking before returning by coach to London.
The second match (at home on Parliament Hill Fields) was even shorter. Numerous absences, (especially of the experienced cricketers), led to Dave Gravelle having to recruit his team directly from the saloon bar. One of the Magdala openers was an Irishman who had never played the game before. Dave’s only coaching consisted of telling the man that all he had to do was to go out and hit the ball with the bat: “It’s roughly the same as hurling.”
The Betteshangar team on the other hand now included a bowler who occasionally played for the prestigious Kent County Cricket team. The players and spectators were back in the pub by 4pm as the aggregate score by the Magdala amounted to fourteen runs including five extras.
During the Strike in 1984, in a tragic accident the Mag regular John Todd fell from a ladder while fixing a roof on Constantine Road. His injuries were so severe that he ended as a quadriplegic being treated in Stoke Mandiville Hospital in Buckinghamshire. While there he shared a two man ward with a young Libyan in a similar condition. One day a group of Special Branch men arrived to tell them that they were about to be honoured by a visit from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on one of her ‘comforting the afflicted’ photo opportunities. She would be accompanied by her friend and supporter the celebrity Sir Jimmy Saville. The volume of abuse with which this news was received by John (a Geordie whose brother was a striking miner) and the Libyan (whose home town had just been bombed by the US Air Force in collusion with Thatcher) was such that the Special Branch hastily re-routed the tour to a less hazardous part of the hospital.
One other reference to the Miners’ Strike concerned a lady who, to the best of knowledge, probably only made one visit to the Magdala, presumably as a guest. Whenever the topic arises of whether female stand-up comedians can be as funny as males, one can only point to the brilliant and hugely missed Linda Smith. She died aged 48 in 2006 and to many remains irreplaceable. She was also sympathetic to the miners and related one of the most memorable anecdotes of the conflict.
One of the common sights of the time was that of pickets standing around all day outside the colliery gates warming themselves beside a burning brazier. One day after a heavy snowstorm, some of the pickets at a County Durham colliery decided to entertain themselves by building a snowman. A passing police car saw the completed figure, backed up the road, then drove at full speed into the snowman knocking it to pieces. They drove away laughing and jeering at the pickets. The next day the miners defiantly rebuilt their snowman. The police returned, spotted it, again backed up the street, and again drove their police car full tilt into the figure. What they did not realise was that the pickets had built their second snowman around a concrete bollard.
Dave Gravelle’s brother John was a less frequent visitor to the Magdala as he spent a considerable amount of his time running a small private ‘cramming’ school. In this venture he was assisted by another regular called ‘The Hoffmeister’. Both of them were graduates of the 1960s and its attitudes, and the school staffroom was rarely without its dustbin full of chilling lagers while dope was always on tap. This inevitably led to trouble as on the occasion when some prospective parents met John in his role as headmaster but decided to remove their children as he had fallen over during the interview. Not long afterwards, the pair promised one student that he would gain a scholarship to Oxford University. He was duly hidden away while Gravelle and the Hoffmeister took the exam in his place. Unfortunately, they failed.
The Hoffmeister and Bernard Kelly
The Hoffmeister, (aka the Hoff or Peter Alderson-Smith), was a striking man. Hailing from a North Oxfordshire village he, unlike his pupil, did gain a degree at Oxford. Possessed of a tall, gangling frame and an educated vocal bray, he invariably wore a brown pork-pie hat, a short overcoat, and cowboy boots. This bore a strong resemblance to a beer advert of the time which featured a bear wearing similar garb and extolling the joys of Hoffmeister lager. This together with his own appreciation of the brew gave the Hoff his ineradicable nickname. His main interests in life lay in Country and Western music (owning an LP collection running into the thousands), black magic (‘at least in theory’ according to a friend), and the works of WB Yeats. His undoubted erudition led him eventually to publishing a 1987 work about Yeats’s interest in the Irish supernatural entitled ‘WB Yeats and The Tribes of Danu’. The Hoff was continually irritated by the pub clientele referring to the title of his book as ‘Great Irish Fairies’.
It was around the same year when the Hoff committed his greatest faux pas, in a career of noted faux pas. One night, Julia Davote, a one-time Camden councillor and despite her Welsh origins one of the staunchest of Mag supporters, invited a crowd of people, including the Hoff, back to her flat after closing time. While there, the talk turned to politics, and the Hoff’s inebriated voice became increasingly apparent. Discussing the demise of the Greater London Council, he barked out over the room: “Well, I don’t mind that Ken Livingstone so much, but I can’t stand that awful c*** John McDonnell!” The sudden silence that followed this statement was broken by one guest coughing with embarrassment and pointing to Julia’s boyfriend standing next to the Hoffmeister. “Er, Hoff……This IS John McDonnell”.
[Despite his sojourn in the Mag, John McDonnell was eventually to reach the heights of parliamentary prominence when he became Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2015.]
To great regret on all sides, the Hoffmeister died of a stroke in 1990 while in the USA prior to taking up a lectureship at the University of Las Vegas. His body was returned to his Oxfordshire home and a quartet of Magdalites set out to attend the funeral. The weather was bad as the party left London but as they drove up the M40 it worsened into a snow blizzard. By the time they reached the Chiltern Hills the motorway became completely impassable and they were forced to carry out a highly illegal but unavoidable U-turn on the road. They returned in high dudgeon to the pub after their wasted and dangerous journey. As one of them snarled as they walked into the bar: “Another bloody typical Hoffmeister funeral!!”
This death ended one of the most entertaining of bar battles – that of the Hoff versus the Irish poet Bernard Kelly. They had fallen out over something and both being literary gents had turned to words as their weapons. Kelly declared war by distributing a clerihew through the letterboxes of all who might be interested:
‘Peter Alderson- Smith
‘s sex life is a total myth;
A master of all things pedantic
Disaster in all things romantic.’
The Hoff decided to take up the challenge by aping the style of the great 18th century lettered dualists.
On Master Kelly’s Verses – by Wise Peter the Rhymer
Friends, if you will a little of your time
Devote to my not all unpractis’d rhyme,
I beg to comment on some paltry verses
But lately scribbled by a local Thyrsis
I mean a very Irish Tom o’ Bedlam.
Although reluctant, you may well have read them,
Because, to ensnare an Audience, this coxcomb
Makes sure his odes through every letter-box come
Now fall two dozen lines bereft of metre
In one more effort to malign Wise Peter.
Kelly returned fire with:
‘This odd imposter’s rant,
When he is not too drunk,
Is ghastly lines of cant
Culled from a brain that’s shrunk.
Thyrsis he rhymes with verse
And bedlam with a ‘them’…..
This clot must out-Pope Pope,
Mere pastiche of his rhymes,
And crawls his ego’s slope
To peal his petty chimes.
Without a shred of thought
Wise Peter the Rhymer’s born.
Wise Nature should abort
What others only scorn.’
Hoffmeister replied in a seven-page diatribe in couplets. A short example gives something of the flavour:
‘Great Dullness, sleeping since the death of Dryden,
Awoke of late, and did his eyelids widen,
On foreign parts his glance but idly rested:
By Hampstead was his eye at once arrested.
The place was founded on his former Blessings,
And throve with Melvyn Braggs and Doris Lessings.
The plague of Meaning had not much infected
That conurbation; but still undetected
No Cibber, Flecknoe; certainly no Shadwell!
Peace upon Shadwell! Now, let Kelly be!
The Bard some spastic verses hath contrived
Enstyled “MacPeter.” Woe upon the West
When Ignorance is in Kelly’s verse express’d.’
The campaign continued for over a year until the Hoff abandoned couplets and adapted the stanza format to deliver his final onslaught:
To Master Kelly
Oh where are you going, you drunken buffoon?
Oh whither away, you untalented oaf?
I’m off to my study to write a lampoon
In verses not needing the use of my loaf,
Just some ridiculous twaddle by Kelly,
Known as appalling from Dallas to Delhi.
Oh where are you bound, you illiterate knave?
Oh where are you bent, you preposterous fool?
I’m going to Highgate to visit a grave,
I’m off to the Lido to play with my tool,
I’m off round the district to publish my libels,
One in each household, like Gideon Bibles.
Oh, what is your way, you affront to society?
Oh where are you heading, you Shit of the Year?
I’m off to abolish the last of sobriety,
I’m off to the Rosslyn to wallow in beer,
I’m off to the Mag to cadge beer by the litre,
I’m off to my home to escape from Wise Peter.
The subject of all this abuse was arguably the quintessential key to old Hampstead; a man who was the epitome of contrary, off-the-wall anarchy and who, while irritating the hell out of all who knew him, also managed to keep them more alive than they realised.
Bernard Kelly (aka ‘Phelim O’Jelly’ and ‘Leonardo O’Logan’) was born of Irish parents in London but educated in Ireland and was a history graduate of Trinity College, Dublin. Although he never described his job as anything but a poet, he did work as a teacher for a period. His contract as a lecturer in Liberal Studies at the Slough College of Technology was not renewed when it became apparent that his view of liberal studies did not coincide with that of Slough’s view of liberal studies.
On application to the Camden Town Labour Exchange he was asked what skills he had that might lead to a job in the Borough of Camden. Having had his initial proposal of ‘Poet’ turned down, he suggested ‘Shepherd’. Finally he decided privately that his talents were best suited to the role of ‘Dadaist Agitator’.
Kelly survived on a diet of trickling sales from his poetry magazines, the most notable of which was ‘Rabies’. But probably what sustained him even more was his relentless assaults on what he saw as the boring nature of the arts establishment.
His proposals for events during the Real Camden Arts Festival of 1968 included a street theatre event in which near-naked men and women would be whipped in time to music; and a poetry reading to establish the right for Camden citizens to graze sheep on the Heath. The latter event did take place, one of the few poetry readings that needed to be accompanied by a heavy police presence.
In 1970, the General Election provided another opportunity for Kelly’s specialist approach. He attended the Tory Party meeting where he conducted one speaker (in his words ‘a well-known old codger’) with a baton; handed out blank sheets of paper describing them as the Tory Party Manifesto; then fell asleep and snored loudly, before being thrown out.
On Election Day he held his own contest outside the polling booth – with Harold the Hamster and Ted the Toad held aloft in separate cages for public approval. He was stopped by police.
He invaded the Camden Libraries and Arts Committee meeting loudly reciting the poetry of Dylan Thomas before sinking to the floor to start pulling the councillors’ legs. He was thrown out.
At an art exhibition being opened by the Danish Ambassador, he shook hands with the Ambassador with the words: “Ah, you must be the exhibit”, before being thrown out.
In 1972 he awarded the ‘Rabies’ Children’s Poetry Prize to the then Tory MP for Hampstead Geoffrey Finsberg. The citation explained that Finsberg’s ‘themes were ones of social conscience surprising in one so unconscious.’
In one of his more reflective moments Kelly said:
“The British attitude to freedom of speech is one of tolerance, not desire. Tolerance is admirable but when it moves into indifference it is infuriating. The British sense of tolerance can be easily be shattered because the tolerance is only skin deep. Scratch a British chap and you will find a veritable demon. I believe in the freedom of poetic expression. I am an isolated anarchist in the midst of fairly objective rationalists. But Ireland is a good breeding ground for British rebels.”
The local newspaper, the at one time extraordinary ‘Ham and High’ (a local paper with EIGHT pages devoted to the arts), allowed Kelly the space to refute an attack on Hampstead and in so doing allowed him to define himself. The article is reprinted with minor cuts:
‘THE DOLEFUL DREAMERS WHO LIVE ON THE HILL
By Bernard Kelly.
I SEE the so-called Hampstead intellectual is under attack again. About time too. It must be over two months since I last read of ‘Hampstead types’ in the press. This present assault comes from a Nottingham MP (a miners’ MP no less). He states that the sort of “revolting” thing going on at the ICA and also in his own constituency, where a young bloke has received £500 from the Arts Council to sweep dust into artistic piles, is the fault of ‘pseudo-intellectuals in Hampstead.’ He adds that in some obscure way these Hampstead types all live on Social Security obtained from miners’ sweat.
I always used to dismiss terms like ‘Hampstead pseudo-intellectual’, ‘poetaster of NW3’ and ‘scruffy Hampstead idealist’ as true but uninteresting and certainly not relevant to me. Now I am getting fed up with it all. There is definitely an almost primal need for those who wish to exert their scintillating prejudices to pick on some poor sod, whether a black in Brixton, a Jew in Golders Green or a pseudo-intellectual in Hampstead. It makes no difference so long as there’s a suitable scapegoat.
At the moment of writing this I am seated in the Camden Town labour exchange, about to sign on. Outside I met one or two of my colleagues, so rudely described by the miners’ MP. We’ve already got through half the world’s political troubles and solved the ones that do not exist.
They must have a few distinguished signatures at the Camden Town dole shop. Mine they do have by the dozen, none identical though. More value that way if they ever come to sell them.
Well, I feel like defending myself and my loyal conversationalists of Hampstead, for that is what they are, some of the greatest talkers in Britain. An asset any society other than Britain would be proud to keep on the sweat of miners’ brows. Better the miners keep us than the rich of Hampstead.
I decided to investigate what exactly is a Hampstead pseudo-intellectual. I phoned round. Peter Hall was not available. Menuhin was in Iran, I think. Richard Ingrams was not letting on. Bernard Levin, David Storey, Melvyn Bragg, Margaret Drabble, the Mayor of Camden; these and other names sprang to mind.
Nearer home, and nearer the bone, I asked a postman-writer-artist-book reviewer who lives round the corner what he thought was a Hampstead pseudo-intellectual. The answer, as quick as a flash: “You may be said to be, in my candid opinion, a perfect example of that which you wished defined”. Such cautious speech, and yet so explicit. At last my investigation was concluded. Well, as a perfect example I must confess a Hampstead pseudo-intellectual is Irish, 40-ish, married, with one child, on the housing list, drinks too much on too little, collects Social Security or often has, and no doubt will, read on Dial-a-Poem, disagrees with whatever there is to disagree over (which is everything), takes a lot of punishment from intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike, has nothing whatsoever to do with the ICA and has never had an article in the New Statesman. It’s as simple as that.’
It was possible to follow Kelly’s progress through various press reports. He would surface like a vociferous spectre in the oddest spots.
Daily Telegraph: ‘Many people have been moved to scream when confronted by modern art, and someone did just that during the preview of the Arts Council’s ‘Dada and Surrealism Reviewed’ exhibition at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank. The piercing scream, it was explained afterwards, had come from a member of a group called the New London Dadaists, who had then rushed off before stewards could move in. But the organisers cannot have been unduly surprised. An essay published in conjunction with the exhibition repeats the old claim that ‘the true dadaist is against dada’.
The Times: ‘The Arts Council’s public forum on literature was held at 105 Piccadilly. In the firing line were Sir Roy Shaw (the secretary general), Charles Osborne (the literature director) and Melvyn Bragg (the chairman of the Literature Advisory Panel). A disaffected heckler guesstimated the Arvon subsidy as £1,000,000 per week – a figure that was ignored by the top brass. The grumbling, however, went on until Sir Roy Shaw issued a stern rebuke.
“I don’t need your condensation,” the heckler retorted, immediately correcting himself. “I mean your condescension. Come to that, I don’t need your condensation either.
With that, he marched to the door: “l am the editor of Rabies,” he barked, armed to the teeth with teeth, and left.’
Ilkley Post. Yorkshire: ‘The idea put forward by the Ilkley Festival committee had been that the writers in residence would conduct late-night literary discussions far into the night. So it’s 10.15 and we’ve mustered four elderly ladies: “We’re llkley. That’s why we’ve come”. A middle-aged man up from Hampstead who was said to be a neo-Dadaist, whatever that is, spoke to them. The ladies sat through his melodramatic, obscene ramblings with stoicism, killing him at the climax with “It were rubbish, was that”. Then the lights went out.’
But not all of Kelly’s reviews were so dismissive. A report in the Financial Times both captured the spirit and was entertainingly descriptive of a Kelly happening. The review is reprinted with minor cuts:
‘LOADS OF YEASTY HAY
Last Sunday evening I popped into my lively local hostelry, the Load of Hay on Haverstock Hill, Hampstead, to find myself surrounded by “a private play” written by Bernard Kelly, an unemployed poet. The “gig” had been instigated by my friend and neighbour, National Theatre actor Dave Hill.
In the Hampstead bar, the piece began with a furious row between an actor in a bald wig impersonating Dave Hill, laying into his wife (the equally delightful actress Jane Wood) on the subject of her drinking and smoking. Accustomed as I am to front row stalls, I impinged closely on the action in order not to miss a word. Expletives accumulated, violence ensued. ‘Jane Wood’ ducked and your intrepid correspondent received a large gin and tonic full in the face.
The play moved next door to the Hill’s Victorian studio accommodation which they share with TV actor and fringe theatre magician Ken Campbell and his actress wife Prunella Gee. Miss Gee came in for some cruel baiting on her upper class origins. This was unfair but not half as unfair as the mistake of excluding an appreciative audience from the play’s last act by performing in Bob Hoskins’s jeep driving northbound to the Railway Tavern on South End Green.
To their eternal credit, they returned for a reprise outside the Load of Hay and an impassioned, irresponsible epilogue from the author. The audience included wrestler, writer and National Theatre actor Brian Glover; the “human bomb” and star of Tiswas, Sylvester McCoy; rising stars Patti Love and Peter Postlethwalte, and TV drama producers Tara Prem and Richard Eyre.
It was a great and famous evening, and I thought I should give you a taste of what you have all, quite rightly, missed. As a social and cultural phenomenon, the event threw up ominous portents, the significance of which I have not yet compelled myself to contemplate.’
Kelly fell foul of the law quite late in his career. He was arrested after using a coin to scratch a series of expensive cars on Hampstead High Street. Rather typically of Bernard, he absent-mindedly carried out the crime while standing in front of the police station. The Magdala duty solicitor, another regular called Dave Quinlan, was summoned to the rescue. Quinlan was not pleased to find that the defence on which his case would depend was that a Rolls-Royce car had driven over Kelly’s pet ant.
Kelly retired to Belfast from where occasional letters would arrive containing new diatribes. In one letter he had lost patience with the poetry of Seamus Heaney.
‘Many attempts have been made to place Heaney’s utterances of the last sixty years among the great. None has quite succeeded. If certain poetry seems to be written solely for the purpose of sustaining literary criticism with new raw material, just as Irish bogs have long been seen as primarily fuel for the National Grid, then it follows such poetry is not its own end product. The question is, does Heaney write verse specifically for literary critics to dissect? The suspicion is that he does. Certainly, this is what has happened. One might call it presiding at one’s own literary vivisection.’
In another he turned an acid eye on the statement that ‘Irish people must learn to be intellectuals outside the confines of a public house’ which had stemmed from one Emmanuel Sweeney, the leader of the Irish Christian Democrats. Sweeney was demanding an inquiry into why the Republic had 11,000 pubs. Kelly responded:
‘It would be nice to know why there are only 11,000?’
One of Kelly’s most typical poems was one about Hampstead that he wrote in August 1987. It was a homage to the Flask pub up in the Village that was owned by the Gott family.
[Other references: ‘the Dome’ was a café serving alcohol (now the Café Rouge) – due to its clientele of foreign au pair girls it was known amongst the local lads as the Con-Dome; Karl Marx; Douglas Jay, a well-known Labour politician; the writer Kingsley Amis; Melvyn Bragg; John Braine; Keidrych Rees; Dave Bookless was a regular; Groucho’s was the Groucho Club in Soho; ASLEF was the train drivers union that had its HQ on Arkwright Road.]
THE SEDIMENTS OF THE FLASK
By Bernard Kelly
The stocks which once stood outside Hampstead’s Flask
Would be too good for boutique owner scum
Who’ve taken over, like the Dome’s crazed masque
Whose manager is nothing but a bum.
The Gotts held out against that awful tide,
Battered a bit, they never lost their pride.
God knows, with all its faults, Marx’s old pub
(At least it’s never seen the face of Jay,
Though Amis did look in just twice for grub)
Through the long night of estate agents’ day
Proved itself a haven from the modern,
If not always from Josh and the sodden.
Whilst Bragg was wasting years being motored
From Hampstead to the studios of shame,
Braine, a prodigal returned, un-photoed,
Gave to the Flask his last, and where’s the blame?
We did at least know him, and Keidrych, well.
Their like could never fall for Groucho’s hell.
Just Bookless (I know) brings private shares in,
And no one there (I think) is successful.
At times, the bar room banter wears quite thin,
But each is certain that he has most pull.
The TV in-crowd on the hill’s self-barred,
Real life for it has always somehow jarred.
Boutiques, boutiques, estate agents and Jay!
Were it not for the Ham & High half-wits,
Half-plastered every lunch time, the mid-day fray
Might prove escape enough from such conflicts.
So, farewell ye Gottsian egg and chips,
Britain’s best and cheapest, farewell ASLEF,
Farewell ye warriors, whose tongues are whips,
Brave songs were sung but now they’ve changed our clef.
Grant, ye Ancients, this to the least of us,
That when his sword’s broken, he makes a fuss.
Bernard Kelly died in 2006 having made his final move to Ilkley to stay with his wife and son. Whatever else one could say, one can only agree with that last line: whether his sword was broken or not, Kelly certainly made a fuss.
The Harvey Brothers
It is true to say that there were some members of the Magdala who carried on professional careers and some who had distinct jobs, but for many the acquisition of money depended on casual work for whichever firm could cope with their idiosyncrasies. As one regular declared: “I don’t mind doing any job so long as it doesn’t require sobriety”.
One firm that kept the pub going for many years was ‘Taxi Trucks’, a local enterprise that employed locals as ‘White Van Men’ and their aides. Another firm, based south of the river and therefore in ‘Here Be Dragons’ territory, was the prestigious business ‘IPC Magazines’ where many Magdalites ended up in the exceedingly undemanding post room acting as postal collection and delivery messengers. IPC were the publishers of over 400 different magazines, including the well-known ‘Horse and Hound’ and ‘Women’s Own’. Even Bernard Kelly spent a short period there until he got bored.
Once, while wearing overalls and carrying a pile of post, he stepped into an IPC lift. Spotting a face that seemed vaguely familiar he demanded to know the man’s name. The man bristled at such familiarity from an underling and announced: “I am the editor of Country Life”. Kelly lifted his chin contemptuously and replied: “Well, I am the editor of Rabies”.
A firm that provided more work for the pub than any other was ‘The Harvey Brothers’, a painting, decorating, and general odd-job outfit who made the saloon bar their main office. The group was led by Ernie Lavery from Belfast and Tony Elworthy from Dublin. As neither they nor any of their disparate cast of assistants had any formal training in the skills necessary for the job, the history of the business was studded with debacles.
One task had consisted of re-pointing the brickwork on a chimney of a five-storey house on Upper St, Islington. Not having the funds for scaffolding, they had completed the job while dangling from ropes slung round the chimney itself – at 80 feet above ground a death-defying feat. At the end of the day, they greeted the returning householder and showed him the handiwork.
“An extremely fine job.” said the householder. “Unfortunately you have re-pointed the wrong house”.
Another assignment had been to cover a large basement kitchen area with very expensive Hessian wallpaper. The lady of the house had given precise instructions as to how she wished the final result:
“I want to have something of the peasant look about it. A feeling of the Dordogne.”
Lavery and his decorating team, that week consisting of a Japanese martial arts instructor and a Yugoslav biology student, set to work on the papering and, by the end of the day, had made quite a creditable job of it considering their lack of experience. What they had not realised though, was that Hessian wallpaper requires a special kind of paste to prevent it shrinking and, on his return to the house on the following morning, Lavery was confronted by the furious householder gesticulating at the grotesquely shrunken wallpaper. It hung in crinkled and torn folds on the wall, leaving gaps of bare plaster at least three inches wide between the sheets. Lavery prevaricated as best he could but did not improve the situation by commenting:
“Well, madam, you did say you wanted the peasant look.”
Danny Mulligan was one of their least experienced assistants. During the renovation of a house on Pond St, he was deputised to scrape some wayward plaster and paint specks off a set of elegant Late Georgian panels. Danny set to work with a chisel. As Elworthy himself confessed:
“They may have started out as Late Georgian. By the time Danny had finished with them, they looked like Early Viking.”
Although the Magdala drew many charismatic and inspiring figures into its fold, only occasionally did it produce people who at least for a period were its very life and soul. Maybe Patrick Wymark back in the 1960s – maybe Brendan Trapp in the 2000s? But undoubtedly during the 1980s Tony Elworthy was the ‘heart of the rowl’.
Elworthy had been recognised as a charmer from his earliest days. At the age of one, he was chosen as the ‘Cow and Gate Baby’ in a TV advert of the period. He grew up as an athletic, elegant, good-looking man who had a devastating effect on the ladies of his acquaintance. Having mastered the mandolin he played with the Dublin band ‘The Relics of Auld Decency’ and much later on occasion accompanied the famous Irish singer Liam Clancy. He also came under the spell of James Joyce’s novel ‘Ulysses’ and became a lifelong fan – as soon as he finished the last page he would return to the first page and start again.
However, Elworthy also had a very strong liking for alcohol and had a huge capacity. It was not unusual for him to arrive with five minutes to go till closing time and down three pints almost without drawing breath. His girlfriend and partner grew so worried about his intake that she persuaded him to see the renowned psychiatrist R.D. Laing who at the time had a practice on nearby Haverstock Hill. The reluctant Elworthy entered Laing’s consulting room and the two started to chat. Laing also had a huge liking for alcohol and after a while they recognised that they were kindred spirits. Laing decided to call it a day, fetched out a bottle of whisky, and the two proceeded to get thoroughly smashed through the rest of the afternoon.
For a couple of months Elworthy became the less than proud owner of a cocker spaniel named Bim. While having nothing against dogs in general, Elworthy became irritated by Bim. The dog was, unfortunately, blind, incontinent, and almost deaf. Also, for such a passive animal, he was extraordinarily disobedient. It was some time before Elworthy realised that Bim’s previous owners had been foreign and Bim had been taught to obey orders only in the Czech language. Life in the pub was enlivened by the sight of Elworthy flicking through an Anglo-Czech dictionary and shouting incomprehensibly at the confused spaniel.
The present writer was a witness to what was possibly Elworthy’s greatest feat. One Christmas Eve back in the 1970s, we were drinking down in a pub called the Magpie and Stump opposite the Old Bailey. Emerging at midnight and as the clocks of the City chimed to welcome Christmas Day, Elworthy realised that the darkened street was deserted. Crossing swiftly over to the courthouse doors he tried the knob. Although the door was obviously locked he suddenly realised that the knob itself was loose and liable to be unscrewed. This was quickly carried out and a rapid departure ensued. The doorknob of the Old Bailey ended up attached to the bedroom door of a medical student in Whitechapel.
Elworthy’s main colleague in his decorating and drinking ventures was another Irishman named Vincent Lawlor. Vincent, despite all the booze, remained a relatively devout and doctrinal Catholic. One lunchtime, he was berating the Jewish nation for their treatment of Jesus Christ.
“But, Vince,” Elworthy interrupted mildly “Jesus Christ himself was a Jew.”
Vincent thought for a moment, then brightened. “Ah, yes, but then he left them and joined the Catholics.”
The other leading spirit of ‘The Harvey Brothers’ Ernie Lavery had a generally more abrasive tongue than Elworthy. Around 1980 the Troubles in Ireland were at their height and many of the London Irish were viewed with suspicion by the British authorities. One very early morning around 6am, Lavery’s flat door was smashed in and a gang of armed police rushed inside. They scoured the place, pulling out drawers and emptying the contents on to the floor, ripping open cushions and mattresses, and generally wrecking the flat in their search. (Although Lavery was relieved to notice they had missed his cannabis plants on the windowsill.) Having discovered nothing of note, the police lost interest and gathered themselves to leave. As the last one walked out of the door, Lavery rasped after them: “Thanks for the alarm call, lads.”
[In a sidelight on the Troubles of the time, the present writer attended an event at the Camden Town Irish Centre in the 1990s. Security was tight for obvious reasons, thus creating the slightly barmy situation of Hugh Callaghan, one of the Birmingham Six, having his bag given a routine search for bombs on arrival at the front door.]
One night to his surprise Lavery received an invitation to attend a very chic party being held at a house on Parliament Hill. He arrived accompanied by an old friend from Belfast called Roy Giddings. Roy was under strict instructions from Lavery to act with decorum. Unfortunately, drink having been taken, Roy became over-demonstrative at one point in the evening. While explaining some point to a lady he had met, he stepped back, managed to fall over the railing of a first floor balcony, crash through the conservatory roof below, and end up on the ground floor groaning with pain and surrounded by broken glass. The first person to rush to his side was Lavery who hissed in his ear:
“For Christ’s sake, Giddings, stop trying to draw attention to yourself. You’re spoiling our image.”
Mark Corr was another employee of the Harvey Brothers although his attendance was more intermittent. Mark had a certain facial resemblance to Ernest Hemingway and something of Hemingway’s attraction towards danger. He once held a candle-lit dinner party attended only by himself, his girlfriend, and one other couple. The resulting disagreements became so vociferous that the neighbours were forced to call the police – an unusual end to a Hampstead dinner party. His most dangerous (and eventually fatal) habit was that of hiding behind cars in the street then suddenly emerging when a car approached causing it to brake rapidly. Finally of course he did this trick once too often and the car failed to brake in time.
Another Magdalite with an uneasy relationship with the automobile was the pub’s solicitor David Quinlan. Quinlan was an unusual figure in the Mag being at least on the face of it a success story. He was extraordinarily good-looking in that, although English, he looked very much like a slim version of the Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan. As a result of being the legal representative in three notable society divorce cases, he was also quite well-off. However, his Achilles heel (well, entire leg actually) turned out to be cars, drugs, and alcohol.
During the afore-mentioned trip to the Edinburgh Festival by the Magdala theatrical troupe Paranoid Productions, Quinlan was forced to hire three different cars in order to complete his return journey. He abandoned the first one, which he had hired in London, somewhere on the A1 near Pontefract when the engine burst into flames. He drove the blazing vehicle into a lay-by, climbed out, and started hitch hiking. Reaching Durham he hired a second car which he managed to drive to Edinburgh and continue to use around the city until it was time to set off back to London. This time he was accompanied by three other members of the group including the present writer.
Reaching Newcastle, we parked up in the evening and proceeded to explore the town for some fun. Five hours of drinking later, we returned to base only to find we had no idea where we had parked the car. Having slept rough overnight on Newcastle Central Station, we then had to hire a third car to return to London. This last leg of the tour was enlivened when, while driving at eighty miles an hour in the fast lane of the A1, Quinlan fell asleep. The present writer, a non-driver, was forced to lean over from the front passenger seat and steer the car back into an approximation of the right direction while screaming at the driver to wake up.
On one occasion, Quinlan ended up in a Magistrates Court defending a girl on a possession of cannabis charge. He gave a fine speech for the defence.
“This tragic young girl was led astray into the world of derangement, debauchery and reefers, the shady twilight wasteland of roaches and Aladdin’s Caves, by evil men who preyed on her vulnerability. Mercifully she has been spared the sad fate of the reefer addict. This court may consider her as a criminal but she was the victim, yes, I say, a victim! of this dreadful trade in human misery” etc., etc.
As he was speaking, he happened to put his hand in his pocket and realised that he had half an ounce of hash there.
On a further occasion, a party had travelled from the Magdala to Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire for a day trip. Despite it being a cold October, Dave Quinlan attempted to swim the said river. His life was saved by the intervention of Tony Elworthy, an excellent and much stronger swimmer. In order to restore the shivering Quinlan to relative health, the party primed him with non-stop brandy. As the evening wore on, Quinlan became increasingly incoherent and finally disappeared. The party searched the town for him but then, realising that his car had gone as well, returned to London themselves.
It was not until Elworthy received a desperate phone call from Quinlan that we realised what had happened. He had indeed retrieved his car and driven east back towards Hampstead. But then he had reached the Maidenhead roundabout, driven straight over it through the foliage, then collided with the motorway barrier on the M4 approach road. A police car had arrived and he was now charged with drunken driving, destruction of eighty yards of motorway barrier, and just to make matters worse possession of cannabis and speed.
Determined to retain some shreds of his legal career, Quinlan prepared his defence. As a solicitor and knowing the ropes in such matters, he decided that it would be useful to have some mental problems as a first line of cover and attended an interview at the psychiatry unit of a South London hospital. He chose South London as he did not wish to have any suspicion of a mental problem to seep through to his professional rivals in North London. However, as he emerged from the psychiatrist’s office into the hospital waiting room he spotted a legal clerk of his acquaintance walking in through the doors. Quinlan darted behind some large pot plants and crouched there until the man disappeared and the danger was past. However, as he straightened up and adjusted his tie, Quinlan saw his psychiatrist who had also exited the office give him an appraising glance and reach into his pocket for pen and paper to record this behaviour. Quinlan thought of explaining but then gave up realising that this might actually help his case.
What actually saved Quinlan from severe retribution however was the sheer brilliance of his brief, one of the High Court’s finest and an alumnus of the famed law firm Kingsley Napley. The lawyer Nelligan was quite simply a legal genius. From the moment he rose to his feet in Maidenhead Court he transfixed the three magistrates hearing the case and bent them to his bidding. It was like watching a supreme horse-whisperer tame a set of bucking broncos. By the end of Nelligan’s speech the magistrates were nodding in total agreement with whatever was said. He baulked at suggesting that they gave Quinlan a contribution from court funds for his trouble but one felt that he could have tried and succeeded. The upshot was that they fined Quinlan £150 and gave him an eighteen month driving ban – a ludicrously lenient outcome. They even FORGOT about the drug charges.
In discussion afterwards, it was suggested that God help the person in the next case. When the magistrates emerged from their haze of generosity created by Nelligan’s bewitchment they probably went crazy in the other direction. The next guy might have got five years in jail for littering.
Quinlan sadly learnt nothing from this experience and later lost his licence again after another drink/drive episode. He responded to this by buying a bike. Once more after a Magdala session he set off to cycle to Greenwich. Half way across Tower Bridge he was waved down by a police car. He brought the bike to a halt but then lost his balance and fell over taking the bike with him. Unfortunately he had a bottle of wine in his pocket which broke as he hit the Tower Bridge tarmac. The police picked him up soaked in wine and charged him with being drunk in charge of a bicycle.
Quinlan finally retired to live on a hillside in West Wales around ten miles from the nearest town and about one mile from the nearest neighbour. Inevitably he was arrested by the Carmarthenshire police for drunk driving and lost his licence – this time for five years. He was left to live stranded on a Welsh hillside with no transport. It was suggested that he re-marry – not for love or money but for a compliant driver. One proposal was to place an advert in the local papers: ‘Gentleman Farmer wishes to meet woman with car. Please send photo of car.’
Overheard at the saloon bar counter:
“My cousin’s son arrived in London last week. He’s only seventeen and he’d never been out of County Fermanagh before.
He’d been given an address to go to in St John’s Wood. He’d brought a tent and an axe with him so he could camp in the wood.”
As well as Deutsche of the Isoken and the Philby link, the Magdala housed another spy, although he was of an entirely different breed. Stan Bonnet was a member of a trio who sat together in the saloon bar on most nights in the early 1980s and who had strong connections to the newspaper industry. After a spell in the Royal Navy, Stan had left the service and became a journalist on the Daily Mirror. The story went that it was his experiences in combat that led him to reject the notion of violence and to become a prominent peace campaigner, eventually rising to become the editor of the CND magazine ‘Sanity’.
After a few years it transpired that the Fleet Street press was riddled with British (and CIA) spies. The allegedly left wing Daily Mirror was found to be almost an MI5 operation. As the ‘Spycatcher’ Peter Wright later revealed, its owner the tycoon Cecil King, its editorial director Hugh Cudlipp, and its chief foreign correspondent were all heavily involved with the secret services and orchestrated various plots against the Harold Wilson government. With the publication of the book ‘Spycatcher’ in 1985 the news emerged that Stan Bonnet, the Editor of the CND magazine and a bon viveur of the Magdala, was in fact also an MI5 agent. He left the area and vanished into obscurity.
The trio’s remaining pair were Bill Driscoll and his partner Jane Kennedy. If anybody was the epitome of the old-style Fleet Street hack it was Bill. Double whisky in one hand, Gauloise cigarette in the other, hat brim over his eyes, Driscoll’s great strength was his unbounded erudition. At his funeral, Jane Kennedy, tears in her eyes, told the present writer: “I’ve lost my encyclopedia.”
Bill Driscoll’s death, despite its sadness, was the occasion that prompted one of the all-time great obituaries. His fellow journalists – Mary Kenny, Richard West, and David Leitch – combined their memories and published the result in the Daily Telegraph. Amongst its highlights it pointed out that almost everything about Bill Driscoll was subject to speculation.
Depending on which story one followed, Bill was either the son of a Heidelberg professor of logic, or of a printer who hailed from Skibbereen in West Cork – or maybe Peckham. His early life involved working as a mining engineer or as first mate on a rice ship in the South China Sea. His war service apparently included fighting in the final Ardennes battle and being invalided out of the Army – but also, according to Driscoll himself, fighting on both sides during the German-Russian campaigns. How he accomplished this was difficult to tell – it involved a complicated espionage assignment and the fortuitous swapping of sides during the battle for Stalingrad.
Bill most certainly spoke German like a native and he claimed it was this ability that led to his appointment as jailor to the Nazi war criminal Von Ribbentrop before the Nuremberg trials. (Bill occasionally added that, in an odd sequel, it turned out that one of the British soldiers who later guarded Rudolph Hess in Spandau Prison was the controversial comedian Bernard Manning. An odd couple if ever there was.)
In the post war world, Bill followed a career working in most of the popular press, specialising in crime reportage and gossip columns. He managed to charm many of his interviewees, including such unlikely admirers as the elderly writer Somerset Maugham and the firebrand Northern Irish Protestant leader Rev Ian Paisley. He met Paisley at the latter’s home at the height of the Troubles and was subjected to a lengthy rant on the iniquities of the Pope and his adherents. In mid-bellow, Paisley was interrupted by his wife ordering him to come inside for tea. Paisley gave Bill a rueful glance and whispered: “It’s petticoat power in this house, you see.”
Driscoll’s career in Fleet Street suffered firstly from his chronic inability to follow deadlines and actually knuckle down to the chore of writing up the information that he had acquired. Secondly he found it difficult to conceal his contempt and boredom with many of the ‘celebrities’ who were his journalistic bread and butter. Thirdly he could never take the job that seriously. He was sacked from his position as crime reporter on one paper after he began his story of a murder in Leicestershire with the line: ‘They called him the golden-haired Adonis of the Market Harborough smart set.’
Latterly he found work as a fixer and correspondent for German radio and TV. It was during this period (according to the Telegraph obituary) that ‘he turned up at the hospital bedside of a pregnant woman friend, accompanied by a female terrorist from the Baader-Meinhof gang. Driscoll wanted to know whether she knew of a ‘safe house’ in Ireland for his friend. Her husband suggested Mountjoy Prison.’
Times got trickier (again the Telegraph): ‘At one stage in Driscoll’s career someone found him a job in Addis Ababa, where he disappeared for nearly a year, prefixed his surname with “O” and persuaded an Ethiopian friend to have all letters from the Inland Revenue returned to sender, “due to decease of addressee”. On his return to Britain he found himself, at any rate fiscally, dead.’
Bill died for real in 1991 – his world of louche but romantic Fleet Street pre-deceased him.
Five Funerals and a Resurrection
With a sensual face reminiscent of an indulgent Roman Emperor, Gordon Bell was a large man both physically and in his appetite for life and travel. Due to a stroke of financial luck, he was able to feed these desires to the full and was a source of many stories concerning his travels. On one occasion he was in the German town of Stuttgart when he decided to go into a bar. Entering via some ill-lit stairs he stepped down into a darkened room in which he could just discern the bar itself at the far end. He walked up to it, ordered a beer, then stood drinking the pint at the counter. A few minutes later, a man and a woman walked up beside him, took off all their clothes and, with the woman leaning over the counter, started to have vigorous sex.
Gordon was perplexed by this turn of events but resolved to remain standing where he was, to ignore the action beside him, and to continue to drink his pint. As the couple reached their highly vocal climax, suddenly the lights of the bar were switched on to full glare, a drum roll sounded, and a round of applause echoed through the room. Gordon turned to see that he was on a stage with an audience of at least fifty Germans clapping the sex show but also roaring with laughter at the reaction of the ‘Englishman in an orgy who only drinks his beer!’
Following its time as George Orwell’s bookshop and prior to its current function as a bakery/delicatessen, the corner of Pond St and South End Road housed a café called the Prompt Corner. It was famous for being the best venue for chess games in the borough. Each window table was equipped with a chess set and the place was run for years by an elderly Italian couple. One day Gordon Bell, having returned from his European humiliation, was sitting with three friends in the Prompt Corner. He was approached by the antique waitress who asked whether they wished for anything else.
Gordon nodded: “Yes, OK. Can we have four more cups of tea, please? Oh, and can you make sure that I get a clean cup this time.”
The waitress arthritically wrote down the order and hobbled off to the kitchen.
After about ten minutes, she returned with a tray shaking in her grasp. Peering anxiously around the group she asked:
“Now, which one of you wanted the clean cup?”
Gordon died in a bizarre accident on St Patrick’s Day 1995. In honour of Saint Patrick and as he was due for a drinking session with mostly Irish friends, he donned a fancy-dress costume of a leprechaun. Being six feet three with a rugby player’s build it was tricky to find a costume to fit but he managed it. The session started early and ended late. Around 3am Gordon tottered his way back home to Roslyn Hill. He entered the small alleyway beside the Unitarian Church which led to his flat, inserted a key in the lock but for some reason was unable to open the door. Tired and drunk, he decided to sit down in the alley and have a quick snooze before trying again. That night, March 17, was unseasonable and bitterly cold and his decision proved a fatal one. Next morning his body was discovered by a passing milkman. He had died, still dressed as a bright green leprechaun, of hyperthermia.
As a relatively young (and popular) man, Gordon Bell’s funeral at Kensal Green was attended by a very large crowd. Amongst them, of course, was a substantial contingent from the Magdala. The present writer was offered a lift with other mourners in one of Robin Garland’s ‘Luxury Limousines’. As it had taken over half an hour to get the engine started, we were seriously late on arrival at the gates of the cemetery. The driver, Steven Mercer, stared short-sightedly across the fifty-acre expanse of graves to see some sign of the chapel of rest.
“Hurry up, Steven!” came a shout from Tony Elworthy in the back. Mercer squashed his foot down on the accelerator and hurtled along the narrow gravel paths at about forty miles an hour. As we skidded through an ornamental lake, Elworthy regretted his former instruction and exploded:
“Slow down, man! For God’s Sake, have you no respect for the dead!”
Danny Mulligan, flung to the car floor by the force of the skid, muttered:
“Stuff the dead. Have you no feckin’ respect for the living?!”
The same year of 1995 saw the death of Terry Weil, one of the best English classical musicians and certainly the best cellist ever to cross the threshold of the Magdala. Throughout the early 1980s Terry became a ubiquitous figure perched on his bar stool with pint and cigarette always to hand. He was a quiet man with a flat London accent who enjoyed the crazier antics of his fellow patrons. He rarely mentioned his achievements except for occasionally giving a satisfied smile and mentioning that a show he had done was having a repeat performance on Radio 3. “I can sit here, mate, and know all that lovely dosh is rolling in without lifting a bow.” Mostly he preferred discussing football, especially Crystal Palace. Gradually though his full background story spilled out.
He had been the original principal cellist of the English Chamber Orchestra and was a founder-member of the famed Melos Ensemble. He had worked closely with the composer Benjamin Britten on many of Britten’s first performances of his works at the Aldeburgh Festival, notably ‘Albert Herring’. Britten conducted Terry and the Melos Ensemble at the first performance of his ‘War Requiem’ at Coventry Cathedral in 1962. After the death of the world renowned cellist Pablo Casals, Terry managed to acquire his cello – an object of veneration in the music world. On a more mundane level, Terry also worked as a session musician and played on the Beatles number ‘I Am The Walrus’.
In 1974 he became the first Professor of Chamber Music at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester where one of the groups he taught later performed as ‘The Brodsky Quartet’. The Brodskys became known for their links with pop and jazz and collaborated on work with Dave Brubeck, Paul McCartney, and famously with Elvis Costello.
When one of the Magdala, John Todd, (mentioned above), fell from his ladder and suffered the injuries that rendered him a quadriplegic, Terry Weil called on the Brodskys to help out with a charity concert held at St Johns Church in Keats Grove. It was an ad hoc occasion where the Mag regulars assisted in the organisation of the event. Tony Elworthy, Dave Quinlan, and the Silver Fox were put in charge of the temporary bar in the church vestry. They did a reasonable job of it, constructing a makeshift counter and stock-piling an array of drinks ranging from bottles of donated poteen to rough Somerset cider.
A problem arose when the first punters arrived. Hampstead classical music aficionados tend to be fairly elderly and so it proved on this occasion. The first comers approached the counter and asked for soft drinks. Oliver Twist enquiring as to the possibility of ‘more’ from Mr Bumble could not have produced more consternation. Elworthy looked at Quinlan and Quinlan looked at the Silver Fox. SOFT DRINKS!!!! Who on earth would have the nerve to ask for something so absurd? Such a possibility had never remotely crossed their minds.
“This is a bar, madam, not a nursery.”
But, as the crowds gathered, it became obvious that soft drinks were the main demand. Undeterred, the trio set about converting these obviously deluded folk to the concept that alcohol was good for you. With no other choice, the music-lovers grumbled but shuffled off clutching their cans of super-strength lager. It was a lively concert.
In 1985 Terry decided to retire to the Spanish town of Cadaques near Barcelona. He became a well-liked figure there and because of his dexterity with the cello was known by the locals as ‘Senor Pablo’ in reference to Casals. His smoking habit led to medical complications and during his last few years he suffered the amputation of both legs. His house was slightly isolated and was situated on the edge of a cliff. This overlooked the town but more importantly it overlooked Terry’s favourite bar. Undeterred by his afflictions he organised the local men to fix up a block and tackle system, whereby he would be placed in a large basket and lowered over the cliff to the ground below. He would then be wheeled to the bar for the evening session, at the end of which he would be wheeled back, inserted in the basket, and hauled back up the cliff to his house.
Equally at home on a Magdala bar stool as Terry Weil but as physically different as possible was the actor Declan Mulholland. Whereas Terry was light and wiry, Declan at his heaviest weighed 34 stone. Even when later in his life he decided to diet, he never dropped below 25 stone. It was his curse and his fortune. His weight certainly prevented many activities but it also meant that in the uncertain world of the acting profession he was rarely without work. Whenever a fat man was needed they called on Declan. But he was also liked and respected as much for his character as for physique.
Born in the Falls Road in Belfast in 1932 he left school at fifteen to work in the Harland and Wolff shipyards. His harsh upbringing led him to become a Communist (although in later years he preferred Anarchism). Moving to London in the 1950s he used his skills as a carpenter to obtain work firstly at Pinewood helping to build film sets, and then stumbled across the group that was to give direction to his life. Hired as a night-watchman by the very left-wing Unity Theatre in Camden Town, he happened to be on duty the night that it burned down. Somewhat embarrassed by this event, he plunged himself into its reconstruction and agreed to appear on the boards as an extra and bit part actor. Enjoying the experience he knuckled down and learned the ropes as a performer. Unity was a hothouse of talent throughout its existence – Bill Owen (‘Last of the Summer Wine’), Lionel Bart (‘Oliver’), Sir Michael Gambon, Sir Michael Redgrave, the film star Herbert Lom (the ‘Pink Panther’ series), and ‘Alf Garnett’ himself Warren Mitchell – all honed their craft with Unity.
Directors and fellow actors came to appreciate Declan’s tough Belfast approach to roles and the decided intelligence that belied his appearance. Over the years he worked with the RSC, the Royal Court, Joan Littlewood’s Stratford East company, and with Vanessa Redgrave in ‘The Threepenny Opera’. He played in hundreds of television shows and also in adverts. He strolled into the Magdala one day with a streaming cold after working on an advert set in Basle Cathedral in Switzerland. He had been playing the part of a Russian KGB official trapped in the gondola of an air balloon dangling from the cathedral’s steeple. “The bloody thing got stuck for real and we were hanging there for hours. Then it started to snow!” That was normal life for Declan.
He also appeared in small parts in blockbuster films including Tony Richardson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. The biggest of these roles was that of ‘Jabba the Hutt’ in George Lucas’s ‘Star Wars: Episode IV’. In one scene Declan as Jabba was filmed dressed in a voluminous woolly-brown costume and arguing the toss with the star Harrison Ford. Lucas later deleted the scene and replaced Declan with a CGI version. Nonetheless even this minimal involvement with the behemoth meant that Declan was always in demand to appear at Star Wars conventions where he would be mobbed by fans.
It was while returning from a Star Wars convention in Oldham, Lancashire in 1999 that Declan suffered a fatal heart attack and collapsed in the street just yards from his home. His funeral at Golders Green was attended by a huge crowd. One eulogy spoke of his being “a rotund, Irish Tweedledum with a fine line in comic delivery’ while the presiding priest, arriving specially from Belfast, declared that “Declan went through life with a glass in his hand. And another glass in the other!” It was disclosed that most of his money had been left to the East 15 drama school to aid young actors.
A telegram was received and read out to the congregation during the funeral. It was from the film star Peter O’Toole and read:
“We worked together in many films. Highly intelligent and a great companion. He was a joy to be with.”
One of the films in which they were both involved was ‘The Ruling Class’ in which Declan played ‘The Poacher’. It was during this period that he would bring O’Toole to drink in the Magdala. However, it would be untrue to say that O’Toole was ever a Magdala regular. He was much more likely to be found in the Old White Bear on Well Road or in the Flask in Hampstead village.
O’Toole lived in Guyon House on Heath Street, an address known for its ferociously wild New Year’s Eve parties (and most other nights). He also frequented the La Gaffe restaurant further up the hill (incidentally the venue in 1997 where the TV journalist Martin Bell and the American ‘Starsky and Hutch’ actor David Soul plotted the downfall of the corrupt Tory politician Neil Hamilton; the result of their machinations being that Hamilton lost his parliamentary seat and Bell gained it.)
As a determined supporter of the Labour Party, O’Toole campaigned in 1966 for its local candidate Ben Whittaker. Unbeknownst to Mr Whittaker, O’Toole employed the highly illegal strategy of hiring a coach “with Guinness on tap” to travel around the local pubs promising Labour voters a “free drink and ride” if they went to the polling station to cast their vote.
Hampstead also witnessed the breakdown or at least the ‘severe testing’ of a famous friendship. High in their cups, one night O’Toole informed Richard Burton that Elizabeth Taylor had said that “I was much better in the sack, or at least more reliable, than you are.”
One of Declan’s many O’Toole stories concerned the making of the film ‘Lord Jim’. The location work took place in an Islamic country somewhere in the Far East, possibly Indonesia. On arrival O’Toole and his co-star the English actor Jack Hawkins were dismayed to find that there was a total ban on alcohol. The only way that they could acquire liquor was if they claimed that they were alcoholics and were in medical need. Nothing daunted they signed on as registered alcoholics, collected their bottle of whisky, and retired to a local park to consume it. After a while, Hawkins turned rather thoughtful, then said:
“You do realise, Peter, that if we sober up we’re going to be arrested.”
Two of the most steadfast Magdalites both died grievously young. From the early 1980s till 2000 Paul Williams was an almost permanent fixture in the pub. He was a man passionate about his causes, which consisted mainly of socialism, Manchester United, and beer. Born in a council estate in Stockport, Manchester, Paul was highly intelligent and easily earned a good degree at Queen Mary’s College, London. He turned to journalism (in particular research into workers’ wages and conditions), then moved on into legal consultancy. None of these activities interfered with his consumption of life. In the pub political debates he was a witheringly good advocate of left-wing causes and was angered about the advance of the right-wing in British politics, in particular what he saw as the hijack of the Labour Party by the Blair group. But what sent him into the stratosphere of fury was the take-over of his beloved ‘Man U’ by the American billionaire Glazer family.
One night, an actor friend was puzzling over what physical actions he could adopt to best portray Falstaffian behaviour in a role that he was due to perform. A half-sozzled Paul suddenly lurched into the flat carrying a 12 inch diameter pizza and slumped into a chair. Raising the pizza, he sank his jaws into it until he looked like a bulldog clenching a dinner plate. “That’s it!” shouted the actor. “Exactly what I need!!”
Paul left London with the start of the new century and moved to the small village of Cumnor near Oxford. In this rural atmosphere he came to appreciate English culture and, despite his support for internationalism, lent some of his energies to the promotion of English local lore such as folk music, Morris dancing, and real ale. (It was pointed out that, as a result, his new politics were ‘National’ and ‘Socialist’, and that this name might bring some unfortunate historical baggage along with it. He ignored the problem.)
Paul went on to organise the annual St George’s Day celebrations, to promote local charity work, and to achieve election as the Cumnor ‘Mayor’ in 2008. This post brought with it the further title of ‘Keeper of the Village Pond’ through which he discovered that Cumnor Pond had a far more interesting history than most village ponds.
On the night of September 7 1560, Lady Amy Dudley (née Robsart), wife of Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was staying at the manor house of Cumnor Place (since demolished). The next morning she was found dead with head injuries and a broken neck at the bottom of a flight of stairs. England became rife with the rumour that she had been murdered to facilitate the possible marriage of her husband to Queen Elizabeth I. Although this event, of course, never occurred, the suspicion lingered for many years and Cumnor Place itself became known for its oppressive atmosphere and the possible presence of Amy’s ghost. In response to this belief, it seems that nine Oxfordshire vicars came to the village and exorcised the ghost by laying her to rest in the Cumnor pond. Reputedly after they carried out this ceremony, the pond never froze again.
Paul was engaged in the restoration, cleaning, and planting of indigenous plants along its banks when in 2010 he suddenly and shockingly died of heart failure at the age at 49. His funeral at Oxford Crematorium was attended by a large contingent of mourners from the Magdala and by many Cumnor villagers. By total chance the funeral took place on May 6th, the same day as the General Election. True to Paul’s beliefs, one of the choral pieces during the ceremony was ‘The Red Flag’.
So the situation arose whereby, in the middle of rural true blue Tory Oxfordshire, in the middle of Election Day, it was possible to hear, echoing out across the fields, the sound of two hundred people lustily singing ‘The Red Flag’. It’s what Paul would have wanted.
‘Big Nick’ Henderson, as his nickname might suggest, was a tall powerfully built man who moved to South End Green during the 1970s, and ended up living above what had been George Orwell’s bookshop at Warwick Mansions. The building had become known as ‘Victory Mansions’ in homage to Orwell’s ‘1984’. For all his size, Big Nick was a quiet, laconic man who was an excellent chess player. However, on occasion, he could be stirred to action should the need arise. One day a man known to be a thorough-going irritant walked into the Mag and proceeded to harass the inhabitants. Big Nick stayed quiet for some time but finally climbed to his feet, walked over to the man, picked him up, and threw him crashing through the glass panel in the front door to land on the pavement outside. Despite the damage to the door, the landlady Mary Watson agreed that it was well worth the cost as she didn’t like the man either.
In the 1990s and in common with many other Magdalites, Big Nick became bewitched by the glamour of India and made several trips to the country. Then, in April 1994, came the news that he had been killed in a road accident there. He had been travelling alone on a coach from Goa to the town of Puna when the vehicle skidded on a patch of fallen fruit and, plunging over the side of the road, had crashed down into a ravine below. Big Nick was the most seriously injured of the passengers but a rescue party from a nearby village managed to put him on a makeshift stretcher and carry him back up the slope. Unfortunately, it was a dark night with heavy rainfall. The rescuers slipped in the mud, dropped the stretcher, and sent Nick sliding back down the hill. This caused even more severe injuries and Nick died a couple of hours later in a roadside café above the ravine. He was the only fatality of the crash and having no documentation with him at the time died without anyone knowing of his identity. Apparently an Indian held his hand till the end. He was aged 41.
It was a calamity for his family and for his friends in the Magdala. But the event became involved in a coincidence or mystery (or whatever) that made the Cumnor pond ghost story seem banal.
A young woman called Rachel Greaves and her boyfriend had been visiting Goa when they were picked up by police over a minor trespass. They were being hassled for baksheesh when the police said that they would be released if they tried to identify the body of a Westerner that was currently in the morgue. They agreed and viewed the corpse. Not knowing that it was Big Nick, they had to disclaim any knowledge. They were released and a few days later quite by chance left Goa on the same coach route to Puna that Nick had taken two weeks previously.
On the journey Rachel was seized by a sudden panic attack and desperate for air, demanded to be set down from the coach. Her boyfriend took her to a roadside café to calm down. While they were sitting there, the café owner came up, showed them a note that read: ‘Nick Henderson, London UK’, and asked if it meant anything. Although at first it did not, it dawned on Rachel that there might be a connection and they phoned the morgue. Eventually the note and the body were linked together and the story emerged in India and England. The café owner had found the note in the coach wreckage and was the man who had held Nick’s hand through his last hours. Rachel Greaves’ home address was in Heath Street, Hampstead.
Although the main funeral was held in Hampstead a month later (and Nick’s memorial stone is close by Karl Marx’s tomb in Highgate), the actual cremation took place in India on an open air pyre in the Hindu fashion. John Griffin, a close friend of Big Nick, travelled to India to attend the ceremony and to handle the bureaucracy that accompanied the death. Nick’s sister Jane said that she had seen the post mortem report that John Griffin had given to the female official at the British High Commission in Delhi. At the end of the document he had added: ‘I hope you will accept my opinion that I think you are very attractive’. Jane said that this was the first time she’d seen a pick-up attempt in a post mortem report.
South End Green and its surroundings became something of a meeting place for various gentlemen of the road and some of them became known and liked by their neighbours. ‘Yorkie’, for instance, was a favourite of local school kids. He lived rough off the Highgate Road and after lengthy negotiations the Camden DHSS acknowledged that ‘The Bus Shelter, Lissenden Gardens’ was an acceptable address.
However, life on the streets was notoriously dangerous to health and most rough sleepers died in their forties and fifties. One man tried to pre-empt the inevitable and over the years made several suicide attempts, none of which were successful. His most spectacular effort had been to lay his head over a railway line and wait for an oncoming train. Unfortunately, owing to the profusion of railway lines at that particular spot, he’d managed to pick the wrong track and, instead of losing his head, he’d lost a foot.
One day, a very popular vagrant called Pat McEwan went missing and the news circulated that he had died in the Royal Free Hospital. A group of acquaintances decided to commemorate his passing by decorating his usual bench on Parliament Hill with a row of (empty) Tennants Extra lager tins, each with a daffodil emerging from its spout. It was a very touching tribute and was well received by everybody except Pat McEwan who wandered up to ask what the f——- hell they were doing to his bench?
It was not often that the many schemes discussed in the Magdala ever found their way to fruition. However in the early 1990s that changed spectacularly with the emergence of the extraordinary Wilson family and a saga that began with a tragedy and ended with a tragedy. In 1990, a Mag regular called Andrew Wilson was found hanging in his home in Constantine Road – it was suspected that he had committed suicide after the discovery of a terminal illness. He left an amount of money to his four sons who met in the Magdala to work out their future course. The result of these discussions was not only to reverberate through the nation but also to rattle the British government.
The eldest son was Hampstead born and educated Simon Regan. His early career was spent working for the News of the World newspaper where he specialised in writing exposés about police corruption and cannabis smoking amongst Trotskyite students. He was well qualified to pontificate on the latter topic, due to his own extensive usage. He also enjoyed turning on the senior staff at the NoW with his home-made hash cakes.
He left in 1975 and turned to publishing dubious biographies of Rupert Murdoch and Prince Charles. He had his first brush with scandal in 1981 when he obtained transcripts of telephone calls between Prince Charles and his then fiancée Diana Spencer in which Charles made some highly undiplomatic comments about Australian culture and Australia’s then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. Ignoring injunctions obtained by Buckingham Palace, these transcripts were published in Germany.
By 1989 Regan, despite his early admiration for the satirical magazine Private Eye, felt that it had been tamed by its acquiescence in legal scrutiny before each issue, and determined to set up a rival publication, one where lawyers would be anathema. His answer was to establish ‘Scallawag’, initially based and dealing only with scandals affecting the Dorset seaside town of Weymouth. He said later that he was blackballed from every major venue in the town and twice came under attack by a hired assassin (who eventually confessed to Regan how he had attempted it.) His campaigns however did have an effect. The present writer was told by a Weymouth couple that a member of the local golf club had been blackballed when other members read of his Rackman-like treatment of his tenants in an old copy of Scallawag.
In 1991, with the death of his father, Simon decided to move the operation to Camden and go first London-wide, then national. He was joined by two of his three brothers – Angus (aka as Angus James) and Robin, a first-rate cartoonist. The fourth brother, Charles, was a martial arts expert and even he joined in when, as a publicity stunt, Simon appointed him as the Scallawag candidate for the Hampstead constituency in the 1992 General Election.
Their opening promotional gambit was to transport thousands of oysters up from Dorset to distribute around Camden Lock; this was to offer proof of just how cheap oysters were and by how much Londoners were being cheated in the restaurants, etc. The oysters were handed out by sixteen-year-old Dorset schoolgirls who in turn met their first Camden Rastas – something of a culture shock on both sides. In a further nod to Scallawag’s Dorset origins Regan appointed a Magdalite named David McGowan to stroll around Camden Lock wearing a costume representing the Cerne Abbas Giant – a white skeleton printed onto a black leotard with a three foot long free-floating phallus bobbing along in front of him. Regan explained that the Giant and his phallus were probably the only things that the average Londoner knew about Dorset.
However life at Scallawag soon became more serious as their attacks on public figures and institutions became ever more daring. The Magdala often acted as their editorial offices. Among many ‘scoops’ for which they were derided by the corporate press, they alleged that the Tory cabinet minister Michael Portillo was gay (in contradiction of his public support for anti-homosexual legislation); that the leading Tory politicians Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer were liars and cheats; and that the lobbyist Ian Greer had bribed two Conservative MPs, Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith, with £2000 each to ask parliamentary questions on behalf of the Harrods owner Mohammed al-Fayed. That these stories later turned out to be true counted for nothing. The Establishment was alerted and decided to retaliate.
The chance came in 1993 when Scallawag ran a story that the Prime Minister John Major, no less, was having an affair with Clare Latimer, a freelance cook (from Primrose Hill) who helped out with the catering at Downing Street. The New Statesman magazine also mentioned the story. There was incredulity on all sides that Mr Major, a man famed more for his profound dreariness than for debauchery, could possibly be so involved. Major sued both publications but much more damagingly sued their distributors and printers as well. The Statesman just about survived to carry on, but Scallawag was in deep trouble.
As Regan wrote later: ‘When the old soldier outside Westminster Tube station and then an obscure bookshop like Compendium in Camden High Street, among many dozen others, received writs from Conservative Central Office, and we effectively could not sell the magazine, we were beat’.
The magazine struggled on into 1994 when it was hit by another series of libel cases, this time involving yet another Tory MP called Dr. Julian Lewis whose sexuality Scallawag had questioned. Having lost again Regan moved Scallawag’s activities to the Internet, whereupon Lewis followed and won damages from the magazine’s service provider, thus closing down the site.
The battle between the two men seemed to become deeply personal despite the evisceration of the magazine. In 1997, Regan tried to sabotage Lewis’s parliamentary election campaign. Having acquired a taped concession from Regan that his aim was to cost Lewis votes, Lewis took advantage of an obscure law to convict Regan of spreading false statements about an election candidate.
Lewis continued to pursue Regan even to the point of turning up with a gang of supporters at a seminar that Regan was addressing at London University.
A Guardian reporter recorded the event as follows:
‘First question from the gent at the back of the room: “Why has Regan accused Julian Lewis of passing off his MA as a doctorate?” the gent demanded. Er, um. “Why do you persist in these lies?” Faced with a nonplussed Regan, the inquisitor revealed himself, so to speak. “You don’t know who I am, do you, Mr Regan? I am Julian Lewis!” At this point the clouds parted and a heavenly choir broke into song. No, that bit’s not true. The reality was more surreal. A young lady stood up to refute Regan’s past false suggestions that Dr Lewis was homosexual. “I am Julian Lewis’s ex-girlfriend and it is only because I am such a lady that I do not come and bop you, Mr Regan,” she cried. Hurrah! Next up was Betty from Brockenhurst, treasurer of the New Forest Conservative Association, to vow for Dr Lewis’s virility. Events got out of hand when a member of the audience referred to Dr Lewis as Mr Lewis. Big mistake. The rant against this injustice was interrupted by his companions. “Come on Julian, we’re going,” they chorused. The Doctor was escorted from the building, voice echoing down the corridor.’
Given its reckless nature it was a wonder that Scallawag managed to survive from 1991 till 1995 – but it remains the Magdala’s main contribution to the world of journalism.
Simon Regan died aged 58 in the year 2000. He did gain some measure of posthumous justification when in 2002 the former MP Edwina Currie revealed that Major had indeed indulged in extra-marital sex – with her. Simon had simply picked on the wrong lady.
Although Scallawag was finished, Simon’s brother Angus James (Wilson) decided to keep up the fight and backed by the controversial businessman Mohammed al Fayed, started a new publication called ‘Spiked’. However in 1996, within a year of starting ‘Spiked’, Angus, at the age of 31, was also dead.
He had travelled to Northern Cyprus to interview the disgraced fugitive businessman Asil Nadir (of ‘Polly Peck’ infamy). After the meeting, Angus went for drinks at a local casino with his three companions, the magazine associate editor Simon Stander and two women who worked for ‘Spiked’, Alison Thompson and Shona Andrew. Driving away from the casino in the early hours of the morning, it appears that Stander, in some sort of rage, attempted to kill the whole quartet by steering the hire car at high speed off the road. The vehicle somersaulted a few times before coming to rest. Although Stander and the two women escaped with minor abrasions, Angus suffered appalling head injuries and died on the way to hospital.
This incident has never been fully explained and as Northern Cyprus did not have an extradition treaty with the UK, Stander was able to remain hiding in the country and never required to explain his actions. ‘Spiked’ died with Angus.
Overheard at the saloon bar counter:
“He was a man of few words – most of them expletives.”
Crime and Punishment
In common with most London pubs, the Magdala’s regulars did occasionally include some whose careers not only nudged legal borderlines but sometimes stepped way beyond them.
‘The Gunman’, as his nickname suggests, was far more of a career criminal than Bruce. He was an East Ender who had drifted a few miles north-west and found a niche as a ‘quarter-master’; in other words someone who looks after a cache of guns until they were needed by mobsters. However his lack of discretion led to his downfall. One night he was sitting in the Magdala gents’ lavatory cleaning a revolver when it accidentally went off shattering a toilet window. The landlady was prepared to live and let live over this matter – “Sure, couldn’t it have happened to anybody” – but she drew the line when ‘The Gunman’ while sitting outside the pub tested another gun by firing across the road into the railway embankment. She decided to ban him. He was later caught and sentenced to a lengthy spell inside, somewhat to the relief of the Mag clientele.
He did leave two verbal legacies behind though. After hearing ‘The Gunman’ chatting one evening, the lawyer Dave Quinlan remarked that he had just heard possibly the most archetypal Cockney sentence of the 1990s he could imagine. It was:
“‘E’s aht sortin’ a motor off a geezer called Jason in Plaistow”.
The second occasion was when ‘The Gunman’ was sitting at the bar and bickering with a fellow Cockney over who had undergone the most violent upbringing. The other man growled:
“I grew up in one of the toughest parts of Walthamstow, pal.”
‘The Gunman’ sneered back:
“Walthamstow? Walthamstow!!! We used to go on our ‘olidays to Walthamstow!”
The SEG drug scene flourished as it did everywhere in London although it seemed less fraught than in some districts. A couple of mutually respectful organisations covered most the needs of the locals on a calm, almost domestic basis. The same could not be said further up the chain of command. One way that bulk supplies could be delivered was by phoning in a weekly order for, say, ten ounces of hash to be delivered. The transfer was carried out by the local dealer waiting on a street corner at an allotted time, a car driving up and collecting him, the drugs and cash swop occurring while driving along, and the dropping off of the local at a further street corner. It was a neat system but it did have its drawbacks.
One day, having time to kill, the car driver took time off to describe his problem. It seemed that the strain of having to drive around London all day with enough illegal drugs to put him behind bars for ten years was weighing heavily. So heavily that he feared a nervous breakdown. As a result his superiors allowed him to take a week off every month so that he could travel to the countryside and relax amidst farm animals and healthy walks. He described with some eagerness his involvement with an upcoming village fete before reluctantly driving off to the next drug deal.
One morning South End Green witnessed a quite spectacular police raid on a major league dealer who had moved his operation into one of the council flat blocks on South End Close. In the 5am darkness twenty police officers, some armed and all in body armour, sledge-hammered their way through his front door and rushed inside. A police helicopter descended and hovered above the ground at the rear of the premises. The dealer reacted rapidly, managed to scoop up his stash of cocaine, rush to the rear of the flat, lock the door, and then to empty the bags of powder out of the window. Unhappily for him, the down draught from the helicopter blades blew the particles back through the window and, as the police smashed down the final door, they found the dealer covered from head to foot in ghostly white powder. He was caught, in the parlance of his captors, bang to rights.
An earlier police drug raid did not end so well for the force. In 1970, a young Irishman from Co Monaghan called Gerry McDonnell was working as helper/hanger-on at the Round House (then known as Centre 42) in Chalk Farm. The Round House was a redoubt of the counter-culture of the time, famous for avant-garde theatre and cutting edge rock bands such as the Who and the Doors (Jim Morrison praised the venue saying that it was one of the best concerts he had ever done.) Its notoriety as a hippie stronghold automatically drew police attention though.
One day, word passed along the grapevine that a police bust was imminent (sometimes the hippies had good contacts). Gerry ran round the building spreading the word and advising everybody he met to hand over any drugs they might have in their possession so that he could dispose of them safely. Having gathered a small collection from various grateful donors, he headed for the exit. To his dismay he barged straight into the incoming raid and was grabbed immediately. Gerry was frogmarched straight over to a police car and pushed onto the rear seat. Thinking quickly, he acted and somehow between the Round House and Kentish Town police station managed to swallow almost two ounces of hash and several tabs of acid. With the evidence vanished, the police had no choice but to release him. Gerry left as a free man but spent the next three weeks in a state bordering on catatonia.
Gerry was in no better condition a few years later, though this time as a result of alcohol. He had been drinking with a companion called Ken somewhere in Camden and boarded the 24 bus back to South End Green. Gerry was not only drunk to the point of near unconsciousness but also suffering from a broken foot. Ken managed to haul him off the bus, carry him from the 24 terminus to the door of the nearby Railway Tavern (now the Garden Gate) and then inside the bar. Somehow the bandage on Gerry’s foot came adrift and while one end stayed wedged into a bush by the bus stop, the rest unravelled in a long muddy white trail all the way to the pub door and then inside. At the far end of the bandage, an impatient Ken thrust Gerry into a chair and glared around for something with which to shore up the rag doll figure. Seizing Gerry’s hospital crutch, Ken proceeded to ram it under his chin thereby forcing Gerry into a tolerably upright stance in the chair. It was an unusual sight.
[Gerry did not last long. He managed to survive one winter sleeping rough on Hampstead Heath, but then decided to move south and spent the next winter in Richmond Park. The cold was too much and he became another victim of hypothermia.]
One South End Greener had a curious story concerning drugs. One summer, he had been sitting in a large marquee at the Glastonbury Festival with a group of hippies who were openly smoking dope. Suddenly the tent flap opened and a very well-known TV actor stepped into the area. The problem was that the actor was famous for playing the role of a police inspector in the long running series ‘The Bill’. As the occupants of the tent were all stoned his arrival caused a paranoid panic before reason reasserted itself and it dawned on the stoners that the man was an actor and therefore they were not about to be busted.
Possibly South End Green’s only connection with a supreme criminal was via the unlikely personage of Michael ‘Peachey’ March. Peachey was a gentle American poet who for some time was the chief librarian at the local Keats Grove Library. He later migrated to Prague where he master-minded various literary festivals in which East European poets could mingle with the likes of Harold Pinter and Gore Vidal – Peachey was a one-man glasnost during the 1990s.
Sitting one evening in the Magdala and browsing over a brandy (he only allowed himself one per day), he reminisced about his time as a student at Columbia University in New York. He showed us some photos of his friends at that time and in one we spotted a familiar face. It was that of Radovan Karadzic, the Serbian leader known as the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’ and responsible for the massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims. Peachey explained that he had met Karadzic when he had been a lecturer at Columbia University and later in 1983 had bumped into him in Yugoslavia. Over a bottle of schnapps, Karadzic told Peachey that he had decided to leave his post at Columbia University and return to Bosnia because ‘New York was too violent’.
One of the reasons why a pub will always triumph over a restaurant is that, while in a restaurant one is invariably confined to talking to one’s own companions, in a pub one constantly encounters the unexpected. In the Mag, the unexpected was the norm.
Les Hyde and his companions occupied one corner of the saloon bar for several years. Les was an approachable and pleasant character who bore a certain resemblance to the (when elderly) Ronnie Drew of the Dubliners, and was well known as a leading Morris Man around the folk dancing festivals of Southern England. He lived in a first floor flat in nearby Fleet Road above the premises of a fish and chip shop called ‘Michael’s’ (this shop is still functioning under new management). Michael the chip shop owner was a Greek-Cypriot migrant who suffered from a back deformity. Although not immediately obvious, Les was also reputed to be a practitioner of the black magic arts and to hold ceremonies in his flat with his friends.
After a while, Michael heard the rumours circulating about Les and the activities above and became anxious about the situation. To ward off any ill effects, he inserted good luck charms between the pickled onion jars and scotch eggs along the top shelf behind his counter. He also took to mouthing prayers if he felt any evil emanating from the ceiling.
Therefore on occasion a customer arriving for a haddock and medium chips would be greeted by a Cypriot hunchback mouthing incantations at the ceiling while standing under an array of crucifixes, twists of garlic, and ‘lucky leprechaun’ dolls.
Champagne Charley was an old gentleman who for many years helped out around the SEG vegetable and flower stalls. He stormed into the public bar one morning raging about how he’d been:
“f**!@%b**, s@””***!* banned by them c!!!@?<** in the f}***@@% Railway!!!!!!!!!!”
Mary Watson leaned over the bar and soothed him: “Why have they banned you, Charley, me darlin’?”
“F**!@%b**, s@””***!* SWEARIN’!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Beryl Kelly until her departure for the USA was a greatly popular figure in the Magdala. In the early 1980s, she acquired a Middle Eastern boyfriend who had some connection to a Palestinian Rights group. One afternoon, she went round for the first time to the head-quarters of this particular movement. She found the correct street address, walked up a dark staircase and knocked on the door in front of her.
She heard the sound of frenzied scuffling inside and finally the door was opened by two suspicious guards. Behind their bulging shoulders, she could see at least thirty Arabs with ill-concealed weapons glaring furiously at her, presumably under the impression that a Mossad attack was about to take place.
Beryl looked uncertainly around the room and said: “Oh….er….sorry to bother you, but could you tell Atullah that his tea’s ready, please?”
Mention has been made of the political tolerance that dominated Magdala discussion – only in one case did this not apply. It was a strange exception as on the face of it Brian Snoaden and Keith Ley had a great deal in common. They were of a similar age, both were old Africa hands, and both had worked for famous American film directors during their African careers, Brian for John Ford on the 1953 ‘Mogambo’ (filmed in Kenya) and Keith for John Huston on the 1951 ‘The African Queen’ (filmed in Uganda).
[Brian told us an oddball story about Clark Gable, the star of ‘Mogambo’. For the duration of the filming all the male cast and crew were forced to shave their chests as Gable was unable to grow chest hair and felt that it detracted from his masculinity if others were seen to sport it.]
However, their shared experience certainly did not improve their relationship inside the pub and the two were distinguished by the physical distance they managed to maintain when both were present in the Mag.
Brian Snoaden was firmly on the right-wing – he had been seconded to the police force in Kenya during the Mau Mau emergency. Keith Ley, on the other hand, was a convinced and lifelong supporter of the left. An author with a huge output (over 100) of factual books for children, Keith was an early supporter of the anti-apartheid movement. He told the present writer that one of their meetings in the 1950s had been attacked by the National Front (of the day) and Keith had a chair broken over his head. He said: “It was an honour to be damaged in such a cause.” He was on close terms with many of the now famous names of African history.
But what really brought him into conflict with Brian Snoaden was that during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya (the true details of which are only now coming to light), Keith refused to serve in the King’s African Rifles – the main unit involved in the suppression of the revolt. To avoid conscription he was forced to flee to Ethiopia where he was told that if he wished for protection from the British government, the Ethiopian authorities would be happy to grant him political asylum. This was anathema to Brian and meant that the enmities of 1950s African politics received a new lease of life that extended until their deaths in the 21st century. They both had their funeral wakes at the Magdala.
Another Brian (there were eight Brians drinking regularly in the pub at one point) was Brian Kettell. Brian was and is an economist from Yorkshire who has balanced his life between keeping South End Green as a base while working in various parts of the world. He moved to London in the 1960s to study at the London School of Economics where he was a near contemporary of Mick Jagger. The LSE at the time was a hotbed of left-wing revolt and one of Brian’s favourite memories was marching through London carrying a banner that read: ‘Out With Pedagogic Gerontocracy – NOW!!’
Having failed in that particular quest, he became an acknowledged expert on the subject of gold (having once been invited to address a US Senate committee on the subject). Over the years he managed to obtain a modest amount of the metal involved, at least enough to purchase a house on the Green, a residence that he rented out for the periods he was absent. (During one year, he let the house to two young female private detectives only to find on his return that they were actually running a brothel.)
It was in his capacity as a SEG householder that he fell out with an unorthodox neighbour. ‘Lion’ was a well-known Big Issue seller who decided to set up a CND ‘Peace Camp’ around the SEG fountain, complete with banners and a tent. Brian went to discuss the situation with him, a row broke out, fists flew, and Brian ended up in the Royal Free Hospital undergoing a brain scan. He remains possibly the only Hampsteadite to have been hospitalised by a Peace Campaigner.
In an area accustomed to bizarre sights, one of the oddest occurred one night when Brian, his wife Nadia, and their friend Lesley were celebrating his birthday at home. A great deal of vodka was drunk and all three ended up in states close to incapable. Somehow during the evening, their three-legged dog managed to slip out of the front door. At 2am, Brian received a phone call from the Accident and Emergency Department of the Royal Free to request that he collect his dog who had been found rummaging his way through the wards. Brian, in no condition to collect his thoughts let alone anything else, said that he would do so in the morning and put the phone down. Half an hour later, his bell rang and he opened the door to find an ambulance parked outside and its paramedics delivering his three-legged dog home by stretcher. As Brian commented next day: “It makes you proud of the NHS.”
There being so many Brians in the Magdala, some could only be differentiated by nicknames – hence we had ‘Nice’ Brian, ‘Flying’ Brian – and, well, Brian. And also ‘Fascist’ Brian. He was a big hulking man who habitually wore a black shirt, shaded spectacles, and resembled a large crow. His politics matched his shirt. One day, the present writer stepped into the lift at Belsize Park Tube Station during an extremely squashed rush hour. He spotted Fascist Brian right at the front of the crowd. Fascist Brian also spotted him and waved. Then in his usual braying bellow and across the intervening sea of passengers’ heads, he proceeded to recommend a new book he’d found. “It’s about Heinrich Himmler. I always felt that Himmler was badly misunderstood. He had some very good ideas really, you know.” His words hung around the packed lift like poisonous vapour – North-West London has never been a district especially sympathetic to the Nazis. As restive mutters began to rustle through, the present writer assumed a glassily fixed grin and buried himself behind a copy of the Evening Standard.
One last Magdala Brian was the actor Brian McDermott who also had a strong but much less culpable connection to the Nazis. As with many people, he had been captivated by the Mel Brooks film ‘The Producers’ and for many years harboured a desire to put the show on the London stage. He was blocked by Brooks’ refusal to surrender copyright for the very good reason that Brooks himself intended to and later did create his own theatrical version.
Undeterred, McDermott wrote a play called ‘Adolf Hitler – Mein Camp’ as a stage ‘homage’ to the film. He played an actor auditioning for the part of Hitler in ‘The Producers’ – part of the joke was that his ‘Method’ style of role preparation results in both his wife and, even worse, his Jewish agent leaving him. Brian was given songs to perform in his show written by the Beatle George Harrison and the Bonzo Dog Band drummer ‘Legs’ Larry Smith (both avid fans of the film). These included such titles as ‘I’ve Gotta Braun New Girl’, ‘Call Me Adolf’, and ‘Keep Right on to the End of the Reich’.
McDermott finally presented his first night at the Falcon Pub Theatre in Royal College Street in Camden. He had a fellow performer – Rocky the parrot. This led to an immortal ad lib. As the Invasion of Normandy threatened the stability of the Reich, ‘Hitler’ looked across at Rocky and breathed: “Oh, well, we’ll always have parrots.”
The show continued to play for many years all over the alternative theatre scene, becoming known as the Fringe’s answer to ‘The Mousetrap’. Brian had a successful career, making over one hundred TV appearances. More importantly, in 1972 he founded the Shepherds Bush Theatre in West London. Despite having once been Lionel Blair’s dance studio it had a reputation as being ‘a bloodbath of a pub’. Brian turned it into one of the top five fringe venues in London and notable for introducing the work of Victoria Wood amongst many others. He was known as the ‘Godfather of the Fringe’.
In his later years (he died in 2003) McDermott took on one last role – that of a UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) candidate standing against Glenda Jackson in the Hampstead constituency. This did lead a complication. Brian not only wished to stand for UKIP but he also wanted to publicise his Hitler show while he was so doing. His appearance at one political meeting complete with Adolf moustache and forelock, a swastika-covered jacket, fish-net tights and suspenders, led to a UKIP press announcement stressing that such an outfit was entirely the candidate’s own affair and was definitely not standard UKIP attire.
While Brian McDermott certainly initiated many prestigious careers through his management of the Bush, another Mag regular helped launch one of the greatest stars of the twentieth century. In December 1962, Mike Starkey was part-time manager of a pub in Kings Cross called the Pindar of Wakefield. A young American singer turned up at the door and asked whether he could perform on their small stage. Mike agreed to pay him one pound, ten shillings, for the gig. Mike: “I never thought he’d get anywhere. I thought I was just helping out a kid.” The kid was Bob Dylan and it was his first ever British performance.
[Dylan certainly seemed to rough it on that first trip to London. The folk singer Martin Carthy said that he let Dylan crash on his sofa for a couple of weeks. It was a ferociously cold winter in 1962 and Carthy said that in their search for firewood, he and Dylan were forced to chop up an old piano with a samurai sword.]
The proximity of the Royal Free Hospital meant that the Magdala was host to many of its staff and saw generations of medical students passing through. Being at the sharp end of the human condition, they were a source of funny if gory stories. But one of the most bizarre hospital tales came from Marion Wight. She was a fully trained SRN who for most of her career was the matron at the Oxford Street store of Selfridges. However, it was in one of her earlier jobs while working in a Samaritans office that the incident occurred.
One evening Marion was alone in the office when the door flew open and an enormously fat Australian woman aged about fifty burst in. She demanded that as Marion was the only responsible person she could find, she should come along and act as witness at her wedding. Marion decided that this was a legitimate part of her job and agreed.
On the way the woman explained that she’d been living with the intended bridegroom for twenty years and that he was now dying in a hospital ward. It turned out that she wanted to marry him before his death so that she would inherit his savings which amounted to about £50. They reached the hospital and found that the ward had been decorated with polystyrene angels left over from Christmas. A visiting curate had been persuaded to officiate, there was a borrowed upright piano, and a group of nurses and porters were standing around the bed screens. They began singing the Wedding March as the bride approached. The bridegroom was unconscious and on a saline drip.
Just as the ceremony started, the ward doors swung open and a large Nigerian man stormed in demanding that the ceremony should be stopped. It turned out that he was the Australian’s real husband and she was dragged out screaming. The bridegroom died an hour later, none the wiser.
Marion also relayed an incident that had happened in a local chemist’s shop. A man entered to buy a packet of condoms and the girl assistant asked:
The man became flustered: “Well…..er….I suppose…er….medium?”
The girl gave a shriek of laughter: “No, I meant how many!”
Overheard at the saloon bar counter:
“To mix PG Wodehouse with Les Dawson, she looked like a bulldog chewing a bag of spanners.”
A letter from Bernard Kelly (around 1995) states: ‘V.S. Naipaul notes he met a disgruntled demoted maharajah who keeps a house in Hampstead. Any clues? Couldn’t be Rat Vindaloo, the man who eats women, by any chance?’
The subject of this enquiry was one of the most distinctive personalities to have graced the bars of the Magdala. Sasthibrata Chakravarti was born in the Indian city of Calcutta in 1939 to a family of comfortably well-off Bengali merchants. He received the traditional upbringing of a Brahmin, followed by a strict Catholic schooling, and then entered Calcutta University in the midst of the free-thinking 1960s. Not surprisingly, this was an educational brew that created an explosion of rebellion and a miasma of complexes.
There was no doubt that Sasthi was brilliant. Although his works are largely forgotten today, the 1968 publication of his autobiography ‘My God Died Young’ (at the age of 29) was a major literary event in India. It was a blistering attack on traditional Hindu society and its superstitions. Also it was known for its uncompromising depiction of explicit sex, thereby ensuring its place on the bookshelves (or under the mattresses) of thousands of young Indian males. Sasthi became notorious as one of the angry young men of Indian society – but one who preferred to live in exile in London.
His next book, the 1971 work ‘Confessions of an Indian Woman Eater’ was considered to be even more obscene but was admired for the elegance of its prose and for the intelligence of its arguments. He continued this theme with ‘Confessions of an Indian Lover’ and ‘She and He’ in 1973; also ‘The Sensuous Guru’ in 1980. He became known in London literary circles and worked in journalism and even made TV appearances on such programmes as ‘What the Papers Say’.
On occasion, to supplement his life style, he had to undertake what he saw as menial tasks – kitchen porter, air-conditioning engineer, and barman amongst them. Not realising that this was a perfectly normal experience for most London actors and writers between periods of their real work, he fumed at the indignity. It was probably his time as a postman that roused his ire the most. In a full page article in the Evening Standard his headline raged: “Would They Make Margaret Drabble Work as a Postwoman!!!’
Nobody disputed his undoubted talents as a writer, but Sasthi had a personality almost guaranteed to make enemies. His instinctively abrasive comments immediately raised hackles, while his pursuit of women – any women – angered many husbands and boyfriends. After one such incident he was hung by his heels from the 17th floor of a tower block by an Indian artist. His incapacity to handle alcohol also contributed to his unpopularity. He was ushered to the door during an embassy reception after he vomited over the wife of the Hungarian ambassador.
He fell out with the Hoffmeister (see above) during a session at the Mag. In a drunken quarrel about literature they violently disagreed over who had written the famous line: ‘blue remembered hills’. The Hoff maintained that it was John Milton, while Sasthi said correctly that it was A E Houseman. They ended the night with a bet for £2000 on the result. As at the time neither could have raised 2000 pence, this was a little unrealistic.
The next lunchtime as the Hoff was nursing a mammoth hangover in the saloon bar, Sasthi barged in through the door brandishing a copy of A E Houseman’s poetry and demanding his £2000. The Hoff, in no condition to fight, decided on flight. He opened the hatch in the bar counter, slipped behind it and ran through to the public bar. An enraged Sasthi chased after him screeching: “It WAS A E Houseman, I tell you, it WAS A E Houseman!!” They circled the public bar, the street outside, and the saloon bar three times before the landlady intervened. It was one of those episodes that could only have occurred in Hampstead.
By 1990 as a result of legacies, etc., Sasthi had achieved a reasonably affluent position. It was enough to allow the purchase of a house on Savernake Road (near SEG) which, to emulate GB Shaw, he re-christened ‘Brata’s Corner’ and affixed a brass nameplate to that effect on the street wall. He was living the life of a Hampstead literary gent.
Then, in a move guaranteed to produce catastrophe, Sasthi decided to open a wine-bar with himself as mine host. The ‘No Comment’ opened for business on Fleet Road in 1990. It was well situated and well decorated, with a well equipped kitchen and a well-stocked wine cellar. The only part of the bar that did not merit the adjective ‘well’ was the owner. Sasthi simply did not get it.
From the outset he assumed that it was his duty to impose his personality on all who entered his establishment. Individuals in for a quiet drink and a perusal of their newspapers would find themselves subjected to half hour long harangues, while couples arriving for an intimate tête-à-tête would find him sitting down with them to discuss politics. But where Sasthi really went wrong was in his oppressive treatment of staff. In the space of one week, four successive chefs walked out on him. He was left trying to cook the food orders himself while simultaneously acting as barman and head waiter.
This soon took its toll and the clientele themselves began to bear the brunt of his tiredness and ill temper. The barring of customers over the minutest infraction of Sasthi’s rules became a nightly occurrence. Even worse, being of small stature, each time he issued a ban he would phone the police to come and eject the miscreants for him. After this had happened five nights in succession, the cops had had enough. Sasthi was on his own.
Inevitably the venture failed and he was forced to surrender personal control. There then followed a series of sub-lettings. During one such period, Sasthi was caught trying to seduce the wife of the lessee and was banned from his own wine bar. The business staggered on for a few years – at one time under the control of the actor Derren Nesbit (see above) – but finally metamorphosed into a fast food café.
Unfortunately this was not the end of the affair for Sasthi. In the labyrinthine deals connected to the sub-lettings, he fell foul of Ali Amin, the owner of the Chequers Café at Camden Town, who had invested money in the operation. The bad blood degenerated into a legal wrangle, and then proceeded to an action at the High Court. At the end of the case, neither side would relent. It turned out to be a feud to the death.
For the next couple of years Sasthi and Ali were to contest their case in 26 separate court actions – several back at the High Court. The expense was ruinous both financially, as Sasthi ended up bankrupted by the battle, and physically, as Ali suffered a fatal heart attack assumed have been caused by the strain. Even the magazine Scallawag became involved in the affair as one of their correspondents, Richard Ford, had a score to settle with Sasthi. At some distant point, Sasthi had stolen Ford’s girlfriend and Ford determined on revenge. Through the pages of the magazine he poured vitriol on Sasthi and coined the adhesive epithet ‘Rat Vindaloo’ to describe his enemy. As the financial woes grew, Sasthi lost his house and even the nameplate ‘Brata’s Corner’ was stolen.
By the turn of the century, he left the environs of South End Green and retired into what he described as ‘comfortable destitution’ somewhere off the Holloway Road. Very occasionally he was ‘re-discovered’ by young Indian reporters eager to dig up what they saw as a true standard bearer of 1960s bohemianism. One of them travelled from Calcutta to obtain a last interview. During it Sasthi said: “I would rather have ‘an essay in failure’ as my epitaph than die in the comfortable niche of mediocrity.”
Bob the Bag and Cornish Pat
The Magdala had far more than its share of eccentrics and, although from different eras, none were more glorious than Bob the Bag and Cornish Pat. Bob gained his soubriquet not surprisingly because wherever he went he was never without his Gladstone bag. He never opened it and nobody ever saw its contents – it was just there like a silent statement. However an acquaintance did visit Bob’s bedsit on Constantine Road on one occasion. Left to his own devices for a few minutes he mooched around the room and spotted a large Tesco carrier bag under the bed. He peeped inside and found the bag was stuffed to the brim with gold Krugerrands. The mystery of what or who Bob was deepened.
He became known for his nocturnal ramblings around SEG and one night, at 3am, was seen climbing aboard the 24 night bus heading down to Trafalgar Square to buy cigarettes. Not that unusual – until one realised that Bob was still wearing his pyjamas and dressing gown for the trip.
Bob the Bag eventually found his metier with the arrival of the Trivial Pursuit machines in pubs across the country. These were based on the board game and were set to quiz your general knowledge – the questions were divided into various sections such as Entertainment, Sport and Leisure, Art and Literature, etc. The money jackpots could reach quite profitable levels. Bob tried out one machine and was hooked. However, in defiance of the inventors who had intended their machines to be fruitful sources of extra income flowing from the sucker punters to the pub landlords, Bob decided on a serious challenge. For months he immersed himself in the gaining of knowledge. One day he would arrive in the Mag to sit and study piles of old Wisden cricket manuals, then the next day he would be there deep inside an anthology of post-Modernist poetry. The extraordinary thing was that his work paid off.
He would arrive at an unsuspecting SEG pub (he wisely left the Mag alone) and proceed to spend a couple of hours stripping it of its last penny as he poured out his collected knowledge. Soon, of course, the landlord would get wise and bar him from the premises. So he moved on – his field of operations came to include most of North London. Finally his notoriety was such that he could not enter any hostelry north of the Thames. One of the last times anyone chatted to Bob was when he was spotted, bag in hand, on his way to Paddington Station. When asked, he explained that he was on his way to Truro as he’d heard they had a Trivial Pursuit machine there that he hadn’t emptied yet.
One salient point about Cornish Pat was that he was raised in Banbury, educated in Warwick, and lived for the next thirty years in North London. His link to Cornwall was confined to holidaying in Padstow occasionally to visit family. Thus is the random nature of nicknames. A second salient point was that Pat could imbibe large amounts of alcohol without apparent ill effects. The problem was that he imbibed huge amounts of alcohol. This could and did led to some odd behaviour. Brian Kettell once commented:
“The Mag is really quiet these days. I looked in the other night and there were only five people in there. And two of them were Cornish Pat”.
Most of the trouble with Pat concerned getting him from the Magdala to his flat on Courthope Road in one piece late at night. For those unacquainted with the district, the route entails turning left out of the pub, climbing half way up Parliament Hill, before turning right down the hill of Nassington Road, following a small path across 100 yards of the Heath, crossing over the railway footbridge and down the ramp, before turning left again on Savernake Road, walking past the tops of Roderick Road and Sherlock Road, past the church of All Hallows, and finally turning right into Courthope Road. Sober and unencumbered, it’s an easy ten minute walk.
One night the present writer returned with Cornish Pat over this route and bade him farewell at the top of Roderick Road. He kept an eye on his friend to make sure he arrived back safely. Pat gave a vague wave of his hand, then tottered off home. However, he miscounted which turn he should take, and instead of reaching Courthope Road and inserting a key into his front door lock, he turned into Sherlock Road and tried to insert his key into the front door lock of All Hallows Church. To do him justice, both doors were in roughly the same geographical position – it was just the wrong door. In the wrong road. And it was a church.
However, this was nothing compared to the antics surrounding another homecoming about a year later. The present writer was roused from his sofa one midnight by the arrival of another friend – Hairy Richard. Richard is a large man whose slightly balding pate, long hair and splendidly bushy beard gives him a certain resemblance to Karl Marx (late of this parish).
Richard had himself been returning from the Magdala at about 11 30pm when he came across the comatose figure of Cornish Pat lying on a bench at the top of Nassington Rd. All entreaties and threats had failed to rouse Pat, so Richard came to request the loan of a wheelbarrow with which to transport him home. The present writer unearthed one from his garden and both walked back up the hill to where Cornish Pat still lay, dead to the world.
With some difficulty we picked him up and stuffed him into the wheelbarrow, head resting on the handle end, and legs dangling over the wheel end. It was tricky enough balancing him down Nassington Road, but we managed to do it and also got him over the road bridge and into Savernake Road. Resting up for a moment, the present writer stood to catch his breath and to watch Richard tackle the last section.
As he did so, a car drew up on the far side of the road. Two couples emerged, the men dressed in black tie and tuxedos and the women in long dresses. It was obvious that they were returning from some fashionable event. Suddenly they became aware of the spectacle passing by across the road. They stood silent and transfixed. To all intents and purposes they were witnessing Karl Marx trundling a corpse along the street at midnight in a wheelbarrow. What made things even more macabre was that, as they stared, Pat’s right arm flopped over the side and lifelessly started to sway with the movement of the barrow.
Pat’s most memorable moment (whether high or low point of his career is debatable) came with the 1994 Status Quo Christmas Concert at Wembley Arena. The present writer was late arriving at the venue but joined Cornish Pat and another companion called Gary at their mid-stalls seats towards the end of the opening set by a warm up band. Both Pat and Gary had been pre-loading and by this time were very, very high on booze. Somehow they had also managed to smuggle a bottle of vodka through the Wembley security cordon. A considerable amount of the vodka was downed during the intermission.
Then the house lights dimmed, the strobe lighting flashed and dazzled, the amplifiers roared up to eleven, and Status Quo burst onto the stage to a mighty wave of yells and applause. The first driving riffs of ‘Whatever You Want’ thundered out over the auditorium – Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt bounced into the limelight – the building shook with surging excitement. As the fans in the front rows jumped on to their seats to acclaim the band, it forced the rows behind to follow suit in order to see the stage. Accordingly, we also clambered up and stood on the seats.
It was at this point that Cornish Pat decided that he needed to urinate. Not wishing to miss any of the action, he unzipped and proceeded to direct the flow on to the floor ahead of him. Unsurprisingly much of it missed and the row in front found themselves sprayed.
Now, to the 21st century mind this may well appear to be gratuitously disgusting – but not to the world of the late 1960s when Status Quo were a specifically heavy rocker band. When jammed in the middle of a heaving mob of Hells Angels it was not unusual to urinate standing on the spot and often indiscriminately spraying anyone in the way. It was quite normal with some football crowds – at one ground the phenomenon was known as ‘the Anfield Hot Leg’. Pat did have some historical justification.
The trouble was that this was 1994, the venue was Wembley, and the row in front were not made up of Hell’s Angels or even Liverpool supporters, but middle-aged punters on coach trips from Stevenage. As they realised the reason for their increasing dampness, a howl of outrage was added to the general racket. Within seconds of their complaint, three burly security guards in high viz jackets barged their way along the row, seized hold of Pat and dragging him by his neck hauled him out of the row and out of the auditorium.
As they disappeared, Gary stared around with a wild look in his eye, shoved his way to the aisle, and then started running down towards the stage screaming that Francis Rossi was his mother. He was seized by security guards and also vanished.
The present writer, still relatively sober and suddenly devoid of his companions, decided to make the best of a bad job and, lifting the vodka to his mouth, drained the bottle. What he had not realised was that the area around him was now the subject of close scrutiny by guards with night vision goggles. Seeing him downing the contraband alcohol, yet another team of security guards filed along the row, seized him, and forcibly escorted him to the exit. All this had happened while Status Quo were still on their first number: ‘Whatever you want – whatever you like – whatever you say…..’ All three members of the ill-fated Quo expedition were back drinking in the Magdala before Rick Parfitt had finished singing ‘Rocking All over the World’.
One evening Cornish Pat was chatting to Charlotte, one of the Mag’s most observant barmaids, and remarked: “There seem to be a lot of strangers in the pub tonight?”
Charlotte replied: “Don’t worry, Pat. They all remember you.”
Around the late 1970s, the present writer had the good fortune to be invited to a party somewhere in Kentish Town. Whilst there he came across two remarkable people. The first was a rather intense Canadian woman in her sixties who turned out to be Elizabeth Smart, the author of the renowned cult novel ‘By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’. The book was a prose poem detailing her hectic lifelong love affair with the English poet George Barker (although they never married she was the mother of four of his fifteen children – the other eleven were by several different mothers). As the evening wore on, her intake of alcohol increased. By 11pm, she had reached the maudlin stage and, incredibly, sat down on the bottom step of the stairs and wept. It was startling evidence for Wilde’s claim that nature copies art.
However, earlier in the evening, Elizabeth had welcomed into the company a short, wiry man with a wheedling Scottish accent and a permanently worried frown who kept pressing the guests to buy copies of his poetry magazine. During a break from his sales pitch, he mentioned in passing that he had been the original inspiration for the character of ‘Spooner’ in Harold Pinter’s play ‘No Man’s Land’. “Oh, aye, Harold always said he’d put me on stage.”
It transpired that the man was a legend of the North London literary world – Eddie Linden. Eddie’s story has been told many times before, most notably in a 1979 biography ‘Who is Eddie Linden?’ by George Barker’s son Sebastian, and also in a 1995 play of the same name by William Tanner. For any who missed the above, Eddie himself provides a pithy autobiography: “A manic depressive alcoholic lapsed Catholic Irish working-class pacifist communist bastard from Glasgow. And would you like to subscribe to a poetry magazine?”
Eddie’s early life was so ridiculously appalling that it borders on black comedy. In 1935, he was born illegitimately in Northern Ireland and was immediately removed from his mother and taken to Glasgow to avoid scandal. In Glasgow he was fostered until his foster mother died when he was ten. His foster father remarried and his new wife refused to have Eddie in the house. He was dumped on his real mother’s doorstep but she also rejected him. After a few more relatives refused responsibility he was sent to an orphanage. He left school at fourteen barely able to read and write and was sent to work down a coal mine. Having been sacked from the pit, he was put to work in a steel-mill. He was conscripted for army national service, but was rejected as being underweight and suffering from a duodenal ulcer. He suffered agonies of conscience as a result of a Roman Catholic upbringing and his realisation that he was gay. Having consulted a doctor, he attended a hospital to be treated for homosexuality but left having fallen out with the medical staff. He found a measure of purpose when he joined the Catholic CND organisation. But even here he was unfortunate. On a protest demonstration to Holy Loch in Scotland, Eddie was stoned by Irish Catholics who mistook him and his companions for an Orange Order March. Later, he lost his belief in Communism after the Soviet 1956 invasion of Hungary and became an alcoholic.
So far, so bad.
Then in 1958 he came to London, discovered the bohemian world of Soho, and his world slowly turned around. He said that: “London was a liberation. I could be something I wanted to be.” That ‘something’ was a poet and a damn good one.
His most famous work was ‘City of Razors’ – a poetic conjuring of the savage world of the Glasgow Gorbals where he was raised. But the contribution for which he will be most remembered is his editorship and passionate, untiring promotion of his poetry magazine ‘Aquarius’. In 1969, with some help from John Heath-Stubbs, Eddie managed to persuade mainstream bards such as Peter Porter and George Barker himself to contribute work gratis, and somehow repeated the same trick for forty years. (He repaid Heath-Stubbs’ assistance in the most practical way when he attended a Heath-Stubbs recital. The blind poet was performing his work on a romantically candle-lit stage when he managed to set fire to himself. It was Eddie who leapt onstage to extinguish the flames.)
‘Aquarius’ could not be described as a regular periodical as it only appeared every three or four years but it achieved a level of respect and affection that few magazines ever manage. For his 70th birthday in 2005, a group of over one hundred poets, painters and collaborators created a book called ‘Eddie’s Own Aquarius’. It consisted of tributes to this stubborn survivor of everything life could throw at him. The contributors included Seamus Heaney, Roger McGough, the emeritus Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Danny Abse, Alan Brownjohn, the academic Sir Bernard Crick, Brian Patten, Tom Paulin, Ralph Steadman, the redoubtable CND leader Bruce Kent, and the Labour Minister Clare Short. Not bad for a Gorbals bastard.
Back in the 1970s, Eddie wrote one poem that captured a mood and a time.
Hampstead by Night by Eddie Linden
Comfortable little suburb north of London
With its wooded heath
Where queers and heteros nest at night
Little girls in mini-skirts
Boys with long hair and pockets full of French letters
Preparing for a night’s fucking
Pubs flowing with artists
Conversing about their masterpieces
Not yet on canvas
Playwrights with introductions to the latest play
That they plan to write in their bed-sitters
Writers with unfinished novels
Poets reciting their newest poems
That only find a hearing in the Rosslyn Arms
Or Leonie’s parlour in Downshire Hill
Middle-class civil servants off-duty
Dressed in jeans for the weekend rest
Middle-class ladies hoping for parties and men with big pricks
Public schoolboys with effeminate looks
Hoping to win the hearts of butcher boys from Islington and Camden
While the comfortable bourgeois hide in their castles
On top of the hill
And the rest of the bourgeois amuse themselves
In the village two stops from Camden Town.
Overheard at the saloon bar counter:
“I went to the Chelsea versus Millwall football match last Saturday.”
“Oh, yeah. Who won?”
“The police, mostly.”
The Branch Offices
While the Magdala was usually the heart of the action, there were a few other establishments that played their part in the social whirl. Sadly, the 21st century has seen them mostly destroyed by the improvements of property developers. The Black Cap in Camden High Street was one such pub. In the 1960s, it was in the process of transition from its former existence as a traditional Camden Irish bar to its later life as a well-known redoubt of the gay and lesbian scene. This led to some very odd vignettes – the world of flat caps and racing tips and hard graft on the building sites standing at one end of the bar, while drag queens in full war paint gathered at the other.
One evening in 1968 the present writer accompanied his friends, including a couple called Don and Kate Bradbury, on a trip to the Black Cap. It was an odd choice, as we were neither Irish nor gay, but the pub guaranteed amusement one way or another. The evening was a success – the drink flowed, the craic crackled, and we witnessed a drag artiste called Mr Shane giving a superb impersonation of Marlene Dietrich in full voice, long blonde wig, and strapless evening dress.
By closing time everyone was in the mood to continue the session and Kate issued an invitation to Mr Shane to join us all back at the flat. He agreed as long as he could bring his boyfriend along as well. The boyfriend turned out to be a six foot three hod-carrier accompanied by a Chihuahua dog. Back at the flat the party went with a zing until it slowed to a halt about 3am and to the fading strains of ‘Fallink in Loff Again……’ the inhabitants sprawled out to crash.
The following morning the present writer awoke with a crushing hangover to find the flat apparently deserted except for a two-year-old black baby (the offspring of Kate’s previous relationship with a Nigerian gentleman). He had agreed to look after the baby while the Bradburys were at work that day. The sound of snoring drew him to a back bedroom where he found Mr Shane still asleep. After making breakfast for the entertainer and the baby, the present writer announced that he intended taking the baby for a walk on Hampstead Heath. Mr Shane perked up and said that he also felt like a breath of fresh air and would accompany them. They set off from Kentish Town High St towards the Heath about 11am.
It was not until they were passing the Tube Station that it dawned on the present writer that their little party consisted of a hungover hippie in a black leather bikers’ jacket, Marlene Dietrich (as Mr Shane was still in full drag), a black baby in a pushchair, and a Chihuahua.
By the turn of the century, times had changed and such a sight was no longer unusual. A couple of years ago the Camden New Journal printed a sublime comment concerning the Black Cap. ‘What do you see on Camden High Street at 6am? A bearded man in a wedding dress drinking a pint.’
[Less happily, the Black Cap was also the venue where the gay mass murderer Dennis Nilsen recruited some of his 16 victims during his 1978-1983 killing spree. Nilsen was only caught because of his habit of boiling his victims’ flesh and flushing it down the lavatory. He was arrested after a Dyno-Rod employee became suspicious about the street drains.]
The Falcon on Royal College Street, Camden Town, was a very different establishment, mostly due to the personality of its remarkable landlord Baxter Mitchell. Baxter was a native of Dundee and in his youth had been a star athlete. As well as being a Scottish tennis champion, he also played rugby for the famous Saracens team, and twice represented his country as an international rugby fullback. He was a tall, good-looking man who all his life suffered from a stutter. He disliked this disability but most people found it charming. He married twice – firstly to the daughter of Dubose Heyward of South Carolina (Heyward was the librettist who collaborated with George Gershwin to create the hit musical ‘Porgy and Bess’) and secondly to Alexis Hunter, the internationally known photographer, painter, and animator (who worked on the Raymond Briggs’ film ‘The Snowman’).
Alexis was to join Baxter on the main venture of his career. Having had experience in the hotel and bar trade, Baxter decided to buy the Falcon pub in 1982. The Falcon up till then had a dreadful reputation, it being a centre for the Camden drugs trade, notorious for underage strippers, and partly inhabited by street drunks. Baxter set about changing all that. He closed the pub for three months and hired an expensively fashionable designer to re-decorate the place. The designer concentrated on giving the pub a traditional, almost rural, make-over of which one ‘harking back to Victoriana’ feature was the scattering of sawdust on the bare, but highly polished, floorboards. On the opening day, the first customers through the door were a trio of dishevelled rough sleepers who had spent the intervening months drinking scrumpy cider and turpentine on the pavement outside. They entered, took a careful look around at the décor, and spotted the sawdust. One of then rasped: “Jaysus, he can’t even afford a feckin’ carpet!”
Once they realised that the Falcon was back in operation the local gangsters lost no time in calling round for protection money. The bar was smashed up a couple of times and one night two men entered the premises and robbed Baxter of the takings with a shotgun muzzle rammed under his chin. But you don’t intimidate a Scottish rugby fullback that easily. Baxter called on police protection and for about a month the pub was treated to the company of chunky gentlemen with large bulges under their jackets sitting around twiddling their thumbs. The threat of armed resistance was enough to drive off the thugs but, having eliminated that threat, Baxter now came under pressure to make ‘some contributions to the Police Ball fund’. He rejected that suggestion as well. As a result, for several months afterwards, a police patrol would arrive every night on the dot of 11pm closing time to hassle the clientele into an early departure. With a great deal of courage, Baxter faced down the attacks no matter from where they came and survived.
However, his initial attempts at turning the Falcon into an entertainment centre were less successful. There was a large room at the rear of the pub which was ideal for staging shows. At first Baxter decided that theatre best suited his new up-market image; one-man shows in particular fitted the bill as they had so few, if any, complicated sets, etc. The present writer had the honour of performing his show about Oscar Wilde as the Falcon’s first ever theatre night. Unfortunately, half way through, his monologue was interrupted by the door from the public bar bursting open and a full-scale fist fight barging into the auditorium. There was no alternative but to continue spouting Wildean epigrams as the blood and teeth flew in the rear stalls.
Soon afterwards, Baxter had the idea of encouraging fine dining at the Falcon and announced his first ‘Gourmet Night’. It ended almost as badly as the ‘Fawlty Towers’ original. He had gone to some trouble to acquire a consignment of the smoke-cured fish called ‘Arbroath Smokies’ from Scotland and issued invitations to the feast, especially one to the food correspondent of a local newspaper who went under the non de plume of ‘Trencherman’. With dreadful timing, Baxter had a row with his chef on the afternoon of ‘Gourmet Night’ and the man walked out on him.
In spite of his total lack of culinary knowledge, Baxter was forced to cook the food himself. ‘Trencherman’ and the other guests arrived and were installed with great ceremony. Baxter got away with his first course – you can’t go too far wrong with avocado. But then he arrived with the much feted main course. ‘Trencherman’ went to take his first mouthful and bent his fork on an Arbroath Smokie. Baxter had forgotten to defreeze the things.
With the relative failure of his theatre venture and the total failure of his efforts in the food trade, Baxter was stuck. As he said: “N-N-ot even that b-b-bloody p-p-poetry festival w-w-worked.”
Then, one day, two youths walked in. As one sported a Mohican haircut and the other had a safety pin affixed to his face, Baxter did not eye them with much favour. But, with great respect, they asked whether it might be possible to use the back room for a rock band session. Baxter was unenthusiastic but, given the financial imperatives, agreed to a trial night.
The youths turned the Falcon into one of the great London indie venues of the late 1980s and 90s. It became famous for hosting some of the best bands of the time – Pulp, Blur, and Oasis were all regulars. The pub – and Baxter – made a fortune out of it. However, despite the wealth and the fact that the tavern’s slogan was ‘The People’s Pub’, Baxter never quite lost his desire for a more exclusive hostelry. One day, he was sitting on a barstool sipping a Drambuie and watching as the hordes of punks, New Wavers, Goths, and all the other disparate tribes of Camden youth trooped through to the Falcon’s rear room. He turned to his companion and stuttered: “F-f-f-fucking p-p-p-plebs!”
Baxter was able to sell his pub at a huge profit and moved to France. His wife Alexis died in 2014 – and Baxter died just two weeks later.
Another establishment that opened its doors in 1982 was the Torriano Meeting House, a short walk from Kentish Town Tube along Leighton Road. The Torriano was the stronghold of yet another of the major characters who populated the area – John Rety and his partner Susan Johns.
When it came to horrendous childhoods even Eddie Linden would have to touch his forelock to John Rety. John was born in Budapest in 1930, his family having survived a pogrom in Serbia some years before. His grandmother had saved them by swimming across the Danube to Hungary with her children tied to her back. When war broke out in 1939, his parents were interned but his grandmother looked after John until her own imprisonment. John then lived rough in a ruined house and ate scraps while running errands for the Resistance.
One of his stories recalled a day when he had started playing chess with a German soldier. The soldier received orders to retreat and ran off. A few minutes later a Russian soldier came through the door, saw the chess board, put down his machinegun and continued the game with John.
On the day the war ended, his grandmother approached her prison guard, told him the news, and that he should take off his swastika armband. He shot her dead.
In 1946, aged 16, his father sent John to England to holiday with an aunt. The aunt foresaw the drawing of the Iron Curtain and insisted that he should stay in the UK. She burnt his Hungarian passport to ensure that he did.
Having published his first novel, ‘Supersozzled Nights’ at the age of 21, John plunged into literary London life and ran a series of shoe-string underground magazines, most notably ‘The Intimate Review’ where he promoted writers such as Doris Lessing and Bernard Kops, and cartoonists such as Ralph Steadman and Feliks Topolski. He sold the magazine by hawking copies around the West End cinema queues.
To make ends meet, he opened a second-hand furniture store on Camden High Street. One female customer bought a writing desk there but insisted that the top should be re-covered. He carried out the task and then took it to the woman’s address. On arrival the door was opened by a man who told him ‘to fuck off’ as the woman was dead. John learnt later that the woman had been Sylvia Plath and the man was her husband, the future Poet Laureate Ted Hughes.
By the end of the 1970s, John was heavily involved in anarchist politics and was a leading member of the anti-nuclear group, the Committee of 100. But his financial affairs took a hit when, while working as a roofer, he took a bad fall and fractured his arm. With his partner Susan, he then took over the building that would be forever associated with his name – the Torriano Meeting House. Although it was semi-derelict, John and Susan liked the place and it also provided a place to squat during a homeless period. With his resourceful nature and great charm, John was able to squeeze support from many people and institutions (not least Camden Council) to build the place into an artistic hot spot. The weekly readings became a major feature of the British poetry scene (thankfully they still continue to this day), and there can be very few UK poets who have not performed at the Torriano at some point. Sir Stephen Spender gave his last ever public recital there, while Dannie Abse and John Hegley became regulars.
John also originated the excellent idea of having ‘Poems on the Tube’, and then extended the concept to create the ‘Dial-A-Poem’ service with British Telecom. The latter collaboration predictably did not pan out too well, John Rety and the corporate mind-set not being destined to flourish together.
He died in 2010 aged 79 – a publisher, writer, pacifist and anarchist, artist, poet, promoter, chess player, and a man of courage throughout his life – he was the very fabric of the London Left.
The present writer witnessed one small instance of John’s capacity to charm his way over difficulty. In 1983 and very soon after the opening of the Torriano, he was invited to give a performance of his Oscar Wilde solo show at the venue. A couple of hours beforehand he arrived to be greeted by John Rety and shown around the stage area, the middle of which was covered by a large carpet. John pointed to the carpet and said: “Please, on no account tread on that – you must walk around it at all times.” On being asked why, John replied that the floorboards underneath had collapsed and that the carpet was concealing a ten foot diameter hole in the stage. Such was John’s charisma, the present writer agreed to go ahead despite the obvious danger. So he performed his show in front of a packed audience while circling round the edges of the stage knowing that one false step could plunge him ignominiously down a ten foot drop into the cellar below.
The last establishment to be mentioned in this section has been referenced already in Eddie Linden’s poem about Hampstead: ‘Poets reciting their newest poems, That only find a hearing in the Roslyn Arms’. Although later it had a vigorous, even trendy, life under the name of the Bar Room Bar, the Roslyn was very much the creature of its decades-long landlord Henry. Henry was an old style paternalist who was known as a ‘stern but fair’ disciplinarian. It might take a considerable amount of unruliness to receive a pub ban from Henry but once sentence had been passed there was little point in pleading for mercy.
Henry did display leniency once when he agreed to take on ‘Little Steve’ as his morning cleaner. Steve had transgressed and received a ban but Henry allowed him back on the premises to carry out the job. Every morning after he had completed his duties, Little Steve was allowed to drink a free half pint of beer – on the condition that he had to stand outside in the street to consume it.
One man received a ban when he was about 18 years old. Later, he emigrated to Canada (admittedly not as a result of the ban). He flourished there, becoming a university professor, marrying, and fathering three children. Thirty years later he returned to Hampstead with his wife and children to show them around the scenes of his youth. Arriving at the Roslyn he ushered the family inside and, gazing around with a nostalgic smile, said:
“Honey, you’ll never believe it but when I was a kid I once got barred from here. Hey, kids, I guess you’d never think your old pa could have something like that happen to him, huh?”
He glanced across the counter and recognised Henry. “Henry, good heavens, you’re still here. That’s incredible! Hey, Henry, I bet you don’t remember banning me all those years ago, do you, Henry, ha ha?!”
Henry stopped polishing the beer mugs for a moment and replied: “Yes, I do. And you’re still barred.”
On occasion Henry could be avuncular and showed this side of his character when Leonie Scott-Matthews became a regular.
[Leonie herself was to become a Hampstead legend when she opened her theatre ‘Pentameters’ firstly at the Freemasons Arms (referenced again in Eddie Linden’s poem: ‘Or Leonie’s parlour in Downshire Hill’) and later at the Three Horseshoes on Heath Street. (Its name has been reduced now to ‘The One Horseshoe’ – owing it was said to a run of bad luck.) She has kept this little fringe theatre running continuously for almost fifty years – and counting.]
However when she first arrived in Hampstead in the 1960s Leonie gravitated to the Roslyn where she became deeply impressed by the array of actors, artists, and poets, including Sir William Empson, who made up its clientele. Henry noticed her and decided to take her under his wing. Drawing her aside one evening, he said:
“You’re a young lass new to London and I’ve got just two bits of advice to help you out. Don’t sleep with any of the men here. And don’t drink the draught cider.”
[Although Henry could never be accused of such a thing, pub discipline could be quite harsh and random at times. Quite recently, the manager of the Freemasons Arms became utterly fed up with the hordes of ‘yummy mummies’ who arrived during the afternoon and blocked up his main lounge bar with baby buggies and screaming infants. Driven to distraction one day, he marched into the bar and announced that they were all barred. For good measure, he shouted: “For LIFE!!!”
One child burst into tears at the thought that he had been given a lifetime ban at the age of four.]
As of the time of writing, the Torriano has survived the death of its founder and continues apace. But the Roslyn was closed in 2012 and remains empty and boarded up. Despite continuing to be a popular and well known gay venue, the Black Cap was closed in 2015. The Falcon was converted into a private house and no sign exists of its former life.
In passing one perhaps should recall some other losses over recent years – including the Belsize Tavern in Belsize Lane, the Bird in Hand and the King of Bohemia in Hampstead High Street, the Coach and Horses, the Horse and Groom, and the Nags Head in Heath Street, the Hare and Hounds in North End Road, the Olde White Bear in Well Road, and Jack Straw’s Castle by Whitestone Pond.
The Mulls Kid
The best way to describe Danny Mulligan is to allow him to blossom via his own words – and the present writer (and the world) is fortunate to have access to a series of letters that he wrote over a period of years in the 1980s and 90s. Although (very) regular in the Magdala he lived in a variety of flats around Camden Town and sent his own highly distinctive reports of the district. An example:
‘Hillbilly Haven, Upmarket Camden
But bloody hell, wasn’t last Thursday terrible cold? Down-town Camden was like Stalingrad just before the surrender. Not that I was out in it, no indeedee, no! I was snug at home, improving my mind with a Jeffrey Archer novel. You could do worse, Mr T, than to take a gander at Mr Archer’s oeuvre – might improve your literary style! But damn and blast it – I went to make a cup o’ rosie, (how you must envy me my hobnailed plebeian mode of expression), and found I’d no milk! I struggled into my sealskins, put on the snowshoes, and headed for Kwik Save.
Outside was totally deserted, hardly surprising given the cold and the biting wind. Funny thing though, the junction at Albert St and Delancey St was sealed off with tape – even the pavements had this ticker tape stuff across them. I had to duck under it and walk on the road. As I walked along, I could see someone halfway down Delancey St gesticulating and shouting.
“Bloody winos”, I thought, “wouldn’t you think the guv’ment ud do sumtim’ about dem”.
Actually, it wasn’t a wino as it turned out – it was a cop. He’d been shouting and waving at me, it seems, to get off the street. “Has there been a hold-up, officer?” I asked politely. “No!” he snarls, “there’s a suspect car bomb in Albert St – (practically on my door-step) – you’ve just walked past it, you berk”. Well, I gave him my 007 sardonic sneer, pushed my way through a bevy of his fellow officers crouching in Arlington Road and continued on my way to Kwik Save.
It was just as I was passing the soup section in Kwik Save that I collapsed. Delayed shock, it’s called.’
Mulligan was born a Dubliner and not even almost sixty years in England could erase that obvious fact. His upbringing on the tough north side of the Liffey remained stamped on his personality like a watermark. Even his first job after leaving school aged 15 was to go to work in the Guinness brewery. His tales of growing up in Dublin were legion. One of them involved a policeman called ‘Lugs’ Brannigan who patrolled the neighbourhood. He was a huge man who literally used his belt to clout the head of any child who stepped out of line. Although he never rose past the rank of sergeant and despite his occasional rough justice, ‘Lugs’ was popular on the street. When he retired, the local prostitutes presented him with a cut-glass decanter.
On arrival in London in the 1960s, Mulligan took a variety of jobs. He was of small stature but nevertheless held his own on the building sites. It was while involved in a site job that the event occurred that changed his life. He was digging at the bottom of a deep trench when the side collapsed and almost buried him alive. After his rescue he determined to change tack.
‘Rattlesnake Farm, Upmarket Camden
Bumped into an old flame of mine outside St Martins Theatre last week. I must say, she gave me a rather reproachful look, as though I’d just beaten up Tiny Tim and robbed his crutch. Turned out I’d arranged to meet her there for the opening of Agatha Christies’s ‘The Mousetrap’ in 1952. When I told her I was sorry for being late, she head-butted me. (Was it my fault there was a heavy smog that night?) As I lay on the ground holding my broken nose, I shouted after her and asked if she’d like to see ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ sometime. She never even turned round. Funny creatures, women.’
He moved temporarily to Munich in West Germany where he became a night porter in a hotel. One night after a heavy evening in the beer gardens, he was relieving himself against a wall when he received a tap on the shoulder from a policeman. It turned out that he was urinating on the Munich Police Headquarters.
‘The Bus Shelter, Upmarket Camden
Things are still pretty rough down here in the Camden War Zone. As I look out the panoramic studio window of my luxury penthouse suite with its unrivalled view of Camden’s deserving poor – (‘oh, look! There’s Mercer and Garland trying to steal a piece of bread from a pigeon’). My mind harks back to those happy days when a cardboard box meant something other than a place to sleep after a hard day’s begging. (Hang on a second – the pigeon has won the fight – I’ll just throw these old fish-heads down to Mercer and Garland.)’
Returning to London, Mulligan obtained a place at the North-West Polytechnic in Kentish Town and emerged with a degree in French and German. The degree was good enough to encourage him to take a Masters – however, he dropped out at the last moment.
‘Dead Man’s Gulch, Upmarket Camden
I myself continue my quest for A Decent Pub in Camden Town. Leastways, I would be if that tiresome crowd in the Town Hall would desist from sending me insulting, terse notes concerning something called council tax. And why are their communications always in red? Don’t the manufacturers produce blue/black anymore? I may well write to Mr Baldwin about this, you know.
But back to A Decent Pub. In my humble opinion, A Decent Pub is one frequented, nay, patronised by recognisably three dimensional human beans. People who immerse themselves in the dual delights of loquacity and liquor. Alas! The situation in Camden Town today is that the place is swamped in spiritual mutants. The pubs are flooded with pre-pubescent, mobile designer labels, whose native language is the monosyllabic grunt and whose limited attention span demands loud noise, flashing lights, and technological flim-flam. It’s either that or hordes of suited, spotty youths who monopolise the bar and bray endlessly about ‘The Market’ as though speaking of the imminent arrival of the Messiah. Oh, how we miss you, Ché.
You, of course, with that computer, Mr Spock-like, logic of yours, are asking me why don’t I use the Wheatsheaf? All I can answer is – if you have dandruff, prepare to shed it now! The Wheatsheaf has been closed, preparatory to being refurbished and then being reopened as – a BACKPACKER’S PUB!! Verily, I say unto you – much is the wailing and many are the teeth being gnashed in Jurassic Park tonight! It’s a catastrophic tragedy when an old pterodactyl like myself cannot find a welcoming tavern in which to hang from the rafters.
Ah, yes, indeed. The Wheatsheaf was an old-fashioned drinks emporium which also knew how to dispense old world charm. A veritable oasis of tranquillity, where unemployed lady bricklayers could indulge their passion for competitive arm-wrestling and diverse entrepreneurs could engage in commercial transactions, ranging from white powder substances to the sale of a multiplicity of items which had inexplicably fallen off the back of lorries. It was also a very popular pub with City business-types, many of whom were to be seen sitting in some secluded corner quietly discussing their next takeover bid.
Occasionally, a rare shaft of sunlight, which had managed to penetrate the dirt-encrusted saloon bar window, would briefly illuminate their open battered faces, broken noses, and mangled ears. Their shaven heads would be tastefully offset by a complex network of tattoos which seems to be de rigueur nowadays for those engaged in the arena of high finance. What attracted all of these punters to the Wheatsheaf was, of course, the elegant, refined ambience of incisive, intelligent debate, liberally sprinkled with witty, cultivated bon mots, a scenario strongly reminiscent of a 19th century literary salon.
Regrettably, I have to report that shortly before my departure to Dublin last July, there was a deplorable lapse in the high standards which was the hallmark of the Wheatsheaf. There was a slight disturbance. Well no, I tell a lie – it was actually a major fracas. Some Scottish gentlemen engaged in a polemical exchange with some gentlemen cleansing operatives about the merits or demerits of certain football teams. Well, before you could say ‘Desert Storm’, the whole pub was rolling about on the floor! I straightaway climbed up on the counter, rapped it sharply with my silver-topped cane and shouted above the heaving mass: “Was it for this form of desperate behaviour that Hegel formulated his ‘Triadic Law of the Dialectic’? Did not Jean-Paul Sartre warn you of the dangers of facticity? Have you so quickly forgotten Schopenhauer’s message in his ‘Die Welt Wille und Vorstellung’?”
Well, that hit home to them, I can tell you! They immediately stopped brawling and looked at each other sheepishly before starting to gather up the scattered remnants of medallions, bracelets, etc., from the dirt-ingrained carpet.
Later on, the unemplady bricklayers invited me over for a drink. One of them asked me where had I learned to ‘talk dirty like that?’ I told her that it was due to a top class education at a first rate Irish public school called ‘Mountjoy’ and also to an assiduous and unrelenting perusal of quality journals such as the Sunday Sport and the News of the World. So that’s the situation as it stands at present.’
At one point Mulligan became friendly with a barman who worked at the prestigious Garrick Club in Central London. One night, the man was arrested for being drunk and disorderly and for attacking a police officer in the Strand. When he came up for trial, he swore his innocence. The judge in the case questioned the arresting officer.
“You say that the offence took place at 9 15pm exactly on that night?”
“Yes, your honour.”
“Are you absolutely certain about that, officer?”
“Absolutely, your honour.”
“Well, that is indeed strange. Because at precisely 9 15pm on the night in question the accused was serving me drinks in the Garrick Club.”
Mulligan took up painting on retirement from academia and became quite proficient at landscapes and even some portraiture. He continued to visit the Magdala and because of the disinclination for late night travel often sofa-surfed at his friends’ abodes. On one occasion he staying at Tony Elworthy’s flat and as the place was quite crowded already with visitors, Elworthy cleared a spot underneath the dining room table for Mulligan to lay out his sleeping bag. As Mulligan climbed into the bag, lay back, and stared up above him, he remarked: “I like the wooden duvet, Els.”
On another occasion while staying at the home of the present writer, he woke in the morning to find that his false teeth were missing. We searched the place from top to bottom but found nothing. Then we noticed that the cat was outside the cat flap, lying on his back gripping an object with both paws and gnawing away at what turned out to be Mulligan’s teeth.
‘Honeysuckle Cottage, Rural Camden
No, don’t ask me, just don’t bloody ask me! Well, if you must know, I had a bloody awful Christmas, awright? It started off innocuously enough, the Lord knows. On Monday, the 23rd of December, I went along to the Constitution pub to meet Guy Gibson VC and his girlfriend, the delightful Audrey from Dublin. Gibson is the manager/administrator, (very professional), of the sheltered housing in Elm Village where I lived some years ago. He is also by way of being an amateur psychologist, (not very good, I might add). His goldfish would employ more subtlety in this particular field. On the other hand, the vivacious, delectable Audrey is an asset to any civilised gathering. A smile from her and old men die happily burbling. You will gather from this that I did not go along to the Constitution to be a guinea-pig for Gibson’s psychological fumblings.
I enter the pub.
Shock No 1 – The Con is now under new management. The whole décor of the pub has been radically altered and now resembles an ill-reputed Mexican taverna, in which Clint Eastwood might well despatch 20 Italian extras with one swift draw of his Colt 45.
Shock No 2 – the whole place is crammed with lager-drinking trogs, whose common denominator was probably B.O. and halitosis. I spotted one female there, a peroxided middle-aged blonde with the gentle smile of a barracuda playing on her delicate lips.
Shock No 3 – I find Gibson in the company of three dour Scotsmen and one incomprehensible Geordie. Well, at least the Geordie tried to communicate – after five minutes in the company, I came to the conclusion that the three Scots had been raised by Trappists. It was obvious that the four of them were inmates of the shell shock unit in the sheltered housing, out on their Christmas beano with Doctor Frankenstein, (i.e. Gibson). Christ knows how he intended to practice his psychology in this quartet of dingbats?
At this point, I realised that the delectable Audrey was not in evidence and my central nervous system came close to collapse. “Jesus H Dulally” I thought, “what the fuck have I let myself in for here?” Happily, the delicious Audrey arrived twenty minutes later. It was then decided to move the carnival because we were seated by the door. Every time it opened I felt like Shackleton, because it was ball-freezing weather outside. The only other seating available was a table and five chairs on a raised dais or stage. There was also a television set on a stand on the stage which was turned towards the multitude in the pit below us. Liverpool FC and Newcastle United were farting around on screen, and every time some prima donna blew his nose or scratched his scrotum, the whole fucking pub jumped to its feet and started screaming like shit as though they had just missed the last lifeboat off the Titanic.
The funny thing was, none of this seemed to bother the delectable Audrey. She sat there gazing seriously into my eyes and smiling sweetly at me. It took me all of 20 minutes to realise that she was completely zonked out of her brain. For all I knew, she could have been Maid Marian, playing doctors and nurses with Robin and his Merry Men back in Sherwood Forest. She certainly wasn’t in the same time zone as the rest of us.
So there you have it, Mr T. There I am, sitting on this bloody stage like a figure in a Madame Tussaud tableau, in the company of three Scots catatonics, a Geordie who seems to be suffering from the after-effects of a mustard gas attack, one gorgeous female opium eater and a would-be psychologist! On top of this, we have an entire pub which seems to be directing its hate-filled gaze at me and which periodically erupts into collective dementia, spurred on by the peroxided Madame Defarge.
I now know how Sidney Carton felt as he waited his turn to stick his head in the guillotine. And you want to know why I smoke so much? Why my hands tremble, my eyes blink unceasingly, why my body shudders involuntarily? Pay a visit to the Constitution.’
Mulligan’s 70th birthday took place in August 2011 and his friends decided to buy him a present. The birthday, however, happened to coincide with the biggest riot that London had seen for thirty years and Camden Town was one of the main battlefields. For several hours Camden High St and Chalk Farm Road were under the control of the mob. From Mornington Crescent Tube Station up to the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm Road, the rioters looted every shop they could break into with the sole exception of Waterstones Bookshop. However, all the other shops, especially those selling mobile phones, clothes, bicycles, and electronic equipment were stripped bare. The police manned a frontline across the bottom of Haverstock Hill thereby saving Belsize Park from attack and by morning they had recaptured the streets. The slow job of cleaning up started.
Mulligan’s friends gathered in the aftermath realising that his flat on Delancey Street had been at the heart of the trouble. Meeting in the Spreadeagle pub which had just gingerly re-opened, they discussed what they could buy him that he would appreciate the most and decided on a new television set. It then dawned that there were no TV sets left in any of the shops around Camden. One of them gave an embarrassed cough and said: “Well, there’s a bloke called Winston down the back of the Lock and he’s got dozens!”
Mulligan arrived through the debris of battle for his birthday party. He said that the events of the previous night had encouraged him to join Alcoholics Anonymous.
“What the hell are you talking about, Mulligan? You’ve got a quadruple vodka right there in front of you!”
“Ah, yes, but then you see I’m drinking under an assumed name.”
‘Crocodile Creek, Upmarket Camden
I had Jane in last night. She’s away to Wales next week to burn incense and stand on her shaggin’ head in some doolally Buddhist monastery. She wanted to know if I’d like to go with her!!!!! I told her I’d love to, but unfortunately I’d already arranged to spend the week fox-hunting in rural Bishopsgate with Robert de Niro, Quentin Tarantino, and Prince Boris of Macedonia. Lord Jaysus! Am I the only sane person left in this bloody country?’
Over the years, the Magdala was fortunate to attract some first rate comedic and musical entertainers. For years the large room on the first floor was home to the Alpine Comedy Club which played host to a procession of well-known stand ups. This room was also the venue for classical concerts. The shows in 2013 featuring the works of Hadyn were quite extraordinary. A month or so previously two musicians had met for the first time in the bar and after chatting agreed to join forces.
Not out of the ordinary maybe, except that the musicians in question happened to be Rusen Gomes, the lead viola player with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and Bernd Gradwohl, the conductor, concert pianist, and considered by his peers to be the finest violin player in Austria. Not Camden – AUSTRIA!!! With a narration given by Andrew Hobday – the actor, musician, lead singer of the rock band ‘Thousand Mexicans’, and for forty years a stalwart of the Mag – the evenings were outstanding.
During the 1990s the public bar was the centre for weekly Irish folk music sessions, while the saloon bar housed Roger Howsam. Roger doubled as a barman and pub pianist who specialised in playing the works of Noel Coward, a man close to his heart. Roger was on duty one evening when probably the worst pub fight since the 1960s broke out in the public bar. The temporary manager who had only arrived that day attempted to halt the trouble, ended up in hospital, and was never seen again. Roger, in the middle of warbling ‘Mad about the Boy’, took one look at the mayhem, fled to the Gents lavatory and locked himself inside.
Such an event was a real rarity in the calmer days of the new century. Although Roger departed, the multi-talented Indo-Jazz pianist John Southgate fortunately took over the early evening musical duties to warm things up.