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.”
To see other chapters – go to top of page and, under the main title, click on the small heading ‘Under Ken Wood’
Feb 28: 1 South End Green – Prologue
Mar 7: 2 Where Eagles Dared
Mar 7: 3 Murder and the Magdala
Mar 14: 4 The Hepburns
Mar 14: 5 Private Godfrey and the Dame of Soho
Mar 21: 6 Garland and Mercer
Mar 21: 7 Laureates and Spies
Mar 21: 8 The Silver Fox
Mar 28: 9 The Hoffmeister and Kelly
April 4: 10 The Harvey Brothers
April 4: 11 The Journos
April 11: 12 Five Funerals and a Resurrection
April 18: 13 Scallawag
April 25: 14 Crime and Punishment
May 2: 15 Good Companions
May 9: 16 Sasthi Brata
May 9: 17 Bob the Bag and Cornish Pat
May 16: 18 Eddie Linden
May 16: 19 The Branch Offices
May 23: 20 The Mulls Kid
May 30: 21 The Musos
May 30: 22 Closing Time