The Branch Offices

The Black Cap, Camden High St

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, 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 his friends 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.’

The Black Cap, Camden High St – fighting back

 [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 Site, now a private house

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, allegedly 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. Allegedly. 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.”

Baxter Mitchell in 2012

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 bar stool 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.

Holly Bush Hampstead

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 machine gun 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.

Torriano Meeting House

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 Rety

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 eight 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 Roslyn Arms (aka Bar Room Bar)

 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.

Little Steven

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.) With huge determination and courage she has kept this little fringe theatre running continuously for almost fifty years – and counting. If ever a Camdenite deserved recognition from the honours system it is Leonie.]

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.”

Leonie Scott-Matthews at Pentameters Theatre

 [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 Belsize Tavern
The Coach and Horses
The Horse and Groom
Jack Straw’s Castle
The King of Bohemia

The Old White Bear.

 

To see other chapters – go to top of page and, under the main title, click on the small heading ‘Under Ken Wood’

See

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