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
‘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.’ Etc
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.’ Etc
Hoffmeister replied in a seven-page diatribe in couplets. A short example gives something of the flavour:
‘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.’ Etc.
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, 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.’ Etc
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.’
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 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.’
In 1981, his solo play ‘The Teetotaller’s Breakfast Experience’ was one of six shows taken to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as part of a theatre company called ‘Paranoid Productions’ which consisted almost entirely of residents from South End Green and surrounds. As his daily performance was scheduled to start at 11am, Kelly had the rest of the time to indulge his fancy. A few days into the Festival, he was discovered standing outside the famous Deacon Brodie pub charging the foreign tourists one pound each to go inside.
Hustled away by some Paranoid Production staff from the Deacon Brodie before he was arrested, Kelly moved on to the steps of the Cathedral on the Royal Mile where he proceeded to harangue the crowds on a variety of topics, not least the fatuity of the Church of Scotland.
Paranoid Productions had sublet the venue during the afternoons to a troupe of Turkish poets who had been organised and sponsored by another Magdala figure, the actor Declan Mulholland. Kelly’s show preceded their performance. Part of his act was to use a full bottle of milk to simulate the act of masturbation, culminating in a jet of milk shooting out across the stage. After one show the stage crew forgot to mop up the spillage. It was a hot day and the sun shone through the window directly onto the stage. The milk started to curdle.
By the time the afternoon show was about to start, the floor was like an ice rink. Back stage, Declan Mulholland was busy pumping up his protégés into giving an energetic ‘Method’ performance. In his bass Belfast growl he roared at them; “You got to go out there and make the audience feel your power! Shake the walls with your emotion! Don’t just stroll out there! Run! Run! Run!!” The trio of Turkish poets duly rushed out on stage, hit the milk patch, and skidded directly into the front rows of the audience, sheaves of poetry and the odd fez flying. Kelly refused to accept any blame.
The parting of the ways with Paranoid Productions occurred three nights before the end of the run. One of the problems with doing a morning show is that the performer needs to wind down with a drink afterwards. If the show ends at 10pm this does not present any difficulties. However, if it ends at 1pm and there is a bar on the premises that stays open to 2am – thirteen hours later – considerable temptation is thrown in the actor’s path. So it proved with Kelly and as the days passed his behaviour became more erratic by the hour.
On the night in question, the present writer was backstage in costume and engaged in putting the final touches to his make up in order to perform his solo show on Oscar Wilde. Suddenly loud noises could be heard in the auditorium. ‘Wilde’ went out to check and found Kelly bellowing that he was going to ‘destroy the place’ while hurling seats in all directions. By now, the company finances were in a perilous state and it was crucial that the shows went ahead without interruption.
‘Wilde’, furious at what he saw as a deliberate attempt to ruin him financially, grabbed hold of Kelly, hauled him out of the auditorium, across the foyer, and threw him down the steps to the pavement outside. Turning round, he realised that he had just passed by the theatre queue for his own show. Respectable, middle class Edinburgh staring in shock as ‘Oscar Wilde’ hurled a Dadaist poet into the night. Kelly left the city next morning, abandoning his show, and going off to sulk in South Uist. Neither bore a grudge and within a month were again drinking together in the Mag.
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 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-Dom; 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.
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