The Mag has seen some notable farewells, not least the night in 1997 when Mary Watson finally took leave. She was given a gift from the pub consisting of two large picture frames containing the photographs of all the regulars and friends that she had known over her eight years in charge. The present writer had the job of collecting these pictures for the presentation. He realised late on that he did not have the photo of the Indian owner of the off licence next door, a man who had been a good neighbour and ally to Mary.
Taking his camera he left the pub and entered the off licence. A tall man was standing with his back to the door being served by the owner. The present writer called out to the owner: “Do you mind if I take a photograph?”
On hearing this, the tall man spun round and called back in irritation: “No, I’m sorry, but definitely not!” The man was the TV chat show host Jonathan Ross. It was with some relish that the present writer explained that it was not Ross’s photo that was desired but the man serving him in the off licence.
Some of the old scene perhaps was best abandoned – a thought reinforced by one of the Mag Cockney old-timers. He said that back in the 1970s life was rough down in his former patch of Kings Cross.
“It was bad dahn the Callie Road, pal. Real bad. Druggies, pimps, prostitutes, the lot. Then there was the kerb-crawlers – loads of them. They were hassling all the women walking along, no matter who! There was one kerb-crawler, one day, he tried to pick up a little old lady, eighty-seven she was. Eighty-seven! Well. I mean, it ain’t right…. We wuz a bit surprised when she got in”.
The last South End Green Festival during which the Magdala was open for business left an enduring memory, mostly because of its unusual visitors. Half way through the afternoon the door opened and Robert Powell and his wife ‘Babs’ Lord walked in. Babs Lord is especially recalled by many males of a certain age as the blonde ‘Beautiful Babs’, one of the original dancers in the 1960s TV ‘Top of the Pops’. Her husband Robert Powell is an actor who became very famous for playing the title role in the TV mini-series ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ in 1977.
As well as Powell and his wife, the festival had attracted four monks attired in their traditional robes who had most definitely decided to join the fun. Presumably they had started on the alcohol early because by the time they arrived at the Magdala they were well away. They slumped around a table and kept up a raucous commentary on events; one of them fell asleep with his head in a packet of crisps.
The present writer approached the bar to replenish his pint when another old Cockney turned to him and whispered:
“This is the most surreal afternoon I’ve ever ‘ad in the Mag. A gang of drunken monks on one side – and Jesus Christ proppin’ up the bar on the other!”
[Robert Powell’s series ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ was a project dear to the heart of the impresario Lord Lew Grade who had been asked to produce it by the Pope of the day; Franco Zefferelli was the director and Anthony Burgess wrote the screenplay. Grade insisted on an atmosphere of sanctity at all times on the set. This solemnity was broken only once.
Ian Mcshane was playing Judas Iscariot during the Last Supper scene. Following the script he stood up from the table, reverently kissed Christ, bowed to the disciples and slowly walked out of the door. Then he popped his head back inside and said:
“Right, that’s seven cod and chips and five rock salmon, OK?”
Lew Grade was reported to be livid with fury.]
The last great day of the Magdala occurred on September 7th 2014. It was Christiana’s last night, the place was packed, the tributes flowed, and five good friends of the pub, the pianists John Southgate and John Croucher, the impressionist Jon Culshaw, the singer Andrew Hobday, and the violinist Bernd Gradwohl gave the last performances.
The pub had been bought several years previously by the Punch Taverns company which, with its fellow corporate Enterprise Inns, has dominated much of the British pub world for the last twenty years. Like many of their establishments, the Magdala was sold to a property developer, in this case one whose company is based in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands. This developer decided that he wished to turn the upper stories of the pub into flats thus ensuring that the place could never again be run by a proper tenant but could only function as a lock-up bar. After a year’s closure, the Magdala was re-opened for a period of five months. Unfortunately while it functioned perfectly well as a bar, it had ceased to be a pub. The difference is subtle, but crucial.
The place closed again in February 2016 – the conversion of the flats continues apace. There are some rumours of a bar re-opening in the future.
But a piece of the heart of South End Green that for good or ill has been beating for 146 years, has gone. It’s left a lot of homeless ghosts.
In a postscript to the affair, in the summer of 2016 a local man was arrested and tried at Highbury Magistrates Court for scrawling graffiti over the windows of the now defunct and dilapidated public house. It read:
‘Closed down by Philistines and Tossers’.
The present writer and his colleagues could in no way condone such an appalling act of vandalism. It was a gratuitous insult to those who are attempting to increase the stock of privately owned luxury flats and houses in London and who ask only a modest recompense for their endeavours.
Of course, it was noted that, being a Hampstead graffitist, the word ‘philistines’ was spelt correctly.
In the 1920s the author Hilaire Belloc wrote:
‘Change your hearts or you will lose your inns and you will deserve to have lost them. But when you have lost your inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England’.
My thanks to everyone who has visited and commented on ‘Under Ken Wood’ – it’s been a lengthy read but I hope that it’s been a decent tribute to the memory of the Magdala and to so many people who saw it as a second home and made it the extraordinary place that it became.
My thanks to Sean Titley who suggested the idea.
Thanks to Dan Carrier of the Camden New Journal for his sympathetic coverage of the blog.
My greatest thanks to Jason Bevan whose knowledge, patience, and generosity made this blog possible. It could not have happened without him.
Although on a very different subject, I am starting a fresh blog next Tuesday, June 6.
It is called ‘CIDER WITH BOSIE’ and consists of the journals recording the travels and adventures involved in taking a one-man show about Oscar Wilde worldwide.
Look out for it on Facebook or on www.wildetheatre.co.uk
In memory of Brendan Trapp RIP
Neil Titley c.2016