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.
Bruce was temporarily one such figure although a less criminal criminal it is difficult to imagine. Operating back in the 1970s Bruce was one of the vaguest people ever to inhabit SEG. His natural dreaminess was multiplied by a daily intake of at least a dozen joints of cannabis. He was an enthusiast for (well, gained mild stimulation from) reading the works of St Thomas Aquinas. ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’ was his mainstay. Unfortunately the necessity of raising cash to eat kept interfering with Bruce’s important interests. Under some compulsion from his girlfriend Victoria, he accepted the task offered him by a fearsome Camden Town character named Spiro the Greek to deliver a large sack of hard-core pornography by tube from Camden Town to a distributor in Ealing.
Not possessing enough tube fare, Bruce skipped through the first barrier and boarded the train. After a few stops he noticed that some ticket inspectors had arrived and were checking their way along the passengers towards him. Thankfully before they reached him, the train drew up in another station and the doors opened. He jumped off and mingled with the platform crowds; the train pulled away with the inspectors still on board. Bruce heaved a sigh of relief which turned to a groan of despair as he realised that he’d left the sack of pornography on the train.
A woebegone Bruce returned to the Magdala to consult with Victoria. She boomed out in fury: “What’s Spiro the Greek going to say? Five hundred hard-core porno mags whizzing round and round the Circle Line!!!!!!!!! You idiot!!!!!!!! We can hardly ask him to go down to London Transport Lost Property!!!!”
‘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 wind, plus 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 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’.
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