With a sensual face reminiscent of an indulgent Roman Emperor, Gordon Bell was a large man both physically and in his appetite for life and travel. Due to a stroke of financial luck, he was able to feed these desires to the full and was a source of many stories concerning his travels. On one occasion he was in the German town of Stuttgart when he decided to go into a bar. Entering via some ill-lit stairs he stepped down into a darkened room in which he could just discern the bar itself at the far end. He walked up to it, ordered a beer, then stood drinking the pint at the counter. A few minutes later, a man and a woman walked up beside him, took off all their clothes and, with the woman leaning over the counter, started to have vigorous sex.
Gordon was perplexed by this turn of events but resolved to remain standing where he was, to ignore the action beside him, and to continue to drink his pint. As the couple reached their highly vocal climax, suddenly the lights of the bar were switched on to full glare, a drum roll sounded, and a round of applause echoed through the room. Gordon turned to see that he was on a stage with an audience of at least fifty Germans clapping the sex show but also roaring with laughter at the reaction of the ‘Englishman in an orgy who only drinks his beer!’
Following its time as George Orwell’s bookshop and prior to its current function as a bakery/delicatessen, the corner of Pond St and South End Road housed a café called the Prompt Corner. It was famous for being the best venue for chess games in the borough. Each window table was equipped with a chess set and the place was run for years by an elderly Italian couple. One day Gordon Bell, having returned from his European humiliation, was sitting with three friends in the Prompt Corner. He was approached by the antique waitress who asked whether they wished for anything else.
Gordon nodded: “Yes, OK. Can we have four more cups of tea, please? Oh, and can you make sure that I get a clean cup this time.”
The waitress arthritically wrote down the order and hobbled off to the kitchen.
After about ten minutes, she returned with a tray shaking in her grasp. Peering anxiously around the group she asked:
“Now, which one of you wanted the clean cup?”
Gordon died in a bizarre accident on St Patrick’s Day 1995. In honour of Saint Patrick and as he was due for a drinking session with mostly Irish friends, he donned a fancy-dress costume of a leprechaun. Being six feet three with a rugby player’s build it was tricky to find a costume to fit but he managed it. The session started early and ended late. Around 3am Gordon tottered his way back home to Roslyn Hill. He entered the small alleyway beside the Unitarian Church which led to his flat, inserted a key in the lock but for some reason was unable to open the door. Tired and drunk, he decided to sit down in the alley and have a quick snooze before trying again. That night, March 17, was unseasonable and bitterly cold and his decision proved a fatal one. Next morning his body was discovered by a passing milkman. He had died, still dressed as a bright green leprechaun, of hyperthermia.
As a relatively young (and popular) man, Gordon Bell’s funeral at Kensal Green was attended by a very large crowd. Amongst them, of course, was a substantial contingent from the Magdala. The present writer was offered a lift with other mourners in one of Robin Garland’s ‘Luxury Limousines’. As it had taken over half an hour to get the engine started, we were seriously late on arrival at the gates of the cemetery. The driver, Steven Mercer, stared short-sightedly across the fifty-acre expanse of graves to see some sign of the chapel of rest.
“Hurry up, Steven!” came a shout from Tony Elworthy in the back. Mercer squashed his foot down on the accelerator and hurtled along the narrow gravel paths at about forty miles an hour. As we skidded through an ornamental lake, Elworthy regretted his former instruction and exploded:
“Slow down, man! For God’s Sake, have you no respect for the dead!”
Danny Mulligan, flung to the car floor by the force of the skid, muttered:
“Stuff the dead. Have you no feckin’ respect for the living?!”
The same year of 1995 saw the death of Terry Weil, one of the best English classical musicians and certainly the best cellist ever to cross the threshold of the Magdala. Throughout the early 1980s Terry became a ubiquitous figure perched on his bar stool with pint and cigarette always to hand. He was a quiet man with a flat London accent who enjoyed the crazier antics of his fellow patrons. He rarely mentioned his achievements except for occasionally giving a satisfied smile and mentioning that a show he had done was having a repeat performance on Radio 3. “I can sit here, mate, and know all that lovely dosh is rolling in without lifting a bow.” Mostly he preferred discussing football, especially Crystal Palace. Gradually though his full background story spilled out.
He had been the original principal cellist of the English Chamber Orchestra and was a founder-member of the famed Melos Ensemble. He had worked closely with the composer Benjamin Britten on many of Britten’s first performances of his works at the Aldeburgh Festival, notably ‘Albert Herring’. Britten conducted Terry and the Melos Ensemble at the first performance of his ‘War Requiem’ at Coventry Cathedral in 1962. After the death of the world renowned cellist Pablo Casals, Terry managed to acquire his cello – an object of veneration in the music world. On a more mundane level, Terry also worked as a session musician and played on the Beatles number ‘I Am The Walrus’.
In 1974 he became the first Professor of Chamber Music at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester where one of the groups he taught later performed as ‘The Brodsky Quartet’. The Brodskys became known for their links with pop and jazz and collaborated on work with Dave Brubeck, Paul McCartney, and famously with Elvis Costello.
When one of the Magdala, John Todd, (mentioned above), fell from his ladder and suffered the injuries that rendered him a quadriplegic, Terry Weil called on the Brodskys to help out with a charity concert held at St Johns Church in Keats Grove. It was an ad hoc occasion where the Mag regulars assisted in the organisation of the event. Tony Elworthy, Dave Quinlan, and the Silver Fox were put in charge of the temporary bar in the church vestry. They did a reasonable job of it, constructing a makeshift counter and stock-piling an array of drinks ranging from bottles of donated poteen to rough Somerset cider.
A problem arose when the first punters arrived. Hampstead classical music aficionados tend to be fairly elderly and so it proved on this occasion. The first comers approached the counter and asked for soft drinks. Oliver Twist enquiring as to the possibility of ‘more’ from Mr Bumble could not have produced more consternation. Elworthy looked at Quinlan and Quinlan looked at the Silver Fox. SOFT DRINKS!!!! Who on earth would have the nerve to ask for something so absurd? Such a possibility had never remotely crossed their minds.
“This is a bar, madam, not a nursery.”
But, as the crowds gathered, it became obvious that soft drinks were the main demand. Undeterred, the trio set about converting these obviously deluded folk to the concept that alcohol was good for you. With no other choice, the music-lovers grumbled but shuffled off clutching their cans of super-strength lager. It was a lively concert.
In 1985 Terry decided to retire to the Spanish town of Cadaques near Barcelona. He became a well-liked figure there and because of his dexterity with the cello was known by the locals as ‘Senor Pablo’ in reference to Casals. His smoking habit led to medical complications and during his last few years he suffered the amputation of both legs. His house was slightly isolated and was situated on the edge of a cliff. This overlooked the town but more importantly it overlooked Terry’s favourite bar. Undeterred by his afflictions he organised the local men to fix up a block and tackle system, whereby he would be placed in a large basket and lowered over the cliff to the ground below. He would then be wheeled to the bar for the evening session, at the end of which he would be wheeled back, inserted in the basket, and hauled back up the cliff to his house.
Equally at home on a Magdala bar stool as Terry Weil but as physically different as possible was the actor Declan Mulholland. Whereas Terry was light and wiry, Declan at his heaviest weighed 34 stone. Even when later in his life he decided to diet, he never dropped below 25 stone. It was his curse and his fortune. His weight certainly prevented many activities but it also meant that in the uncertain world of the acting profession he was rarely without work. Whenever a fat man was needed they called on Declan. But he was also liked and respected as much for his character as for physique.
Born in the Falls Road in Belfast in 1932 he left school at fifteen to work in the Harland and Wolff shipyards. His harsh upbringing led him to become a Communist (although in later years he preferred Anarchism). Moving to London in the 1950s he used his skills as a carpenter to obtain work firstly at Pinewood helping to build film sets, and then stumbled across the group that was to give direction to his life. Hired as a night-watchman by the very left-wing Unity Theatre in Camden Town, he happened to be on duty the night that it burned down. Somewhat embarrassed by this event, he plunged himself into its reconstruction and agreed to appear on the boards as an extra and bit part actor. Enjoying the experience he knuckled down and learned the ropes as a performer. Unity was a hothouse of talent throughout its existence – Bill Owen (‘Last of the Summer Wine’), Lionel Bart (‘Oliver’), Sir Michael Gambon, Sir Michael Redgrave, the film star Herbert Lom (the ‘Pink Panther’ series), and ‘Alf Garnett’ himself Warren Mitchell – all honed their craft with Unity.
Directors and fellow actors came to appreciate Declan’s tough Belfast approach to roles and the decided intelligence that belied his appearance. Over the years he worked with the RSC, the Royal Court, Joan Littlewood’s Stratford East company, and with Vanessa Redgrave in ‘The Threepenny Opera’. He played in hundreds of television shows and also in adverts. He strolled into the Magdala one day with a streaming cold after working on an advert set in Basle Cathedral in Switzerland. He had been playing the part of a Russian KGB official trapped in the gondola of an air balloon dangling from the cathedral’s steeple. “The bloody thing got stuck for real and we were hanging there for hours. Then it started to snow!” That was normal life for Declan.
He also appeared in small parts in blockbuster films including Tony Richardson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. The biggest of these roles was that of ‘Jabba the Hutt’ in George Lucas’s ‘Star Wars: Episode IV’. In one scene Declan as Jabba was filmed dressed in a voluminous woolly-brown costume and arguing the toss with the star Harrison Ford. Lucas later deleted the scene and replaced Declan with a CGI version. Nonetheless even this minimal involvement with the behemoth meant that Declan was always in demand to appear at Star Wars conventions where he would be mobbed by fans.
It was while returning from a Star Wars convention in Oldham, Lancashire in 1999 that Declan suffered a fatal heart attack and collapsed in the street just yards from his home. His funeral at Golders Green was attended by a huge crowd. One eulogy spoke of his being “a rotund, Irish Tweedledum with a fine line in comic delivery’ while the presiding priest, arriving specially from Belfast, declared that “Declan went through life with a glass in his hand. And another glass in the other!” It was disclosed that most of his money had been left to the East 15 drama school to aid young actors.
A telegram was received and read out to the congregation during the funeral. It was from the film star Peter O’Toole and read:
“We worked together in many films. Highly intelligent and a great companion. He was a joy to be with.”
One of the films in which they were both involved was ‘The Ruling Class’ in which Declan played ‘The Poacher’. It was during this period that he would bring O’Toole to drink in the Magdala. However, it would be untrue to say that O’Toole was ever a Magdala regular. He was much more likely to be found in the Old White Bear on Well Road or in the Flask in Hampstead village.
O’Toole lived in Guyon House on Heath Street, an address known for its ferociously wild New Year’s Eve parties (and most other nights). He also frequented the La Gaffe restaurant further up the hill (incidentally the venue in 1997 where the TV journalist Martin Bell and the American ‘Starsky and Hutch’ actor David Soul plotted the downfall of the corrupt Tory politician Neil Hamilton; the result of their machinations being that Hamilton lost his parliamentary seat and Bell gained it.)
As a determined supporter of the Labour Party, O’Toole campaigned in 1966 for its local candidate Ben Whittaker. Unbeknownst to Mr Whittaker, O’Toole employed the highly illegal strategy of hiring a coach “with Guinness on tap” to travel around the local pubs promising Labour voters a “free drink and ride” if they went to the polling station to cast their vote.
Hampstead also witnessed the breakdown or at least the ‘severe testing’ of a famous friendship. High in their cups, one night O’Toole informed Richard Burton that Elizabeth Taylor had said that “I was much better in the sack, or at least more reliable, than you are.”
One of Declan’s many O’Toole stories concerned the making of the film ‘Lord Jim’. The location work took place in an Islamic country somewhere in the Far East, possibly Indonesia. On arrival O’Toole and his co-star the English actor Jack Hawkins were dismayed to find that there was a total ban on alcohol. The only way that they could acquire liquor was if they claimed that they were alcoholics and were in medical need. Nothing daunted they signed on as registered alcoholics, collected their bottle of whisky, and retired to a local park to consume it. After a while, Hawkins turned rather thoughtful, then said:
“You do realise, Peter, that if we sober up we’re going to be arrested.”
Two of the most steadfast Magdalites both died grievously young. From the early 1980s till 2000 Paul Williams was an almost permanent fixture in the pub. He was a man passionate about his causes, which consisted mainly of socialism, Manchester United, and beer. Born in a council estate in Stockport, Manchester, Paul was highly intelligent and easily earned a good degree at Queen Mary’s College, London. He turned to journalism (in particular research into workers’ wages and conditions), then moved on into legal consultancy. None of these activities interfered with his consumption of life. In the pub political debates he was a witheringly good advocate of left-wing causes and was angered about the advance of the right-wing in British politics, in particular what he saw as the hijack of the Labour Party by the Blair group. But what sent him into the stratosphere of fury was the take-over of his beloved ‘Man U’ by the American billionaire Glazer family.
One night, an actor friend was puzzling over what physical actions he could adopt to best portray Falstaffian behaviour in a role that he was due to perform. A half-sozzled Paul suddenly lurched into the flat carrying a 12 inch diameter pizza and slumped into a chair. Raising the pizza, he sank his jaws into it until he looked like a bulldog clenching a dinner plate. “That’s it!” shouted the actor. “Exactly what I need!!”
Paul left London with the start of the new century and moved to the small village of Cumnor near Oxford. In this rural atmosphere he came to appreciate English culture and, despite his support for internationalism, lent some of his energies to the promotion of English local lore such as folk music, Morris dancing, and real ale. (It was pointed out that, as a result, his new politics were ‘National’ and ‘Socialist’, and that this name might bring some unfortunate historical baggage along with it. He ignored the problem.)
Paul went on to organise the annual St George’s Day celebrations, to promote local charity work, and to achieve election as the Cumnor ‘Mayor’ in 2008. This post brought with it the further title of ‘Keeper of the Village Pond’ through which he discovered that Cumnor Pond had a far more interesting history than most village ponds.
On the night of September 7 1560, Lady Amy Dudley (née Robsart), wife of Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was staying at the manor house of Cumnor Place (since demolished). The next morning she was found dead with head injuries and a broken neck at the bottom of a flight of stairs. England became rife with the rumour that she had been murdered to facilitate the possible marriage of her husband to Queen Elizabeth I. Although this event, of course, never occurred, the suspicion lingered for many years and Cumnor Place itself became known for its oppressive atmosphere and the possible presence of Amy’s ghost. In response to this belief, it seems that nine Oxfordshire vicars came to the village and exorcised the ghost by laying her to rest in the Cumnor pond. Reputedly after they carried out this ceremony, the pond never froze again.
Paul was engaged in the restoration, cleaning, and planting of indigenous plants along its banks when in 2010 he suddenly and shockingly died of heart failure at the age at 49. His funeral at Oxford Crematorium was attended by a large contingent of mourners from the Magdala and by many Cumnor villagers. By total chance the funeral took place on May 6th, the same day as the General Election. True to Paul’s beliefs, one of the choral pieces during the ceremony was ‘The Red Flag’.
So the situation arose whereby, in the middle of rural true blue Tory Oxfordshire, in the middle of Election Day, it was possible to hear, echoing out across the fields, the sound of two hundred people lustily singing ‘The Red Flag’. It’s what Paul would have wanted.
‘Big Nick’ Henderson, as his nickname might suggest, was a tall powerfully built man who moved to South End Green during the 1970s, and ended up living above what had been George Orwell’s bookshop at Warwick Mansions. The building had become known as ‘Victory Mansions’ in homage to Orwell’s ‘1984’. For all his size, Big Nick was a quiet, laconic man who was an excellent chess player. However, on occasion, he could be stirred to action should the need arise. One day a man known to be a thorough-going irritant walked into the Mag and proceeded to harass the inhabitants. Big Nick stayed quiet for some time but finally climbed to his feet, walked over to the man, picked him up, and threw him crashing through the glass panel in the front door to land on the pavement outside. Despite the damage to the door, the landlady Mary Watson agreed that it was well worth the cost as she didn’t like the man either.
In the 1990s and in common with many other Magdalites, Big Nick became bewitched by the glamour of India and made several trips to the country. Then, in April 1994, came the news that he had been killed in a road accident there. He had been travelling alone on a coach from Goa to the town of Puna when the vehicle skidded on a patch of fallen fruit and, plunging over the side of the road, had crashed down into a ravine below. Big Nick was the most seriously injured of the passengers but a rescue party from a nearby village managed to put him on a makeshift stretcher and carry him back up the slope. Unfortunately, it was a dark night with heavy rainfall. The rescuers slipped in the mud, dropped the stretcher, and sent Nick sliding back down the hill. This caused even more severe injuries and Nick died a couple of hours later in a roadside café above the ravine. He was the only fatality of the crash and having no documentation with him at the time died without anyone knowing of his identity. Apparently an Indian held his hand till the end. He was aged 41.
It was a calamity for his family and for his friends in the Magdala. But the event became involved in a coincidence or mystery (or whatever) that made the Cumnor pond ghost story seem banal.
A young woman called Rachel and her boyfriend had been visiting Goa when they were picked up by police over a minor trespass. They were being hassled for baksheesh when the police said that they would be released if they tried to identify the body of a Westerner that was currently in the morgue. They agreed and viewed the corpse. Not knowing that it was Big Nick, they had to disclaim any knowledge. They were released and a few days later quite by chance left Goa on the same coach route to Puna that Nick had taken two weeks previously.
On the journey Rachel was seized by a sudden panic attack and desperate for air, demanded to be set down from the coach. Her boyfriend took her to a roadside café to calm down. While they were sitting there, the café owner came up, showed them a note that read: ‘Nick Henderson, London UK’, and asked if it meant anything. Although at first it did not, it dawned on Rachel that there might be a connection and they phoned the morgue. Eventually the note and the body were linked together and the story emerged in India and England. The café owner had found the note in the coach wreckage and was the man who had held Nick’s hand through his last hours. Rachel’s home address was in Heath Street, Hampstead.
Although the main funeral was held in Hampstead a month later (and Nick’s memorial stone is close by Karl Marx’s tomb in Highgate), the actual cremation took place in India on an open air pyre in the Hindu fashion. John, a close friend of Big Nick, travelled to India to attend the ceremony and to handle the bureaucracy that accompanied the death. Nick’s sister Jane said that she had seen the post mortem report that John had given to the female official at the British High Commission in Delhi. At the end of the document he had added: ‘I hope you will accept my opinion that I think you are very attractive’. Jane said that this was the first time she’d seen a pick-up attempt in a post mortem report.
South End Green and its surroundings became something of a meeting place for various gentlemen of the road and some of them became known and liked by their neighbours. ‘Yorkie’, for instance, was a favourite of local school kids. He lived rough off the Highgate Road and after lengthy negotiations the Camden DHSS acknowledged that ‘The Bus Shelter, Lissenden Gardens’ was an acceptable address.
However, life on the streets was notoriously dangerous to health and most rough sleepers died in their forties and fifties. One man tried to pre-empt the inevitable and over the years made several suicide attempts, none of which were successful. His most spectacular effort had been to lay his head over a railway line and wait for an oncoming train. Unfortunately, owing to the profusion of railway lines at that particular spot, he’d managed to pick the wrong track and, instead of losing his head, he’d lost a foot.
One day, a very popular vagrant called Pat went missing and the news circulated that he had died in the Royal Free Hospital. A group of acquaintances decided to commemorate his passing by decorating his usual bench on Parliament Hill with a row of (empty) Tennants Extra lager tins, each with a daffodil emerging from its spout. It was a very touching tribute and was well received by everybody except Pat who wandered up to ask what the f——- hell they were doing to his bench?
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