One of the reasons why a pub will always triumph over a restaurant is that, while in a restaurant one is invariably confined to talking to one’s own companions, in a pub one constantly encounters the unexpected. In the Mag, the unexpected was the norm.
Les and his companions occupied one corner of the saloon bar for several years. Les was an approachable and pleasant character who bore a certain resemblance to the (when elderly) Ronnie Drew of the Dubliners, and was well known as a leading Morris Man around the folk dancing festivals of Southern England. He lived in a first floor flat in nearby Fleet Road above the premises of a fish and chip shop called ‘Michael’s’ (this shop is still functioning under new management). Michael the chip shop owner was a Greek-Cypriot migrant who suffered from a back deformity. Although not immediately obvious, Les was also reputed to be a practitioner of the black magic arts and to hold ceremonies in his flat with his friends.
After a while, Michael heard the rumours circulating about Les and the activities above and became anxious about the situation. To ward off any ill effects, he inserted good luck charms between the pickled onion jars and scotch eggs along the top shelf behind his counter. He also took to mouthing prayers if he felt any evil emanating from the ceiling.
Therefore on occasion a customer arriving for a haddock and medium chips would be greeted by a Cypriot hunchback mouthing incantations at the ceiling while standing under an array of crucifixes, twists of garlic, and ‘lucky leprechaun’ dolls.
One of Les’s less stable colleagues was arrested and sectioned in a mental home after he appeared at the top window of a house adjacent to Orwell’s bookshop and started to fire bolts from his crossbow at the bus queue on the far side of South End Green. Fortunately no-one was injured but a No 24 bus did take a direct hit on the upper deck.
Champagne Charley was an old gentleman who for many years helped out around the SEG vegetable and flower stalls. He stormed into the public bar one morning raging about how he’d been:
“f**!@%b**, s@””***!* banned by them c!!!@?<** in the f}***@@% Railway!!!!!!!!!!”
Mary Watson leaned over the bar and soothed him: “Why have they banned you, Charley, me darlin’?”
“F**!@%b**, s@””***!* SWEARIN’!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Beryl until her departure for the USA was a greatly popular figure in the Magdala. In the early 1980s, she acquired a Middle Eastern boyfriend who had some connection to a Palestinian Rights group. One afternoon, she went round for the first time to the head-quarters of this particular movement. She found the correct street address, walked up a dark staircase and knocked on the door in front of her.
She heard the sound of frenzied scuffling inside and finally the door was opened by two suspicious guards. Behind their bulging shoulders, she could see at least thirty Arabs with ill-concealed weapons glaring furiously at her, presumably under the impression that a Mossad attack was about to take place.
Beryl looked uncertainly around the room and said: “Oh….er….sorry to bother you, but could you tell Atullah that his tea’s ready, please?”
Mention has been made of the political tolerance that dominated Magdala discussion – only in one case did this not apply. It was a strange exception as on the face of it Brian Snoaden and Keith Ley had a great deal in common. They were of a similar age, both were old Africa hands, and both had worked for famous American film directors during their African careers, Brian for John Ford on the 1953 ‘Mogambo’ (filmed in Kenya) and Keith for John Huston on the 1951 ‘The African Queen’ (filmed in Uganda).
[Brian told us an oddball story about Clark Gable, the star of ‘Mogambo’. For the duration of the filming all the male cast and crew were forced to shave their chests as Gable was unable to grow chest hair and felt that it detracted from his masculinity if others were seen to sport it.]
However, their shared experience certainly did not improve their relationship inside the pub and the two were distinguished by the physical distance they managed to maintain when both were present in the Mag.
Brian Snoaden was firmly on the right-wing – he had been seconded to the police force in Kenya during the Mau Mau emergency. Keith Ley, on the other hand, was a convinced and lifelong supporter of the left. An author with a huge output (over 100) of factual books for children, Keith was an early supporter of the anti-apartheid movement. He told the present writer that one of their meetings in the 1950s had been attacked by the National Front (of the day) and Keith had a chair broken over his head. He said: “It was an honour to be damaged in such a cause.” He was on close terms with many of the now famous names of African history.
But what really brought him into conflict with Brian Snoaden was that during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya (the true details of which are only now coming to light), Keith refused to serve in the King’s African Rifles – the main unit involved in the suppression of the revolt. To avoid conscription he was forced to flee to Ethiopia where he was told that if he wished for protection from the British government, the Ethiopian authorities would be happy to grant him political asylum. This was anathema to Brian and meant that the enmities of 1950s African politics received a new lease of life that extended until their deaths in the 21st century. They both had their funeral wakes at the Magdala.
Another Brian (there were eight Brians drinking regularly in the pub at one point) was Brian Kettell. Brian was and is an economist from Yorkshire who has balanced his life between keeping South End Green as a base while working in various parts of the world. He moved to London in the 1960s to study at the London School of Economics where he was a near contemporary of Mick Jagger. The LSE at the time was a hotbed of left-wing revolt and one of Brian’s favourite memories was marching through London carrying a banner that read: ‘Out With Pedagogic Gerontocracy – NOW!!’
Having failed in that particular quest, he became an acknowledged expert on the subject of gold (having once been invited to address a US Senate committee on the subject). Over the years he managed to obtain a modest amount of the metal involved, at least enough to purchase a house on the Green, a residence that he rented out for the periods he was absent. (During one year, he let the house to two young female private detectives only to find on his return that they were actually running a brothel.)
It was in his capacity as a SEG householder that he fell out with an unorthodox neighbour. ‘Lion’ was a well-known Big Issue seller who decided to set up a CND ‘Peace Camp’ around the SEG fountain, complete with banners and a tent. Brian went to discuss the situation with him, a row broke out, fists flew, and Brian ended up in the Royal Free Hospital undergoing a brain scan. He remains possibly the only Hampsteadite to have been hospitalised by a Peace Campaigner.
In an area accustomed to bizarre sights, one of the oddest occurred one night when Brian, his wife Nadia, and their friend Lesley were celebrating his birthday at home. A great deal of vodka was drunk and all three ended up in states close to incapable. Somehow during the evening, their three-legged dog managed to slip out of the front door. At 2am, Brian received a phone call from the Accident and Emergency Department of the Royal Free to request that he collect his dog who had been found rummaging his way through the wards. Brian, in no condition to collect his thoughts let alone anything else, said that he would do so in the morning and put the phone down. Half an hour later, his bell rang and he opened the door to find an ambulance parked outside and its paramedics delivering his three-legged dog home by stretcher. As Brian commented next day: “It makes you proud of the NHS.”
There being so many Brians in the Magdala, some could only be differentiated by nicknames – hence we had ‘Nice’ Brian, ‘Flying’ Brian – and, well, Brian. And also ‘Fascist’ Brian. He was a big hulking man who habitually wore a black shirt, shaded spectacles, and resembled a large crow. His politics matched his shirt. One day, the present writer stepped into the lift at Belsize Park Tube Station during an extremely squashed rush hour. He spotted Fascist Brian right at the front of the crowd. Fascist Brian also spotted him and waved. Then in his usual braying bellow and across the intervening sea of passengers’ heads, he proceeded to recommend a new book he’d found. “It’s about Heinrich Himmler. I always felt that Himmler was badly misunderstood. He had some very good ideas really, you know.” His words hung around the packed lift like poisonous vapour – North-West London has never been a district especially sympathetic to the Nazis. As restive mutters began to rustle through, the present writer assumed a glassily fixed grin and buried himself behind a copy of the Evening Standard.
One last Magdala Brian was the actor Brian McDermott who also had a strong but much less culpable connection to the Nazis. As with many people, he had been captivated by the Mel Brooks film ‘The Producers’ and for many years harboured a desire to put the show on the London stage. He was blocked by Brooks’ refusal to surrender copyright for the very good reason that Brooks himself intended to and later did create his own theatrical version.
Undeterred, McDermott wrote a play called ‘Adolf Hitler – Mein Camp’ as a stage ‘homage’ to the film. He played an actor auditioning for the part of Hitler in ‘The Producers’ – part of the joke was that his ‘Method’ style of role preparation results in both his wife and, even worse, his Jewish agent leaving him. Brian was given songs to perform in his show written by the Beatle George Harrison and the Bonzo Dog Band drummer ‘Legs’ Larry Smith (both avid fans of the film). These included such titles as ‘I’ve Gotta Braun New Girl’, ‘Call Me Adolf’, and ‘Keep Right on to the End of the Reich’.
McDermott finally presented his first night at the Falcon Pub Theatre in Royal College Street in Camden. He had a fellow performer – Rocky the parrot. This led to an immortal ad lib. As the Invasion of Normandy threatened the stability of the Reich, ‘Hitler’ looked across at Rocky and breathed: “Oh, well, we’ll always have parrots.”
The show continued to play for many years all over the alternative theatre scene, becoming known as the Fringe’s answer to ‘The Mousetrap’. Brian had a successful career, making over one hundred TV appearances. More importantly, in 1972 he founded the Shepherds Bush Theatre in West London. Despite having once been Lionel Blair’s dance studio it had a reputation as being ‘a bloodbath of a pub’. Brian turned it into one of the top five fringe venues in London and notable for introducing the work of Victoria Wood amongst many others. He was known as the ‘Godfather of the Fringe’.
In his later years (he died in 2003) McDermott took on one last role – that of a UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) candidate standing against Glenda Jackson in the Hampstead constituency. This did lead to a complication. Brian not only wished to stand for UKIP but he also wanted to publicise his Hitler show while he was so doing. His appearance at one political meeting complete with Adolf moustache and forelock, a swastika-covered jacket, with fish-net tights and suspenders, led to a UKIP press announcement stressing that such an outfit was entirely the candidate’s own affair and was definitely not standard UKIP attire.
While Brian McDermott certainly initiated many prestigious careers through his management of the Bush, another Mag regular helped launch one of the greatest stars of the twentieth century. In December 1962, Mike Starkey was part-time manager of a pub in Kings Cross called the Pindar of Wakefield. A young American singer turned up at the door and asked whether he could perform on their small stage. Mike agreed to pay him one pound, ten shillings, for the gig. Mike: “I never thought he’d get anywhere. I thought I was just helping out a kid.” The kid was Bob Dylan and it was his first ever British performance.
[Dylan certainly seemed to rough it on that first trip to London. The folk singer Martin Carthy said that he let Dylan crash on his sofa for a couple of weeks. It was a ferociously cold winter in 1962 and Carthy said that in their search for firewood, he and Dylan were forced to chop up an old piano with a samurai sword.]
The proximity of the Royal Free Hospital meant that the Magdala was host to many of its staff and saw generations of medical students passing through. Being at the sharp end of the human condition, they were a source of funny if gory stories. But one of the most bizarre hospital tales came from Marion Wight. She was a fully trained SRN who for most of her career was the matron at the Oxford Street store of Selfridges. However, it was in one of her earlier jobs while working in a Samaritans office that the incident occurred.
One evening Marion was alone in the office when the door flew open and an enormously fat Australian woman aged about fifty burst in. She demanded that as Marion was the only responsible person she could find, she should come along and act as witness at her wedding. Marion decided that this was a legitimate part of her job and agreed.
On the way the woman explained that she’d been living with the intended bridegroom for twenty years and that he was now dying in a hospital ward. It turned out that she wanted to marry him before his death so that she would inherit his savings which amounted to about £50. They reached the hospital and found that the ward had been decorated with polystyrene angels left over from Christmas. A visiting curate had been persuaded to officiate, there was a borrowed upright piano, and a group of nurses and porters were standing around the bed screens. They began singing the Wedding March as the bride approached. The bridegroom was unconscious and on a saline drip.
Just as the ceremony started, the ward doors swung open and a large Nigerian man stormed in demanding that the ceremony should be stopped. It turned out that he was the Australian’s real husband and she was dragged out screaming. The bridegroom died an hour later, none the wiser.
Marion also relayed an incident that had happened in a local chemist’s shop. A man entered to buy a packet of condoms and the girl assistant asked:
The man became flustered: “Well…..er….I suppose…er….medium?”
The girl gave a shriek of laughter: “No, I meant how many!”
Overheard at the saloon bar counter:
“To mix PG Wodehouse with Les Dawson, she looked like a bulldog chewing a bag of spanners.”
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