The Magdala Tavern

Laureates and Spies

Heath Street, Hampstead. 2017

Two of the saloon bar customers became famous to some degree because of their family connections. The literary agent Olwyn Hughes was, of course, the sister of the Poet Laureate Ted Hughes. Olwyn was excellent company in the pub – imposing and extrovert and, at the same time, both a femme fatale and one of the boys. She was fairly indiscriminate in her approaches to both sexes for overnight companionship. To a large extent her world revolved around the tragic event in 1963 when her brother’s wife Sylvia Plath committed suicide at their home in nearby Primrose Hill.

For the rest of her life Olwyn was involved in helping to raise Ted and Sylvia’s children, to acting as an agent for her brother’s poetry, and to defending his character. This latter role became necessary after various American feminists decided that Sylvia Plath was a martyr to their cause. In order to create a martyr it is necessary to have an oppressor and Ted Hughes was chosen for the role. Olwyn thoroughly resented this assumption and fought all her life to correct it, sometimes treating the pub to her views in her richly nicotine-coated drawl. She loathed feminism and described Sylvia Plath as ‘a complete bitch’.

‘Work’ by Ford Madox Ford 1863 – Heath St, Hampstead

 John Philby’s life in some ways was even more circumscribed by his family links. He had been a 19-year-old student at Hornsey College of Art when his father, Kim Philby, was exposed as the leader of the Cambridge ring of spies (recruited by Arnold Deutsch of South End Green) and as the traitor known as ‘The Third Man’. John became and remained thereafter the son of one of the most hated men in Britain. Although he didn’t realise it, his life had always been surrounded by the trappings of espionage. His father later told him that when he was a child, the fellow spy Guy Burgess had kept a standard-issue KGB revolver and camera hidden under John’s bed.

Despite Kim’s defection, John remained fond of his father and visited him in Moscow several times. Notwithstanding his commitment to the Soviet cause, Kim Philby missed Marmite and Colman’s mustard, commodities that John was able to supply on these trips. At the end of one visit John and Kim were waiting at Moscow Airport for John’s return trip to London when they were seized by Russian officials, handed a bottle of vodka, and pushed into a cupboard. The British ambassador was booked on the same flight and the authorities wished to avoid a diplomatic incident.

John was a popular figure in the pub with most people ignoring his exotic connections. Perhaps the only occasions that hinted at his past were after John joined the Magdala Cricket Team. Whenever the side went out to field, the captain would always place John Philby at third man.

Absence of Work’ by Steve Bell 2015 – Heath St, Hampstead

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