Private Godfrey and the Dame of Soho

Alan Booth was a regular back in the 1970s, but now long gone. He was a man with a rather sweet nature, but who lived a life of unremitting poverty and who suffered from a genteel but impenetrable vagueness (in some ways he was reminiscent of the character of Private Godfrey in ‘Dad’s Army’.)

Alan Booth on left in doorway of Railway Tavern (Garden Gate).

On one occasion after he had committed some minor offence, the details of which had escaped him, he had been summoned to the local magistrates’ court. By mistake he arrived at the wrong court and therefore turned up about one and a half hours late for the case. The magistrate, who was well known locally as a rabid sadist, addressed him.

“Mr. Booth, as you appear to have a certain contempt both for the Court and for the clock, I am going to place you where you will have no alternative but to be punctual next week. I therefore remand you in custody until next Wednesday.”

Booth, with no previous experience of incarceration, was taken off to Brixton Prison. On arrival in his cell, he saw a notice on the wall announcing that remand prisoners were allowed cigarettes, magazines and a half bottle of wine. He didn’t realise that these goods had to be supplied by friends and relations on the outside. Accordingly, he rang the cell bell and eventually a warder arrived.

“Yes, Booth? What’s the matter?”

“Ah, I’m most awfully sorry to trouble you, my dear fellow, but could I possibly have my bottle of wine now, please? I would prefer a decent Chablis, if you would be so kind?”

The warder’s reply was not recorded.

An eclectic jazz band – Brendan Trapp, Jason Bevan, Neil Titley

Another regular, Tony Elworthy, reported that one day he was strolling through SEG with Booth who asked him rather shyly:

“Would you care to repair to my room for a cup of tea?”

Elworthy nodded assent, whereupon Booth pondered a moment then added: “I wonder if you might care to partake of a sandwich also? A sausage sandwich?”

Again Elworthy nodded: “Yes, that would be very nice.”

Booth led him into a local butchers’ shop and announced to the butcher:

“Ah, my good man, I wish to purchase one sausage, if you would be so kind.”

The butcher, who obviously knew him well, sighed and turned to prepare the order.

Elworthy felt rather embarrassed at this.

“But surely, Alan, wouldn’t you like to have one as well? I’d feel rather mean eating a sandwich if you didn’t join me.”

“Well, yes.” Booth mused “Yes, indeed, why not? Butcher, I say, please would you make that TWO sausages.”

The butcher, without looking up, muttered: “‘Aving a party, are we?”

SEG from Pond St

 Jamie J-B was a contemporary of Alan Booth. Although established on Parliament Hill and a confirmed Magdala regular, she was also something of a survivor/refugee from the Soho of the 1950s and 60s. She had been a member of the Colony Room club and had a stack of stories about the place in its greatest days. The Colony was a very cramped one-room drinking club on the first floor of a house in Dean St, presided over by a consecutive trio of owner/landlords: originally, the exceedingly foul-mouthed lesbian Muriel Belcher, then the vituperative Ian Board (known as ‘Ida’), and finally the more laid back Michael Wojas.

Michael Wojas in the Colony Room

Known for the hideous shade of green that adorned its walls, the club was an artists’ haven for afternoon drinking and outrageous behaviour. Its original gang of patrons included Lucian Freud, John Deakin, Frank Auerbach, George Melly, and most notably Francis Bacon.

[The present writer was once a guest in the Colony and was taken to meet Francis Bacon. Unfortunately, Mr Bacon was curled up on the floor in a drunken stupor at the time, so the introduction never took place. The Colony was that kind of club.]

When the elder statesmen of London’s art world drifted off into respectability or death, the younger set took over – Damien Hurst, Tracy Emin, Sarah Lucas, abetted by others such as Suggs, Billy Bragg, Kate Moss, Lisa Stansfield, etc. In a disaster for Soho, the Colony Room was closed down in 2008 when its lease ran out.

Jamie Jamieson-Black in the Magdala

Jamie lived in a flat near the club. This location often led to problems. Once, a club inmate informed the police (incorrectly) that a man whom they wished to interrogate was staying with her. They arrived at dawn and with almost no warning broke their way inside. What they did not realise was that Jamie had been doing some repairs to the flat and had removed the floorboards from the corridor leading in from the front door. The first three police having smashed in the door then charged inside only to hurtle down into the void between the bare joists.

One of the Colony drinkers became so comatose one evening that Jamie very kindly offered to house him overnight. With difficulty she carried him to the flat and installed him in her bath to sleep it off. At three in the morning she was woken up by a fearful racket coming from the bathroom. She hastened out to find that her guest was having an epileptic fit. To make things even louder, the bath was made of tin, and the guest was a disabled man who was equipped with a tin leg.

The reason for the popularity of the Colony Room was based on the British licensing laws that since the First World War had restricted pub opening time to lunchtimes and post 6pm periods. In 1995 the laws were changed to allow pubs to open all day and stay open late at weekends. Prior to this, the more determined drinkers were forced to find alternative watering holes.

The Marathon Café, Chalk Farm

For the Magdalites the late night spot was the Marathon Café opposite the Round House in Chalk Farm which stayed open till circa 3am and was the scene of numerous tense confrontations sometimes resulting in drunken brawls.

The site of the Tunnel Club, now an optician’s shop – Belsize Park

The afternoon (3pm till 6pm) venue of choice was the Tunnel Club – next to Belsize Park tube station and approached along a lengthy corridor that gave the club its name. There one could find a fascinating mixture of the unemployed, resting actors and gentlemen involved in ventures of borderline legality. When the writer Leon Griffeths created his TV series ‘Minder’ (starring George Cole and Dennis Waterman), he based his fictional ‘Winchester Club’ partly on a club in Swiss Cottage called ‘The Eton’ and partly on the Tunnel Club.

To see other chapters – go to top of page and, under the main title, click on the 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