It is true to say that there were some members of the Magdala who carried on professional careers and some who had distinct jobs, but for many the acquisition of money depended on casual work for whichever firm could cope with their idiosyncrasies. As one regular declared: “I don’t mind doing any job so long as it doesn’t require sobriety”.
One firm that kept the pub going for many years was ‘Taxi Trucks’, a local enterprise that employed locals as ‘White Van Men’ and their aides. Another firm, based south of the river and therefore in ‘Here Be Dragons’ territory, was the prestigious business ‘IPC Magazines’ where many Magdalites ended up in the exceedingly undemanding post room acting as postal collection and delivery messengers. IPC were the publishers of over 400 different magazines, including the well-known ‘Horse and Hound’ and ‘Women’s Own’. Even Bernard Kelly spent a short period there until he got bored.
Once, while wearing overalls and carrying a pile of post, he stepped into an IPC lift. Spotting a face that seemed vaguely familiar he demanded to know the man’s name. The man bristled at such familiarity from an underling and announced: “I am the editor of Country Life”. Kelly lifted his chin contemptuously and replied: “Well, I am the editor of Rabies”.
A firm that provided more work for the pub than any other was ‘The Harvey Brothers’, a painting, decorating, and general odd-job outfit who made the saloon bar their main office. The group was led by Ernie Lavery from Belfast and Tony Elworthy from Dublin. As neither they nor any of their disparate cast of assistants had any formal training in the skills necessary for the job, the history of the business was studded with debacles.
One task had consisted of re-pointing the brickwork on a chimney of a five-storey house on Upper St, Islington. Not having the funds for scaffolding, they had completed the job while dangling from ropes slung round the chimney itself – at 80 feet above ground a death-defying feat. At the end of the day, they greeted the returning householder and showed him the handiwork.
“An extremely fine job.” said the householder. “Unfortunately you have re-pointed the wrong house”.
Another assignment had been to cover a large basement kitchen area with very expensive Hessian wallpaper. The lady of the house had given precise instructions as to how she wished the final result:
“I want to have something of the peasant look about it. A feeling of the Dordogne.”
Lavery and his decorating team, that week consisting of a Japanese martial arts instructor and a Yugoslav biology student, set to work on the papering and, by the end of the day, had made quite a creditable job of it considering their lack of experience. What they had not realised though, was that Hessian wallpaper requires a special kind of paste to prevent it shrinking and, on his return to the house on the following morning, Lavery was confronted by the furious householder gesticulating at the grotesquely shrunken wallpaper. It hung in crinkled and torn folds on the wall, leaving gaps of bare plaster at least three inches wide between the sheets. Lavery prevaricated as best he could but did not improve the situation by commenting:
“Well, madam, you did say you wanted the peasant look.”
Danny Mulligan was one of their least experienced assistants. During the renovation of a house on Pond St, he was deputised to scrape some wayward plaster and paint specks off a set of elegant Late Georgian panels. Danny set to work with a chisel. As Elworthy himself confessed:
“They may have started out as Late Georgian. By the time Danny had finished with them, they looked like Early Viking.”
Although the Magdala drew many charismatic and inspiring figures into its fold, only occasionally did it produce people who at least for a period were its very life and soul. Maybe Patrick Wymark back in the 1960s – maybe Brendan Trapp in the 2000s? But undoubtedly during the 1980s Tony Elworthy was the ‘heart of the rowl’.
Elworthy had been recognised as a charmer from his earliest days. At the age of one, he was chosen as the ‘Cow and Gate Baby’ in a TV advert of the period. He grew up as an athletic, elegant, good-looking man who had a devastating effect on the ladies of his acquaintance. Having mastered the mandolin he played with the Dublin band ‘The Relics of Auld Decency’ and much later on occasion accompanied the famous Irish singer Liam Clancy. He also came under the spell of James Joyce’s novel ‘Ulysses’ and became a lifelong fan – as soon as he finished the last page he would return to the first page and start again.
However, Elworthy also had a very strong liking for alcohol and had a huge capacity. It was not unusual for him to arrive with five minutes to go till closing time and down three pints almost without drawing breath. His girlfriend and partner grew so worried about his intake that she persuaded him to see the renowned psychiatrist R.D. Laing who at the time had a practice on nearby Haverstock Hill. The reluctant Elworthy entered Laing’s consulting room and the two started to chat. Laing also had a liking for alcohol and after a while they recognised that they were kindred spirits. Laing decided to call it a day, fetched out a bottle of whisky, and the two proceeded to get thoroughly smashed through the rest of the afternoon.
For a couple of months Elworthy became the less than proud owner of a cocker spaniel named Bim. While having nothing against dogs in general, Elworthy became irritated by Bim. The dog was, unfortunately, blind, incontinent, and almost deaf. Also, for such a passive animal, he was extraordinarily disobedient. It was some time before Elworthy realised that Bim’s previous owners had been foreign and Bim had been taught to obey orders only in the Czech language. Life in the pub was enlivened by the sight of Elworthy flicking through an Anglo-Czech dictionary and shouting incomprehensibly at the confused spaniel.
The present writer was a witness to what was possibly Elworthy’s greatest feat. One Christmas Eve back in the 1970s, we were drinking down in a pub called the Magpie and Stump opposite the Old Bailey. Emerging at midnight and as the clocks of the City chimed to welcome Christmas Day, Elworthy realised that the darkened street was deserted. Crossing swiftly over to the courthouse doors he tried the knob. Although the door was obviously locked he suddenly realised that the knob itself was loose and liable to be unscrewed. This was quickly carried out and a rapid departure ensued. The doorknob of the Old Bailey ended up attached to the bedroom door of a medical student in Whitechapel.
Elworthy’s main colleague in his decorating and drinking ventures was another Irishman named Vincent Lawlor. Vincent, despite all the booze, remained a relatively devout and doctrinal Catholic. One lunchtime, he was berating the Jewish nation for their treatment of Jesus Christ.
“But, Vince,” Elworthy interrupted mildly “Jesus Christ himself was a Jew.”
Vincent thought for a moment, then brightened. “Ah, yes, but then he left them and joined the Catholics.”
The other leading spirit of ‘The Harvey Brothers’ Ernie Lavery had a generally more abrasive tongue than Elworthy. Around 1980 the Troubles in Ireland were at their height and many of the London Irish were viewed with suspicion by the British authorities. One very early morning around 6am, Lavery’s flat door was smashed in and a gang of armed police rushed inside. They scoured the place, pulling out drawers and emptying the contents on to the floor, ripping open cushions and mattresses, and generally wrecking the flat in their search. (Although Lavery was relieved to notice they had missed his cannabis plants on the windowsill.) Having discovered nothing of note, the police lost interest and gathered themselves to leave. As the last one walked out of the door, Lavery rasped after them: “Thanks for the alarm call, lads.”
[In a sidelight on the Troubles of the time, the present writer attended an event at the Camden Town Irish Centre in the 1990s. Security was tight for obvious reasons, thus creating the slightly barmy situation of Hugh Callaghan, one of the Birmingham Six, having his bag given a routine search for bombs on arrival at the front door.]
One night to his surprise Lavery received an invitation to attend a very chic party being held at a house on Parliament Hill. He arrived accompanied by an old friend from Belfast called Roy Giddings. Roy was under strict instructions from Lavery to act with decorum. Unfortunately, drink having been taken, Roy became over-demonstrative at one point in the evening. While explaining some point to a lady he had met, he stepped back, managed to fall over the railing of a first floor balcony, crash through the conservatory roof below, and end up on the ground floor groaning with pain and surrounded by broken glass. The first person to rush to his side was Lavery who hissed in his ear:
“For Christ’s sake, Giddings, stop trying to draw attention to yourself. You’re spoiling our image.”
Mark Corr was another employee of the Harvey Brothers although his attendance was more intermittent. Mark had a certain facial resemblance to Ernest Hemingway and something of Hemingway’s attraction towards danger. He once held a candle-lit dinner party attended only by himself, his girlfriend, and one other couple. The resulting disagreements became so vociferous that the neighbours were forced to call the police – an unusual end to a Hampstead dinner party. His most dangerous (and eventually fatal) habit was that of hiding behind cars in the street then suddenly emerging when a car approached causing it to brake rapidly. Finally of course he did this trick once too often and the car failed to brake in time.
Another Magdalite with an uneasy relationship with the automobile was the pub’s solicitor David Quinlan. Quinlan was an unusual figure in the Mag being at least on the face of it a success story. He was extraordinarily good-looking in that, although English, he looked very much like a slim version of the Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan. As a result of being the legal representative in three notable society divorce cases, he was also quite well-off. However, his Achilles heel (well, entire leg actually) turned out to be cars, drugs, and alcohol.
During the afore-mentioned trip to the Edinburgh Festival by the Magdala theatrical troupe Paranoid Productions, Quinlan was forced to hire three different cars in order to complete his return journey. He abandoned the first one, which he had hired in London, somewhere on the A1 near Pontefract when the engine burst into flames. He drove the blazing vehicle into a lay-by, climbed out, and started hitch hiking. Reaching Durham he hired a second car which he managed to drive to Edinburgh and continue to use around the city until it was time to set off back to London. This time he was accompanied by three other members of the group including the present writer.
Reaching Newcastle, we parked up in the evening and proceeded to explore the town for some fun. Five hours of drinking later, we returned to base only to find we had no idea where we had parked the car. Having slept rough overnight on Newcastle Central Station, we then had to hire a third car to return to London. This last leg of the tour was enlivened when, while driving at eighty miles an hour in the fast lane of the A1, Quinlan fell asleep. The present writer, a non-driver, was forced to lean over from the front passenger seat and steer the car back into an approximation of the right direction while screaming at the driver to wake up.
On one occasion, Quinlan ended up in a Magistrates Court defending a girl on a possession of cannabis charge. He gave a fine speech for the defence.
“This tragic young girl was led astray into the world of derangement, debauchery, and reefers, the shady twilight wasteland of ‘roaches’ and ‘Aladdin’s Caves’, by evil men who preyed on her vulnerability. Mercifully she has been spared the sad fate of the reefer addict. This court may consider her as a criminal but she was a victim, yes, I say, a victim! of this dreadful trade in human misery”, etc, etc.
As he was speaking, Quinlan happened to put his hand in his pocket and realised that he had a half ounce of hash there.
On a further occasion, a party had travelled from the Magdala to Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire for a day trip. Despite it being a cold October, Dave Quinlan attempted to swim the said river. His life was saved by the intervention of Tony Elworthy, an excellent and much stronger swimmer. In order to restore the shivering Quinlan to relative health, the party primed him with non-stop brandy. As the evening wore on, Quinlan became increasingly incoherent and finally disappeared. The party searched the town for him but then, realising that his car had gone as well, returned to London themselves.
It was not until Elworthy received a desperate phone call from Quinlan that we realised what had happened. He had indeed retrieved his car and driven east back towards Hampstead. But then he had reached the Maidenhead roundabout, driven straight over it through the foliage, then collided with the motorway barrier on the M4 approach road. A police car had arrived and he was now charged with drunken driving, destruction of eighty yards of motorway barrier, and just to make matters worse possession of cannabis and speed.
Determined to retain some shreds of his legal career, Quinlan prepared his defence. As a solicitor and knowing the ropes in such matters, he decided that it would be useful to have some mental problems as a first line of cover and attended an interview at the psychiatry unit of a South London hospital. He chose South London as he did not wish to have any suspicion of a mental problem to seep through to his professional rivals in North London. However, as he emerged from the psychiatrist’s office into the hospital waiting room he spotted a legal clerk of his acquaintance walking in through the doors. Quinlan darted behind some large pot plants and crouched there until the man disappeared and the danger was past. However, as he straightened up and adjusted his tie, Quinlan saw his psychiatrist who had also exited the office give him an appraising glance and reach into his pocket for pen and paper to record this behaviour. Quinlan thought of explaining but then gave up realising that this might actually help his case.
What actually saved Quinlan from severe retribution however was the sheer brilliance of his brief, one of the High Court’s finest and an alumnus of the famed law firm Kingsley Napley. The lawyer Nelligan was quite simply a legal genius. From the moment he rose to his feet in Maidenhead Court he transfixed the three magistrates hearing the case and bent them to his bidding. It was like watching a supreme horse-whisperer tame a set of bucking broncos. By the end of Nelligan’s speech the magistrates were nodding in total agreement with whatever was said. He baulked at suggesting that they gave Quinlan a contribution from court funds for his trouble but one felt that he could have tried and succeeded. The upshot was that they fined Quinlan £150 and gave him an eighteen month driving ban – a ludicrously lenient outcome. They even FORGOT about the drug charges.
In discussion afterwards, it was suggested that God help the person in the next case. When the magistrates emerged from their haze of generosity created by Nelligan’s bewitchment they probably went crazy in the other direction. The next guy might have got five years in jail for littering.
Quinlan sadly learnt nothing from this experience and later lost his licence again after another drink/drive episode. He responded to this by buying a bike. Once more after a Magdala session he set off to cycle to Greenwich. Half way across Tower Bridge he was waved down by a police car. He brought the bike to a halt but then lost his balance and fell over taking the bike with him. Unfortunately he had a bottle of wine in his pocket which broke as he hit the Tower Bridge tarmac. The police picked him up soaked in wine and charged him with being drunk in charge of a bicycle.
Quinlan finally retired to live on a hillside in West Wales around ten miles from the nearest town and about one mile from the nearest neighbour. Inevitably he was arrested by the Carmarthenshire police for drunk driving and lost his licence – this time for five years. He was left to live stranded on a Welsh hillside with no transport. It was suggested that he re-marry – not for love or money but for a compliant driver. One proposal was to place an advert in the local papers: ‘Gentleman Farmer wishes to meet woman with car. Please send photo of car.’
Overheard at the saloon bar counter:
“My cousin’s son arrived in London last week. He’s only seventeen and he’d never been out of County Fermanagh before.
He’d been given an address to go to in St John’s Wood. He’d brought a tent and an axe with him so he could camp in the wood.”
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