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The ‘eccentric’ Magdala Tavern is the fulcrum of historian Neil Titley’s equally eccentric guide to the great and the good who have brightened up this particular corner of the capital. Dan Carrier talked to him

08 July, 2021 — By Dan Carrier

The Magdala. Photos: Tom Ordelman Thor NL / Licentie voor afbeeldingen van de Beeld en Geluidwiki / MJC Plumbing / Andrew Hurley

IT was at the La Gaffe restaurant the plot unfolded. The 1997 election was approaching and Tory sleaze was dominating the front pages. A key culprit was the Conservative MP, Neil Hamilton.

Journalist Martin Bell was dining at the landmark Heath Street Italian eaterie with Starsky and Hutch star David Soul – and over plates of spaghetti, they decided they would combine forces to get Hamilton out of parliament.

The story of how a leisurely dinner led to the end of Hamilton’s Commons career is re-told in historian and actor Neil Titley’s new book, Under Ken Wood.

Neil, who writes the “Camden Victorians” series of features for Review, has produced a three-part walking tour of Hampstead and its surrounds to raise funds for Keats Grove Library – and the work is packed with the unknown histories of a patch stacked with tales.

Neil Titley

As Neil explains in the book: “After a political career spent promoting the interests of US tobacco firms, supporting apartheid and being the only committee member to oppose the bill to outlaw trafficking in human organs, Hamilton was eventually discovered to have accepted cash in exchange for asking questions on behalf of the owner of Harrods, Mohamed Al-Fayed. When, despite this, Hamilton announced he was to defend his solidly Tory seat of Tatton at the general election, Bell determined to stand as an anti-sleaze candidate against him.”

La Gaffe became their campaign headquarters in London.

Colin Wilson (left) and CS Lewis

“David Soul canvassed Tatton personally, occasionally acceding to requests to sing his hit Don’t Give Up On Us Baby,” adds Neil.

The book’s genesis springs from a blog Neil created, which recounted the many strange and fantastic tales he heard over a 40-year period while supping beers at the Magdala Tavern in South Hill Park. “I have been drinking there since 1968. It was a gloriously eccentric place and there were so many funny stories that emanated from it,” he says. “It was written to commemorate a great tavern and its extraordinary inhabitants.

“It is part guide book, part reminiscence and part clarion call to keep something worth having. And such an establishment does not emerge in a vacuum – it has emerged from the community surrounding it. The pub was fortunate in the wealth of characters and incidents that created a unique backcloth.”

Neil’s background is steeped in humorous writing: he has toured the world with his one-man play based on the works of Oscar Wilde.

Under Ken Wood comes from the same place as his love of Oscar – the need to hear well-told stories that not only tickle, but also reveal something innate about human nature.

The book uses the Magdala as its epicentre, with three walks focusing on a mile radius around the pub.

Marty Feldman (left) and Boy George

“When you delve into the area, an extraordinary number of stories come out,” he says.

The sheer range is wonderful, jumping from one century to the next, from the well known to the obscure.

Neil reveals how CS Lewis was walking through snow-laden woods on East Heath in 1950 that he had a eureka moment and scurried home to write The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He notes that English Beat author Colin Wilson, who wrote Adrift In Soho and The Outsider, slept rough on the Heath, while the open space features in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, when vamp Lucy Westenra floats across its fields looking for necks to bite, and ghoul-killer Van Helsing nurses a pint in the Spaniards Inn as he considers how to tackle the undead.

He describes how Downshire Hill gave birth to the Muppets, and just round the corner was a scene of less wholesome activities involving poet Sir William Empson, who from 1948 lived in Hampstead Hill Gardens with the “dangerously charming” sculptor Hetta Crouse. They enjoyed a range of sexual peccadilloes.

Crouse had turned down a marriage proposal from George Orwell to hitch up with Empson, a fact that annoyed Orwell enough for him to blank an invitation to their wedding. One of Hetta’s lovers was a BBC producer called Peter Duval Smith.

Thomas Crapper and Dolly Parton

Neil recounts how after refusing to leave the poet Louis MacNeice’s Keats Grove home until he’d finished a bottle of brandy, he then lobbed the said bottle through MacNeice’s front window. He also annoyed the distinguished genetics expert Professor Lewis Wolpert to such a degree the mild-mannered scientist punched him out. Tragically, Duval Smith would die in what Neil describes as a “mysterious incident” in a Saigon hotel while covering the Vietnam War.

Neil enjoys finding links between tales. His story of the house called The Logs – home to pop star Boy George – is an example of this. Built in 1868, it was noted by architecture writer Niklaus Pevsner as a “formidable atrocity” and was the home of the flush lavatory inventor, Thomas Crapper. Later, comic performer Marty Feldman lived here.

“Although famous for his acting roles, Feldman was responsible for some of the greatest comedy writing of his time,” reveals Neil. “He played a part in creating at least two unforgettable sketches, one involving John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett using their differences in height to skewer English class attitudes.”

He also links Feldman to Dolly Parton. Feldman wrote the Monty Python sketch about the four Yorkshiremen arguing over who had the tougher childhood, which Parton unwittingly discovered when performing in Leeds.

“During her act, she gave a particularly mawkish introduction to her song Coat of Many Colors, explaining when she was young her family had been so poor that when Dolly was cold “my momma sewed some rags together, sewin’ every piece with love, and made me my coat of many colours”. This was obviously a well-rehearsed tear-jerker that had reduced many audiences to sentimental silences.

“However, she was interrupted by a heckler announcing lugubriously: “You were lucky! We dreamt o’ rags!” The whole house collapsed in laughter, leaving Dolly utterly bereft by the apparent callousness of Yorkshire audiences.”

Above all, Under Ken Wood creates a series of conversations based on the kinks in human nature.

“Above all, history isn’t just about kings and queens – it’s about all of us, and enjoying and celebrating the quirks that make us human,” he adds.

Under Ken Wood – The Secret Life of a London Pub. By Neil Titley, £10 – all funds go to Keats Library. Available from the library and Daunts Books, South End Green.

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