LIVIN’ IT UP IN KILBURN & CRICKLEWOOD
When I first came to Kilburn in the mid 1960’s my residence was a less than salubrious double room in house that had seen better days, run by a certain Mrs McGinty in Iverson Road. It was the sort of place where you wiped your feet on the way out.
I was sharing the room with Vince Power – later of Mean Fiddler fame – with whom I had gone to school with in rural Waterford in a place called Newtown. Newtown comprised of a couple houses, the church, the school, two pubs, and a sweet shop, so the culture shock of walking down Kilburn High Road for the first time was quite something!
Within a few hundred yards I had seen two cinemas, The State and The Grange – monoliths of stone from a bygone era – an Irish dance hall, The Banba – and numerous pubs with names like The North London, The Black Lion, Biddy Mulligan’s, and so on.
There was also a Wimpey Burger Bar on the High Road, with a notice board just outside on the pavement which advertised rooms to let. It was here that I first read the legend ‘NO BLACKS, NO DOGS, NO IRISH’ It was also the first time I had seen black people in reality. I began to wonder what I was letting myself in for.
Vince was soon working as a floorwalker in Whiteley’s department store in Queensway, while I had got a job in the accounts department of Smiths Radiomobile factory in Cricklewood. In between times we listened to music from Vince’s collection of Buddy Holly and Patsy Cline records.
Cricklewood, too, had an Irish dance hall, called The Galtymore, and it was smack in the middle of the Broadway. Big and bawdy It had two dance floors, one for modern music and one for Irish dancing, and was nearly always filled to capacity. And just a stones’ throw away was The Crown, even bigger and bawdier, and full of thirsty Irishmen washing the dust down after a hard day digging holes or pulling cables all over London and outlying areas.
Oh the crack was good in Cricklewood, but t’was better in the Crown
There were bottles flying and Biddies cryiing, and Paddies goin’ to town
Oh mother dear I’m over here, I never will go back
What keeps me here is the rake of beer, the women and the crack
The words of ‘McAlpines Fuseliers’, Dominic Behan’s homage to the expat shovel brigade, were regularly ringing in our ears as Vince and I danced our nights away at The Banba or the Galtymore. And sometimes our afternoons too; for there was a Sunday afternoon tea dance at the Banba, where hung-over Irishmen could sober up for the night ahead!
This was also the era of The Sunshine Gang, a group of expat thugs that plagued the area at the time. Said to have originated from the Longford/Westmeath region, they were into protection and other criminal activities. If bar and shop owners didn’t pay up they basically came in and smashed the place up.
The Banba, which was up an alley off Kilburn High Road was attacked during one tea dance while we were present; they wedged a Mini in the entrance, beat up the doorman, then started smashing up the hall inside. They were looking for Michael Gannon, the owner, who had presumably forgotten to pay his ‘subscription’. They left after a few minutes, having no doubt been paid! They occasionally put in an appearance at the Galtymore as well!
We weren’t long getting to know the pubs in the area. Biddy Mulligan’s was a favourite of ours, as was The Admiral Nelson in Carlton Vale, owned by Butty Sugrue. Butty originated from Kilorglin in County Kerry and was a Circus Performer cum-wrestler-strongman-publican-entrepreneur. He had toured Ireland with Duffy’s Circus, billed as Ireland’s strongest man and in Kilburn he had pulled red London buses up the High Road with the rope held between his teeth! A couple of years after we arrived, he had his barman, Mick Meaney, buried alive in a yard adjacent to the pub, where he remained for 61 days – a Guinness Book of Records world record. ‘Resurrection day’ saw thousands line the High Road as Mick was proudly paraded through Kilburn in the back of a truck.
There was always plenty of singing and dancing at The Admiral Nelson, and Jack Doyle was frequently seen at the venue singing for his supper. Jack had slipped a long way down since his heydays when he had fought for the British Heavyweight boxing title, or when he had been feted in Hollywood before marrying Mexican actress Movita, the couple moving to London, where they toured the country singing and performing to delirious audiences, and becoming the 1940’s equivalent of Posh and Becks.
The bigger they are the harder they fall is a well known saying, and Jack eventually fell further than most. Whenever anyone asked him what caused his downfall he always replied ‘fast women and slow horses’. Some years later he would be found dead in a park in West London, penniless and shoeless. Listening to Jack and Movita singing together would send shivers down your spine. Listen on the link below
Eventually Vince and I moved on to Harlesden where the 32 Cub in Harlesden High Street was the Mecca for the Irish population. Situated next to the Elm Tree pub on the High Street, in the building that was formerly the Picardy cinema, it was heaving every weekend.
By now Vince had met his first wife, Theresa, and before too long they got married and had a child. Somehow, I managed to miss the wedding!
A few years later I was married myself (1971) and Vince was my best man wearing a suit borrowed from his brother-in-law! Yes, he was that poor!
In between times a lot had changed in our lives; Vince was now working in demolition, knocking down rows of terraced houses in the Willesden area, I had been a guest at Her Majesty’s pleasure for eighteen months, been deported back to Ireland and come back again, and had won a tidy sum of money with my regular Saturday bet on the ITV7 at my local William Hill’s betting shop!
HIGH LIVIN’ IN HARLESDEN
Harlesden, Park Royal, Craven Park, Stonebridge, Willesden Junction…they all still have the power to evoke strong memories whenever I look back to period of my life. The Royal Oak, The Spotted Dog, The Case Is Altered, The Elm Tree and others remain as clear in my mind as if it was only yesterday.
Park Royal was a weird sort of place on the fringes of the Western Avenue; cut off from both Acton and Ealing, it was surrounded by the railway marshalling yards of Willesden Junction and Harlesden. The North Circular Road, snaking around its outskirts, completed its encirclement.
It was a dreary landscape that I grew to know well. Tall chimneys jostling for prominence on the pylon-ravaged horizon, belching all kinds of shit into the atmosphere; galvanizers, zinc-platers, lead-smelters, other obnoxious plants all polluting without discrimination. The milkmen did well though; stomach-lining it was called. And the bosses were happy to pay; it was a damn sight cheaper than decent working conditions.
It was hard to imagine people living in the midst of all this but they did. Isolated pockets of grimy Victorian terraced houses poked their heads up along the narrow streets, like they had been spawned by their much bigger neighbours – although it was a fair bet that they were there long before the industrial estate.
Stranger still was the sight of Park Royal Hospital – later to become the Central Middlesex – sitting bang in the middle. This sprawling complex languished amidst the soot and grime, shit and slime, collectively inhaling whatever was floating about at any given time.
On reflection, perhaps it was the perfect set-up. The houses, the factories, the hospital, schools, pubs; there was even a crematorium somewhere in the vicinity – everything a body needed from the cradle to the grave.
By now I was sharing a flat in St Thomas’s Road in Craven Park with ‘Larry’, whilst Vince and his new family were not much more than a stone’s throw away, ensconced in a council house in Stonebridge Park. I had finally turned into a law-abiding fellow- sort of! – and was gainfully employed in one of the factories in Park Royal, weighing and loading copper piping for delivery to the outlying building and plumbing trades. Every morning I walked the one mile plus journey; along Nichol Road, down Acton Lane, past the railway marshalling yards and Harlesden tube station, until finally I hit Barrett Green Road where the factory stood. Each journey became a walking competition; seeing how many other walkers I could pass on the journey – well it helped pass the time!
GOIN’ TO THE DOGS
Park Royal dog track was only a stones’ throw from the hospital, not that we generally took too much notice of it as we hurried past to get to the track in time for the first race, which was at 2.30pm every Monday and Friday. Betting shops in those days were dreary places; there were no monitors, no TV’’s, nothing only chalked-up prices and The Blower. Much better to go to the track and lose your money in style!
The Blower relayed the race commentaries to the shops – although not instantaneously as I accidentally discovered one afternoon. I was rushing for the first race, still several hundred yards from the track, when I heard the tell-tale shout from the track and knew the race was already underway. Cursing, I dived into the nearby betting shop, hoping to hear the tail-end
of the race commentary, praying fervently that trap six wouldn’t win. Imagine my surprise when the commentary didn’t begin until almost half a minute later.
The significance of my discovery didn’t sink in until later, when I met up with Larry at the track, and we were watching a race in progress.
‘You know’, he remarked as we watched a race in progress. ‘This is a front-runners track. How many dogs leading at the halfway stage ever get beaten…?’
‘Not many’, I agreed. It was then that the significance of my knowledge hit me. A dog could run a long way in thirty seconds. Most races were half over at this point. When I voiced my opinions, Larry saw the implications straight away.
‘Christ! Pity there’s not a betting shop outside the track’. It was a pity. The one I had just been in was less than three hundred yards from the track. But too far away all the same…
The thinking caps were on in earnest now…
The answer, of course, was walkie-talkies.
All it needed was for one of us to be positioned in a suitable location to relay the trap number of any dog in a clear lead at half way. The receiver would be waiting around the corner from the bookies for the magic number; it would take only a couple of seconds to dash in and place the bet. All we had to do then was wait for the money to start rolling in!
Getting hold of the walkie-talkies wasn’t too difficult, but they cost over fifty pounds. They were just what we needed though – with a range of over a quarter of a mile. We carried out several trial runs to make sure we were within range of each other, then realised we needed to find a quiet spot from which to observe the races. It wouldn’t do to be seen at the track speaking into a walkie-talkie!
The answer was staring us in the face: The Central Middlesex Hospital. Some of its buildings overlooked the track; there was bound to be a suitable vantage point somewhere. More importantly, we found that visitors could roam the grounds freely. This allowed us to select a flat-roofed building that gave us a clear view of the race. It was ideal in another sense too; it had an air-conditioning unit on the roof which provide ample screening from prying eyes.
Our plan was to rotate the operation in case the bookie got suspicious at seeing the same face collecting winnings all the time.
It pissed down that first afternoon. As the saying goes; ‘You wouldn’t put a dog out in it’. Only two idiots were soaking it up; one on the almost-obscured roof of a hospital building, the other skulking behind a betting shop in Acton Lane.
The rain eventually ceased and the racing got under way. I was on duty behind the betting shop that day, and every time Larry gave me a number I rushed into the shop and had a tenner on it. We were aware that not every race would suit our purposes; however, that first day provided four races, of which three produced winners, the fourth selection running wide at the last bend when still in front. We didn’t care too much though; three winners at six to one, four to one, and two to one had given us a profit of more than a hundred pounds on the day.
Larry was hopping around the kitchen after the share-out.
‘This is it…the big one. We’ll go to town now, boy!’
I had to admit to a sense of satisfaction myself. It had been my idea – not Larry’s – and it was a success! We only had to operate it a few times a week and we would soon be rolling in it.
In a few months we had accumulated a lot of money. I had never seen so much, and neither had Larry. However, our dreams of a fortune were soon scuppered when the track was suddenly sold over night for redevelopment. It shut down immediately, with no warning to anybody. There were no betting shops open at night so the evening meetings were useless for our purposes, and the only other afternoon track , Hackney, was too far away from a bookies for our walkie talkies to be effective.
End of Dream!
THE ACE CAFE
We got into the habit of frequenting the Ace café, an all-night dive that was more than an eating house for many who used it. It was a meeting place, a way of life, perhaps even a home for some. It looked as if it had fallen off the back of some passing lorry and had landed lopsidedly on the edge of the North Circular Road, near Stonebridge Park station. There it sat, its neon sign blazing, the jukebox blasting, attracting the flotsam and jetsam of the city just as easily as it absorbed the grime from the passing traffic
Inside, there were bikers, long-distance lorry drivers, small-time villains like us, probably a few hookers, definitely a sprinkling of people of no fixed abode. Sometimes, we sat there drinking strong coffee, playing sad songs on the jukebox. And watching all the lonesome faces as ‘Take These Chains From My Heart’ and ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ permeated the fried-bacon and dog-roll atmosphere. Some nights Eleanor Rigby turned up, pushing her worldly goods before her in a battered pram. We called her Eleanor because she said John Lennon had seen her there one night and written the song for her. She was about sixty, lived in a steel container near Wembley Stadium, and nearly always sported two bright red slashes of lipstick that never quite lined up with her lips. She invariably sang along in a high screeching voice whenever someone played her record on the jukebox;
The tabloid press carried many articles portraying the cafe as a place where decent people didn´t go. And maybe they were right. One of the favourite pastimes with some of the bikers – the ton-up merchants – was to play a tune on the jukebox then race their bikes to a certain spot then back again before the tune finished. It was coined record-racing.
A lot of our scheming and planning took place in the Ace. Although our crimes were small our ambitions weren’t. We were merely practising for now; building up to the day when we would really make it big. Nothing too spectacular; some swindle or con that would net us ten grand or so would do nicely.
Now that our Park Royal scheme was in ruins, Larry had purchased a new suit and an old van, and we decided to go into the furniture removal business.
We hired a couple of lock-up garages and began filling them with fridges, washing machines, TV’s and other household goods that we got from High-Street stores on the never-never. They were falling over themselves selling us stuff we were never- never going to pay for!
It was a beautiful scheme. Larry viewed empty houses on the pretext of buying them, got duplicate keys cut, and then convinced the stores he was the owner and had the goods delivered there. As soon as the delivery van disappeared around the corner, we whisked the gear away to safety in Larry’s van. We then sold the items through a network of local newspapers.
I told him I couldn’t believe it was easy.
Larry laughed and patted his immaculate suit (another purchase on the never-never).
‘The whistle is half the battle. As far as they’re concerned I’m a man of property. If you can convince them you’ve got bricks and mortar, credit is no problem’.
THE GREAT GREEN SHIELD STAMP ROBBERY
When Larry wasn’t stuck in the racing pages, he was plotting new ways of making money. We knew we were petty thieves – small fry in the world of crime – but, as, we kept telling ourselves, it was better than working for a living. Anyway, we could dream, couldn’t we? Today, knocking off market stalls; tomorrow the Great Train Robbery!
Lock-up premises became our speciality, and the railway line that ran behind our house was very convenient for the places we set out to rob. It traversed the Harrow Road and snaked round Scrubs Lane, where there were plenty of warehouses and factories suited to our purpose. We only selected places that had no night watchman; not that we felt cowardly or anything, but we didn’t want the added complication of assault included in our armoury. For one thing, it got the police more interested. For another, it was property we wanted to hit not people.
Between nine and eleven at night was the best time to be about our business; it was late enough for the premises to be empty, but not late enough to arouse the suspicions of the cops if they spotted you in the vicinity.
Our initial efforts were purely speculative; taking what we hoped we could sell; typewriters, adding machines, offices chairs etc. These we lugged along the railway line, scampering up the embankment whenever a train was heard approaching. The following day we loaded them into Larry’s van, selling them to a guy that operated a second-hand office furniture business from a railway arch near Queens Park station.
Once, we broke into the lock-up petrol station along the Harrow Road from us, Larry being convinced that the takings were locked away in a filing cabinet every night. It backed onto the railway, so it was chicken feed to jemmy the back door open. We searched in vain for the money; all we found in the cabinet was lots of blank Green Shield books – and hundreds of sheets of stamps. We took the lot with us, then spent most of the night licking and sticking – something which Larry thought hilarious. Still, we managed to redeem about thirty quid’s worth at their Wembley office for our efforts.
Larry was mechanical- minded and liked messing about with old record players and other gadgets, repairing them then selling them on. He even rebuilt a juke-box once, and had it installed in the nearby café that we used, splitting the proceeds with the owner.
Another time he got hold of a high-powered air pistol, which he adapted to fire ball-bearings. Afterwards, we took a trip to the dump, found some old plate glass and tried it out. I was amazed at the results; a neat hole in the glass every time.
Armed with this contraption, we ventured out in the van in the evenings, seeking suitable lock-up jewellers. After we’d located one, we parked close by, and having made sure the street was clear, fired at the jeweller’s window through a small hole we had made in the side of the van. The resultant hole in the glass was large enough to enable us to fish out small items of jewellery using a length of coat-hanger wire. We sold the proceeds from a briefcase down the Portobello Market on Saturday mornings, one of us keeping a sharp look-out for the law.
Ironically, the closest we came to the police was when a couple of thieving bastards snatched the briefcase and legged it in the direction of Ladbroke Grove. A nearby stall-holder gave chase, and somebody else went searching for a copper. We decided that discretion was the better part of valour and made ourselves scarce.
The operation gradually fizzled out, partly because of the publicity it received, but mainly due to technological advances. The new trembler alarms tended to go off if you as much as looked at them.
THE MICHELIN MAN
One night, in the Ace, Larry got picked up by a handsome-looking woman who must have been well into her forties. (That was a thing with Larry – he liked older women)
‘’I’m well in there, lads’, he said the following day. ‘Her old man died a few months back and left her a big house in Willesden Green. And loads of money as well’.
‘He must have been a subby then’, I replied
We didn’t see a lot of him for the next week, until one morning he turned up in a suit several sizes too big for him, and wearing carpet slippers. The clothes belonged to his lady-friend’s dead husband, and were all he could get his hands on when making his bid for freedom.
‘I know now what killed him’, he said. ‘She wanted it all the bloody time. D’you know what she did? Hid my clothes to stop me leaving’. He put on a lady’s voice; ‘One more time and you can have your trousers back, Laurence’, He shook his head. ‘Ah Jaysus, she’s sex mad’. He shook the oversize coat. ‘As soon as she went to the bog this morning I grabbed this suit and took off’.
The incident kept him away from the Ace for a while and she made several enquires to several of us as to where he had gone. We told her he had gone to America.
‘Oh, she said, clearly disappointed. ‘There are some…items of his at my place. Would one of you care to call round and collect them?’
‘No thank you!’ we chorused.
We gave the suit to a regular, who we had christened the Michelin Man. His eyes were practically invisible, he wore a mouthful of false teeth, and he carried a plastic bag of vomit around with him. The vomit was food – usually from the café – that he had regurgitated. Apparently, he had an ulcer problem, causing him to puke up the food. We reckoned he took it home and ate it again. A few nights after we gave him the suit we saw our lady friend giving him funny looks as he puked into his bag.
It was through an acquaintance met in the Ace that we had our first real brush with the law. Our air-gun was redundant by now, and we were desperately seeking new ways of increasing our cash-flow.
‘Allie?’ remarked the acquaintance, when the name of a certain shopkeeper kept cropping up, ‘he’s the biggest fence around. Cigarettes now, he’ll take all you can supply and no questions asked’.
This was good enough for us. We soon established our bona-fides and he agreed to pay us half the retail price for everything we brought him.
We had already decided on a target; a lock-up newsagents in nearby Wembley. It was alarmed, but it was an external bell type, which was easy to neutralise, merely a matter of sticking a piece of cardboard between the gong and the mechanism. I accomplished this from the roof of Larry’s van then we made short work of the door with a crowbar.
We reckoned it to be a quick in-and-out job; no more than a couple of minutes to grab what cartons and loose packets we could find. We were almost finished when the alarm went off like an air-raid siren.
‘Jesus!’, roared Larry, ‘the fucken’ cardboard’s fell out’.
Soon there were lights coming on everywhere, and voices shouting. Worse, a vicious-sounding dog started a racket a few doors away.
It was time to go. We piled head-first into the van; I managed to pull a blanket over the evidence and we had regained some semblance of composure as we turned into Wembley High Road. It was then that the Panda car pulled in behind us and began to keep pace with us. Not knowing what else to do, I just kept driving. And the Panda kept following.
I nudged Larry. ‘What do we do?’
Larry seemed to have lost the power of speech, apart from mumbling incoherently.
‘This is no time for bloody praying’, I shouted. I did some quick calculations; no tax, no insurance, no driving licence…all that gear in the back. We were up shit creek.
I gave Larry a kick in the shins. ‘I’m baling out the next red lights. You’d better do the same if you don’t want to spend the next few birthdays in nick’.
I guess we timed it right. As we ejected at the lights the cops were also getting out, putting their caps on. I could hear their shouts as I leaped a hedge and hared off across a stretch of parkland. I was young and fit and easily lost my pursuers. Trouble was, I got lost myself in the process, and not wishing to show myself on the streets in case the cops were still on the prowl, I decided to kip under some bushes until daylight.
I was stiff, sore and soaked to the bone when I finally made it back to the flat. Larry was sound asleep in his bed. He had encountered no problems, having come across a bicycle in a nearby driveway, and was indoors within fifteen minutes of taking to his heels.
We never discovered what happened to the van or its contents, and the experience put the wind up us for some time after that. Still, you can’t keep good men down. Within a week Larry had a new set of wheels – a Triumph Herald, white with a black sun roof.
‘What d’you reckon?’, he asked after he had driven it away from the garage. ‘Fifty down and twenty quid a month’.
I laughed. ‘I reckon not many instalments will get paid’.
I was right. Within a couple of months the finance company was round trying to re-possess it. And not having much luck. The first time they called they found it chained to a tree. Larry took to keeping it in a garage after that. On a subsequent visit they came armed with a pair of bolt cutters. We took great delight in telling them that both Larry and the car had gone on a long visit to Ireland.