Out of the Camp Ch. 2 – Navigating London
Then I got mobile. In the few months that I’d lived there, my geographical knowledge of London had been restricted to the immediate areas around tube stations that I was using, namely, Lancaster Gate where I lived, Holburn where I worked, and so on. I’d wanted to get out and about because I hated being stuck in one place all day. Also, I wanted to get to know my way around London and get familiar with areas between tube stations. I found a delivery-driving job with the Victoria Wine Company at their Bury Street, St. James shop. Victoria Wine was a nationwide chain of wine and spirit retailers which had been founded in 1834 and remained in business until 2009.
The St James shop catered to a clientele comprised MPs, pop stars, actors, celebrities and high rollers in general. It’s so long ago that I don’t clearly recall many of my colleagues’ names. The manager was a tall, thin Cockney chap and a real gentleman with a great sense of humor who traveled every day from his home in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire. As I recall he really knew his stuff too. The assistant manager was a pleasant Irish lady called Kath, and there was a very tall skinny young trainee manager called Charles. He was a terribly serious former public schoolboy, who spoke classical Elizabethan RP but unfortunately stuttered lavishly. He was always immaculately turned out in expensive pin-striped suits but was horribly condescending to both me and the other driver, Steve and so in consequence, suffered mercilessly from our teasing.
St. James is a very old part of London and the shop not only had a storage basement but also a sub-basement where no one but the manager was permitted unless invited. I was however on occasion sent down there to bring something up for a customer while he/she was being entertained by the manager in his office with, perhaps, a glass of dry sherry. The valuable merchandise stored down there was port, it seemed like thousands of bottles of port, and not just any old port. This stuff was really, really old and the bottles appeared to have been hand-turned in bumpy tinted glass and sealed with wax. The entire area was absolutely covered in thick dust, so that if you were picking anything up you had to dust it off with a thick cloth. I could easily picture Bob Cratchit having been sent down there on an errand for Scrooge; the place really had a Dickensian, Old London feel about it. There were many stories about Members of Parliament dropping in and receiving the VIP treatment but, unfortunately back then I was clueless politically and couldn’t tell you now, who they were.
I do, however remember delivering to Norman St John-Stevas’, Elm Row, Hampstead home and meeting him briefly. He was the Arts Minister in Margaret Thatcher’s Government. Not surprisingly it was a beautiful old red brick home in the old part of Hampstead, immaculately decorated with bold, deep coloured walls and dripping with highly polished antiques. Not too far from Hampstead is St. John’s Wood (no connection!) and there on Cavendish Avenue was the home of Paul McCartney to whom I regularly delivered an array of exotic refreshments. However, at that location there was a high wall (or fence – can’t clearly remember which) and no one was allowed beyond the high wooden gate. But when it came to his ‘places of business’, ‘Apple Corps’, the Beatles’ music company, I had free reign. I’d go regularly to all three locations in the West End and drop off boxes of all manner of expensive hooch and, unlike Cavendish Avenue, I saw Paul at the Wigmore Street offices on a couple of occasions and we said Hi! Ringo happened to be there also each time and I recall once his making some daft remark about filching one of the boxes I was delivering. I didn’t ever run into George or John but their roadies, Mal Evans and Derek Taylor who later became Apple Corps executives were usually around.
Terry Doran worked from an office above the famous Beatles Apple Boutique in Baker Street and always signed for the delivery. I just discovered that he sadly died in January, 2021 of Covid-19. He was 81. Terry was in charge of certain elements of artist relations including A&R and so I was able to take the opportunity to drop off demos on occasion as they were building up their artist roster at the time. He was a really nice, down-to-earth guy from Liverpool and I’d often sit and chat with him in his office – it didn’t get me a record contract though! Apple Corps’ head office was on Saville Row and it later became famous for the rooftop concert that the Beatles gave in 1970. I used to be a regular visitor there, where they’d consume copius amounts of booze, but I don’t recall ever seeing anyone of note and my routine would be to drop off the stuff, get a signature from an office wallah and get the hell out before I got a parking ticket.
The Robert Stigwood Organization also put away a fair amount of hooch but unlike the seemingly free-flowing torrent at Apple, RSO, kept a tight lid on supplies. Whenever I’d show up at their Brook Street offices, I’d immediately be directed up one floor to Mr. Stigwood’s office. His secretary would announce my arrival (Hee! Hee!) and I’d be shown into his office. He’d get up from behind his desk, move his chair, unlock and open up a large, built-in cabinet behind him and direct me to put the boxes into it. Then he’d re-lock the cabinet. Call me a name dropper but I should probably point out that Robert Stigwood managed the Bee Gees, Cream and Eric Clapton, staged the musicals ‘Hair’ and ‘Evita’, and produced both ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ among other things.
I also had occasion to visit his home, but a stone’s throw away from Brook Street on the other side of Grosvenor Square in Adam’s Row, this time wearing a different hat. I had managed to get myself a part-time, unpaid gig writing about ‘The London Pop Scene’ for The Edinburgh Weekly and in no time had had several articles published. The Weekly was an early ‘Free’ Newspaper and was anxious to increase its readership amongst young people. I look back and am incredulous now at how easy it was in those days to line up an interview with a celebrity. I’d simply make a call to find out whose responsibility it was for making such arrangements, tell them who I represented and what I wanted, and it would be set up almost immediately. On this occasion I spent an hour in Stigwood’s living room with the original 5-piece group comprising the 3 Gibb Brothers, Vince Melouney and Colin Peterson. The Weekly published a full-page article featuring the interview including pictures. Unfortunately, i-phones weren’t around so I couldn’t get a ‘selfie’!
Edinburgh Weekly back page of my music writings