The York, by Angel tube, isn’t a particularly snooty or pretentious pub, let alone a ‘gastropub’. But it has rather lost its character since I worked there in 1997. A music system and widescreen TVs have been installed and the punters at the bar are generally more affluent, as you’d expect in Islington. Twenty years ago, the area was already heavily infested by New Labour politicians and advertising executives — Blair and Brown’s Granita deal took place in 1994, by which time the gentrification of the area was well under way. But there was still a very colourful social mix in N1, and the area held out against the tiresome uniformity that had already engulfed other parts of London. Now, there’s a mini retail mall across the road from the York and all traces of the area’s working-class origins have been expunged.
Not so during my brief career as a barman. In 1997 there were local types at the York who would take it personally if you served them a drink in the wrong glass, and one of them — ‘Bob the builder’ — once swung a barstool at me for doing just that. But Bob was far from the maddest.
By some cosmic synchronicity the only two public figures whose names were prefixed by the word ‘mad’ were both regulars. Frankie Fraser, the notorious enforcer for the Richardson gang, would drop in most afternoons, pushing a wheeled tartan shopping trolley. I concluded that he had been shopping, although I never pressed him on the matter.
He was unfailingly polite, as were the young acolytes in Armani suits who paid court to him on Saturday afternoons. This is not to say that Frankie Fraser was a decent sort; many people would insist otherwise. For example, while taking a walk on Wandsworth Common in 1964 he encountered the prison governor William Lawton and attempted to hang him from a tree. He also tried to string up Lawton’s dog. My point is simply that he never tried anything like this with me, and indeed was a generous tipper.
During those empty afternoons, familiar to anyone who has worked behind a bar, an elderly chap in a wheelchair would sometimes be parked in the pub by a spotty youth. The man in the chair was always smartly dressed and had a striking presence. Handbrake applied, he would down many brandy-and-sodas before being wheeled out a few hours later. One day I noticed he was wearing a tie with the winged dagger of the SAS, and I asked him if he was a veteran. ‘Yessssss,’ he said, in the manner of Rowley Birkin QC from The Fast Show. ‘I’m Brigadier Mike Calvert.’ Better known as ‘Mad Mike Calvert’.
After the Commandos, the Chindits, Malaya and a DSO, Mike could not adapt to peacetime soldiering. Posted to the plainly unsuitable job of quartermaster of the British Army of the Rhine, he devoted himself to epic drinking and winding up senior officers. In 1952 he was court martialled after some local men accused him of gross indecency. The suspicion remains that Mike’s homosexuality was used to stitch him up.
It seemed a pity that such a heroic man should spend his afternoons with only a glass for company, so I invited him to dinner at Frederick’s, one of the posher local restaurants. Surrounded by white tablecloths and muted chatter, Mike stood out as the oldest and most bellicose man in the room. He could walk only a few yards, but still his lower lip jutted out in a manner suggesting extreme resolve. He was already tanked up when we met, so I didn’t get too much sense out of him. But one anecdote stays with me. He started making shaving gestures: ‘Irawaddy river… Chindits… shaving in the river… Jap behind a tree.’ His eyes widened and he made a throat-cutting gesture, then returned to the shaving.
I asked a senior former SAS officer just how mad was Mad Mike. He said: ‘He was as mad as a hatter. In his day he was utterly dedicated and ruthless, especially ruthless. He would have had difficulty understanding modern rules of engagement.’
Mad Mike died the next year and Mad Frankie Fraser followed him in 2014. As these two eccentrics and others have departed N1, less colourful individuals have taken their place. For prison governors and the Japanese, at least, this must count as an improvement.