Tag Archives: Christine Keeler

Woman who links John F Kennedy, the Profumo sex scandal & a film producer

Harry Alan Towers: an interesting man

Questionable Harry Alan Towers

A couple of days ago, I stumbled on the decidedly ropey 1972 film version of Treasure Island on the Movie Mix TV channel. It was produced by Harry Alan Towers.

Now there was a man with a life like a movie plot.

I first heard of him years ago as a prolific and rather shady B-movie producer; I heard some of his films were set up simply to launder money internationally. In its obituary, the Independent said “he acquired a legendary reputation as the most prolific – and occasionally elusive – independent producer in the business.”

He made over 100 quickly-made films. Variety‘s obituary claimed he was “known for his sometimes questionable practices”.

Starting as a child actor, he became head of the RAF radio unit with the British Forces Broadcasting Service then, in 1946, with his mother, started a company called Towers of London which syndicated radio shows around the world. He then started producing film series like the The Adventures of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1956) which he sold to ITV in the UK.

In 1962, he started making feature films in places such as South Africa (under apartheid), Hong Kong, Ireland and Bulgaria. This was when the Cold War was at its height.

He continued producing movies well into his 80s and died in Canada, aged 89, in 2009. At the time of his death, he was working on post-production of a film adaptation of Moll Flanders directed by Ken Russell.

Stephen Ward: fall guy for the Profumo scandal

Stephen Ward: fall guy for Profumo scandal

The interesting year in his career is 1960. In February, he was allegedly introduced to Czech-born Mariella Novotny by ‘society osteopath’ Stephen Ward at a party held by American millionaire Huntington Hartford.

But there are other versions of what happened.

According to the November 1983 issue of Lobster magazine:

Maria and Towers didn’t meet at the party, but Towers must have recognised her: four days later a letter arrived suggesting a meeting at Claridges to discuss some possible modelling work. The letter was actually signed by Tower’s mother, Margaret, who Novotny claims had an extraordinary influence over him, and from whom he took his instructions. At the meeting Towers was brisk to the point of rudeness. He told her that he could make her a top television model doing commercials in America. Although she didn’t like Towers, she found it difficult to turn down the contract, which offered upwards of $50,000 a year. Over the next days the contract was sorted out and Maria was introduced to some of Towers’ friends, one of whom tried to have sex with her in Paris. Towers, over the next year, made no sexual advances towards Maria but didn’t mind pushing his friends on her. She signed to Towers’ modelling agency and he gave her a large deposit. 

But there are other versions of what happened.

According to Novotny herself, what happened in London was that Towers invited her to his flat to meet his mother and a group of Americans, one of whom – having asked her into another room to speak privately – promptly stripped off his clothes. “I was anxious to do well in New York,” she wrote, “so I shrugged and decided to do whatever was necessary… Neither Towers nor his mother gave any indication of knowing what we had done on our return to the drawing-room.”

Mariella’s uncle, Czech president Antonin Novotny in New York in 1960

Her uncle, President Antonín Novotný, in New York in 1960

Maria (Mariella) Stella Novotny was born in 1941 in Prague. The story goes that her father was brother to the President of Czechoslovakia and they lived in the Royal palace until she was 6 years old. The President supported the Communists, but Maria’s father was actively anti-Communist. The President warned Maria’s father that the Soviets were liable to arrest him and advised him to leave the country. Instead, he joined the underground, making arrangements for Maria to leave the country with a family called Rutter. They escaped in a railway truck hiding under some corn, and crossed the border into Austria.

Unfortunately, they ended up in the Soviet sector where they were put in a displaced persons camp. In 1948, Maria was released, apparently through the efforts of a Mrs Capes, who had known her father when he was a university student in England. Maria went to England, where she lived as the daughter of Mrs Capes. When she became a teenager she went into modelling and was determined to make it into a successful career.

But there are other versions of what happened.

According to Christine Keeler in her 2001 book The Truth at Last, Mariella was born in 1942 London and her real name was Stella Capes but she changed it to Mariella Novotny because it “had a more whiplash ring to it.” After the death of her father, she became a striptease dancer to support her widowed mother and worked as a prostitute in London. Christine Keeler claimed: “She was a siren, a sexual athlete of Olympian proportions – she could do it all. I know. I saw her in action. She knew all the strange pleasures that were wanted and could deliver them.”

Maria/Mariella married Horace/Hod

Maria/Mariella married Horace/Hod

What seems agreed is that, aged 18, Mariella met Horace ‘Hod’ Dibden, aged 57, an expert on English antiques and furniture. They met at his Black Sheep Club in Piccadilly and got married in January 1960. Dibden was a friend of Stephen Ward.

It was Stephen Ward who may have introduced Novotny to Harry Alan Towers at the party in February 1960. He also introduced Towers to Mandy Rice-Davies (this was three years before the Profumo scandal broke).

Horace Dibden and Mariella Novotny held their own parties.

In her autobiography, Mandy (1980), Mandy Rice-Davies described what happened when she arrived at one of these parties in Bayswater:

“The door was opened by Stephen (Ward) – naked except for his socks… All the men were naked, the women naked except for wisps of clothing like suspender belts and stockings. I recognised our host and hostess, Mariella Novotny and her husband Horace Dibbins, and unfortunately I recognised too a fair number of other faces as belonging to people so famous you could not fail to recognise them: a Harley Street gynaecologist, several politicians, including a Cabinet minister of the day, now dead, who, Stephen told us with great glee, had served dinner of roast peacock wearing nothing but a mask and a bow tie instead of a fig leaf.”

Sometime that same year, Harry Alan Towers started an affair with Novotny and promised to get her work in US TV commercials. Towers flew to New York in December 1960, followed by Novotny. She later told a friend that “I wanted to be famous and show my mother that I could make a go of life myself.”

After two weeks in the US, Towers allegedly arranged a lunch for her with actor Peter Lawford, the brother-in-law of soon-to-be President John F Kennedy. She was introduced to Kennedy and later, at a party held by singer Vic Damone, almost immediately shown into a bedroom where she had sex with Kennedy. They were not gone very long before there was a commotion in the main room. Damone’s Asian girlfriend had made an unsuccessful suicide attempt and had been found in the bathroom with her wrists slashed. The apartment quickly emptied. Kennedy disappeared with his bodyguard and his associates and the incident was hushed up.

The quick departure could have had something to do with the fact that, according to Novotny, an FBI man was known to attend these parties.

Novotny being arrested by the FBI

Novotny being taken into custody by a rather cliché FBI man

On 3rd March 1961, Novotny was arrested by the FBI and charged with soliciting. Three days later, Towers was accused of transporting her from Britain to New York for the purpose of prostitution. It was claimed that Towers ran a call-girl ring at a New York hotel. And a call-girl ring at the UN was also mentioned.

Novotny told the FBI that, in New York, “Towers took me to the Great Northern Hotel… The following afternoon Towers brought a prostitution date to me, who paid me $40 to commit a sexual act. Thereafter I entertained prostitution dates regularly and earned approximately $400 a week. I gave Towers about $300 of this money… Towers was present when prostitution acts were committed.”

In her FBI statement, she also claimed: “Towers was a Soviet agent” responsible for “providing the Russians with information for the purposes of compromising certain prominent individuals”.

On 12th April 1961, Towers appeared before a US grand jury on five counts of violating the White Slave Traffic Act. On 25th April, he pleaded not guilty to all five charges.

By the time his trial was due to begin on 16th May 1961, he had jumped bail and fled back to Britain, then to Eastern Europe (at the height of the Cold War) where he started producing low budget thrillers financed through Liechtenstein and other tax havens.

Novotny returned to running sex parties in London, which were (according to a Guardian article in 2009) “attended by so many senior politicians that she began to refer to herself as the government’s chief whip.” The parties allegedly included British politicians John Profumo and Ernest Marples as well as foreign leaders including (allegedly) Willy Brandt and Ayub Khan.

In June, 1963, FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover wrote an internal memo on the current Profumo Scandal:

J.Edgar Hoover - a man of many files - in 1961

J.Edgar Hoover, dressed in men’s clothing, 1961

For information. John Profumo was British Minister of War until his recent resignation following disclosure of his relations with Christine Keeler. Stephen Ward, London osteopath, has been arrested in London charged with living on the earnings of Keeler and Marilyn Rice-Davies, prostitutes. Ward’s operations reportedly part of a large vice ring involving many people including many prominent people in the US and England including other Ministers of British Cabinet… Other individuals involved include Yevgeny Ivanov, aka Eugene Ivanov, former Soviet Naval Attache, London, who patronised Keeler and who reportedly requested Keeler to obtain information from Profumo… Horace Dibben, British citizen, in whose residence sex orgies were held is husband of Maria Novotny; Maria Novotny is prostitute who operated in NYC and was victim in white slave case involving her procurer, Alan Towers. She fled to England and has participated in orgies at Ward residence. Alan Towers… is reportedly now permanently residing behind Iron Curtain. Novotny alleges Towers was a Soviet agent and that Soviets wanted information for purposes of compromise of prominent individuals; Lord Astor of England on whose Cliveden Estate sex orgies reportedly occurred: it was here that Profumo first met Keeler; Douglas Fairbanks, Jnr, movie actor; Earl Felton, American screen writer; and many others also involved.

In 1978 Novotny announced that she had started work on her autobiography which would include details of her work for MI5. She claimed that her book would include details of a “plot to discredit Jack Kennedy”.

In 1980, all charges against Towers were dropped after he paid a £4,200 fine for jumping bail.

Mariella Novotny was found dead in her bed in February 1983. Reportedly, “Shortly after her death her house was burgled and all her files and large day-to-day diaries from the early sixties to the seventies were stolen.”

So it goes.

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Ignore the new Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical, this is how the Profumo political sex scandal really happened

John Profumo, the UK’s Minister for War

John Profumo, the UK’s disgraced Secretary of State for War

A couple of days ago in my blog, there was a discussion between one of my Facebook Friends and writer Harry Rogers about whether people accused of sex crimes should be named in the press before they are prosecuted.

There is another interesting angle to this which Harry Rogers knows a bit about. Not a sex crime but a sex scandal… The Profumo sex scandal of 1963 which ultimately brought down Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government.

But this blog is really about Johnny Edgecombe, whom I think I probably met at Malcolm Hardee’s Up The Creek comedy club in Greenwich in the 1990s. By then, he was known as Johnny Edge. I have a vague recollection that Malcolm introduced me to Johnny Edge once; but I can’t be certain.

What interests me about Johnny is how small incidents in apparently insignificant individuals’ lives can change history.

For those too young to remember, the Profumo Affair involved ‘good-time party girl’ Christine Keeler having sex with John Profumo, the UK’s Secretary of State for War. This was not good, given that he was married to actress Valerie Hobson. Worse though, given that Profumo knew Britain’s entire defence secrets and this was the height of the Cold War, was that Christine Keeler was also having sex with Yevgeni Ivanov, a senior naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy in London. All military attachés are assumed to be spies.

In October 1962, the United States and the USSR almost stumbled into a nuclear war over the Cuban Missile Crisis.

At the same time, in London, Johnny Edgecombe was Christine Keeler’s boyfriend and allegedly her pimp. Before that, Keeler’s boyfriend had been drug dealer ‘Lucky’ Gordon. When she split from Gordon, he attacked her with an axe and held her hostage for two days. She then became Johnny Edgecombe’s girlfriend.

Just before Christmas 1962, she split from Johnny Edgecombe. What happened then resulted in a court case in which John Profumo’s name was mentioned in open court and the whole Profumo scandal became public knowledge.

Johnny Edgecombe went to prison for what happened in the mews.

I had a drink with Harry Rogers last night.

Harry Rogers in Greenwich last night

Harry Rogers remembers Johnny in Greenwich last night

“I met Johnny Edge just after he came out of prison,” Harry told me. “I think the intelligence services knew very well what was going on with Christine Keeler: that she was having an affair with Profumo and was also seeing Ivanov.”

“What had Johnny done before the Profumo thing?” I asked.

“He’d been friends with lots of jazz musicians in London,” Harry told me. “And he’d worked for Peter Rachman.”

“The dodgy slum landlord?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Harry. “Rachman bought a lot of properties up and, when he had trouble getting people out of a property, he would get Johnny Edge and a couple of others to go and take over the basement in the building and set up a shebeen. A shebeen is an illegal drinking establishment with lots of loud music pumping all night. So Johnny’s role was to set up the shebeen and get musicians to come in there and party. They had a great time and the people got so fed up with the noise they left. It was like constructive dismissal – constructive eviction, really.”

“But eventually,” I said, “he met Christine Keeler, she left him and that triggered off the whole thing.”

“Yes,” said Harry. “When Christine Keeler left him – he was kind of pimping her in a way; he was living off her earnings, anyway – he wanted money and he needed money and also Johnny was in competition with Lucky Gordon, who was out to get Johnny. He saw him as the person who had taken ‘his Christine’ away from him – cos he’d been pimping her too.

“Lucky Gordon had caught up with Johnny in the Flamingo club in Wardour Street in Soho and there had been a big running fight through the club. They were chasing each other about all over he place. Lucky Gordon was going to beat up Johnny, but Johnny pulled a knife and ‘striped’ his face.

“After that, Lucky Gordon was really, really angry and so he got a machete and he was threatening to cut Johnny Edge’s head off. And that’s why Johnny got a gun. And the gun that he got was Christine Keeler’s. She had a Luger pistol.”

“Why did she have a gun?” I asked.

“I think for protection,” Harry replied. “Anyway, Johnny took her gun and he was carrying it because he knew that, if Lucky Gordon did catch up with him – if he wasn’t protected – Lucky was going to kill him.

1964 book on the scandal

A 1964 book on the Profumo Scandal

“When Christine left Johnny and went to Stephen Ward in the mews, Johnny got a taxi to the house. Christine was there but wouldn’t come to the window. Mandy Rice-Davies came to the window and told Johnny Christine doesn’t want to speak to you – Here’s some money – Go away! – and threw a handful of fivers out the window.

“That made Johnny angry, so then he decided he was going to go in and talk to Christine. So he tried to do what they do in the movies. He tried to shoot the door open by blowing the lock off the door with the gun.

“That didn’t work, so then he got back into the taxi…”

“The taxi driver,” I asked, “had just been sitting there twiddling his thumbs through all this?”

“Yes,” said Harry. “The cab driver was still waiting. Johnny got back in the cab. And they drove off.

“Meanwhile, the police had been phoned. They caught up with Johnny and arrested him and charged him with attempted murder. They said he’d actually tried to shoot Christine Keeler from the street through the window. He never did that. But they needed a court case to break open the whole thing so they could officially look into everything that was going on. And, from that point onwards it all came out.

“What Johnny told me was that not only was Stephen Ward supplying various members of the Establishment with women… There were a number of them: Christine Keeler, Mandy Rice-Davies, Rona Ricardo and two or three other girls were involved in this circle, this kind of call girl ring that he was running… They would all go down to Lord Astor’s place (Clivedon in Buckinghamshire) and have the swimming pool, the weekend orgies, all the rest of it… not only was Stephen Ward doing that, but he was also supplying lots of Members of Parliament and the aristocracy with marijuana.”

“Which would be a big thing then,” I said.

“Which was a big thing then,” Harry agreed. “And which Johnny Edge was supplying to Stephen Ward.”

“How did the Russian get involved?” I asked.

The Daily Mirror reports Profumo’s resignation

Profumo resigned because he lied to MPs

“Well,” explained Harry, “Stephen Ward would host parties which diplomats and all sorts of people would attend – He was just a military attaché. I don’t think there was any attempt to screw information out of Profumo. There’s no way that Christine Keeler was pumping Profumo for information to give to Ivanov, who she called her ‘Russian teddy bear’. It was all just sex and drugs, really. But spooks, being what they are, often read a lot more into the situation than is there.

“Profumo was a pretty honourable man. He just liked screwing.”

“You’ve heard about the new Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical that’s being written about Stephen Ward?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Harry. “Johnny Edge told me Stephen Ward was a great guy and it was terrible the way he was vilified out. Really, he was just serving a need.”

“And was driven to suicide,” I said.

“And,” said Harry, “Johnny was sent to prison. He spent about six years inside. The Labour Party – Bessie Braddock in particular – said, as soon as they got into power, they would ensure he was released. But, of course, what happened when the Wilson government came in? They left him there to rot. He kept writing to them from prison trying to get them to honour what they had said they were going to do, but they left him there.

“He’d been sent to Dartmoor! For a while he shared a cell with Frank Mitchell.”

“The Mad Axeman?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Harry. “Everybody was really frightened of Frank in there. Not just the prisoners, but all the Screws. He was like an animal. But he took a liking to Johnny so, consequently, life was easy for Johnny inside because he had total protection. In those days, it wouldn’t have been easy being a black West Indian like Johnny in prison.’”

“And you met him soon after he got out?” I asked.

“When he first came out of prison,” explained Harry, “he didn’t go back to Notting Hill, he moved to a flat in Blackheath, then later he moved to a flat on a council estate by what’s now the Up The Creek comedy club.

“His aim was, if he could ever make enough money, to go out to the West Indies and buy a boat like his dad had had. Of course, it never happened.

“He would wake up in the morning and smoke a joint. Then he would get washed and dressed. Smoke another joint. Have breakfast. Smoke another joint. Then he was set up to go out for the day. He was always stoned. Always.

Johnny Edge in later life

Johnny Edgecombe in later life + one of his cigarettes

“He decided he was going to make money from selling chess sets. He met somebody who had access to a whole load of reproduction fancy chess sets: the Lewis chess set, the Reynard The Fox one, a Mexican carved crystal one and an erotic chess set – pornographic, basically – the bishops had little boys sucking them off. They weren’t cheap. He made a good mark-up on them.

“Also, if you wanted to buy half a pound or a pound of dope, Johnny knew where to go. In 1971, you could probably get a pound of dope for £500 and he’d charge you £550. He wasn’t a big dope importer or anything, but he was big mates with Howard Marks, who was.

“After the chess sets, he got into buying VW camper vans in Amsterdam and filling them up with Second World War leather jackets and overcoats he bought in a warehouse near where he bought the VWs. They looked like Nazi overcoats but weren’t – most were actually Dutch motorcycle police coats, but they looked the business.

“So Johnny would fill the camper vans with these coats, bring them back to Britain and sell them. The rock singer Chris Farlowe used to run a Nazi militaria shop and Johnny Edge used to sell him these Dutch police overcoats as genuine Nazi wartime overcoats at a massive mark-up.

“Needs must when the Devil drives. There was no way he was ever going to get employed in a straight job; he was so stoned all the time.

“He was a very likeable guy. He was a great guy.”

“And he died just over two years ago,” I said. “What did he die of?”

“Lung cancer,” said Harry.

So it goes.

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The more bohemian forerunner of The Groucho Club in London’s Soho

Sophie Parkin at the Sohemian Society last night

Sophie Parkin at the Sohemian Society meeting last night

The Groucho Club stands rather discreetly in Dean Street, Soho, with no identifying name and behind windows half-hiding what goes on inside. Its members are media trendies, but rather respectable – even if they might have a self-image of themselves that they are not.

What they certainly are not is true bohemians. But Dean Street clubs were not always this way.

Last night, I went to the Sohemian Society in an upstairs room at the Wheatsheaf pub in what some call Fitzrovia, some North Soho and some aspirational estate agents even sometimes call Noho.

Sophie Parkin, daughter of Molly Parkin, was showing an extraordinary series of photos she had collected for her new self-published book about The Colony Room Club 1948-2008: A History of Bohemian Soho.

Sophie Parkin's new history of Bohemian Soho

Sophie Parkin’s new history of Sohemia

As I blogged a couple of days ago about self-publishing, it’s worth mentioning that Sophie has said “we are publishing it ourselves because it’s the only way to make any money from publishing. Authors’ advances have shrunk to the size of a cock in the North Pole. And having spent two years of my valuable life on this precious tome I didn’t want to be paid peanuts and then see it sink from lack of proper marketing.”

For most of its life, The Colony Room Club was run by the irreplaceable Muriel Belcher, who tended to welcome all comers  to the Colony with the greeting “Hello, Cunty!”

Based in a small upstairs room in Dean Street, the Colony became famous as a drinking club for the likes of painters Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, writer Dylan Thomas and polycreative George Melly.

Opposite the Colony Club in Dean Street stood the more up-market Gargoyle Club, which was interior-designed by the artist Henri Matisse and architect Edwin Lutyens and had as its chairman the painter Augustus John. It had been opened in 1925 by aristocratic playboy and bohemian David Tennant – not to be confused with Doctor Who – and actress Hermione Baddeley.

“David Tennant was very bohemian,” explained Sophie Parkin last night, “but he was very against ‘theatricals’, as he called them. So he would not allow even Hollywood actress Tallulah Bankhead to join his club straight away. It might be because of the story that she had met some kind of high-class landed gentry type Englishman and spent some time with him – ‘got to know him’ in a Biblical fashion – and the next time she saw him was in the Café Royal and he snubbed her, so she said loudly: What’s the matter, dahling? Can’t you recognise me with my clothes on?

Even more bizarre stories about the even more bohemian Colony Room Club abound, featuring the likes of writer William Burroughs, painter L.S.Lowry and ballet dancers Frederick Ashton and Robert Helpmann. With the likes of writers Keith Waterhouse, Johnny Speight and Jeffrey Barnard around and with sometime barmaid Kate Moss (the model) and barman Daniel Craig (later James Bond), the possibility of legendary stories arising is endless. In the early 1960s, even Christine Keeler and Stephen Ward were said to be frequent visitors.

There were other even more surprising luminaries – including spies Burgess & Maclean, who allegedly spent their last night in London at the Colony Room Club before they fled to the Soviet Union. And East End gangsters Ronnie and Reg Kray.

Sophie’s book includes quotes from Ronnie and Reg saying how much they enjoyed meeting artist Francis Bacon at the Colony and, last night, an audience member mentioned a rumour that the Twins had actually stolen some paintings from Bacon, then sold them back to him.

The Colony was known for its homosexual members at a time when homosexuality was, as Sophie says, “not just illegal but very illegal”

The Krays had been introduced to the club by their gay MP friend and Colony Room Club regular Tom Driberg (later reputed to be a Czech spy).

According to Sophie, Driberg “admitted to Christopher Hitchens in the Colony that he loved going into special committees in the House of Commons with semen still sticky at the corners of his mouth”.

“There’s a lovely story about Tom Driberg,” Sophie Parkin said last night, “getting annoyed with another member, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who had become a publisher. In one book, Geoffrey had included a picture of him in the company of the Krays. Tom told him: I don’t want my reputation destroyed. He was complaining about this to Muriel Belcher at the Colony and she told him: You never seemed to mind when Ronnie’s cock was in your mouth.”

Sophie also talked about David Archer, the publisher in the early 1950s of Dylan Thomas, George Barker, Louis MacNeice and others.

“You can,” said Sophie, “name all the major poets of that era and he published them all in Parton Press and let them retain copyright. He had inherited a huge amount of money and didn’t care about money – He just gave it to people who didn’t have it. And then, at the end, he ran out of money and everybody deserted him. He lived in a bedsit and died penniless. He committed suicide and, the day after, suddenly this Foundation found him. They didn’t have the internet in those days. They had been searching for him for five years and they had another great big huge amount of money to give him.”

So it goes.

The Colony Room club is now no more.

So it goes.

It has been turned into three flats.

Sophie Parkin and her husband now live in Deal, Kent.

Last night, Sophie’s husband told me they hope to open the Deal Arts Club soon.

According to Sophie: “It will have to be a membership club – Ordinary people on a day trip to the seaside might be offended by the full use of our language and the freedom of our thoughts.”

Indeed.

After all, Sohemia is a state of mind rather than a physical location.

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One man can change the world with a bullet (or six) in the right place….

(A version of this blog was also published in the Huffington Post under the title What Links Dead Comedian Malcolm Hardee, Gangster Mad Frank Fraser & a British Political Sex Scandal?)

My local handyman (who is a very interesting person; he was at university – UCL, London – with the mother of Kate Middleton, our possibly future Queen) came round to mend my side gate yesterday. He was telling me he hated reading Charles Dickens and could not understand what people see in Dickens’ writing.

“Just caricatures,” he fumed. “Just caricatures. But,” he continued, “Horace Walpole is worse. “The Castle of Otranto is utter shit yet people thought it was a great piece of writing at the time and they thought Horace Walpole’s name would be remembered. Now, quite rightly, no-one remembers him except dusty academics. He’s a footnote. Who knows which ‘famous’ people’s names are going to survive from the 20th century? It’s pot luck.”

Also yesterday, Bill Alford sent me a Facebook message telling me he had posted on Flickr ninety-five… count ’em that’s ninety-five… photographs he took in the years 1985-1987 at the late Malcolm Hardee‘s legendary – nay, notorious – seminal alternative comedy club The Tunnel Palladium.

In among the early photos of Keith Allen, Clive Anderson, Phil Cool, Jenny Eclair, Harry Enfield, Jeremy Hardy, Ainsley Harriott, Jools Holland, Eddie Izzard, Phill Jupitus, Josie Lawrence, Neil Morrissey, Mike Myers (yes, that Mike Myers), Vic Reeves, Jerry Sadowitz, Screaming Lord Sutch, Squeeze and many others at Malcolm’s Tunnel Palladium, there is a photo of a trendy-looking gent captioned Johnny Edge.

All ninety-five… count ’em that’s ninety-five… of Bill’s photos are interesting – a nostalgic flashlight on an earlier comedy era – but the photo of Johnny Edge was the one which interested me most because I never met Johnny Edge.

I only knew of him by reputation.

He died almost exactly a year ago, on 26th September 2010.

He was just an ordinary bloke living in south east London, whom most people had never heard of yet, when he died, he merited very lengthy obituaries in the Daily Telegraphthe Guardian and the Independent.

In that sense, he was a bit like Malcolm Hardee.

Most people in Britain had never heard of Malcolm Hardee but, when he drowned in January 2005, such was his importance to the development of British comedy, that he merited near full-page obituaries in the Daily Telegraph, the Evening Standard, the Guardianthe Independent and The Times – indeed, he managed to get two obituaries in the Evening Standard and two in the Guardian.

Malcolm had told me tales of Johnny Edge coming to his comedy clubs and, when I showed the Flickr photo to a friend who worked at Malcolm’s later comedy club Up The Creek, she immediately recognised him:

“Oh yes. I recognise him. He was a regular. He always seemed to me to be on his own. I didn’t know who he was, but other people seemed to know him and treat him with respect, like he had been in known bands or something, He looked ‘reggae’ and he held himself well, maybe just because he was older and quiet. He seemed nice. I think if he had been in a rock band I would have heard which one, which is why I wondered how people were familiar with him… Now I come to think about it, maybe Malcolm always put his name ‘on the door’ so he got in for free. Logically, I think that is highly likely.”

When Malcolm had told me about Johnny Edge being a regular at his clubs, I could feel the slight thrill he had in being able to say he had met and, to an extent, known him.

Johnny ‘Edge’ was a nickname. He was actually Johnny Edgcombe. What he did in 1962 was the catalyst that triggered the Profumo Scandal in 1963 which played no minor part in bringing down the Conservative government in 1964.

Edgecombe had fired six shots at osteopath Stephen Ward’s mews flat, where Edgecombe’s ex-girlfriend Christine Keeler was hiding.

Malcolm’s barely-contained thrill at having a link with Johnny ‘Edge’ was the same thrill I could sense in him when famed 1960s South London gangster Charlie Richardson came to a party on Malcolm’s floating pub the Wibbley Wibbley. It is the same thrill some people feel if they have an even tenuous link with the Kray Twins.  I have heard more than one stand-up comic joke about the TARDIS-like capacity of the Blind Beggar, seeing as how most of the population of East London appears to have been in the pub the night Ronnie Kray shot George Cornell.

It is the thrill of one or two degrees of separation from important historic or society-changing events.

Malcolm had three degrees of separation from the Krays, which I think he always cherished and which is mentioned towards the start of his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake (now out-of-print, but currently available from me via Amazon at  the remarkably reasonable price of £49.99 + p&p).

When Mad Frank Fraser, the Richardson’s ‘enforcer’ was shot in the thigh during a fight at Mr Smith’s Club in Catford, he was eventually left lying in the front garden of Malcolm’s aunt Rosemary and uncle Doug. The shooting was part of the bad blood and linked events which led to the shooting in the Blind Beggar which brought the Kray Twins and, to an extent, the Richardsons down.

Links within links within links.

To an extent, I share Malcolm’s thrill with one or two degrees of linked separation from national, international or parochial history. Everything and everyone is inter-linked.

Malcolm never met Mad Frank Fraser. I have and I am glad to have met and chatted to him a couple of times: the man who once lay bleeding in Malcolm’s aunt and uncle’s front garden.

Links within links within links.

Once, Mad Frank told me he worried “a bit” what people would say about him after he was dead, because what people are seen as being is ultimately not what they are but what people write about them in retrospect.

A butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazonian jungle really can change the world. Ordinary unsung individuals can be part of the chain that creates historic events. Or, to quote anti-hero Mick’s line in Lindsay Anderson’s trendy 1968 film If….

“One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place…”

Or six bullets.

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