Bryan Hemming

short stories, comment, articles, humour and photography

The Big L

I first ran into the Big L in the spring of 1972 on a grey, Notting Hill afternoon. So many were. Sporadically employed, and only twenty-three, the only thing I did have plenty of was time on my hands. Like most clients of the French style café called Zog in Kensington Park Road, the Big L was hunched over an empty coffee cup. Coffees were just another way of measuring the passing of the hours.

Les Biggs, the Big L, Big Les or just plain Biggles, as some called him, was chatting with a couple of hippies. One a pretty girl, the other was a young guy with long, dark hair. I later learned he was a drug dealer named Ray. Sitting at a nearby table, minding my own business, out of the corner of an eye, I minded theirs.

In full Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young mode, thinning, reddish hair hung down beyond the Big L’s shoulders. He wore a tired, brown suede jacket over a leather waistcoat. A Zapata moustache, threatening to become a handlebar, couldn’t conceal the famous grin so many people found disconcerting. But it was his eyes I found most disturbing, especially when they fixed mine for the very first time. They told me he knew I’d been observing him, and now I’d have to pay the price. To all intents and purposes, they looked the eyes of a mad axeman on the run. Dark green irises, the pinprick pupils transmitting imbalance, burned into mine. They unnerved me, particularly as they were overshadowed by a smooth, expansive forehead that bore all the signs of Transylvanian surgical intervention. 

Bill Hopkins

Writer Bill Hopkins photo by Ida Kar 1955

Named after King Zog, self-proclaimed king of Albania, the coffee house was the brainchild of Bill Hopkins, probably the most notorious, yet least-remembered of a group of writers known as the Angry Young Men in the 1950s. The group included John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, Harold Pinter, Colin Wilson, Stuart Holroyd and Alan Sillitoe. Bill had the idea Zog would attract writers, poets, artists and intellectuals. Instead, it attracted hippies, the unemployed and petty drug dealers. Instead it attracted people like the Big Les. Instead it attracted people like me.

When he spoke, Big Les’s accent betrayed this particular mad axeman was a mad axeman on the run from Australia. I tried to be polite, in the way you do when engaged in conversation by mad axemen, at the same time as keeping my distance. But when the Big L wants to talk, he won’t let go. Mad axemen on the run  from Oz  rarely do, I suppose. Though the atmosphere appeared to relax somewhat, I kept up my guard, just  in case he was trying to lure me into a false sense of security before producing his bloody chopper.

The Big L seemed amused by almost everything, however unfunny. Always chuckling. Whether chatting about Eric Morcambe, telly’s favourite at the time, or John Christie, the infamous serial killer from nearby 10, Rillington Place, there was always room for a chortle. It was just the rest of us who refused to see the comic side of mass murder. I later learned his humour was the product of unfailing optimism, but it took some time. Les just couldn’t help but see the bright side of anything. Even when there wasn’t one. Despite my express reservations, he insisted we meet up again. I was intrigued, but not that intrigued, as I made a mental note to avoid him. But he was unavoidable. From that moment on, wherever I went, somehow, the Big L was always there.

I learned he formed part of Bill Hopkins’ motley gang of house clearance operatives, who scoured West London in battered, old Ford Thames vans, on the search for treasures. To my eyes, they were like something out of Oliver Twist, with Biggles playing Artful Dodger to Bill’s Fagin.

As time went on, I occasionally distributed leaflets for Bill, dropping them through letterboxes of Victorian terraces in Kilburn and around the Harrow Road, before they were torn down and replaced by grotesque blocks of council flats. These days, I like to think of my role as Bill’s little Oliver Twist. Though others may have different memories.

Bill’s novel The Divine and the Decay, first published in 1957, and much later republished as The Leap! has been proclaimed as a masterpiece by some. But it had been met by a storm of hostile criticism on publication. Kenneth Allsop, broadcaster and writer, described the work as both “unregenerate and morally evil”. Bill swore to me his publishers held it back because of their left-wing leanings. He never published a book again, devoting himself to extracting a fortune from the estates of the elderly by clearing houses for the bereaved. Like an undertaker’s shop after major pile -up, a phone call bringing news of death had Bill and his motely gang in a delighted panic. There were always rich pickings to be had from bewildered folk in a state of mourning.

Les found Bill very amusing indeed, as did I in the years that followed, as I grew to know him. His extreme right-wing views were often so outrageous as to qualify as parody. Yet Bill was too interesting and intelligent to ignore. Nevertheless, many despised him, and I can well understand why. To be continued.

Copyright © 2011, 2013  Bryan Hemming
Conil

11 comments on “The Big L

  1. Peppina R Harlow
    June 10, 2016

    Thank you for your insightful, hilarious rendition of the Hopkins experience. I have my own tales to tell. Please continue yours as I’ve now signed up for notifications for the site.
    It is 2016, aways from the year 2012 when these posts were written. It just surfaced on the internet recently!
    I have to say I love your style, great fun!

    Like

    • Bryan Hemming
      June 11, 2016

      Thanks for your appreciative comments Peppina. There are more stories in the pipeline about the Hopkins family and my years living in Notting Hill.

      But I also have more recent stories on another of my three blogs about the months I spent on a rocky, Arctic islet, after I finally left London to seek the fortune that has eluded me my entire life. As you might wnat to take a look at those while you’re waiting for more Hopkins tales, I post one link here: Early autumn on a rocky Arctic Islet

      You might also like this Notting Hill tale: I dropped Acid with a Womble

      Like

      • Peppina Harlow
        June 11, 2016

        Your entire newly-discovered site offerings are my go-to for free-time spending! Thank you for the time you took for a personal reply. I will follow you.

        Like

  2. Pingback: Margot Metroland, "The Prophet of Exhaustion; Being Yet Another Remembrance of Bill Hopkins (1927-2012)," Part 1 | Counter-Currents Publishing

  3. sallieparker
    February 20, 2015

    Ah, Bill H, the sage of Kensington Park Road. I met Colin Wilson at his place once. We discussed how many more Angry Young Men would have to die off before I could write my magnum opus, Last of the Angries. Presumably that would be Bill and Colin.

    Like

    • Bryan Hemming
      February 21, 2015

      Despite his arrogance, his pomposity, his pretentiousness, his racism and his faux public school accent (his brother Ted spoke with a broad Welsh accent) I found Bill’s company irresistible for some reason. For someone who chain smoked all his life and consumed a huge amount of Famous Grouse he was in surprisingly good health the last time I same him somewhere around the turn of the century, when he was about seventy. He and his brother were most amusing when they were angry. Both held deep grudges, and had terrible reputations in the antiques business. They didn’t know half as much as they pretended, and often asked me for advice. I was better at pretending than they were. Now I pretend to be a writer. I’m not so good at that. Writing and pretending I write, I mean. Bill once pretended he like a draft of a novel I once wrote and I pretended I believed him.

      Now they’re all dead (Bill and Colin certainly are) you can begin your magnum opus. I love the title ‘Last of the Angries’.

      Like

      • sallieparker
        March 7, 2015

        You know, that ‘public school accent’ bit went right past me. The drawl was artificial, but the pronunciation was just what I’d hear from, say, Richard Ingrams. Didn’t know about the Welsh. He told me his family was from Kennington way back, which confuses the issue even more. The person who introduced me to him died around the same time Bill died—and then Colin died—and Jonathan Bowden, who went around talking about him all the time, also keeled over. What I want to know is, was he really writing about Outsider Art, probably under a pseudonym, all those years? That was the cover story he always gave me. Thanks for responding. (Oh! Are you in touch with Clara, by any chance?)

        Like

      • Bryan Hemming
        March 7, 2015

        I knew Ted Hopkins, Bill’s beatnik, pot-smoking brother very well, and his sister Betty, who worked with Bill in his various shops over the years. Both Ted and Betty lived not a stone’s throw away from Bill in Elgin Crescent. I think it was number 8, above Graham & Green’s shop. Ted had the whole top floor with his Swedish wife and their two children.

        I lived in 16, Elgin Cresecent for twenty years. I could see the back of Bill’s house from my toilet window. Many summer days I would hear him tapping away on his typewriter, while I was taking a dump. He wrote on the kitchen table, where he could make the endless cups of tea that kept him going. Bill used to invite me up from time to time. He never told me what he was writing and I never asked. We also used to meet occasionally at the flea market in the Golborne Road on Friday and Saturday mornings. We’d take tea and toast in a greasy spoon, Bill loved ‘caffs’. He used to sprinkle salt on his toast; a habit he got into when he was poor and that was all he could afford.

        Though he dealt in contemporary art from the 1980s onwards, I can’t remember Bill ever talking about Outsider Art as such. He was always full of ideas, as you most likely know, but many withered on the vine.

        Bill’s father, who was also called Ted, was a famous music hall artist, as was his mother Violette Broderick. The younger Ted’s son, Broderick, is named after her. Ted Hopkins senior was a Welshman and the family lived in Cardiff in the early years. I believe all the children were born there. Ted junior spoke with a strong Welsh lilt. Betty also had the hint of a Welsh lilt, but far less noticeable than Ted’s. Coincidentally, Bill and Ted were evacuated to Syston, in Leicestershire, during WW11. Syston just happens to be the small town where I was born and spent most of my childhood. As you probably know, Colin Wilson was also born in Leicester.

        The Hopkins family house in London may have been in Kennington, but I have the feeling Ted said it was in Balham. I remember Betty used to take the tube there from time to time.

        I haven’t seen the dark, brooding and beautiful Carla in years, and am not in touch. I never talked with her so much, but know she was studying English literature at university as a mature student in the 1980s.

        I will be writing some more on the Hopkins family in the future, as I knew them so well.

        Like

  4. WordsFallFromMyEyes
    January 25, 2014

    ‘Transylvanian surgical intervention’ – ha, great. The whole line is great.

    I’d forgotten this post. Enjoyed it all over again.

    Like

  5. Noeleen
    May 28, 2012

    You write so well Bryan!
    Oh, Ive been sick – both a cold or flu or SOMEthing & withdrawal, but I’m on the UP! Endurance pays, I have always known.

    So though you wrote this ages ago I kept it in my inbox for when I could read it with a clear head… which is TODAY!! Yay! I’m well today!! 🙂

    I don’t know what a Zapata moustache is but I’m imagining it’s those thick ones that sort of curl up?
    ‘Dark green irises, pinprick pupils transmitting imbalance’ – love it!
    Is King Zog of Albania, self-proclaimed – is that true? Oh do tell! I know you know these obscure things – I gotta know! & if self-proclaimed – does anyone follow his delusion??

    That stuff about Bill Hopkins & The Divine & The Decay, I never knew. But that it was later republished means it couldn’t have been “that bad”.

    I thought this was fiction until I got to the end. Liked it 🙂

    Like

    • Bryan Hemming
      May 29, 2012

      And you are so good at expressing your appreciation. I re-posted it because of the confusion with the second part, which was available despite me marking it as private. Is there something I’m not getting about that?

      Sorry to hear you haven’t been well, I sort of noticed your chirpy presence missing, and thought you must have something on your plate. I’m half missing from my blog at the moment because of Anji’s partner being up to his old tricks of making huge problems out of the most simple task. Loves the attention.

      My thoughts are he is a narcissistic psychopath, the type that manages to keep under the radar while wreaking havoc on the lives of those who have to maintain contact with him for some reason or other. We have to because he’s the father of Anji’s children. If you want to find out the symptoms of psychopathy, look up Dr Robert Hare’s list. You might be shocked to discover how many people come into contact with on a daily basis display them. I plan to write something on the subject as soon as I get a bit more time. I have so many other things to do first.

      You did well on the Zapata moustache. Emiliano Zapata was a Mexican revolutionary, who had a moustache. You can look him up and see it. And, however unlikely it sounds, Ahmet Muhtar Bej Zogolli, more commonly know as King Zog, was the real King of Albania from 1928 to 1939. He also had a moustache, but like Hitler’s.

      I enjoyed Bill’s book, but as he republished it himself, it doesn’t really count. I didn’t see it as being particularly right-wing or offensive.

      He financed it with money from selling the film to a Canadian director for 75,000 quid. Lot of money in the 1970’s and 80’s. I think he was hoping a film of it might make it a runaway bestseller. Unfortunately, the film never got made. When he found his expected market didn’t appear, and the books didn’t sell, he started giving them away. I got a signed copy after he read a draft of my second novel. He was a good mentor for me, whatever else he was. Sadly, he passed away last summer. I’ll miss him on my next trip to the UK.

      Bit long for a comment reply, but you deserve it for your unflagging interest and appreciation. Thanks so much.

      Like

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