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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.
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
Une fois. Encore.
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