Memoir: The Fishmonger’s Arms

Sometimes you inadvertently walk into a piece of your long distant past and it stops your breath like a large hand pressed hard against the heart.

There I was, Friday last, walking along a stretch of Wood Green High Road – north from the tube station – that I doubt I’d walked along in over fifty years, and there in front of me, on the corner of Trinity Road and the High Road, was The Fishmonger’s Arms, now, the exterior of the building largely unchanged, the local police station, but then home of the jazz club run through the 50s and 60s by Art and Vi Saunders in the adjacent Bourne Hall, where my friends and I spent so many Sunday nights listening to various jazz outfits of the period, in particular the Alex Welsh Band.

It was where we went to listen to the music, drink, dance – by which, of course, I mean jive – and meet girls. Though the only communication, the dancing itself aside, was usually little more than an outstretched hand and a terse, “Dance?”, and then at the end of the number, of you were lucky, a quick little nod of thanks from the girl before she returned to her friends.

To catch something of the atmosphere, take a look at Karel Reisz’s and Tony Richardson’s short early film, Momma Don’t Allow, featuring the Chris Barber Band and filmed at the club in 1956.

And for more information, memories and discussion take a look at the always interesting Sandy Brown Jazz web site, run by Ian Maund.

We loved the Welsh band for the sparkling joy and intensity of the music they played – back then a bright Condon-style dixieland that would later, with changes of personnel,  morph into mainstream and swing – and for the way they always seemed to be enjoying themselves on stage. Alex with his clipped cornet/trumpet phrasing and instantly recognisable vocals; the edgy vibrato of Archie Semple’s Pee Wee Russell-influenced clarinet; Roy Crimmins’ trombone – Crimmins whom we ‘adopted’ as our favourite member of the front line, frequently buying him a pint of bitter when we bought our own.

Drummer, Lennie Hastings, in every sense at the heart of things, would frequently finish off one of his four bar drum breaks by jumping up and shouting ‘Ooyah-ooyah!”, sticks held high above his head, and could also be prevailed upon, to our naive delight, to roll his trousers above the knee, insert a false monocle and transform himself into Herr Lennie Hastings, singing Auf Wiedersehen, My Dear and Ein, Zwei, Solfe – One, Two, Drink Up in cod German.

Why exactly we stopped going I’m not sure. Some of us went off to university, I suppose, others drifted into jobs, drifted away; steady girl friends failed to share our enthusiasms; engagements, careeers, marriage, mortgages, children beckoned.

I last saw Alex Welsh, clearly a sick man, leading a band at a club in Nottingham in the early 1980s. Not so long after that evening, he was dead at the age of just 52.

2 thoughts on “Memoir: The Fishmonger’s Arms

  1. It was always Sunday night an otherwise bleak day in terms of live entertainment.No problems going as homework done by noon on the day.

    Always referred to as Wood Green rather than the ungainly Fishmongers Arms. An awkward trip as there were two buses to catch, the first to North Finchley the second to Wood Green, a place I still know little about. Given the early closing hours we must have arrived around 7 to 7.30pm.

    Not a bit venue but friendly and comfortable. The band played there for love of it, the music and a few bob.They were appreciated. Maybe 8/10 rows of seats with an isle in the middle.Behind them a dance floor, At the. back a small bar.

    I don’t recall dancing very much, more listening as were a bunch of males. The dancing was at the Conservative Hall in North Finchley where we knew a lot of the crowd.( One night Sandy Brown was passing back up the hall , turned to us and said ‘ You don’t believe in that consevative shit fo you ?. Sadly our only conversation with the great man.)

    Alex of the baby face and laid back voice limping slightly towards the bar, horn in left hand at his side. Later the gal whos used to get the beer in for the band and then the other gal who would stand in front of the band stand and shimmy solo. Wonderful.

    George Chisholm coming in during the second set to sit in for acouple of numbers and being more than a match for Roy Crimmins before the latter slipped away to the continent for over ten years,By public demand a final encore of Ice Cream , which we all joined in.

    The man behind it all, Big Art ,only intervened once whilst I was there to grimly announce that there was a tea leaf in the audience a lady’s purse had been lifted. A stain on the club’s good name and a rarity.

    Happiest of nights then and now on reflection. We were very fortunate to be there at the right time.

  2. I remeber the Alex Welsh band from, when I was a kid. My dad, Ian Macowan, ran the Glasgow Jazz club and when the band payed in town they sometimes slept at out place. They were all like uncles to me. Happy times!

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