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.