While renovating a property near Madame Tussauds, a developer uncovers a secret leading to a security alert at the heart of government.
It is November 1941. The dark night skies above London are ablaze with Ack Ack fire, doodlebugs, swooping spitfires putting up fierce resistance to the steady stream of Luftwaffe Messerschmitts blitzing London. They are targeting the Houses of Parliament and the West End. The sound of bombs exploding, mixed with siren air raid warnings, sends much of the civilian population to improvised shelters in offices or homes or, in extremis, the London Underground.
In an act of audacious defiance, the patrons of the Windmill Theatre filed in for the fourth and final show of the day, determined to enjoy some escapist entertainment, courtesy of Vivian Van Damm, the manager, whose shows featured singers, dancers, showgirls and specialist novelty acts. The audience consists of families as well as troops, all eager to sample theatrical delights which mirrored Folies Bergère and Moulin Rouge in Paris, including nude tableaux vivants based on themes such as Annie Oakley, mermaids, red Indians and Britannia.
The Hon George Lansbury, a member of HM’s government, took his usual place in the Royal Box accompanied, on this occasion, by the Princesses Helena Victoria and Marie Louise, both granddaughters of Queen Victoria, reflecting the cosmopolitan social mixture of the customers, all seemingly oblivious to the mayhem going on in the sky directly above them.
This particular show featured a visiting international star from Harlem, New York who had developed a tap dance routine of such dazzling complexity that even his fellow performers stood and joined in the standing ovation he received at its climax. He was accompanied on honkytonk piano by the smiling figure of a major West End cabaret star, whose usual residency was Quaglino’s, where he had been the toast the café society for over twelve gloriously successful years.
The two Princesses could hardly believe their eyes at recognising one of their favourite cabaret performers in a completely different entertainment setting. They weren’t sure if they could trust the stage lighting until Helena nudged her cousin and said, stifling a snorttle, “do you think Edwina knows?”
A 13 year old Bruce Forsyth, who was next on as Boy Bruce, the Mighty Atom, watched from the wings, mouth wide open, totally mesmerised by the visiting American’s artistry. He joined in the ovation at the end and thought to himself “Didn’t he do well?”
After the show, he followed the two black stars at a discrete distance out of the theatre via the stage exit on to Great Windmill Street then right on to Coventry Street where a Rolls Royce was parked. He watched as they handed two holdalls to the chauffeur, took possession of a small squeeze box, then made their way to Piccadilly Circus Underground Station.
He followed them down the escalator to a platform where hundreds of families were sheltering from the bombing. They immediately went into show mode, singing and dancing to the delight of the sheltering Londoners who gave them their second ovation of the evening.
The Luftwaffe only ever succeeded in creating expensive open air car parks in selected areas of central London, but the average Londoner was not to know that then; nor was the Windmill’s impressionable lead juvenile, who went home dreaming of owning his own Rolls Royce one day.
Jason Johnson knew It was likely to be an exhilarating venture, but he could not have anticipated the white knuckled nature of the entrepreneurial ride ahead of him. Raising the finance was relatively easy, hiring a panoply of demolition workers, brick layers, plasterers, painters, joiners, plumbers and electricians, less so. Then there was the plethora of professionals; architects, solicitors and accountants who needed consulting, all of which was testing his project management skills to the limit. This was not his day job, but he stood on the first floor of his newly acquired property, looking up at the sky having removed half the roof in order to facilitate the construction of a mansard. To a passer-by, it looked for all the world as though an Abrams tank had scored a direct hit. Long term scaffolding hire might have threatened the budget, so he had gambled on having two consecutive windless days of dry weather. Was it only in England that watching men at work was a spectator sport, he wondered? It was already 8.00 am on Dry Day 1 but he felt a few spots of rain on his cheeks.
As he waited for the chippies to turn up, he found his mind wandering. Here he was converting a property originally designed for two horses with a hay loft and minimal overhead staff quarters tucked behind a row of hugely desirable residences in one of London’s most famous streets. With Sherlock Holmes around the corner and Madam Tussauds across the road, what could go wrong? Assuming he had calculated accurately, No 5 Baker Street Mews could be transformed into a million pound retreat in one of London’s most attractive locations, especially to visiting Americans wearing Stetsons waving American Express Cards.
What an historical turnround, he mused?
His maternal great great grandfather had once risked everything by moving to London from Bursledon in Hampshire looking for work. He had ended up in nearby Fitzrovia but could easily have settled in this very property to ply his trade as a fly master with hansom carriage, an early form of taxi cab. His paternal great grandfather had also worked with horses. He still treasured a picture he had of him with his horse drawn Hovis delivery van outside the famous clocktower in Epsom High Street. He is known to have visited Hyde Park occasionally to pick up a new horse.
Could it have been from here?
What would those illustrious ancestors have thought of the family’s latest enterprise?
There was a ring on the door bell and Jason let in three overalled chippies carrying a variety of tools who swiftly climbed the stairs apologising for their late arrival as they went. Their boss, Paddy McMahon, put them all to work immediately reassuring Jason that they could cope with rain if it kept to a light drizzle, especially if the temporary plastic cover overhead stayed in place.
Their plain unmarked white van was parked in front of the property’s built in garage in which Jason had stored ample supplies of wood, paint, paper, tiles, assorted nails, two ladders and a cement mixer. With any luck they would not have to move the van as the Mews was a cul-de-sac. Unbeknown to Jason, another property further along was undergoing a refurb which necessitated the arrival of essential office equipment at irregular intervals all day. Paddy McMahon had little option but to move the van six times during Dry-ish Day 1, which inevitably held up progress on No 5, as he was at pains to point out to his employer that evening with the light fading.
However, he had kept his men at it with promises of extra pay at overtime rates, so remained confident that the job would be completed, as promised, by close of play on Dry Day 2. Rain and wind would cease to be a problem he explained, as they had finished the basic roofing section.
Neither man had factored in the possibility of the van breaking down on the A40 or the wildcat tube strike on the Central Line, which delayed the start of DD2 until 12.00 noon but, somehow, they completed their work and departed around 9.30 pm leaving Jason to survey the state of the premises before returning to his office in Marylebone.
He had ordered the painters and decorators for the next day with carpet fitters to follow the day after that. He also had to fit in a visit from the building inspector from Westminster City Council which he had scheduled for 9.00 am in the morning.
He decided it would create a better impression if he swept up the debris left by McMahon and his men and cover the floor with white sheets in advance of the decorators arrival. In spite of everything, he was feeling quite chipper; confident that the final stage payment from his mortgage company would arrive shortly and that the project was, more or less, on track. He grabbed a broom and began sweeping, carefully picking up with a dustpan and brush as he went. It was mainly bits of plaster, scraps of old newspapers and the odd polystyrene mug but one item caught his attention. He thought it was an old post card. He bent down and picked it up. It was clearly very old and must have been dislodged from behind a beam when the demo boys first knocked the roof out to make room for the mansard.
Although badly faded, It had been professionally printed on one side with an address in New York USA and the legend “Hoofer for Hire” in fancy artistic twirls. At first glance, Jason thought it said hooker for hire which would have given it a whole new meaning; especially as someone had written a number on the back which could have been a telephone number although it didn’t correspond with any modern combinations he could think of.
He slipped the card into his inside pocket, completed his self-allotted task of cleaning up; then took a 15 minute walk back to his office at no 1 Thayer Street, a compact four storey building over a coffee shop and currently home to one independent business per floor, each accessed from the street by a narrow twisting stair case. The street level door had an entry phone system linked to each individual business for visitors to gain access.
“Johnson’s International Speaker Bureaux” was situated on the top floor. Feeling weary, he climbed the stairs thinking he might as well stay the night on a fold up camp bed as he had an early start lined up for the next day. His four staff wouldn’t be in before 10 am by which time Jason will have been to his nearby private gym for a swim and a light breakfast. It was 2.00 am when he finally fell asleep, his head buzzing with tomorrow’s to-do list.
It included investigating the words scrawled on the back of the Hoofer Card which he thought were
HATCH (or possibly HUTCH) HAM 7831
The card was very grimy and faded with age but just about legible.
Commander Tom Berry picked up his Daily Telegraph and started to fill in the quick crossword as was his custom at every daily 11.00 am coffee break. He always left the Times crossword for lunch, hoping to beat his all-time record of 9 minutes, achieved only last week. “Disappears in a puff of smoke up its own anagram. (4)”
He wrote FUEL in the spaces for 4 down and was about to move on when his concentration was interrupted by the sound of the blue phone ringing on the corner of his desk. This was a relatively rare occurrence. It was his direct line to GCHQ; the other two being red for the Prime Minister and white for his own office staff.
“Commander Berry, MI5” he said in a business like fashion. “What can I do for you Gerry?”
“One of these days it wont be me!” laughed Gerry Romsey down the phone at his old friend, whom he had known since their Sandhurst days.
“Unusual one this time Tom” he said “At any rate, it is certainly a first for me”
“OK” laughed Tom “You’ve got my full attention, 6 Down will have to wait!”
“Some one has tried ringing a sleeper number!”
“What’s the number Gerry?” replied Tom, his hands poised over his keyboard ready to punch it straight into his laptop.
“020 435 7831” came the reply
“OK thanks Gerry” said Tom as he saw the name MOUNTBATTEN appearing on his screen.
Both knew the secrecy protocol so ended their conversation with a cheery exchange in which Gerry was able to tease Tom with a parting comment
“By the way, if you are stuck on four down the answer is FUEL” he said
“Tell me something I don’t know!” laughed Tom
“Hopefully, I just have” was Gerry’s enigmatic parting response.
Commander Tom Berry smiled as he picked up the Red phone.
“Prime Minister, can you authorise the retrieval of the top secret security file for MOUNTBATTEN please. I don’t really anticipate a problem, but I will keep you informed. Routine enquiry”
Half an hour later a bulging file with Top Secret emblazoned on the cover was sitting on his desk. The Times Crossword would have to wait.
Jason Johnson looked at the address on the front of the card. The Hoofers Club was on Harlem’s “Swing Street” the stretch of 133rd Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues. He was due in New York next week, so thought he might look up the address out of curiosity if he had time to spare. He usually stayed in a modest hotel off 5th Avenue near the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Swing Street looked to be about a 15 minute cab drive away.
In the event he did even better. His client was a member of the Association of Talent Agents (ATA) who obligingly arranged a meeting for Jason with a Jackson Delmont who was the grandson of the founder and co-owner of the original Hoofers Club, one Lonnie Hicks, who had died in 1953.
Jackson was a jazz pianist himself but was working on a history of the Hoofers Club which had played a central role in promoting African American music and did much to help break down racial barriers of the time. Although the whole area had been demolished and rebuilt, Jason discovered that the 1984 Francis Ford Coppola film, The Cotton Club, was actually based on The Hoofers Club.
He judged the card to be pre-war, so it was at least 80 years old. The chances of there being anything of relevance to see after all this time was remote to say the least but curiosity is powerful entrepreneurial motivator he mused, as he once again recalled his two grandparental ancestors.
Jackson Delmont was a sharp suited individual with an educated New York accent which he delivered at great speed especially when excited by the subject matter. Jason judged him to be in his late twenties. He was immediately impressed with his outgoing temperament, friendly demeanour and total command of historical facts.
“Good to meet you Jackson” said Jason Johnson shaking his visitor’s hand then inviting him to join him at his breakfast table.
A waiter immediately arrived and poured two coffees
“Its my pleasure Jason” he replied, “The Hoofer Club has become something of an obsession, so when the ATA got in touch, I jumped at the chance to wax lyrical about it!”
“Well” said Jason “As the ATA might have mentioned, I am having some work done on a property I’ve just acquired in London and came across this card.”
Jason took out the card and placed it between them on the table, address side up.
Jackson Delmont’s face lit up as he peered at it, clearly impressed.
“Wow” he said “I have only ever seen two of these before, although I believe there may have been as many as 100 printed originally. May I pick it up?”
“Be my guest!” said Jason. “Somebody has written a note on the back which you might be able to decipher. It is just about legible”
Jackson Delmont picked up the card as though he was handling a first edition of Magna Carta and carefully turned it over on its back to reveal the writing Jason had first seen
HUTCH HAM 7831 “I couldn’t tell if that was Hatch or Hutch” said Jason “But I have done some work on the HAM 7831 bit which I will tell you about in a moment.”
Jackson Delmont’s smile got broader as he examined the card in greater detail.
“Rest assured Jason, I can confirm that it is definitely HUTCH, because he was the person who ordered and paid for the cards!”
“So who is or was Hutch?” asked Jason in all innocence.
“Hutch was only the biggest, highest paid, British cabaret star of his era! He even mixed with royalty!” said Jackson, laughing at his host’s apparent ignorance. “At the height of his career in the thirties he was a multimillionaire driving a Rolls Royce and living the public life of a huge show biz star, big time!”
“But, if he was a Brit, what was his connection with New York?” said Jason, his curiosity spiked.
“He was from Grenada originally” said Jackson “He came to New York to study medicine but got sucked into the jazz scene here. He was a brilliant stride pianist and one hell of a good looking man. He had everything, stage presence, talent; arguably, the most accomplished singer pianist anybody had seen at that point in time.”
“So what happened to him?” said Jason
“He joined a black band led by Henry “Broadway” Jones who often played for white millionaires like the Vanderbilts. As a result, the Klu Klux Klan made life very difficult for black performers so, in 1924, Hutch had had his fill of racial prejudice and went to Paris. He took a residency in Joe Zelli’s Club where he met and worked with Cole Porter. They say they became lovers. Hutch certainly had matinee idol looks which he was never shy about flaunting.
“So what happened next?” said Jason, thoroughly engrossed, both by the story as well as the enthusiastic way it was being retold.
“His aristocratic British fans encouraged him to move to London where he packed out Quaglino’s amongst other places. He went on to broadcast with the BBC, had small parts in films and recorded many standards including These Foolish Things, Begin the Beguine, Let’s Do It, So In Love, I love Paris and countless more.”
“I must confess” said Jason Johnson “I’ve never heard of him”
“You and a million others Jason but fear not! We have countless similar stories here which I could tell you about. It is the tragedy of shifting times, changes in social etiquette, attitudes to racial prejudice, musical tastes … I could go on, but you get the picture?”
“Indeed” said Jason thoughtfully “I suppose, in the end, no amount of natural talent can compensate for changes in public taste but tell me more, if you have the time, about these cards”
The waiter returned at that moment, took two orders for breakfast and Jason Johnson settled back to listen and learn from his engaging young guest.
“Hutch, whose full name was Leslie Arthur Julien Hutchinson by the way, kept in touch with my grandfather. He never forgot the encouragement he received in New York from people like him. Some of the talent that emerged from the Hoofers Club went on to great stardom whilst others fell be the wayside; that’s just show biz, but they all had to overcome terrible racial prejudice.
“Bill “Bojangles” Robinson is a good example of someone who suffered a similar fate to Hutch. He was a tap dancer without a peer. At one time he was the highest paid black American entertainer in the USA but changing tastes put an end to his career. He died penniless in 1949 having worked tirelessly throughout his career to break down racial barriers. The Civil Rights Movement owe him a huge debt of gratitude big time ……
Jackson Delmont paused briefly before continuing
“As work was drying up in New York in the late thirties, especially for tap dancers, Hutch thought he might be able to use his influence in the UK with producers and venue owners to put on ‘visiting international superstars’ as he always called them. He suggested the cards. He even arranged for them to stay in a place which they used to refer to as Cats Alley….
Jason Johnson burst out laughing which stopped Jackson Delmont in mid-sentence
“Sorry Jackson” explained an apologetic Jason Johnson struggling to suppress his giggles “But the property we are talking about is in Baker Street Mews!”
Jackson Delmont nodded his head, understanding, happy to join in the joke by adding “I’m surprised they didn’t play with Baker Street Blues”
They both collapsed into laughter when they realised that Gerry Rafferty’s classic was written in 1978 not 1938 never mind 1878.
“Changing times and tastes!” they said together accompanied by high fives over the breakfast table.
“You said you had done something with the rest of the numbers” said Jackson when order had been restored between them.
“Yes that’s right” said Jason “Although, to be honest, I’m not sure if I have achieved anything”
“Tell me anyway” said Jackson intrigued. So Jason continued …
“There was a time when you had to go into a telephone box to make a call. Hard to believe we had no satellites circulating the earth. Changing times again. People with telephones in their homes were rare but Hutch was clearly an exception. HAM 7831 was the exchange for the Hampstead area. You were put through by an operator at the exchange. When subscriber trunk dialling was introduced in 1958 it enabled people to connect without the intervention of an operator. For reasons I won’t bore you with, London kept running out of numbers, but I managed to track the changes for Hampstead and ended up with 020 435 7831”
“And did you call the number” asked a clearly fascinated Jackson Delmont.
“Yes, as a matter of fact I did” said Jason “But I’m not sure if I made contact or not. It rang for a short time before a recorded voice said this number is temporarily out of use, so I hung up”
Jason Johnson and Jackson Delmont parted company at midday the very best of friends. Neither of them could believe how the time had flown. They exchanged business cards and promised to keep in touch.
Later that week, Jason touched down at London Heathrow Terminal 5, to be greeted by a text message on his mobile phone from his bank, NATWEST, stating
“You are about to exceed your agreed overdraft limit. Please ensure funds are put in place or contact us immediately”
When he arrived back at his office, he had a letter waiting for him from the Westminster City Council saying his new Mansard needed major modification as it did not match health and safety standards.
Commander Tom Berry entered the front door of Number 10 and was immediately taken up the winding staircase to the first floor where he was shown into the Prime Minister’s Office, off the Cabinet Room. Boris Johnson greeted him with his trade mark warm hand shake. They were quickly joined by two other people, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary and Sir Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary.
The PM was keen to get the meeting underway as he was due in the House within the hour, so he deliberately kept his opening remarks to the bare minimum, thus sparing them his usual garrulous bonhomie, which caught Priti Patel by surprise.
“We have a situation which Tom Berry, as head of MI5, has rightly brought to my attention but which, at this stage, must be kept totally secret for reasons which will become apparent shortly; hence there will be no notes taken. For the moment, what we discuss here must be kept strictly between us four. If, and I really do mean if, we decide some action is necessary, then the Home Secretary and I will agree what is appropriate. Is that clearly understood?”
With nodded approvals, Commander Tom started the briefing by reinforcing the PM’s opening remarks. He then pointed to the bulging file in front of him.
“This is the top security file we have on the late Lord Louise Mountbatten of Burma who, you will recall, was killed by the IRA in 1979. As you can see, it is quite voluminous. You are welcome to look at it here today during this briefing should you wish.
Mountbatten was considered a serious risk to national security from the moment he married, in 1922, Edwina Cynthia Annette Ashley, a fabulously wealthy aristocrat with independent means. Mountbatten was having to get by on a junior naval officer’s salary, despite his own impeccable royal antecedents.
The first picture in the file gives the clue. The then Prince of Wales was his best man. I hardly need to remind you that he briefly became King Edward V111 and was forced to abdicate over his contentious relationship with Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee. I will come back to this later, as the sexual orientation of all three in the picture is central to this briefing. For now, let me introduce you to another character in this rather tawdry tale of upper class society in the thirties.
On Friday 5th October 2012, the singer and pianist Leslie Hutchinson - known to all as ‘Hutch’- was commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque at 31 Steele’s Road, Chalk Farm, London NW3 4RE the house he lived in from 1929 to 1967.
The plaque was unveiled by Hutch’s daughter, Gabrielle Markes, who was the product of his affair with British debutant Elizabeth Corbett in 1930. When her family discovered she was pregnant with his child they hastily married her off to an army officer, attempting to pass off the child as his. When they discovered the child was mixed race, Corbett’s husband refused to acknowledge her as his own and Corbett’s father sued Hutch. Gabrielle was put up for adoption. She was one of eight children Hutch fathered with six different mothers.
“I didn’t know that was a criminal offence” commented the PM to subdued mirth around the table.
Commander Tom Berry resisted the temptation of joining in and continued his briefing.
“It was an open secret that Hutch had a lengthy affair with Edwina Mountbatten who, to put it mildly, had more lovers than you or I have had hot dinners over many years including the Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, when she and Mountbatten were appointed the last Viceroy and Vicereine of India, after the partition of India and Pakistan in June 1947.
(Nothing like being promoted out of trouble thought Priti Patel to herself)
“In 1932 The People newspaper attempted to expose Edwina and Hutch by alluding to an affair between “one of the leading hostesses in the country and a coloured man”. It took very little time for the name of Edwina Mountbatten to be attached to the hostess, and the coloured man was also named - wrongly - as the American singer Paul Robeson. The Royal Family closed ranks and Edwina sued for libel. She won of course and went back to seeing Hutch after attending a celebration party at York House, hosted by, you guessed it, the Prince of Wales.
(What a bitch thought Priti Patel to herself)
It was about this time that MI5 was authorised to put a tap on the private telephone of Leslie Hutchinson at 31 Steele’s Road.
“On what grounds?” asked Priti Patel.
“Its all in the file, Home Secretary” replied Commander Tom “But it was a combination of international events coming together. We were approaching the abdication period; Hitler was rearming Germany; Soviet Russia was starting to recruit homosexual intellectuals at Cambridge as spies. Virginia Woolf was bedhopping with Vita Sackville West. High Society was riddled with sexual deviants of one kind or another. The Establishment was struggling to keep order” “Can you give me any examples of what caused the Establishment, as you call it, to take such an undemocratic decision?” asked Priti Patel anxious to occupy the moral high ground.
“Again, it is all in the file Home Secretary” continued Commander Tom. “Mountbatten’s nickname at naval college was ‘Mount bottom’ for reasons which I assume require no elaboration.
(I should bloody well hope not thought Priti Patel to herself)
“The Prince of Wales was a sadomasochist who came under the control of Wallis Simpson, who, at the time, had many other more conventional lovers.
(What a cow thought Priti Patel to herself)
“Bi sexuality was not accepted by society then, but it is fair to assume that the Establishment thought that threats of exposure to blackmail of public figures, constituted a threat to National Security. As a former Foreign Secretary once put it, “they were all competing to be arseholes of the year”
“George Brown, Labour, 1966” interjected the PM quickly, his political antenna suddenly coming to life “at a diplomatic reception for the Peruvian president whist explaining British foreign policy in the interwar years, to the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima”
“Are you seriously suggesting that Mountbatten, who went on to introduce his nephew Philip to our present Queen was part of some conspiracy?” said Priti Patel, a hint of incredulity in her voice.
“Frankly, Home Secretary, that is a decision which you will have to make. My job is to present you with the facts. My opinion is not relevant, but Edward and Mrs Simpson, by now the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, visited Hitler in 1937 against the advice of HM Government. They participated with full Nazi salutes. In July 1939, Mountbatten introduced the 13 year old Princess Elizabeth to his nephew, Philip. They were engaged on 9th July 1947. Philip had no financial standing, was foreign born and had two sisters married to German noblemen with Nazi links.”
Boris Johnson decided to defer his next meeting so that they could finish the briefing without interruption. He invited Commander Tom to continue with the briefing saying “Our Queen, who is now 94 years old, has performed an outstanding job as a Constitutional Monarch. Prince Philip is 98 and in failing health. The last thing anyone would wish right now is to cause either of them extra stress at their time of life …..
Enthusiastic nodding of heads around the table as Commander Tom continued
“The file will show you that the Hutch tap over the years, corroborated by other sources, confirmed there was contact between Hitler’s high command, Mountbatten and Mrs Simpson at the time of the abdication. You will also find that Hutch bedded Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister, when she was 25 and Hutch was 55, Mountbatten paid for Hutch’s headstone in Highgate cemetery …. I could go on, but I suggest you make up your own mind as I bring you right up to date”
“Three days ago someone called 020 435 7831. This is what we call a sleeper number. It is in fact the original Hutch number but updated to make use of modern telephonic technology. Hutch sold the property in 1967 but we leave the number in the ether just in case someone uses it who might be of interest to us”
Priti Patel was now getting slightly irritated by all this mumbo jumbo but thought she could just about see the point. She had half her mind on a shooting party she was looking forward to joining at the weekend on rough moorland near Witham in her Essex constituency.
“Do you know who made the call?” she asked, picking up the file and beginning to leaf through copious pieces of paper.
“We do indeed” replied Commander Bob Berry, with a wry smile, “Its all in there, Home Secretary”
Jason Johnson had to admit that he was feeling the pressure.
Since losing both of his parents to Coronavirus at the back end of the previous year, he had no obvious sounding board. He was blessed with an optimistic nature, but he knew that he couldn’t afford to be overly sentimental; business is business. There comes a time when it is better to cut your losses, however much the project might retain its appeal. Common sense versus irrational emotional responses.
He thought about his grandfathers again and what they might have done. He even tried to convince himself that his paternal grandmother had some connection to Baker Street Mews. He had never met her, but he knew she had played the piano in pubs in Epsom during the War. She was even reputed to have been rehearsal pianist at the Assembly Rooms in the High Street. But that had been in connection with Canadian soldiers stationed in Ashley Road not “visiting black superstars from Harlem USA”
The meeting at the Mews with the Westminster City Council’s building inspector, a real jobsworth, had not gone well. It wasn’t helped by his attitude. He seemed to assume that anybody who lived and worked in Marylebone must be filthy rich. It was as much as Jason could do to remain dignified, but he succeeded. He thought his parents would have been proud of his courteous reception to the over promoted bureaucrat who delighted in class-ridden envious provocation.
“Any fool can see that that is a load bearing archway” he sneered, when asked by Jason, politely, to explain his objections to the work.
“So, under Westminster building regs, paragraph 6, sub section 4 (b) you are required to bridge the opening with an RSJ, not that pathetic wooden structure which looks as if it has been cobbled together with off cuts from a consignment of Fyffes orange boxes”
Jason was tempted to correct the inspector by asking whether he actually meant banana boxes not orange boxes but thought better of it.
“An RSJ you say, inspector?” he asked politely
“Yes of course!” he retorted “A rolled steel joist; didn’t they teach you anything at your posh school?”
Jason was about to explain that he had been preoccupied with a classical education based on the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (astronomy, arithmetic, music and geometry) so missed the tea break in which the equivalent civilizing qualities of RSJs had been explained ….. but thought better of it. “Thank you for your valuable insights, Mr Worth. I take it that if I implement your recommendations in full then I will have satisfied the conditions of the planning approvals?”
“Yes that’s right” he said “Its probably about £50,000 pounds worth of reworking. A drop in the ocean to someone like you Mr Johnson. Good Afternoon!”
On his way back to his office, Jason found himself walking around the NCP car park situated on waste ground behind Waitrose on Marylebone High Street. Here was a simple business he thought to himself. No RSJs required, little or no maintenance but a stream of customers paying handsomely for the privilege of parking in the West End. Supply versus demand, he thought. A central tenet of the free market economy in which he and his late father both believed.
Later that evening, he sat at his desk working out the size of the serious black hole in his finances when his telephone rang
“Hi Jason! Its Jackson Delmont calling from New York. Have I caught you at a bad moment?”
Glancing up at the series of world clocks on his office wall, he replied.
“Hi Jackson! Great to hear from you … its 7.00 pm here so I make that around 2.00 pm with you right?”
“You bet buddy” said Jackson “So, have you got a couple of minutes?”
“Fire away my friend, I’m all ears” said Jason who had developed a quiet admiration for his American friend
“Okay” he said in that distinctive educated New York accent Jason had come to appreciate. “I was going to write you an email with an idea I have come up with, but I thought, to hell with it, why don’t I just pick up the phone and ask a basic question first”
“And what is it?” asked Jason
“Would you ever consider selling No 5 Baker Street Mews?”
Savills auction room in Margaret Street was full to bursting. It was their first meaningful sale since the last remaining Coronavirus restrictions had finally been lifted. A few ‘on line only’ auctions had taken place, but this was the first where real people could react with other real people face to face.
The expectant atmosphere in the crowded room reminded Jason Johnson of a typical first day of term after the long summer break at his alma mater, Royal Grammar School in Guildford; everybody trying to impress everybody else with tales of derring-do in the holidays, most of which were invented to impress.
But that was 20 years ago.
Right now, as he looked around the room, he felt his heart beating that little bit faster for it had been the hardest decision of his business life to date. He had agonised over his conflicting emotions.
He was the first to admit that the Mews project had put him in a parlous financial position due to his own naivety. On the other hand, it had opened up opportunities in the USA which he was excited about pursuing.
Jackson Delmont’s idea had been to create what he called the Vanderbilt Hoofer Bursary, dedicated to helping promising young performers in Harlem gain experience of working in London productions or simply attending academies like the Royal Academy of Dance. They would be put up in the Mews free of charge for up to nine months at a time. Jason Johnson’s company would represent them exclusively in the UK.
Jackson had contacted various surviving scions of the sprawling Vanderbilt family, including such well known figures as the CNN anchor, Anderson Cooper, the blues musician John Paul Hammond, whose father had been a record producer and noted civil rights campaigner, the actor Timothy David Oliphant and Richard Peter Pease, a British Fund manager, amongst others. The response had exceeded his wildest expectations.
Under the auspices of Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site, the very building in Hyde Park where Hutch had performed with Henry “Broadway” Jones’ black band in 1923, they had donated an unquantified sum to acquire 5 Baker Street Mews at a fair market price.
Because each man had built an unshakable faith in the other’s integrity, neither Jackson Delmont nor Jason Johnson wanted any favours from each other, which is when both agreed that the only way to establish a fair free market price was at an auction when the basic tenets of a free market, the interplay of supply and demand, would come into play. Jason’s biggest headache was fixing a reserve price which would be the minimum Savills would sell at. Too low and it could get snapped up leaving him seriously out of pocket. Too high and it might not attract any bids at all. He had gambled on a reserve price which would leave him with no profit at all but having to bare the cost of his solicitors fees and Savills’ commission. Jason’s silent musing was interrupted by the voice of the auctioneer calling the room to order.
“We come now to Lot No 28. This is your opportunity to acquire a unique property not so very far from where we are standing. It is rare for Savills to have a Mews property to sell in such a sought after location, but 5 Baker Street Mews is offered for sale freehold, with planning permission for a substantial Mansard. Jason had been told that several small builders had expressed interest because of the property’s development potential. “Tell me about it” he had thought to himself.
“So who is going to get us started at £250,000"
Jason glanced around the silent room hoping his expression wasn’t showing his horror at a figure which was half his reserve price
“Oh come on, gentlemen, this would be a give away at twice this price. Ok, £200,000 and we can go up in £50,000 chunks.
A discreet hand went up in the middle of the room.
“That’s more like it … thank you sir … I have “£200,000 in the middle of the room … do I see £250?
“I do, far left … £350 in the middle … £400 … far left … £450 … middle ….. £500 …. Far left …. I can sell at this price, but I would rather not … It really is a bargain at this level.
“Do you want to come again in the middle?”
The bidder shook his head as the auctioneer surveyed the room and began his count down
“At £500,000 on the far left, going once, going twice …
“Suddenly I have a new bidder on the internet with £550,000 … so, have we any more interest in the room? Middle and far left shook their heads.
A hand at the back from a bidder the auctioneer recognised was raised indicating £600,000
The internet came back with £650,000
The room was now buzzing with curiosity as the Auctioneer expertly steered the bidding backwards and forwards
Back of the room £700,000
Back of the room £900,000
There was a ping on Jason’s mobile. He glanced down and saw a WhatsApp message from Jackson Delmont.
“Sorry Jason, we can’t go higher!”
“Back of the room … £1,000,000 going once, going twice, SOLD at £1 million pounds!”
Jason Johnson went weak at the knees as the room burst into spontaneous applause, leaving the earlier unsuccessful bidders scratching their heads in disbelief.
As per their standard procedure, Savills took a 10% deposit from the successful bidder, signed and exchanged the contracts on Jason’s behalf and told him he could expect completion within 20 working days.
“Can I ask who the successful purchaser was?” asked a dazed Jason Johnson
“The Crown Estate” came the reply
“The Crown Estate?” said an incredulous Jason Johnson
“That’s right. The Crown Estate is an independent commercial business. Technically it is owned by the Monarch, but all its revenues go to HM Treasury. It is fully accountable to Parliament”
“Why would they want 5 Baker Street Mews?” said Jason
“Absolutely no idea. They have an annual revenue stream of £1.9 billion so it’s a drop in the ocean to them”
This Decamot is dedicated to the memory of my mother who was a huge fan of Hutch.
It was inspired by the following Decamot items: Moorland, Abrams tank, hoofer, clock tower, Stetson, spectator, keyboard, 5th Avenue, satellite, telephone box