Muswell Hillbillies. Muswell Hill 1970’s.

Through a friend of a friend, Mick and I found a flat in Muswell hill north London which was not far from Wood Green but a much nicer place. The flat was in a crumbling Edwardian three story house typical of Muswell Hill. There were many of these houses and almost all had been converted into flats. It was a number 13 the second number thirteen I had lived in [ the first being The Etchings in Leicester ] but I was not superstitious in fact it seemed to bring me good luck. We occupied the second floor flat, a young couple with a baby lived downstairs , and an old lady who was a sitting tenant and had been there since the war lived on the top floor. I believe this would have once been the servants quarters. The house had a small garden which only the ground floor tenants had access to, beyond that was Highgate Wood a lovely sight to look out on and full of red squirrels and mourning doves.
A few minutes walk uphill took you to Muswell Hill Broadway and the shops. It had a wonderful small town feel and everything you needed. There was a small Art Deco [ listed ] Odeon, The John Baird pub with a laundromat next to it [great excuse] a greengrocers and a fishmongers, and one tiny supermarket. Nearer to our flat was a row of shops, a newsagent, an off license, and a butcher shop. Highgate tube station was a five minute walk  the other way through the wood, across Muswell Hill Road and down a steep narrow path. If you took this path too quickly you ended up running and could not stop and it was hell on high heels. I suspect many a  shoe or boot shank gave out down this path. Next to the tube was another pub called The Woodman,  handy to pop into after the journey home. Pubs in the 70’s were for the most part were yellow dark stinking places with dodgy food, everybody smoked and we must have all reeked. Another nearby pub was The Archway Tavern the interior of which is featured on The Kinks album ‘Muswell Hillbillies’ from 1971.

The Kinks Muswell Hillbillies Album 1971

The Kinks Muswell Hillbillies Album 1971

Ray and Dave Davies were born and still lived in Muswell Hill and I saw Dave Davies around a few times.  The Archway Tavern was a bit rough back then and we avoided it. Long John Baldry also lived nearby and I found myself standing next to him in the butchers one day .  He  really was incredibly tall and I had heels on. The butchers was run by pensioners and was such a pleasant place to go, we were all on first name terms. I was learning how to cook and had two 70’s staples under my belt , beef bourginone and spaghetti bolognese.
Back at the flat I began to chat to the old lady upstairs and she invited me up to her three tiny rooms. They were almost knee deep in rubbish, papers ,cheques and bills were everywhere, there were clothes all over the place and drawers open and it soon became clear she was terribly confused and had quite profound short term memory loss. She had a great long term memory however and told me  stories about her childhood. She  also  insisted on being called ‘ Erly’ because her family name was Erlebach and she came from quite an aristocratic background . She lived in a huge mansion as a child, and still had the monogrammed family silver cutlery. She remembered that during the  first world war the family was shunned because of their German name and had stones thrown at them.  During the second world war she had quite an important ministerial job and took the flat she was still in now, as a sitting tenant she was still paying the WWII rent of two pounds a week!  Despite her constant confusion she was a very happy  active person for her mid seventies and as fit as a fiddle apart from a little trouble with her knees. She would go out nearly every day to visit friends dressed in very old fashioned sensible clothes and shoes and grey hair tied back in a bun. Sometimes she came back in the early hours and got us up because she had forgotten her key or she had missed the bus stop and had to walk back to the house for miles. Some nights  she never seemed to sleep and we could hear
her rummaging around  for hours all the while talking to herself. One day ,  Mick was the only person at home when he heard her calling out for help in the bathroom we all shared. She could not get out of the bath because of her knees, in a panic Mick called our girlfriend who lived nearby and she came over to lift her out. Luckily she had not locked the door. My friend told me later that Erly had the most beautiful skin. The grandma I eventually illustrated for the Biba 1974 winter makeup colours flyer is based on Erly  although I did make her a bit more robust.
I travelled to Biba to stock up on my favourite makeup which was the rust  and tobacco lipstick and eye shadows. I also loved the little black pots of foundation in yellow no, 1 and no.2 the only foundations I could find that were actually my skin colour. I think I bought a rust t shirt at this time, I loved that colour so much. I absorbed everything else there as well and tried a few things on but I had a terrible time with my broad shoulders and everything was a very tight fit.  Biba size 12 was tiny on top.
There was one charity shop on Broadway but it did not yield too much. I did buy a beautiful black wool riding jacket from there, it looked like an ordinary 40’s padded single breasted jacket at the front, but the back had a lovely flounce to it and it was in great condition. I replaced the plain black buttons with some lovely Art Deco ones from my dwindling collection.  On days off I would take a double decker bus and sitting on the top deck travel anywhere just to find junk shops, but there was not much around. A second hand clothes shop opened near The Woodman pub, it had 30’s and 40’s attire cleaned and mended and in great condition. I saw a beautiful red silk dress there but it was five pounds so I did not buy it. I mentioned it later to a friend and she warned me that the days of buying cheap old clothes were coming to an end  and that in London junk shops and jumble sales were being scoured by expert buyers for places like The Kensington antique markets. I went back and bought the dress and I am glad I did, it was lovely. I adopted another fashion at this time and that was rolling my straight Levis into a cuff up to the knee. It was difficult to achieve because Levis were as stiff as a board back then, I suppose it was to show off nice boots, who knows. I designed a version for the household girl logo later.

Biba Logo Household Floor

Biba Logo Household Floor

With lots of nice places to walk I had to get some  sensible shoes . I had become aware that I could not stand with my feet flat on the ground anymore without experiencing terrible pain between my heels and my calf and I had to get straight into my high heels when I got out of bed in the morning. I read a while back that Victoria Beckham has the same problem because she wears high heels all the time and it is something to do with a tendon becoming shortened. It is very painful but I was not going to go flat so I bought a pair of three inch heeled chunky lace ups for walking which eased the problem a bit. Highgate cemetery was about a thirty minute walk away in Highgate village and I loved to go there. Back in the 70’s though it was very neglected and dilapidated, some of the mausoleums had been broken into and there was talk of satanism and other things going on there, even supposed sightings of a vampire.  It was very creepy but now it is well tended in a controlled wilderness kind of way.

highgate09 highgate04 highgate08 highgate01 highgate03-1

Highgate Cemetery Photos courtesy of Tom Partlett.

Highgate Cemetery Photos courtesy of Tom Partlett.

Another activity we enjoyed was roller skating at Alexandra Palace or Ally Pally as it was called. About half an hours walk towards Wood Green on the other side of Muswell Hill Broadway , Alexandra Palace was called the  Peoples Palace and had many musical events over the years , the most famous being  ‘The 14 hour Technicolour Dream’,  which took place on the 29th of April 1967 featuring many musicians artists and poets . Bands such as Pink Floyd, Arthur Brown, The Pretty Things, Soft Machine and many many more played. I was still at school then but remember hearing about Yoko Ono cutting some girls clothes off and everybody taking drugs. Now here we were roller skating, but there was a bar and we used it. I do not know how it was allowed but you could actually skate from the rink into the adjoining bar, purchase drinks on a tray and skate to a table. None of us were very good but  I used to go roller skating as a kid. It was such fun and the more you drank the braver you got. It all came to an end when one of our friends fell and broke her wrist, we all came to the conclusion that this was not a suitable recreation for budding graphic designers.
Working in a design studio as an illustrator was quite a shock to say the least, even though it had been drummed into  us at college that when starting out you did absolutely anything. My first job at Tempo Arts was to design bright yellow starbursts with 2p off in red lettering for the labels of tins of supermarket cat food, all these years of studying Art History and illustration had led me to this!  But I pressed on and worked on some other very strange things. One of the partners of the studio was a small cockney man named Dennis,  the spitting image of Dell Boy from the TV sitcom ‘Only Fools and Horses’ right down to the camel coat and big cigar. He took it upon himself to take my portfolio around to look for work. One day he gave me a tiny map to draw , ” here luv draw that, it will only take five minutes.” he said. I drew it quickly in pentel and forgot about it. A few weeks later I was horrified to see it blown up into five feet tall underground posters all over the place, thank goodness my name was not on it. The most embarassing job I had was designing the insert instructions for a brand of condoms. I had to clean up the style to look like a tampax instruction leaflet , very clear linear drawings. The existing instructions for the condoms were gross showing every vein and hair imaginable and was passed around the studio with great laughter. Still, I did a good job.
The walk to the studio from Farringdon tube station was a challenge . Tempo Arts was on John st. just opposite Smithfield’s Meat Market and I had to walk the gauntlet of drunken ‘blokes’ who had just come off the night shift. The numerous pubs surrounding the market were open early in the morning and so full that the revellers spilled out onto the streets leering at any women passing by. When I was with Mick they ignored me of course but when I came in on my own they let me have it. They did not like my granny clothes and used to sing ‘ Second hand Rose’ at me. There was no other way to get to the studio.
There was a lot excitement  when we had work from the legendary Wolff Olins  Design Group [still a famous branding consultancy today]. Tempo Arts was the feeder studio for Wolff Olins  and the assembly artists would put together their campaigns to present to clients. This was meticulously done by hand and there was always a lot of tension in the air when it was happening. Wolff Olins had been in business since the 60’s and were one of the hippest design groups , as students we worshipped them. I will never forget them turning up at our studio to collect their presentation on their motorbikes and dressed in blue boiler suits.
I suggested to Dennis that he should take my portfolio to the IPC magazines on Fleet Street which was only fifteen minutes walk away. I had been creating illustrations in my spare time geared towards magazine editorial especially fashion. He came back one day with a job from Petticoat magazine, a little illustration for a cooking recipe. I was so exited, I had been reading Petticoat along with 19 and Honey magazines for years. They seemed to like what I did and I got regular work from them. My job at Tempo Arts came to an end however, Dennis explained that the studio could not sustain my type of work, there was just not enough of it. So suddenly I was a freelance illustrator working from home, I informed Petticoat magazine and they promised me more work and I set about making more contacts, it was a real make or break time and I was filled with anxiety. I started drawing illustrations with real earnest now on a dining room table listening to Erly rattling about upstairs.

8 comments

  1. Great stuff…. how daunting it must have felt to have to freelance,.. however it shows how brave you were, not to mention that your talent was sound! It seems to me that so much more was possible in those 7Os days…. or maybe that thought comes to mind because of being young & free?

  2. PS.. love the photos of Highgate Cemetery …..awesome..

  3. Thank you, looking back now I think we were all quite brave but we all networked too and looked out for each other. I got a lot of work and tips from friends. There were lots of talented people around and lots of work. Being young and thinking we could do anything helped too.

  4. Gloria Romei · · Reply

    I have just purchased the biba diary and address book, I was so impressed with the beautiful little drawings in the diary, I still remember going to the coffee bar in Biba the drawings so do the iconic Biba style justice I too have bought old mags like Petticoat, Jackie and some of the drawings in those too are amazing. I’m originally from Islington and can relate to your Muswell days, they definitely were the good old days for me!

  5. Thankyou Gloria, yes they were the good old days,we were all lucky.

  6. Daniel E. · · Reply

    This is so random, finding your posting! If the Number 13 refers to Muswell Hill Rd, which your description suggests it is, then we were neighbors! I lived at Number 15 from 1975 to 1979, while attending Creighton Comprehensive School in Muswell Hill. I was a teenager and most likely only aware of teenage girls of about my age at the time – but you might have known the artists who lived downstairs: First, Hans Unger, a reknowned poster and mosaic artist, who sadly killed himself a few days after we moved in upstairs. Second, Lixi Darvall, a beloved illustrator who then moved in and lived there until she, also tragically, died of cancer around 1979. Or you might have known my mum, Ruth, who knew and adopted everyone she could feed…

    Your descriptions bring back memories, (the deathly path to the tube station, especially in autumn when the wet leaves turned it into an inadvertent skating challenge of its own), and while the second hand shop on Archway Rd probably yielded several outfits for a growing teenager, it was the Oxfam shop down towards Archway Station from which my mum fished a fabulous British Rail workman’s wool coat that I still wear today, almost 40 years later, and probably 60 years after it was manufactured!!

    Well, sorry about the random ramble, but I never cease to marvel at the connections made possible by the internet!

  7. Just found your comments after watching a programme about Rod Stewart and Long John Baldry and was looking for some internet info. I lived in Muswell Hill in the 70’s and recall seeing Mr Baldry walking in the area with a small white goat !!
    I have many memories of living there and shall write them down if this page is still active.
    You mention IPC Magazines in Fleet St. Their offices were everywhere but not Fleet St. Farringdon House was the nearest to Fleet St. Petticoat was as I recall a DC Thomson publication.
    I worked for IPC for 17 years starting in Covent Garden and ending up in Stamford Street.

    1. well I never saw Mr Baldry with a goat in tow.
      Thanks for the correction about the magazines. I must admit I am a bit foggy about that area.

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