As If By Magic, The Shopkeeper Appeared (I Am Mr Benn’s Love Child)

Finding myself in a kind of literary limbo – waiting for news about my new book release and the next stages of a couple of other projects – I decided to decamp from sleepy Cambridge for a few days to the illustrious streets of South West London, to quell my itchy writing fingers and clear the mind in preparation for all that comes next. I have family links to the Putney area and thought that now would be a good time to investigate a couple of particular family legends originating from my Nan’s side of the family.


My grandparents have always been a rich source of unlikely tales from way-back-when, especially my grandfather and his naval exploits. Whilst he hails from what was once the rough-and-tumble East End, decades before the fashion of creeping gentrification, my Nan came from the slightly more gentile area of Upper Richmond Road in the South West. Her father owned a large, double fronted tobacconist and sweet shop, where Mumsie remembers sitting on the huge wooden counter as a child, sucking the sugar off the bonbons before putting them back in the jar. Heath and safety regulations were presumably somewhat more slack in the 1950s than those we enjoy today, but one hopes that the young Mumsie had nothing but the best interests of customers’ dental health in mind at the time.


Never short of quirky characters in our family, Mumsie had a cousin called Tom who at the time was famous for walking his pet chicken, Phillip, up and down Putney High Street on a piece of string. In days long before the easy availability of cameras, the only record that remains of this scintillating piece of local history is the word-of-mouth recollections of our good selves. Hoping that such a sight might have caught the interest of locals at the time, I intended to search the local history section of Putney library to see if any photographs of Tom and Phillip existed and also to track down my great grandfather’s sweetshop, which by now is likely converted or even demolished.

Mumise was very small at this time (she isn’t very big now, to be fair) and my grandparents’ memories are foggy after eighty six years, so no clear information about the location of the sweetshop is forthcoming. Despite being unable to trace this elusive emporium, nor finding any pictorial evidence of the enterprising Tom and Phillip, a happy couple of hours were spent exploring both the historical records and lively streets themselves.

Putney is perhaps the closest thing to Cambridge that you can experience in London. Here you will find the starting point of the legendary Oxford and Cambridge boat race and the banks of the Thames boast boat houses of varying grandeur, homes to all manner of top-notch rowing clubs. The bright, crisp afternoon was perfect for wandering along the river, watching a bit of rowing and hunting for another historical location – Festings Road.

For those of a certain age, a certain bowler hat-wearing children’s character by the name of Mr Benn needs no introduction. Created by David McKee, Mr Benn was a smart London gent whose address was the only slightly fictional 52 Festive Road (next door to McKee’s own address at the time of 54 Festing Road). Every day he would leave his house, dressed smartly in a black suit and bowler hat, to visit a fancy-dress shop where a mysterious shopkeeper would inexplicably appear and suggest he try on an outfit. Mr Benn would dutifully don the outfit du jour then leave through a magic door and embark upon an adventure related to his costume.

This was a successful quest and I merrily hummed the Mr Benn theme tune and jauntily announced the infamous catchphrase of ‘As if by magic, the shopkeeper appeared!’ with the kind of gusto you can no doubt imagine. So pleased was I with my own adventure, that I had to go to a nearby public house to raise a glass to the fellow who served as an early influence of my love of bowler hats. Sharing details of my endeavours of social media, as one does in this day and age, I was delighted to receive a tweet from Mr Benn himself! His Twitter feed suggests that he spends less time in costume shops these days, preferring to visit classic car shows, but the similarities between our profile pictures leads me to believe that I might be his love child.

Mumsie has some explaining to do, I suspect.

More bowler hat adventures!

First Lady Of The Keys – Amazon UK   Amazon US

The Vanishing Lord – Amazon UK   Amazon US

Guest Post – Welcome, Dermott Hayes!

Today we are proud to welcome writer, poet and raconteur Dermott Hayes to the blog. A proud and dashing Irishman, he would like to share with you the true story of Zorro with whom he – rather unexpectedly – shares his heritage. Over to you, Dermott…

I learned to swash and buckle watching Zorro in the Disney produced tv
series of the same name. It only ran for three seasons between 1957
and 1959 and finally reached my local station sometime in the early
‘60s. Don Diego de la Vega may have been a poetry loving fop but
Zorro, the masked man with the fast horse and a sharp blade, now there
was a hero.
My sword is a flame
to right every wrong
so heed well my name

el zorro
There was no shortage of small screen heroes then, perfect for
impressionable boys. These shows vied for space and attention in that
narrow coveted window between 5 and 6 o’clock. Heroes like The Lone
Ranger, The Cisco Kid, Robin Hood and Ivanhoe and for the older kids,
Rawhide, Cheyenne, Wells Fargo and Bonanza, abounded.
Zorro was different, though. He was deceptive and cunning, appreciated
the finer things in life, rode a horse, wore a cape and a mask and, to
crown it all, he was an exceptional swordsman.
We made our own masks and fashioned swords from shaved twigs.
But what I didn’t know was he was Irish. Imagine how that might have
played for a six year old Irish kid in a cape and a mask and a broom
for a horse.
That he was a Freemason, too, might not have had the same impact but
for a 60 year old, the bits fall into place and you can see why
Hollywood embraced him.

His real name was William Lamport, a descendant of an old Irish Norman
family who settled in Ireland after the invasion of Richard de Clare,
2nd Earl of Pembroke, in 1170 AD. His family built a castle in
Rosslare, Co Wexford in the south east of Ireland, a location that
gave the family unprecedented control of trade routes to England and
The family were scions of the English ascendancy they came from but
their roots were set in Ireland and, to coin a phrase used by Irish
historians before, became more Irish than the Irish themselves. This
brought them into frequent conflict and rebellion against the forces
of the British Crown who they considered, for all intents and purpose,
invaders. Lamport’s grandfather, Patrick sided with Hugh O’Neill, Earl
of Tyrone at the disastrous Battle of Kinsale in 1601. He was pursued
by Elizabeth’s successor, James 1, until he was caught and arrested in
1617 and executed by the express order of the King.

Lamport statue
William was educated by Augustinian and Franciscan monks in Wexford
and later, the Jesuits in Dublin. In 1628 he went to London’s Gresham
College to study. Remarkably, he was only 15 years old. He fled from
England under charges of treason, after writing and publishing a
controversial pamphlet critical of the rule of James I. En route to
France, he was captured by pirates and spent two years with them
before making his way to Spain and aligning himself with exiled
members of the Irish ascendancy. Here, he attended the Colegio de
Ninos Nobles, changed his name to Don Guillen Lombardo and converted
his old pirate friends to Catholicism and loyalty to the Spanish
crown. Within a couple of years he won a scholarship to study at the
Colegio des Irlandeses in Salamanca and, from there, gained the
patronage of the Conde Duque de Olivares, King Philip IV’s principal
minister who sent him from there to the Colegio de San Lorenzo del
Escorial, recognised as the training ground for top level servants to
the Spanish Crown.

Lamport Reubens
Having already distinguished himself during his pirate days for his
part in defeating the British navy at the siege of La Rochelle, Guilem
became a captain in the Spanish army, an advance facilitated by
recognition as the protege of the Conde Duque de Olivares and the
assumption of his family name, Don Guillen Lombardo became Don Guile
Lombardo de Guzman. As a captain in the Spanish royal army, he
acquitted himself with distinction against Sweden at Nordlingen (1634)
and the siege of Fuenterrabia (1638). A short, red haired and handsome
Irishman, well educated (he boasted he could speak 14 languages by the
age of 25) and a Spanish captain, Guillen turned to diplomacy and this
capacity he served at the Belgian court. Here, renowned Flemish
artists, Peter Paul Reubens and Anthony Van Dyck, painted his
Guillen returned to Spain and the service of his Catalonian patron,
Olivares where he continued his activities of diplomacy and espionage.
He was also involved in an Irish plot to put together a second Spanish
armada for the liberation of Ireland. It was during this time too when
he began a liaison with a Spanish noblewoman, Dona Ana de Cano y Leyva
with whom he had a child. The scandal compelled him to flee Spain for
the new world and Mexico. He travelled in the escort fleet of the
newly appoint Spanish viceroy to Mexico, the Marques de Villena and
would later claim he travelled under the express orders of his patron,
Duque Olivares to keep an eye on Villena, a suspected sympathiser to
the Portuguese secession of 1580.
That secession was the first crack in the authority of the mighty
Spanish empire and Olivares was then convinced there was similar
unrest amongst the noblemen of Mexico. On arrival, Guillen befriended
and took up residence with Don Fernando Carrillo, a prominent member
of the Mexican Imperial government and also a leading figure in the
community of Mexican noble families. Through them he became familiar
with local politics. He also befriended the Bishop of Puebla, Juan de
Palafox y Mendoza who was plotting the overthrow of Viceroy Villena.
This got official sanction from Spanish Prime Minister Olivares after
he received a report from Guillen, critical of the viceroy.
Despite this, Guillen was not given a post in the new administration
led by the Bishop of Puebla. He did meet a court petitioner named Don
Ignacio who he helped to frame his petitions and between the two and
their occasional forays with peyote, the hallucinogenic mushroom,
contrived, in 1642, a declaration of Independence for Mexico from the
Spanish empire.
This was not a traditional coup d’etat style overthrow either.
Guillen’s proposals were a broad plan for sovereignty and a complete
change of regime involving expansive social change. His allies were a
broad coalition of disaffected native born nobles, ex-slaves and
miners. Don Ignacio declared Guillen would be Mexico’s future king but
it would be unlike any other kingdom in existence.
In 1642, Guillen was arrested by The Inquisition on charges of heresy,
associated with his use of the peyote fungus. He spent the following
seventeen years in prison, defending himself against the Inquisition
and writing several treatises, a memoir and 900 psalms, all contrived
with the use of a chicken feather for a quill, ink fashioned from
candle grease and water, his own bedsheets and cigarette papers.
On December 25, 1651, Guillen did manage to perform the impossible by
escaping from the high security prison where he was incarcerated. Free
for just one day, he spent it posting pamphlets denouncing the Spanish
empire and its Mexican imperial government and was re-arrested and
imprisoned. In his last three years he declined into insanity but left
behind an image that was elevated to legendary status by his prison
escape. He was condemned for execution by the Inquisition and burned
at the stake. Guillen had other ideas and managed to throttle himself
with the rope holding him to the stake before it could be set alight.
And that’s where it might have all ended, Guillen Lamport or Don
Guillen Lombardo de Guzman might have been consigned to the footnotes
of history or a mention in a family memoir until Vincente Riva
Palacio, a retired Mexican general, politician and author published
Don Guillen Lombardo: Memoirs of an Imposter in 1872, depicting
Lamport as a foppish poetry spitting dandy by day and a glamourous
swashbuckling swordsman by night. The renewed interest in Lamport also
revived enthusiasm for him as the first hero of Mexican Independence
and a true revolutionary for his radical socio-political ideas. His
statue now sits in a mausoleum beneath the Angel of Independence
alongside the remains of other noted names of Mexico’s revolutionary
And thus, once more, Lamppost rose and just as quickly fell out of the
limelight until 1999 when an Italian historian (Fabio Troncarelli of
Viterbi University) asserted Lamport/Lombardo was the inspiration for
the comic book, tv and film character, Zorro.
There were similarities, certainly. Both were poetry loving gentlemen
who eschewed violence but led double lives as gallant swordsmen who
fought oppression. The character Zorro first appeared in a five
episode serialisation called The Curse of Capistrano in the pulp
fiction magazine All Story Weekly in 1919. It was written by pulp
fiction writer, Johnston McCulley who set most of his stories in
southern California. El Zorro means ‘the fox’ in Spanish and was a
name Riva Palacio gave another of his characters in an earlier novel,
Martin Garatuza, a notorious 17th century conman and aside from the
plot similarities, this was the point Troncarelli used to illustrate
what he claimed was a direct link between Palacio’s 19th century book
about Lamport and McCulley’s El Zorro.
Other writers drew comparisons between McCulley’s hero and The Scarlet
Pimpernel created by Baroness Emmuska Orczy.
Whichever is the truth, the story of William Lamport does lend
credence to the adage that truth is stranger than fiction. There is
another odd angle to the story, suggested by Troncarelli, almost as an

Zorro’s creator, Johnston McCulley was a freemason and the letter ‘Z’
bears particular import for masons being derived from the semitic
word, ziza, a symbol of light to freemason initiates in their struggle
against the forces of oppression and darkness. If nothing else, for
the purpose of a swashbuckling pulp fiction hero, it gave him gravity
and righteous purpose. McCulley’s Zorro story was well received and
within a year the film rights were acquired by Douglas Fairbanks and
led to Zorro’s first appearance on the big screen in 1920’s Mask of
Zorro. Conspiracy theorists will be happy to know Fairbanks was a
freemason, too.
Whatever the truth, Zorro was my hero in my youth and even if he’s not
William Lamppost, though I doubt it, at least I’ve gained another
hero, an Irishman of wit, bravery and intelligence who fought against

Please do visit Dermott at his blog, Postcard From A Pigeon, where you will find all manner of wonderful things.

A Legend, Close To Home

The Antiques Shop Owner beckons us through to a room at the back of the shop. It is arranged like a drawing-room – the sumptuous personal quarters of a dignified academic, perhaps – but labels and tags hanging from the furniture seem to indicate that it is simply further stock for his unusual emporium. Dimly lit and cunningly arranged, this room feels rather like a staged set; darkly theatrical and other-worldly in equal measure, I must say that I am glad of the Professor’s company in this place.

“Please, make yourself at home,” says the Shop Owner, gesturing to the eclectic array of seating scattered about the room. Professor Duke heads for a high-backed velvet armchair with matching footstool, which he settles himself into with a cacophony of satisfied gruntings. Spying a tea set sat proudly upon an elderly looking dining room table, I pull up one of the accompanying chairs hoping that my proximity to the tea things will prompt an offer of refreshment.

I never know quite how seriously to take an offer to ‘make myself at home’. Probably not too seriously, I would think. Sometimes I wonder if it is merely a friendly way of saying ‘sit down’. Just as I am considering pushing the boundaries of ‘making myself at home’ into ‘making myself a pot of tea’, the Shop Owner joins me at the table. He rather rudely has his back to the Professor, although I soon notice that he can see him reflected in the highly polished surface of a gilded mirror situated on the wall close by. The Professor has already spotted this and is eyeing the Shop Owner with some intent.



The Antique Shop Owner and my good self


“Tell me, my Old College friends,” the Shop Owner begins, his keen eyes flitting between mine and the reflection of the Professor. “What think you of mysteries? And, for that matter, histories?” There is an expectant pause, during which we are evidently expected to do more than gawp gormlessly, which is what we do. “What find you more compelling – the mysteries of histories or… the histories of mysteries?”

“Well, here it is,” the Professor replies testily, “Riddles vex me, overall. So, let’s not speak in riddles; otherwise, if you insist to speak in riddles, I shall need some tea Deputy Head Porter would like some, too.”

“The Professor is right,” I agree. “But back to your question – we at Old College are fairly well versed in both history and mystery. If you want our help, which I can only assume that you do, then you had better start with some straight-talk. And if you have such thing as a kettle, I should get it on, sharpish.”

The Shop Owner ignores us both and continues as if neither of us had said a word.

“Since I was a small boy, my interest has been held by arguably the greatest legend of these lands – or any lands, it could even be said! A legend so well-known that it has become intangible. That is to say, the legend of the Knights Templar and their quest for the Holy Grail!”

Professor Duke sits up smartly in his chair.

“Deputy Head Porter – I must be forward a bit – This guy’s mad!” he says, not even attempting to be tactful. “I say if there’s no tea to be had then we buy The Master the sparkly earring and be away with ourselves.”

“You would not rather present the most elusive treasure of legend to The Master of Old College?” the Shop Owner asks, although his tone suggests that this is more of an instruction than a question. “For I have reason to believe that it lay very close by.”

Professor Duke is momentarily distracted by this surprise announcement and I wish I could say the same. However, I am so accustomed to the unlikliness of the academic world that very little shocks me these days. An enigmatic antique dealer talking about the Holy Grail does not create quite the twang of anticipation that one might expect. In fact, I would go as far as to say that if there was ever a likely hiding place for the Grail, Old College could very well be it. Head Of Housekeeping probably keeps jellybeans in it, or something.

The Professor strides over and stands beside my chair, hand on hip – a sure sign that he means business.

“Now, I’ve got a question – or a few,” he fixes the Shop Owner with his very best stare. “What makes you so sure that the Grail is in Old College and why are you so keen to share this information with us? Speak up!”

The Shop Owner slides out a little drawer, artfully concealed within the table’s edge. He removes some carefully collected papers, tied with blue ribbon. He handles the small bundle as one would an explosive or deadly poison; as he does so, he speaks.

“All my life I have researched and hunted for the truth about the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail,” he says. “Along the way I have found many truths and of many things I can be certain. The Templar’s connection to The City, yes. And… the connection to Old College is all but cast in stone…” He gently pushes the unwrapped papers across the table towards me. A quick glance is enough to tell me that they are written in a form of old English that I haven’t a hope of understanding. The Shop Owner seems to sense this and is good enough to explain further.

“It says in here, amongst other things, that ‘the Grail sleeps beneath the  dragon, watched over by minds of fire.’ It is my belief that the Templar entrusted the Grail to the College founders, so that it might be hidden within the construction.”

The Order of the Lesser Dragon,” I reply, scratching my chin.

“Well, I wouldn’t put anything past those buggers,” agrees the Professor. Then he adds “Dadblameit!”

“I am certain that the Grail lies within the grounds,” the Shop Owner reiterates, a passion rising in him now. “But someone such as myself would never be permitted to search in such secret places. But you – you! You both could hunt for me, uncover the truth and take the gift that wants itself to be taken! The gift of truth and of legend.”

The Shop Owner is wild-eyed with fervency now and is a humble supplicant to our mercy and favour. I look over expectantly towards the Professor, who shrugs his shoulders.

“You know, the Holy Grail would make a brilliant gift for The Master,” he says.

“Oh, go on, then,” I say, resigned to the fact. “I suppose we could take a quick look around the old place.”


With Professor VJ Duke