It was a Saturday night in east London when I was introduced to Walthamstow Tony. Walthamstow Tony was connected to a local Leyton character, a face, who had a reputation as a murderer, a pub brawler, a man who beat up the husband of a woman to whom he happened to be bigamously married at the time. Yes, Walthamstow Tony had my attention all right.
If you are already familiar with the extraordinary story of George Gascoigne, the two-fisted Tudor poet, chancer and scapegrace, you'll know that the unlikely manorial address of Walthamstow Tony appears in his biography. I went to E11 to hear about the original disgraceful Gazza, at a talk given to the News from Nowhere Club. The club takes its name from the back catalogue of William Morris, and has made a metaphorical pokerwork sampler out of Morris's saying "Fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death". In so far as the club has anything as incongruous as a mission statement, it is to "foster fellowship in east London and challenge the commercialism and isolation of modern social life".
Meetings are held in a communal hall. Entry is free and open to all, but you are encouraged to bring food and drink. On the night of the Gascoigne lecture, titillatingly billed as "Sex, violence, censorship - and Walthamstow", there was a well-stocked drinks cart. An Italian seed cake gently crumbled beside trees of cutlery. The speaker was Ron Binns, the editor of a slim treasury of Gascoigne's verse (Selected Poems, Zoilus Press, £12). "The hero goes to see the woman in his nightgown," said Binns, discussing a bawdy piece of juvenilia, "and there's a lot of play along the lines of 'underneath it, he conveys his naked sword'. They end up having sex on the floor."
"Not very comfortable," volunteered a woman behind me in Leyton tones. She looked about 40. I was interested to see that she was knitting.
"Sounds like ideal Channel 5 material," said a man in a polka-dot cravat and corduroys of a dense denier.
"Men even now refer to their 'tool' or 'weapon', and vagina is the Latin name for a sword sheath, isn't it?" the knitter continued.
Generally speaking, there was a solid show of beards and zip-up fleeces. Points from the floor were outstandingly knowledgeable, and conformed to the iron law of public meetings that queries are really speeches with question marks at the end of them.
Jean Croxton, one of the organisers of the club, said: "We're sort of William Morris people. People who don't necessarily fit in with a conventional social life, with football or going to the pub."
The News from Nowhere Club (020 8555 5248) meets on the second Saturday of every month. Forthcoming attractions include Romany culture, Plan Colombia and Alan Sillitoe on being a writer