Mike Pentelow: much-loved journalist, communist, and author

By Peter Kirker

Mike Pentelow in pub.
Mike Pentelow enjoying music and a drink at the King and Queen pub in September 2018.

Mike Pentelow, who died suddenly at home in April, was a long serving contributor to Fitzrovia News and Tower, its predecessor, editor-in-chief for 13 years, and an accomplished trade union journalist and author.

His book Characters of Fitzrovia (2001) — a pantheon of artists, murderers, musicians and revolutionaries — came to print after he squeezed his manuscript through the letterbox of a neighbour who was also a multi-millionaire publisher. Felix Dennis had been a defendant in the notorious Oz trial, and may have been persuaded by Mike’s scrawled note: “You’re on page 242.” Dennis’s friend Marsha Rowe wrote an introduction for the book.

Mike had been part of the revival of the area many years before. In 1973 he was involved in a festival for the then nameless community. They decided to call it the Fitzrovia Festival, bringing back a name that had been used whimsically in the 1940s and 50s in the literary coterie around Dylan Thomas’s local, the Wheatsheaf in Rathbone Place, but that had fallen out of use in the 60s.

He combined his love of walking and pubs in two books he authored: Freedom Pass London (2014), and A Pub Crawl Through History: The Ultimate Boozers’ Who’s Who (2010). He shared the credit for both with his long-term photographer comrade Peter Arkell.

Norfolk Red, his biography of the agrarian communist Wilf Page, was a labour of love from which he expected no financial return, an expectation duly fulfilled.

Born in Sheffield, where his maternal grandfather played for Sheffield Wednesday, but soon to move with his family to Staines, Surrey, and then Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, Mike was the elder son of Joan (nee Topham) and Jack Pentelow, an accountant with Smiths Clocks and Watches.

Bashful about his rather posh schooling in Hampstead, Mike was pleased to bypass university and get straight to work in newspapers, starting as a trainee reporter on the Thurrock Gazette. The docks at that time were riven with the industrial strife that came with containerisation, and his sympathies were from the outset, as they always remained, firmly with the workers. But his copy was objective and he was professional enough to maintain cordial relationships with the employers.

During those Essex years at the end of the 1960s he helped stage the free Grays Beach Festival each year, providing opportunities for amateur rock bands drawn from impoverished surrounding neighbourhoods to play on stage to sizeable audiences in which mods, Hell’s Angels and the local drug squad mingled together largely without incident.

Always an ardent Watford fan, Mike found a way to combine his love of football with his socialist values by becoming a sports reporter with the Morning Star. He took a break to study economics, only to discover when he came back with a degree that he had been promoted from sport to the industry desk. He was stepping into shoes previously worn by communist luminaries like Bert Ramelson and Mick Costello, where his irrepressible streak of flippancy and an innocent unawareness of anything coming close to PC sometimes made for an uneasy fit. But he became a much loved character in the then still extant industrial lobby, and developed lasting friendships with leading left-wing trade-union leaders of the day.

In 1983 he went on to a colourful 20-year stint on T&G and Unite in-house titles, where he managed to survive his unsuccessful campaigning against Bill Morris’s re-election as general secretary — a reckless course for any staffer. His show-stopping dancing at Christmas parties is also well remembered. As Unite’s chief of staff Andrew Murray wrote in the Morning Star: “Mike put the social in Socialism.”

His immediate boss at the T&G was Chris Kaufman, one of several socialists who had been resident with Mike at 21 Nassau Street at one time or another in the late sixties and 1970s. And Chris it was who had masterminded Mike’s campaign when he stood for election to Westminster City Council in the Communist interest. Both were pleased and surprised that their efforts amassed 63 votes. In recent years, largely at their own expense, the brothers kept the Country Standard title afloat, latterly as an occasional Tolpuddle-focussed Morning Star supplement.

Renowned for his sparkling repartee, and quirky humour, the fun side of Mike’s nature found voice not least in his forming the International Stand By Me Club — the only club, so he claimed, dedicated to a single song. In a drunken midnight coup he and a Bremen-based chum, “Leaping” Jack Marlowe, appointed themselves “self-styled joint world presidents” and allowed the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to lead the parliamentary section. The Mansfield MP Alan (now Sir Alan) Meale listed it as his club in his Who’s Who entry and Ben E King, whose recording made the song famous, looked in to lend his support when visiting the UK — though plainly fazed by a whimsical tone that would have worked better with Mike’s friend David, Screaming Lord Sutch.

He had no family of his own but was fond of David and Clare, the son and daughter of his brother Guy. He also developed close and lasting bonds with the children of his friends, sometimes counting on them to get him into pantomimes — one of his passions, along with Music Hall, stand-up and most other forms of live entertainment. He was particularly proud to have trodden the boards himself in a Ken Campbell panto staged in Belfast to rowdy audiences of disadvantaged kids at the height of the Troubles.

When Fitzrovia News was relaunched in September 2007 Mike became the editor and features editor and stamped his mark on the paper. Mike had done a lot of local history research for his book Characters of Fitzrovia and he had been writing articles for the paper for a long time, including for Tower, Fitzrovia News’ predecessor from 1973 to 1979. He was the senior journalist and a natural to take a lead on the editorial content.

An old-school professional journalist, Mike took rapid notes in shorthand, commissioned illustrators and cartoonists to give the paper some flair and drew on favours from old friends in the neighbourhood to contribute features about people and places.

Under his leadership Fitzrovia News went from publishing eight pages for every quarterly edition to 16 pages with some editions carrying 20 or even 24 pages — not bad for a paper produced by volunteers and supported by advertising from local businesses. Many of the 5,000 copies printed were stuffed through people’s letterboxes by Mike himself — whether they wanted the free paper or not!

Mike’s gift was his unique eye for finding amusing anecdotes to write about the many characters who passed through the neighbourhood. He also wrote a regular column featuring local characters that he would meet in pubs and cafes.

He was a keen walker and combined this with his love of local history to undertake guided tours of the neighbourhood, visiting buildings and places of interest and recounting amusing anecdotes about the famous and infamous who had lived there.

He also organised one of London’s biggest ever pub crawls. Over six days from Monday 28 March to Saturday 2 April 2011, Mike and friends visited every one of Fitzrovia’s 46 pubs. Starting at the Green Man on Euston Road, the oldest Pub in Fitzrovia, and finishing in The Tottenham (now the Flying Horse) the only remaining pub on Oxford Street. He even wrote a short history of all the pubs, complete with a map he drew by hand for a special feature published in the paper.

When I chatted with Chris Kaufman shortly after Mike’s death we were in naturally subdued spirits. But within minutes the mood gave way to laughter as an avalanche of hilarious anecdotes came tumbling into the conversation. As Chris reflected, it will be the case in years to come that whenever Mike is brought to mind, heartfelt unconstrained laughter will quickly follow. It’s a priceless legacy.

Mike had no immediate family but is outlived by his brother Guy, a one-time president of Norwich Union in Canada, who is now living in Canada again.

Michael John Pentelow born 26 May 1946, died 1 April 2020.