Remembering Alfie Howard
We pay tribute to Lambeth's longest serving Town Crier
(20th April 2007. Words by Kirsten Downer, photos by urban75)
Lambeth town crier Alfie Howard died one year ago this Saturday, aged 93. A popular Brixtonian fixture, he was renowned for his chutzpah and charm and for entertaining Saturday night revellers whilst dressed in 18th century style tricorne hat and hand-stitched robes.
By rights he should have been an anachronism, but somehow he wasn't; he adapted himself to the times, and had more optimism about society than most young people.
Even after he was accidentally hit on the head by a crossbow bolt in 2002 - when he was in his nineties - he remained undaunted.
Here, one Londoner remembers the night she first met Howard:
Saturday evening, 7 pm 1999. I'm sitting in the Prince of Wales pub in Brixton, where the staff are bracing themselves on the cusp of a long night. Party people will start here for a few drinks, then go on to another bar or club up the road; perhaps the Fridge, or maybe the Dog Star.
But that comes later - Brixton hasn't picked the sleep out of its eyes yet. In the pub, we are still having coherent conversations and listening to each other.
Until a sudden apocalyptic clanging noise fills the pub. A nerve-shattering sound, impossible to ignore. I turn to the door and do a double-take. Unbelievably, it seems to come from an elderly man who has just walked through the doorway, clutching a large brass bell.
Dressed in a tricorne hat, breeches and an embroidered cape, he's bellowing: 'Oyez! Oyez! By the power invested in me as town crier I am commanded to welcome you to the London borough of Lambeth. God Save the Queen!' Alfie Howard has arrived.
Heads have turned, but in the Prince of Wales no-one seems surprised at the sight of a screaming octogenarian. Some revellers smile in recognition. Most of them know Howard. He's Lambeth's town crier and after all, he has lived here in Brixton for the last 89 years.
Brixton has improved over that time, he asserts, and those who don't agree are just too 'old'. "I'm 89, and I'm beginning to dislike old people," he says to me over a drink. "They moan, they groan; what have they got to moan about?
I don't judge a place by its architecture and buildings; I judge it by the people. I like people and that's why I like Brixton. It's alive."
Howard has been Lambeth's official town crier since World War II, adapting the oral news service tradition passed down to him by his father. "I used to tell the news,' he says, 'but it was all bad, so I stopped."
The town crier 'brief' is to announce all new local and national news and laws and royal proclamations, but Howard hasn't stuck to that. "You find your own way of doing it," he says. "For a start, the places where we are supposed to give the news are no longer applicable.
In the Middle Ages a churchyard was a good place to reach people but now the only people who'd hear you are under the ground. And the laws now are far too long to announce."
Howard prefers to proclaim in pubs. Or street markets. Or cafes, restaurants and clubs. Anywhere he can be guaranteed an audience, get his booming south London voice heard.
Other town criers cut ribbons at village fetes and jape in front of American cameras; Howard works the innercity late 20th century streets of a multi-racial borough. And the fact that he undertakes this surreal tour of duty makes the rest of us feel a lot safer.
After all, if an 80 year-old feels secure enough to gad about late at night drawing attention to himself, then why not me?
And he has managed to create a peculiar niche for himself. He is part newsgiver, announcing news on behalf of Brixton civil authorities and police, and part showman and promoter of tourism.
He has met Goldie Hawn, Princess Diana, Charlie Chaplin and Peter Ustinov, travelled to 61 countries and somehow become official town crier of Los Angeles: "I love L.A. Most of these cities are like London," he says airily.
On Saturday night he is part piss-artist. After a drink and a chat in the Prince of Wales, Howard will move on to his next venue. Every Saturday night he clangs his trajectory through the restaurants, cafes, pubs, and clubs of Brixton, doing his thing and getting his drinks bought for him.
It's partly a reaction to his awareness of mortality: "I'm 89. How long have I got? I could go at any moment. So I enjoy life."
The barman comes round to clear our glasses; Howard introduces me as his mother-in-law. Later he refuses to leave my table until I give him a kiss on the cheek.
Next stop, the Juice bookshop café. Roll-necked bohemians sit quietly over their novels and coffee until Howard arrives, the lone hoarseman of the Apocalypse, to wake them from their ennui.
The cafe hosts regular poetry nights and some of the uninitiated mistake him for a new type of performance poet.
Five minutes after his arrival the claustrophobic cool of the cafe is shattered; people chat freely, the manager pours him a drink and wearing an expression of affectionate forbearance, sits down with the old raconteur.
Howard's favourite haunt is the trendy DogStar club, home to South London's beautiful people. Average age 27. "The youngsters of today, they're smashing," he says.
"Outgoing. You can talk to them. The generation gap was far bigger in my day, children had to be in their place. It's much better now.
You want to come down to the DogStar one Saturday night," this 89 year-old tells me enthusiastically; "It's really good down there." "Isn't the music a bit loud?" I ask.
"Madam, they stop the music for me," he says. "There's about 300 odd people and a lot of them are the worse for wear. But you can hear every word I say. They lift me on to a chair, and lift me off again afterwards, more to the point."
Sometimes Howard gets hassle for the royalist 'God Save the Queen' part of his speech, but that doesn't faze him.
"One chap said f**k the Queen once, but I said 'Yes Sir, but after me, 'cos I've known her longer than you.' You've got to have bottle, you've got to have a come-back, make people laugh. You've got to be an actor!" he says, throwing a 'life-long member' Equity card on to the table.
"I mean, you go to all kind of functions for this job and people ask you, Mr Howard, would you do a speech after dinner? And they want 20 minutes! 20 minutes is a bloody long time to speak."
Howard's curriculum vitae, if he possessed such a thing, would read like a cultural history of the 20th Century.
Born in 1912, he was a curry boy at the age of ten (a young boy employed to carry secret curry ingredients between Indian restaurants) and after that he had a stint as an undertaker's dummy (an outrider who, dressed in top hat, face paint and black attire, used to accompany the old horse-drawn hearses).
Yet he has no time for sentiment about the passing of ancient traditions; "There's no room on the roads anymore for that kind of thing now," he says, looking at me as if I am slightly mad.
The one area where Howard's progressive world view falls down is on the topic of female town criers. "I don't want to be known as anti-feminist; I just don't think there's a place for female town criers.
People come to England for its traditions, and there's no tradition of female town criers!" But hasn't he himself adapted the town crier traditions? "Yes, but not that much! It's like putting a woman on a horse outside horse-guards parade and sticking a brass hat on her head. That's no tradition. She'd just look silly."
Smiling, the black proprietor of the Juice Bar asks if Howard thinks a black man would also look silly on top of a horse on horse-guards parade.
He shakes his head; no, that would be fine. But a woman - now that would be absurd.
With no further comment, the elderly man in seventeenth century dress carrying a huge brass bell walks away into the Brixton night.
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