Sex, Flights and Videotapes is a trip down memory lane with one of the London hurling scene’s most colourful characters, Ambrose Gordon
By Damian Dolan
Ambrose Gordon is a man whose reputation precedes him. If life has led you to London at any stage during course of the last 60 years, there’s every chance that you’ve had the pleasure of crossing paths with the man himself. If not, you surely know of someone who has.
Either way, you just know the name of one of the London-Irish scene’s most colourful and durable characters.
A well-known publican for four decades, London and St Gabriel’s hurling stalwart, and proud Galwayman from Killimor, Ambrose is proof that “truth is stranger than fiction”, as the Connacht Tribute put it.
His recent autobiography, Sex, Flights and Videotapes, puts his “colourful life” into print, and is aptly named.
The Flights and the Videotapes is a reference to his weekly trips back to Dublin in the 1980s to collect VHS tape recordings of RTE’s The Sunday Game, to screen in his own pub, The Half Moon Pub on the Holloway Road, and distribute to other Irish pubs across London.
The idea, as he admits, wasn’t his own. He’d gotten wind of another pub, The Tally Ho in Kentish Town, showing the All Ireland matches. Having checked it out with his own eyes, he seized upon the idea.
In readiness for the 1983 GAA championship season, he 20 rented out VCRs, rigged up one on top of the other in a spare room at the pub, and stockpiled blank E-180 tapes.
He then put out advertising that the games would be shown every Monday night at the pub, and then repeated daily throughout the week.
Catching the return 6:45am Sunday morning flight to Dublin at a cost of £36, armed only with two blank video tapes and an overnight bag, he’d make his way to The Sunnybank Hotel.
Living next door, was a “lovely lady called Kathy”, who would record The Sunday Game for him.
Arriving back in London at 7:30am on Monday morning, he’d head straight to The Half Moon Pub and begin taping.
The tapes were then distributed by “a few lads on motorbikes” to a list of pubs. The videos went for £20 each – plus £5 for the bike rider – to be screened to appreciative exiles on the Monday night in packed establishments.
The price went up to £40, if the customer wanted it delivered before 1pm.
In the first week, he sold 85 copies. As word quickly spread, the orders increased.
‘Lovely jubbly’, as Del Boy might say. Although Ambrose compares himself more to Arthur Daley.
Everyone was happy – publicans, punters and Ambrose ‘Flash’ Gordon, of course. Everyone that is except RTE, although it took them six years to cotton on.
They finally put an end to Ambrose’s “hugely successful endeavour” in 1989, hauling him into Holborn Court on 29 July.
If it wasn’t true, you wouldn’t believe it. There’s a movie in here somewhere surely, and a part tailor made for Colm Meaney or Brendan Gleeson.
And that’s not too wide of the mark – it very nearly was.
Titan Red Pictures Limited were once “very interested” in making the story into a film called ‘Flash’ – a production costing €1,250,000 to be in cinemas in 2014 about a modern-day Robin Hood.
In the end, funding difficulties prevented it from being made, but the story is still out there just waiting for someone to bring it to the big screen.
“I would like to think that I had made many a good Gael happy and promoted our great national games in the Queen’s capital,” says Ambrose in his book on the whole videotaping escapade.
As for the Sex part of the book’s title, Dave O’Connell in the Connacht Tribune said it reads as though Ambrose had “more wives than Henry the Eighth and more girlfriends than Georgie Best”.
For young Ambrose, “hurling was a way of life”. He won a Galway Minor title with Killimor in 1960 and got one game for Galway seniors in a league game against Westmeath in Ballinasloe, before London came calling.
In early 1961 and he took the ferry to England and then the well-trodden path straight to the building sites to work as a carpenter – a tale that will resonate with many – before turning his hand to running pubs in 1983.
The Half Moon pub on the Holloway Road was his first establishment – his contract written out on the back of packet of 20 Major cigarettes.
He would go on to run many other well-known Irish haunts, including The Devonshire Castle on Tollington Road, the Spotted Dog in Willesden, The Shawl in South Harrow and most recently The Man of Aran in Rayners Lane.
He managed London’s senior hurling team on four occasions, beginning with the Exiles’ first venture into the All Ireland Senior ‘B’ in 1975 when they lost to Westmeath in the final after a replay.
He was also a selector in 1990 when the Exiles travelled back to Galway to face the Tribesmen in their pomp in an All Ireland SHC quarter-final.
Although beaten, London more than held their own against a side which had lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 1987 and 1988.
He also enjoyed success away from St Gabriel’s, leading Thomas McCurtains to senior county success in 1987. It remains the club’s only senior championship.
The next day, Ambrose laid on a Tina Turner look-a-like for the team at the Devonshire Castle. The celebrations went on for three days.
But it is with his beloved St Gabriel’s hurling club that he remains synonymous, a link to a bygone, almost utopian, era in London hurling.
He began by hurling on the playing fields of Hackney, Hayes and New Eltham and training at the Scrubs. Firstly, with St Michael’s and then from 1963, St Gabriel’s.
Not even getting work building Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight between 1964-67 stopped him togging out for St Gabriel’s – it was back on the ferry every weekend, either that or risk being dropped off the senior panel.
Senior titles would come – the first in 1965 – as well as London selection and All Ireland Intermediate titles in ’67 and ’68.
And then there was ’73, with Ambrose as manager, and the start of a golden era for the Gabriel’s club, which was by now a “well-oiled machine”. Further senior titles followed in ’74, ’76, ’77, ’78 and ’81. There were intermediate titles as well, and sundry leagues and cups.
With that in mind, the book doubles as a veritable history of the club and an insight into that time when hurling in London was widely regarded to have been at its peak.
Indeed, Ambrose had a ring-side seat to the Exiles’ famous win over Galway in ’73 at Duggan Park, Ballinasloe.
For those that weren’t around in that era, Ambrose’s book is a welcome chance to go back in time and get a feel for the London hurling scene of that era. For those who were, it’s a chance to reminisce.
But the book isn’t all great yarns, it’s a deeply personal and forthright account of his life, which like any other was tinged with personal tragedies, starting with the death of his father from Cancer when he was just 13.
Hurling stories – such as a trip to his first All Ireland final in 1958 – are inter-woven with tales of budding romances – later replaced by stories of family life – and heading up to Hampstead Heath with a radio to listen to the “dulcet tones” of Michael O’Hehir.
From Living in Earls Court, when he first arrived, to calling Hounslow, Action, Alperton and Northolt all home at one stage or another, and frequenting the establishments of Hammersmith, Finsbury Park, Fulham, Cricklewood, Kentish Town, Holloway Road, Kilburn, Willesden and Tooting – “all booming”.
The Gresham Ballroom, The National, The Hibernian Club and the Galtymore to name but a few. This is a veritable trip down memory lane, for both writer and reader.
But one thing remains constant throughout the book, and that’s the hurling. His ‘greatest love”.
Player, manager, chairperson, administrator, mentor, illegal video tape entrepreneur, for the past 60 years, Ambrose has certainly brought some colour to the GAA scene in London. It would have been a lot greyer without him.
As he says in the book’s Foreword, he’d like to think he “made a contribution to the promotion of our proud Irish heritage in the huge metropolis of London. I hope you enjoy the read.”
For all the ‘Flash’, a hurling man, and a London hurling man at that.
Priced at £15, ‘Sex, Flights and Videotapes’ is available to purchase at: McGovern Park GAA Club, Ruislip HA4 6QX Tir Chonaill Gaels Sports & Social Club Greenford UB6 0NZ The Shawl South Harrow HA2 8EE Odeon News Alexandra Ave, South Harrow HA2 9TR, Barrett’s Wealdstone HA3 5AH Life of Reilly Belmount Circle, Harrow 8SA Cosy Bar Wealdstone HA3 5ES The Bodhran Hendon NW4 3UT The Claddagh Ring Hendon NW4 4EA Tommy Flynn’s Holloway Road N7 6 JA The Park Tavern N4 3AD Muksons Ballards Lane N3 1LJ AFG Food & Wine NW2 2DX Nevins Meat Market 83 Burnt Oak Bdy HA8 5EP Frosty’s Bar Kenton, Harrow HA3 9DW