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“WHEN the night has come and the land is dark.”
The opening lines of Ben E King’s song Stand By Me, perfectly described my feelings when I got the news on April 1 that Mike Pentelow had died.
For my prodigiously talented, much-loved friend of 50 years, communist, author, journalist and community activist was also joint world president of the International Stand By Me Club (ISBMC).
He loved the words of a song that stood for his kind of solidarity — of workers through their unions and residents through his local community in central London.
These are strange days we’re living and dying through – plagued by an invisible virus, taking its toll.
Strange indeed then, to report that nothing better describes our reaction to Mike’s death than the sound of laughter!
Nearly every one of the cascade of condolence calls I took ended in chuckling or outright cackling.
For all of us has a Pentelow story to recount of the genial, self-effacing, impish social instigator.
At 73, Mike was fully engaged in his creative pursuits. A life sadly cut short when in full flow. But what a life…
As a journalist he first worked for the Thurrock Gazette in Essex, drawing on a rich seam of stories from the local docks.
At the Morning Star, initially on the sports desk, then on the industrial beat in the footsteps of Mick Costello, lifelong friendships developed with contemporaries such as Roy Jones and photographer Pat Mantle.
Then followed a dazzling career on the publications of the Transport & General Workers’ Union.
Knowing his qualities when I took on the editorship of the T&G Record, Mike was my first “signing” as chief reporter in 1983.
For nearly 20 years he got to know and report on the exploits of union members across every industry and region.
He could tease a story out of anybody, head slightly inclined as he jotted gems into his ever-present notebook — often finding the convivial setting of a pub encouraging that extra dimension to the tale.
Mike’s unassuming nature, kindness and quirkiness sometimes blinded people to his sheer professionalism.
In writing, design and layout, liaison with printers or hitting deadlines he was absolutely reliable.
He went on to edit The Landworker (for T&G agricultural and rural workers) obtaining legendary status with the membership.
Then, when he retired, he was instrumental in reviving the Country Standard, became editor of his local community newspaper Fitzrovia News, maintained the spasmodic appearance of the Stand by Me Club Bulletin, and was involved in countless other enterprises.
He also built a reputation as an author. His book A Pub-Crawl through History: the Ultimate Boozers’ Who’s Who, describing pubs named after commoners (not kings, queens or dukes) entailed much research with fellow author and photographer Peter Arkell.
The same duo authored Freedom Pass London which described walking tours at the edge of Ken Livingstone’s travel pass routes to the end of Underground lines.
His lavishly illustrated Characters of Fitzrovia published by local personality Felix Dennis was a tour de force and Peter suggests the book should now be updated to include a chapter on Mike himself.
Norfolk Red, a biography of farmworkers’ leader and communist Wilf Page, showed Mike’s deep interest in rural trade unionism.
In his element at Tolpuddle, Burston, Joseph Arch and other rural festivals, Mike showed that you could “socialise for socialism.”
In the early 1970s he had bravely stood as communist candidate in South Marylebone.
Unfortunately the voters passed up the chance to elect him as a local Westminster councillor.
With the slogan of “we keep the rent low with Michael Pentelow” (to the tune Avanti Popolo) and despite having me as his agent, the anticipated surge of support failed to materialise!
A great instigator of social activities, Mike was a keen participant in the outings of the friends’ groups the Essex Ramblers and the Old Codgers to places such as Bletchley Park.
His passion for Watford Football Club (the Hornets) was shared with brother Guy. Their picture appeared in a match programme to mark their 50 years’ support for the Hertfordshire club through thick and (mostly) thin.
His early childhood was in Sheffield. Guy told me of an exchange with their father Jack, which hints at Mike’s characteristic openness and independence even at the age of four: at his birthday party Mike was given a toy yacht.
He left his guests to sail the boat on a nearby pond. Berating his son for leaving the party, Jack said: “Did you ask your mother?”
“Yes,” said Mike. “What did she say?” “She said ‘No’.”
He stayed a child at heart; curious, engaging and playful which is why he got on so well with his friends’ kids.
As a local historian, Mike led many walks around London such as the “Karl Marx Pub Crawl,” paying homage to the master of materialism in the many watering holes he frequented on his way back home from his hard day’s work at the British Museum.
His central London flat would often give shelter to friends needing a roof over their head.
Mike was someone special. Truly an original who enriched us all.
As the song goes “Whenever you’re in trouble, won’t you stand by me?” Mike did, for so many… and now we stand by his memory.
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