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Bits of My Life: “Too Good for Working People”

When I was at Corpus Christi College Oxford, studying for a degree in English Literature, the MP for Southend West, where my parents lived & I grew up, was Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, who memorably said in his diaries that it was difficult to go out without spending £100. At that time my father, a Marine Insurance clerk in the City of London, to and from which he commuted every weekday by train, was earning less than £20 a week. It was in my second year at Corpus Christi College, Oxford that Henry’s son Paul came to Christ Church College, dubbed ‘The House,’ next door. He had been in the Army before that. Well, before he had time to finish his degree his father Henry died. Lord and Lady Iveagh, of the Guiness family were patrons of Southend West Conservative Association, Henry having married Lady Honor, their daughter. So it was decided that Paul should succeed his father, the seat being a safe Conservative one. Apparently there were 129 applicants for the candidature, and a campaign was run against the nomination, by the Daily Express, on the grounds that it looked liked nepotism. But Paul was the chosen candidate. His grandmother, the former MP but one, congratulated voters for: “backing a colt when you know the stable he was trained in.”

In due course I was living in Islington and teaching at South Grove, Tottenham, an outpost, one of many, of Hornsey College of Art. I used each weekday to cycle past a plot of land in Tottenham which was due to be developed. At some point a sign went up on the site, bearing a message which went something like this: “ Your Council wishes to build homes on this site, but the Ministry thinks they are too good for working people, signed, David Page”. It was intriguing to have a namesake on Haringey Council: it gave me some satisfaction to ride past it every day, and I could see possibilities in this conjuncture. I wrote to my namesake and told him that if he wanted to be more explicit I would be happy to oblige, for instance with a letter to the press which would have the advantage of deniability – “Not my words” he could have said, “But those of another fellow of the same name.” Quite properly he didn’t reply.

Later I got to know an architect who had worked on the design for the site. To make the best of it they had come up with an innovative ziggurat design, with mono-pitch roofs. It might have looked very impressive, but the Minister, Paul Channon, turned the plans down because the houses were just over the Ministry cost-yard-stick for local authority housing. So the Architect’s Department had to start design, planning, etc, all over again, to come up with properly working-class-looking housing, not exceeding the yard-stick. But of course, if you counted expenditure already made, well above it. The on-costs were presumably not an issue for the Ministry, nor was the delay in providing the accommodation. But then, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, so it goes.

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