Former councillor pays warm tribute to Chris Harbon

When I learned of the death of Chris Harbon, I realised how privileged I was to have known him. I met him first in the spring of 1994, when I was a candidate for the council. He was a key person whose trust I had to earn, and for the eight years that I r

When I learned of the death of Chris Harbon, I realised how privileged I was to have known him. I met him first in the spring of 1994, when I was a candidate for the council.

He was a key person whose trust I had to earn, and for the eight years that I represented South End ward on Camden Council we remained good friends, sharing a love of the theatre and books. We were due to meet in London last week, but I was told that he was unwell, and for some reason then in Wiltshire.

When I met him Chris was leading a somewhat ascetic life high in Palgrave House, the block overlooking Fleet Road, when we met. His flat had a minimalist, almost Zen-like, quality, and as one drank herbal tea while sitting on cushions on the floor, there was always an interesting conversation to be had.

For many years he was chair of the Palgrave House Tenants' Association, not an easy task, but he kept his community informed through an illustrated newsletter that he edited called the Palgrave Parrot. He never spoke badly of others, politely respecting their opinions, and even had good contacts with a difficult council housing department.


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His previous life, which led him to Palgrave House, was always mysterious, although chronic poor health was a factor. He had gained a degree in English from Nottingham University in 1959, to which he added teacher training at the Institute of Education, and was soon on the staff at Tulse Hill Comprehensive, with Ken Livingstone and Benjamin Zephaniah among his pupils.

He later taught educational drama at Central School of Speech and Drama, and took plays on the road; even to the USA, about which he regaled me with hilarious stories of his time in California.

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Back in London he found time to develop his skills as a writer and dramatist, particularly for radio. A gentle and gifted man, he was to be seen having organic tea at Polly's or other cafes in South End Green, often in the company of pretty women.

At Palgrave House we became closely committed to a project to transform part of the vandalised multi-storey car park outside the building into a vibrant centre for the local community. For what now seem like many frustrating years, meetings were held, presentation sessions were arranged and we began banging on doors very slightly ajar but always arguing into deaf ears.

Chris achieved some notoriety in a letter to the local press when he suggested that the new building could hold performances under a roof like Sydney Opera House. He was certainly a man with a vision.

Our ambitions were scaled back when we were advised by the new district manager at Gospel Oak Housing Office that perhaps we might more usefully look at the rundown and under-used launderette that was another part of the complex.

Somehow, we convinced the leaseholder to relinquish it. With Camden's support and much hard work it slowly became the Fleet Community Centre and now, with its name attractively picked out in mosaic, it stands as a witness to the commitment of Chris Harbon and the team around him.

I remember him painting the interior, dealing with roof leaks and attempting to persuade everyone, from the council itself to the Royal Free Hospital and to the Weekend Arts College to use this fresh new space to make the project viable. In spite of reverses he always kept a smile, and never lost his sense of humour.

Chris was pleasantly eccentric but he always knew where he was going.

With family connections in Gibraltar, he longed to return for a visit. In time, the strains and tensions of Palgrave House got the better of him, and he finally moved up the hill into sheltered housing in Hampstead village. His memorial remains however, just off Fleet Road.

GERRY HARRISON

(former Camden councillor)

now living in Ennis, County Clare

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