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Sunday, 15 June 2014

Speech by former Mayor of Enfield, Nadia Conway, at North London launch of 'The Ghost in the Lobby'

Finally getting the time to post this. It was good, back in April, to see again, after twenty years, my old comrades Brian O'Flynn, Eddie Connolly and Paul Renny at the North London launch of The Ghost in the Lobby at Haringey Irish Centre in Tottenham. The very fetching hat in the photograph belongs to Mr Paul Renny.

Also in attendance were Nadia Conway, former Mayor of Enfield, and her husband David Conway, who was the (Conservative) Deputy Leader of Enfield Council back in the early 1990s, when I was Edmonton's answer to Tommy Sheridan (without the tight t-shirts or, generally speaking, the sex). 

The launch was covered in both the Enfield Advertiser and Enfield Independent. On this occasion I didn't make the front pages, as was the case in November 1990, when both papers ran screaming headlines about the local Labour Party's move to expel myself and Helen Redwood from the party. 

Back then David Conway used to regularly bait the Labour councillors at council meetings by making mention of "the egregious Mr Higgins". It took the Labour Party one year, three months and twelve days to expel me; the process was slowed down because a member of the committee the local party set up to find out if I was a member of the Militant Tendency publicly challenged me to a physical fight. This took place, I remember, at a General Committee meeting of Edmonton Labour Party. The individual in question was more than 70 years old. It did, though, land the Labour Party in potentially hot legal water because, to put it mildly, it raised the question of possible bias, and meant they had to re-do the entire 'investigation'. So I remained a member of the Labour Party for a further few months, during which Councillor David Conway got to throw a little more torment at the Labour Party by publicly reminding them of my continued existence within their ranks. Below is a poem from The Ghost in the Lobby. It's inspired by the contents of the carrier bag I used to always have with me back then, to assist me in my vital revolutionary work. I read it at the Haringey event.

I also treated those assembled to my elegy for the late Margaret Thatcher which you can read here.  

It's believed that several time serving middle of the table members of the Socialist Party - the Militant Tendency's successor organisation - were immediately overcome with ecstatic shock and had to be rushed to hospital when they heard that I had asked a former Conservative Mayor to launch the book. Unfortunately, it's believed they all made a fully recovery.

Below is what Nadia Conway said on the day. I hope she won't object to me saying that I now count her as a comrade, though of an admittedly very different sort. 

"Time carries out ironic revenges, and the sweep of years casts us in roles we would never have imagined for ourselves.

For myself, I was born in the military hospital at Prague Castle. Fifteen years after that I was, in swift order, a published poet, the President of the Slovak Communist Youth Movement, and a refugee in the then swinging London. And twenty years or more after that I was the Conservative Mayor of the Council of the London Borough of Enfield. You may boo now, if you wish.

In those distant days all political factions were deeply concerned with an innovation to reform local taxation. In retrospect it is difficult to understand either why one side thought the Poll Tax was so wonderful, or the other thought it so iniquitous; but as with many political arguments, the topic itself became rather less important than using it to beat opponents over the head.

What Margaret Thatcher can never have conceived, however, was that her flagship policy would have resulted in us all meeting together today at the Haringey Irish Centre.

For amongst those who roused themselves to battle this reform in local book-keeping was Kevin Higgins - or as he was dubbed by a Councillor (my husband in fact) 'the egregious Mr Higgins' - renowned throughout Edmonton and Ponders End as the leader of the local unit of the 'Anti-Poll Tax Union'. I haven't entirely fathomed Kevin's activities during this period, but they were doubtless such as to give him his present status, as he notes in one of his poems, as a name 'on the FBI's least wanted' list. But one important strategy was for him to heckle meetings of the Council.

You may not realise that the powers of Mayors of most London boroughs are almost insignificant; in fact just about the only ways they can exercise them relate to maintaining order at Council meetings. In general I used these powers to prevent my husband rabbiting on or raising obscure points of order; but Kevin's interventions gave me an opportunity for immortality. I expelled him from the Chamber - and when interviewed by the local press I made the world-weary comment, 'Eventually, Kevin will grow up.'

And that - I thought - was that, until a further fifteen years or so rolled by. Then we received in the post, out of the blue, a book with my comment on Kevin as its epigraph. It was in fact a very fine book of poetry, by the egregious Mr Higgins himself, showing not only a great feeling for language and imagery, but a wry compassion for our self-deceits; a wryness only occasionally extended to jaundice when looking at our greater hypocrisies, such as those we invoke in the name of society - but I forbear to cite Mrs Thatcher's comment on THAT topic. 

Those who place Kevin in the line of Jonathan Swift seem to me to have good reason. Where he has a target, he pulls his victims apart with laughter, but with a laughter which can often pierce the veins more accurately than a knife. And he is no more sparing of himself than he is of others; because for all of us it is true, as he writes in his poem 'Autobiography', 'I'm the things / they never found out about.' But his poetry is more than satire; because his smile, however bitter, also seems to contain compassion, albeit rueful, and a perspective which allows us to evaluate the judge as well as the condemned.

So here we are today the absurd but poetic inversion of our roles. I am retired from the public world, with only my imperialist bauble [MBE] as compensation; whilst Kevin is now a fully-fledged poet, and we know from Shelley that 'poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world'. It is a pleasure for me to acknowledge Kevin's ultimate triumph. In standing here to launch his collection 'The Ghost in the Lobby' I feel a bit like the fraud his his poem:

'When you need someone to recite your lines to,

I'll have somewhere else

To be. But when, crossing the road,

On your way to the Oscars,

You're knocked into a coma

By a passing fire truck

I'll be happy

To accept the award

On your behalf.'

Kevin - to quote another poet, Emily Dickinson, continue to 'see the world, but see it slant' - keep away from fire trucks, and collect many awards - you deserve them." Nadia Conway, April 20th, 2014.