Last Week I found myself heading for a meeting. It was important. The Youth Club I work for has joined a consortium that aims to provide targeted help to young people in our borough who use alcohol and drugs, mainly cannabis, to a significant extent. It is a new approach, bringing together several organisations who previously tended to work in their little silos. We have hopes. We are optimistic. We shall see. This is just a pilot and it will need evaluation.
The address I had been given took me to Stamford Street, a fairly bland road parallel to the river near Waterloo station. What I hadn’t realised was the building was also the Coin Street Community centre.
Coin Street. If you were born after 1970 it won’t mean a lot but for me it triggers many memories.
You see back in the 1970s and early 1980s this area was the centre of a large protest between those who wanted to redevelop the area for speculative offices and commercial uses and those who wanted it to be a community housing project. There were ugly scenes at the various inquiries but none especially unusual. It did however provide an early focus to the clash of ideologies between the then newly installed Conservative government of Margret Thatcher and the Labour administration of Ken Livingstone at the Greater London Council, the local authority for London.
And those differences exemplified the disagreements I was having with my father about that time. The Coin Street protesters comprised a whole range of people and groups. But the focus of my dad, whose source of information was that organ of moderation and liberal thinking, the Daily Telegraph, was on what he referred to as The Great Unwashed, the sitters-in, the squatters, the crypto communists and loony lefties (I paraphrase the old man).
I grew up in a right-wing household. It was all I knew, all I heard, save for one teacher at school. Slowly though I began to understand a whole series of different views. When I went to University, that awakening grew and I dipped my toes, just a little, in some local protests. But I didn’t tell dad.
By the time I hit my twenties and moved to London I could see no one side had the monopoly on good sense. Dad however felt everything the Thatcher government did in those early years was right, and, if not always right, was necessary. He wouldn’t allow that there were other views that merited the time of day. The Fares Fair policy, for instance, of Ken Livingstone, subsidizing and simplifying the fares for public transport actually improved the usage and the lot of the everyday Londoner. But it was Ken’s idea so it had to be bad.
And so it was with Coin Street. Dad wanted the developers to win, not so much on the merits but because of who supported the anti camp while I wanted the locals to win. And on my side I had a trump card:
The Oxo Tower.
If you travel along the south bank towards the National Theatre you cannot miss the red brick, art deco style former meat factory with its eponymous tower. Oxo, for those who don’t know, is a stock cube, still sold today. The tower is a delight, especially at night, and was built in the 1930s. It only exists because of rule breakers.
At that time there were fears that the whole of the river frontage would be covered by advertising hoadings. That fear led to the first planning controls in England. Control on buildings only appeared post WW2, in 1947.
So the owners commissioned a tower whose windows at the top happened to spell out the main product of the company O. X. O. It was like a brick-built middle finger raised to the powers that be.
In 1970, the developers, happily on the side of rapacious capitalism, saw it as an anachronism; derelict with no use beyond out of date ornamentation. The locals saw it as a symbol.
Eventually the locals won, the site was sold to the local construction group and Coin Street is the low-rise housing they contemplated. The little park is a pleasure and the Oxo tower, newly refurbished with its warehouse turned to arts and cultural uses continues. The finger remains raised but this time against thoughtless transient development.
Fifteen years later we dined at the Oxo – there is a splendid if expensive restaurant at the top of the warehouse. Dad loved it; he had taste and I was paying. He knew, about the Oxo, he was wrong. But so was I, many times, in our many debates. We had both taken positions that were unsustainable just to reinforce some views that would wind up the other person as much as because they had intrinsic merit. That’s just part of growing up and letting go, I suppose.
You become your parents’ parents eventually. A truism no one tells their children because it is too horrid to contemplate when younger. And while Dad formed my opinions for me as I grew through to my teenaged years and settled to the person I was to become, in the latter years he listened to me and he adapted too. Not as much as I hoped but he did move.
He was a staunch supporter of the death penalty; I was equally adamant that it was State murder. And then the Birmingham Six were found to be innocent, victims of awful miscarriages of justice. Had Dad had his way they would be dead long since. He changed his mind and never believed a life was worth taking again.
As I sat and listened to the explanation of the new programme, to some young people who had been involved in the consultation that led to the new concept we are to pursue, as I listened to them speak, I imagined dad with me. They had passion and commitment. They would have been part of the local protest groups back in the 70s and 80s for sure. I doubt they respect authority very much, at least not just for the sake of it. And Dad would have applauded them. He was lucky in that he had a decent education and the chance to keep learning. Me too. He had the strength of character and imagination to change his mind and the way he saw life, much as he provided me with the tools of debate and the opportunities to form my own mind and change my life.
Hopefully our little programme will help others who have, within them, that strength and imagination. With a nudge they too can change their futures. That’s what we will work towards.