Piers Wauchope, Mandela Street

I’VE had a sneaky peek at a draft of one of the chapters of Piers Wauchope’s upcoming book about politics in Camden – specifically the fortunes of the Labour Party – over the last few decades. I’m sworn to secrecy over whose cheeks will burn red with embarrassment most when it is finally published.

Piers is the former leader of the Conservative Group on Camden Council, often entertaining in the council chamber even if you didn’t agree with everything he said. He was a wily operator who landed blows on the Labour council in Camden in its final days, especially on parking and housing.

Sadly for him, like a lot of the Labour councillors from four years ago, he lost his seat in the boroughwide elections in 2006. Too busy helping other wards turn Tory, he missed the Lib Dems closing in on his Belsize ward.

His new book will be perfect for afficianados of Camden politics (i.e a few CNJ hacks and some forgotten councillors who remember the good old days down at Judd Street). Lots of stories and recollections but so not to spoil it and dent the inevitable sales rush, I’ll only mention one. The story of how Mandela Street in Camden Town got its name.

Piers writes in Camden: A Political History about how this “unremarkable back street” was formerly known as ‘Selous Street. “Every town in Rhodesia had possessed a Selous Street named in honour of Frederick Courtney Selous, the great white hunter and explorer who had been killed fighting the Germans in 1916,” he says before telling how anti-Apartheid campaigners including Hugh Bayley – now an MP in York – moved to change its name.  Labour rushed to the idea, although some Tories in Camden apparently felt the idea was too radical and with one of its senior members, according to Piers, claiming: “Selous had done more for the world than Mandela had ever done”.

The story has a wry conclusion, as Piers explains:

“The debate about Selous proved to be somewhat academic as it turned out that the street had been named not after the great African explorer Frederick Courtney Selous, but after his retiring uncle, Henry Courtney Selous, a frequent exhibitor at the Royal Academy who had lived until his death in 1890 in Bayham Street.

When this was pointed out, Hugh Bayley said, rather sniffily, that he had known all along (but perhaps had simply not bothered to tell anyone).

Anyway, he said, the council must act to avoid confusion with the imperialist, and “I do not personally care for what I have seen of Henry Selous’s paintings”.

The rest of the chapter is also an intriguing, witty read – you can hear Piers’s voice in the words. I gather some old politicos who might have been expected to harbour old grudges have helped Piers tell the tale. Maybe they felt, it’s better to be in on something like this and to have your say, rather than ignore his interview requests and wince later at what ends up in print. Whether it makes me a bit of a geek about Camden’s political history or not, I can’t wait to see the rest of the book.

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