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Camden New Journal - One Week with JOHN GULLIVER
Published: 04 October 2007
The grim face of a bidder at an auction

AS his glasses slipped to the end of his nose, he looked anxious.
Every time he nodded, he had put in another bid, either £1,000 or £5,000, and it looked as if it was going badly for him.
A man in his late 30s, wearing a zip-up jacket and jeans, he was the hot bidder for a three-storey house in Kentish Town that Camden Council was selling in an auction at the Café Royal in the West End run by the estate agents, McHugh and Company.
The chanderliered ballroom was packed with more than 750 hungry bargain hunters. Once, you’d go along to one of McHugh’s auctions and you’d spot the special breed that inhabits auctions – estate agents, developers and builders, all out for a cheap pile of bricks and mortar.
But on Monday, it was different. The property men were there alright, but now everyone else seemed to be joining in – from couples with babies in push-chairs to men and women, from different parts of the world, all determined to buy something to live in or let.
Meanwhile, I couldn't take my eyes off the man bidding for the house in Kentish Town.
Bidding had started at just over £400,000 and by the time it had reached £500,000, 15 minutes later, it looked as if that’s where it would stick. The man in the zip-up jacket looked calm. Then someone popped up at the front of the crowd and started a crossfire of bids – and the man looked uneasy. He countered all the new bids, but when they pushed the price over £600,000 he looked worried, very worried. Would he go on? But he did, and finally got in the last bid for £651,000. “Last time,” said auctioneer Chris McHugh, raising his voice to the crowd and bringing down the gavel. Then it was all over. Ten minutes later, after the new owner had paid his 10 per cent of the bid, he walked to the back of the hall. “I didn't expect to pay as much as that”, he told me. He looked shell-shocked.
Another man, who seemed at home in the property world, looked happier after he had bought a council house in Belsize Park for £1.7m! I overheard him say to a friend: “I was surprised to get it for so little!”
You would have to pay over £2.5m for a house of that size in Belsize Park, but after renovation, how much will my happier man make? Enough, no doubt, to keep him smiling. Enough, too, to bring comfort to the Town Hall Lib Dem and Tory coalition who are selling public property for party political reasons.
Altogether, 60 houses, flats and garages had gone for more than £15m by the time the auction ended early afternoon. Later, McHugh would tot up their commission. Successful bidders would fill the evening talking about their bargains. Town hall accountants would complete their ledgers. The losers will be desperate families on the council's waiting list, who will have to keep on waiting for their dream home.

Attenborough going to great pains to put Tom on big screen

I HEAR that one of the best political biographies I have ever read may be about to be given the silver screen treatment by Richard Attenborough.
Professor John Keane’s book on Tom Paine is the most comprehensive study of the political radical I have come across. Keane, a politics professor at Westminster University, has recently moved to Kentish Town where he is putting the finishing touches to a magnum opus on the history of democracy.
He has a way of making complicated stories appear bright and chirpy – his Paine biography is brilliantly written. It struck me when I first read it that it would make the basis of a very good film. It seems Attenborough agrees – I am told he has taken an option on the book.
This film treatment is long overdue – Paine’s own life has all the ingredients for a fantastic story: From his humble origins and the loss of his wife and child in labour, fleeing to the States after criticising the king, becoming a key player in the American Revolution before heading for the French Revolution.
Attenborough has long been an admirer of Paine. Playwright Trevor Griffith wrote a screenplay for Attenborough on Paine which was performed 17 years ago at the old Hampstead Theatre. The only film I have seen about Paine was narrated by actor Kenneth Griffith but it lacked mass appeal. Attenborough’s, presumably, wouldn't.

Election? PM’s just playing with the Tories – or is he?

HE called out my name and I turned at the corner of Parkway and Camden High Street.
I’ve known him for several years as a councillor and, as usual, he looked every inch a man with murderous political intent as he came towards me. I braced myself for a street corner meeting, and a chat about politics. I asked about the row over the British Library site, but he breezily went into what he was full of – the latest from Labour’s conference at Bournemouth.
Shirt-sleeved, he talked about how he, and one or two others, had met the housing minister Yvette Cooper – and all the signs looked good, he said, that Camden will be able to build council homes again after a freeze of nearly 20 years.
Then I threw him a question about the election fever. Will it happen next month? Oh, no, he assured me. It’s all being put up to fool the Tories, he said almost jauntily as if he was in the know. Then he explained why, but I couldn’t follow what he was saying amid the noise of the traffic.
He’s highly intelligent, sharp as a razor, But a fixer all the same. His life pulsates around politics – fixing agendas, packing a meeting, if necessary, with the right kind of back-up, manoeuvring motions through to a majority vote.
Suggest a subject, and he can knock out a smart piece of journalism in a matter of one or two hours. Half-persuaded that he’s probably right and that Gordon Brown is foxing the Tories, we parted.
That was Thursday. But how can all the pundits be wrong about the election date primed, apparently, for next month? Maybe it’s not coming after all.
Has my contact been fooled as well?

I’m 99.9 per cent certain I don’t trust the maths

PUNDITS and Brownites dismissed the Tories’ abolition of the death tax on Monday. It will only affect 6 per cent of households, they all said smugly.
But it so happens I have had a run-in this week with another set of percentages (more later), so I ask myself: Six per cent of which households?
Yes, perhaps only six per cent of all households in the UK will be affected, but what will be the percentage in those leafy, middle-England parts of the south-east – certainly in London – where perhaps two-thirds of households would benefit by this hand-out from the Tories.
In many parts of Camden, for instance, three-bedroom houses or large flats go for well over £500.000. Every home-owner in those flats will be able to kiss inheritance tax goodbye if the Tories win the next election. So, the critics of the Tories are looking down the wrong end of the telescope.
I had a bit of a set-to last week with a doctor at the University College London Hospital who reassured me that if I went ahead with a minor operation I would only face a one per cent risk of failure. That’s when I put the percentage question to him. One per cent of what? Was it simply a median figure? One per cent of all patients – or one per cent, say, of those in my age group? Oh, he admitted, it was one per cent of all patients. It was a UK figure. There was nothing to worry about, he reassured me. But, just in case, I put the operation on hold.
I’ve always been sceptical about the percentage game. Even more so, this week.

Actors on the streets

A NEW play makes its debut this Sunday – on the pavement outside the Royal College Street home of French poets Arthur Rimbauld and Paul Verlaine.
The romantic comedy stars Fawlty Towers actor Ken Campbell (pictured) as the poets’ muse Charles Bandelaire.
Poet Niall McDevvitt – reprising the role of Arthur Rimbaud – said he was looking forward to the hour-long reading, which starts at 4pm.
He said: “I’m playing a young man, which as someone in his thirties won’t be easy. Perhaps I’ll just dress up as if I’ve been to a school disco.”

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