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Camden New Journal - OBITUARY
Published: 20 August 2009
Community centre memorial to vision of tenants’ leader

Chris Harbon, of Palgrave House Tenants and Residents Association in Hampstead, died earlier this month. Here, his friend Gerry Harrison, a former Labour councillor, pays tribute to his work in Camden.

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 I represented South End ward we remained good friends, sharing a love of theatre and books.
When I first met him, Chris was leading a somewhat ascetic life high in Palgrave House, the block overlooking Fleet Road, Hampstead. 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 Palgrave House Tenants Association. Not an easy task, but he kept his community informed through an illustrated newsletter, the Palgrave Parrot, which he edited. He never spoke badly of others, politely respecting their opinions, and even had good contacts with a difficult council housing department.
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 future London Mayor Ken Livingstone and dub poet 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. He regaled me with hilarious stories of his time in California.
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 cafés 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 community. For what now seem like many frustrating years, meetings were held, presentation sessions 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 that perhaps we might more usefully look at the rundown 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 at the time. I remember him painting the interior, dealing with roof leaks and attempting to persuade everyone, from the council to the Royal Free Hospital and the Weekend Arts College, to use this new space.
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 is a former Labour councillor who now divides his time between Ireland and London

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Your comments:
Thank you Gerry, I too was very sad to find out that a friend had died just when I was planning a promised visit to his abode 'up the hill'I have many memories of Chris around my kitchen table in Dunboyne Road planing the next move towards the F.C.C. It was Chris who dragged me into the Camden tenants and residents movement.He contributed so much and yes it was a privilege to have known and worked with him, he deserves a plaque?
Hazel Miller
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