One Week With John Gulliver – People's Champion Ellen Luby fought for the cause

Thursday, 15th July 2010


Published: 15 July, 2010

“I’M a bitch,” TV star and tenants’ campaigner Silla Carron told a Town Hall meeting on Monday.  

She was colourfully describing how far she was prepared to go to restore caretakers to Camden estates.

If she is a “bitch”, then Ellen Luby, who died early on Tuesday, was a “bitch from hell” in her rough dealings with the “officer class” – whether from the council or Whitehall.

There has been no one like Ellen since the 1930s – a straight-in-your-face champion of all the good causes.

I first met her when I was covering one of the biggest London stories of the early 1960s when thousands of tenants in St Pancras went on a rent strike and fought the bailiffs for weeks. 

There were headlines galore in the dailies and lots of TV coverage.

It ended with a march along Euston Road and running battles with the police.

Ellen, of course, was in the thick of it.

I was working at the time for a national news agency, and she berated me as a “mercenary” working for the “capitalist” papers.

She was always like that.

Pulling punches didn’t gel with her ­personality.

Over the years she would often come into the office – and God help us if we didn’t ­listen to her case, often on behalf of the underdog, a harassed tenant, or a homeless family.

I have never seen a fireball like her – ­anywhere in my travels over the years.

Officials and people of power may have seen her as a malcontent, combative for the sake of it  – but usually they were in her firing line.

Town Hall grandees were terrified of her. 

Once she found fault with her council flat, down she would go to the Town Hall – and demand a transfer.

I gave up counting the number of Camden flats she lived in.

She grew up in Camden Town in the 1930s in the kind of poverty that does not exist today. 

She ­obviously had a tough life – and this shaped her character.

Her philosophy was simple – she wanted the best, as a working-class woman, and believed she was entitled to it.

I have often thought if only other council tenants who pay their taxes and spend their lives working at pretty unrewarding jobs had half of Ellen’s spunk, what a different world it would be.

Imagine if genuine, unsullied people like her were in influential positions in government, or had as much space and airtime as today’s time-servers in politics – imagine how much better society would be.

Councillors were certainly frightened of her. 

Whenever she attended a council meeting she would drown out debate with her shouting – and embarrassed councillors, with bowed heads, would wish they weren’t there.

But beneath the hard, spiky exterior, beat a warm heart.

She was one of those people, however, who find it impossible to express their inner warm self and can only cover it up with an unyielding, obstinate outer shell.

From the 1950s there emerged in Camden a band of “intellectual” working-class ­campaigners – all auto-didacts – who were in the forefront of all progressive campaigns.

They were Alfie Barrett, Terry Hargrave, Charlie Rossi, Pete Richards – and Ellen Luby.

I place her high among what I regard as the local “political immortals” of the past 60 years!

It is often said of a person that one will never see her or his like again.

I try to resist hyperboles but, in this case, I believe the like of Ellen Luby won’t be seen again for some time.

A truly electric performance

IT almost didn’t happen.

After the theatre in the Hammersmith Riverside Studio was plunged into darkness on Saturday the show went on thanks only to some creatively minded electricians.

During an hour’s tense wait the actors could be heard pacing nervously backstage.

But Hobb Story – Instructions for Tunisian Love was well worth the wait.

Set in Tunisia it’s a very frank and uproarious look at love, sex, infidelity and murder which last year took the Carthage Theatre Festival by storm.

On Saturday there was another standing ovation for the cast of five young actors and rising director Lotfi Achour – and the ­electricians.

I left wondering why British theatre feels so inhibited by comparison with these upcoming Tunisians.

Why are we so afraid to tackle these incendiary topics? And why we leave it to the London International Festival of Theatre to bring us such plays.

It’s an organisation, like others in the arts, now facing an uncertain future under Whitehall’s budget axe.

Hats off to the Tunisian theatre company Artistes Producteurs Associes – funded by France and Tunisia, to LIFT and the Riverside electricians.

Lesson from 30s

HOW times have changed, I thought, when I heard that great old  lady of literature, 92-year-old Diana Athill, talk about her young teenage flirtation with a teacher in a BBC 2 ­special the other week.

When Diana was sent to a boarding school at 15 – she had never been to a school before – she became infatuated with one of her teachers. 

They met and flirted and kissed, she told her bemused interviewer Alan Yentob.

But, apparently, no one seemed to mind and, later, the teacher went off to fight in the Second World War – and was killed.

If that adolescent flirtation had taken place today – imagine the fall-out.  

Apart from lurid headlines in the tabloids, Diana would have been besieged by social workers, while the teacher would have been jailed for several years as a sex offender and cast into the wilderness.
Have we progressed since the 1930s?

Did George fly flag?

I WONDER what the billionaire speculator George Soros would make of the Camden branch of the Co-­operative Party?

What on earth, you may ask, has George Soros, who almost bankrupted the British economy in the 1990s with his speculation on the pound, got to do with that tiny band of people who believe in the principles of the 19th-century thinker Robert Owen, founder of the Co-operative movement?

It turns out that when he was in his 20s Soros came to London as a Hungarian refugee and worked as a salesman for a firm in ­Camden Town.

I heard the rumour several years ago and ­contacted the George Soros Foundation in New York which ­confirmed
that he had worked over here.

But where?

The mystery may have been solved by John Mills, who owns the booming mail-order firm JML.

According to Mills, Soros may have worked as a salesman for Phil Silverman, who ran a fur business in Camden Town.

Silverman, who died a few years ago, was a leading light in the borough’s Co-op party.

When Soros was denied a wage rise by Silverman he left – and made his fortune!

These politically ­outrageous thoughts crossed my mind when a colleague attended the traditional flag-flying ceremony of the party at the Town Hall and met leading local ­dignitaries – Mayor, Jonathan Simpson, ex-councillor Phil Turner and novelist and poet Alan Brownjohn.

The Co-op flag had been mothballed by the Lib Dems and Tories and has only just been brought out of storage.

Top marks, Beth

I GATHER local historian Beth Shaw’s play – Kapital Marx! – provoked boos and cheers at a performance at Belsize Park Library.

It tells the story of the German philosopher’s life in Soho and Chalk Farm and his relationship with Engels who lived in Regent’s Park Road, Primrose Hill.

With more than 20 parts, Friends of Belsize Library took part in its first public “read-through”.

So who was the star performer?

According to the Friends, it was Conservative councillor for Belsize Jonny Bucknell, who performed the part of “Global Capitalism” with gusto.

He told me: “I was a little ham-fisted, but I really got into it. 

I was shouting ‘come on you Proletariat scum!’”

The audience were invited to boo Cllr Bucknell every time he spoke – and later sung the Internationale.
The play was produced by Martin Bould for Domestic Theatre.

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