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In a class of his own

Linda Clarke is captivated both by Vic Heath’s battles in the building trade and his warm-hearted memories of times past

09 July, 2020 — By Linda Clarke

Vic Heath, from the cover of his book

“MY name is Victor Alan Heath, and I was born on 3rd September 1932, at 9 Arlington Road, Mornington Crescent, Camden Town, London NW1. It was an industrious part of London, with many of its inhabitants working at the Carreras cigarette factory, which was so enormous it took up an entire block. The popular brand they manufactured was the Craven A, which came in red packets with a black cat printed on them that matched the two black bronze statues guarding the entrance to the building. Others were postal workers at the large sorting office nearby, while many people worked at the three big stations nearby – Euston, St Pancras and King’s Cross – and at the large railway yards at the top of Camden Town.”

So begins Just One of the Working Class, the autobiography of Vic Heath, who was, before moving out of London to Luton in 2002, a very familiar and prominent figure in Camden, as UCATT convenor steward of Camden Council’s direct works department, communist and poet. He was involved in many of the battles in the borough over the last half of the 20th century, including the 1960 rent strike.

His book takes us on his long, colourful, very varied and always warm-hearted journey from this beginning in Arlington Road.

We gain fascinating insights into his early years, from suffering from lead poisoning as a young child – lead being in common use even for toys – to evacuation during the war with three of his siblings, being “taken to St Pancras, with a label, upon which our parents had written our names, strung around our necks. We were given a tin of condensed milk and a bar of chocolate by the volunteers.”

They travelled to the village of Westoning in Bedfordshire, where he stayed with a number of families till the end of the war and where “everything was open, the air was clean and fresh, there were animals everywhere and orchard-grown apples ripe for scrumping. We didn’t have any of that in London.”

We are all the time given glimpses of life in Camden, first in the 40s and the 50s as Vic went to Medburn Street school and, on leaving school at 13, went on to work at various jobs, including in a carpenter’s shop.

Here Hugo from Hungary who had fought in the Spanish Civil War gave him a copy of the Daily Worker, which he then read every day though it wasn’t till 1960 that he joined the Communist Party.

In Leadenhall Street, 1973, during the Trollope and Colls strike

This was a period of “Reds under the bed”, an expression that annoys Vic “because it made it sound like we were creeping around… when the only things we were trying to upset were the injustices forced upon ordinary people day in and day out”.

Before then Vic had become an active union member, joining the Transport and General Workers Union, then later the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers, which became UCATT.

For his active involvement in the union, including as federation steward on a number of building sites such as the Barbican, Vic was blacklisted, leading him to be fired from jobs, as occurred at Hinkley Point.

On the Barbican, he tells us, he fought for decent toilets, taking advantage of a clause in the collective agreement that “if there weren’t flushing toilets and washing facilities available to workers on site, then the workers were entitled to walk up to 300 yards to the nearest public toilet”.

This meant 200 men marching to the public toilets at St Paul’s before the management gave way and built toilets, a shower unit and washing facilities.

This is just one of the battles fought by Vic and his comrades. We learn too of the discrimination against him, not just blacklisting, but as a “London Boy” during evacuation, then charged with loitering “with intent” in Delancey Street as he waited for his girlfriend, and then, cast as a “Camden Tomboy”, being sent to borstal for 14 months after defending himself against provocations from “rich boys” from Highgate.

In between we learn of his many travels, first in the merchant navy, which he joined to avoid national service, when he travelled to west and South Africa, Australia, India and South America. Then later to the German Democratic Republic and holidays all round Eastern Europe with his wife and their son Gary.

Above all, what comes across in this account of his life is Vic’s incredible warmth and care for humanity, his love of his wife and their son, who sadly died in his 40s, and how he learnt to express this and to fight off depression through poetry.

I have known Vic now for over 40 years and as I read the words in his book I could at the same time hear his voice, see him there, a towering figure and a wonderful friend.

This is a very readable and enjoyable book that presents a vivid and moving perspective on post-war history in Britain, and, more locally in Camden. I heartily recommend it.

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