It's a long way from West London to Hackney

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I GOT a disconcerting glimpse of my past this week when I took my mother to visit the house in West London where she and my father lived when I was born. I hadn't been back since I was a child and was unprepared for the sheer scale of the place, a neo-classical edifice which can only be described as a mansion.

One of the rooms has a ceiling by ET Parris, a painting of The Four Seasons which shows groups of chubby putti romping among spring flowers and sheaves of corn. When the American ambassador's wife attended a "breakfast" there in 1838, an event which actually started at three in the afternoon, she found the grand salon "filled with eager listeners to the thrilling notes of the Italian singers Grisi, Persiani ... After the repast the company returned to the lawn where the young people waltzed to the music of two bands who played alternatelythroughout the day and night."

Disraeli visited the house five years later and described it as "a most beautiful park and a villa worthy of an Italian Prince, though decorated with a taste and splendour which a French financier in the olden times could alone have rivalled". There's a splendid photograph in a little book by two local historians, Ann and James Collett-White, of the ceremony in 1926 when the estate's owners, the de Rothschild banking family, handed Gunnersbury Park over to the Boroughs of Ealing and Acton. It shows the Minister of Housing and Local Government, Neville Chamberlain, opening the park in front of a crowd composed largely of women in fur collars and cloche hats.

My recollections are of childish mishaps, like tumbling backwards into a bucket of water when I was two or three years old, but my family lived there long after the de Rothschilds moved out, in a flat which came with my father's job as a gardener. I do see, though, where I get my expensive tastes from and why I'm periodically gripped by a longing to waltz all night to the strains of a distant orchestra.

I'VE ALSO lived on the other side of London, in Hackney, which isn't the sort of place to inspire dancing in the streets. Whatever the shortcomings of its Labour-controlled council, it has had to struggle with all the problems of inner-city deprivation - poverty, unemployment, crime, a decaying infrastructure - while also being one of the Government's earliest targets in the 1980s for its savage policy of rate-capping.

My memories include returning home one day to find my front windows boarded up after a burglary; I'd scarcely had time to have the glass replaced when someone broke in again. A few months later I opened the front door to a plain clothes policeman who explained that he was enquiring into an incident - well, a stabbing really - oh all right, a murder - which had taken place on my doorstep while I was away for the weekend.

My other recollection is of long lines of dispirited people waiting for buses that never came; when you live in Hackney, it's easy to get the impression there's a conspiracy to prevent you escaping from it and troubling the citizens of other, more favoured parts of the capital - places where adult male unemployment isn't running at 21 per cent and two-thirds of households aren't struggling to get by on incomes of less than pounds 10,000 a year.

THESE thoughts were prompted by the Government's decision to take direct control of Hackney Downs School an inner city comprehensive whose formidable problems (falling rolls, poor exam results, high truancy rates) have been exacerbated by the council's uncertainty about how best to deal with them. In March it moved to close the school, a decision reversed last month after a power struggle within the ruling Labour group.

"Troubleshooters take control of failing school" is how the Daily Telegraph greeted the Government's action, a response echoed by the Guardian. "Dramatic intervention necessary in Hackney" it editorialised on Friday although it recognised there was no guarantee that the "task force" could save the school without vastly more generous public funding than anyone has ever seemed inclined to channel towards any project in Hackney.

No one mentioned that when Hackney Borough Council inherited 13 secondary schools from the Inner London Education Authority five years ago standards were so low that all 13 were officially "at risk". Twelve have been turned round leaving only Hackney Downs in that dismal category. Nor has anyone remarked on the bizarre composition of the five-member "squad of experts" sent in by the Government which apparently thinks what is needed is the expertise of two businessmen - one of them from ADT, a Bermuda-registered corporation which supplies electronic security services - and the outgoing head of a boys' public school.

A list of what Bermuda and Hackney have in common would not, I suspect, run to many sides of A4 but the team will be headed by Richard Painter, one of ADT's senior managers and chief executive of Industry in Education. One of John Major's first actions after the Conservative leadership contest was to merge the departments of education and employment, an alarming linkage whose blatant message - that the purpose of education is to turn out the workforce industry requires - was reinforced by Gillian Shephard's plans to get less academic teenagers out of school and into shops and offices. Now we're seeing further evidence of the trend in poor old Hackney.

What it amounts to is a covert privatisation of the state school system informed by the Tory obsession that private enterprise knows best. Interestingly, one of the bright ideas floated by Richard Painter, at the press conference to announce the "education association" which will run Hackney Downs, is to re-open the school as a co-educational establishment - a proposal the Government rejected out of hand when it was made by Hackney Borough Council.

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