Christopher Pym

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The Independent Online

Christopher Pym, writer and local politician: born Bristol 13 January 1929; married Clemency Luce (two sons, two daughters; marriage dissolved); died Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire 1 December 2001.

A scholar and writer on Cambodia, parliamentary candidate, long-serving district councillor, chair of school governors – Christopher Pym was not easy to pigeonhole. He was a man of many talents and considerable energy, much of which in recent years was focused on the community he served in Milton Keynes.

In the 1950s Pym had travelled extensively in Indochina. The result was four acclaimed works on Cambodia which are still required reading on the region. The Road to Angkor (1959) was followed by Mistapim in Cambodia (1960). Pym later edited and abridged Henri Mouhot's Diary (1966), the diary of the French explorer who in the mid-19th century had discovered the existence of the Khmer monarchy and the temples of Angkor Wat. The Ancient Civilization of Angkor (1968) was Pym's final work in a series which greatly increased Western understanding of Cambodia and its culture.

He was born in 1929, the son of Tom Pym, Canon of Bristol Cathedral, and Dora Ivens, a writer and classics lecturer at Bristol University. He remembered as a boy seeing Winston Churchill bestowing an honorary degree on the Australian prime minister in the bomb-damaged university after a heavy wartime raid on the city.

At Clifton College Junior School Pym was a contemporary of William (now Lord) Rees-Mogg, who later said that Pym was the only boy to achieve consistently higher marks than he. At Cambridge he performed with the Footlights alongside the composer and lyricist Julian Slade and Peter Hall. After National Service, he embarked upon his travels in Cambodia.

On his return to Britain, politics became Pym's abiding passion. In 1960, a parliamentary by-election was called in the safe Labour seat of Blyth in Northumberland. Apart from the incumbent party's nominee and a Conservative, no other candidate had emerged until Pym got himself nominated as an Independent. Fringe candidates were then a rarity at by-elections but Pym was determined to challenge the two-party stranglehold. Friends travelled north to help. One was asked by a local reporter about the candidate's politics. "Oh I've no idea," came the reply. "Speaking personally I am an 18th-century Whig." Pym astonished the local political establishment by holding his deposit and taking 5,000 votes.

A job at the Open University took him to Milton Keynes in the mid-1970s. As a course co-ordinator in education he was part of a team which developed radical new thinking on the teaching of children with special needs, advocating their integration into mainstream schools before it became accepted practice. Later he worked on courses relating to renewable energy. His expertise took him to conferences around Europe and seminars at the Cabinet Office.

He was Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate in Milton Keynes South West in 1992, but around the city he was best known as an energetic and high-profile district councillor. Elected in 1983, he was on the council for 17 years. He was ahead of his time with many ideas: his campaign for play areas and a council-funded play officer drew scorn from his opponents but such schemes are now commonplace. Friends believed Pym was "the best mayor Milton Keynes never had". He was particularly proud to be elected the first chair of governors at a new Milton Keynes school, Walton High.

Even after standing down as a councillor himself in 2000, he supported his long-term partner Liz Keller when she was elected to his former council seat, styling himself her chef de cabinet.

Hugh Ruthven