OBITUARY: Ellis Hillman

Illtyd Harrington
Wednesday 24 January 1996 00:02 GMT

Ellis Hillman was in his own words "a ubiquitous rather than wandering Jew". He was a senior lecturer in environmental studies at the North East London Polytechnic as he gathered up a portmanteau of local government appointments which caused more selective spirits to raise a cynical eyebrow or two.

This lust for the burdens of office and his general demeanour hid a tough and calculating personality. He greeted everyone with "shalom" as if they were on the set of Fiddler on the Roof, but he was a staunch supporter of the state of Israel. This sometimes caused him to be paranoid about the 1970-80 generation of the Left in Labour London, whom he saw as anti- Zionist.

Hillman became a member of the London County Council in 1958 and remained in County Hall as a leading Greater London Council member until 1981. The old rigid regime at the LCC recognised his various gifts but the first XI was not open to him. There were dark rumours that he had flirted with the Trotskyite cell of the ineffable Gerry Healey, and some said he had known Ken Livingstone before most of us.

Yet there was a determination and durability in him and he seemed to be on every committee and board of college and school governors in his constituency.

He flowered in the Labour GLC administration of 1973-77. We made him the chairman of our arts and recreation committee. This handsomely funded body had grown out of the LCC's parks department into a cornucopia of the arts. Ellis was in money terms London's leading impresario. The South Bank he saw as his immediate fiefdom. The GLC stood behind the arts lobby and pushed it forward. Arnold Goodman, the former chairman of the Arts Council, greatly approved of Hillman's role. Indeed Hillman seemed to attend every function from the Clapham Horse Show to an evening of chamber music in the Ranger's House, Blackheath.

Alas, the inflation crisis and the IMF fiasco of 1975 caused us drastically to cut GLC expenditure, unnecessarily as it proved. This did not daunt Hillman, although marriage made him more precise about his religious duties. He disappeared quickly before twilight on Fridays. However, his public appointments continued to grow and sometimes they seemed very unlikely: he was even a member of the Sports Council. He remained a member of the GLC Labour opposition from 1977 to 1981 and continued to serve in many ILEA positions. The new Left wrote him off in 1981.

Yet in 1986 he got himself elected as councillor in the London Borough of Barnet, one of whose MPs was Margaret Thatcher. At the last local elections it fell to a Lib-Lab alliance and in 1994-95 Ellis became its first ever Labour mayor. The Tory stronghold held its breath. His first act was to remove all outward and visible signs of Thatcher from the Mayor's Parlour. An old friend offered him a bust of Lenin as an alternative. His demeanour in the mayoral Daimler was irreproachable and his civic conduct quickly won approval in this leafy suburb of north London.

There was beneath this shambling and enduring man a genuine eccentricity. He supported the Flat Earth Society, which promotes the idea that the Earth is flat; founded and elected himself President of the Lewis Carroll Society in 1969, consorting with others who could have come out of Wonderland itself; and had a continuing obsession about subterranean London, serving as Chairman of the London Subterranean Survey Association from 1968. He organised an early day conference on rewiring Britain and the coming of the cable in the late Sixties.

He wrote with Richard Trench a fascinatingly illustrated book, London Under London (1985). One memorable paragraph begins: "Sink a borehole at Golders Green and it will pass through 259 feet of clay, 49 feet of sand and pebbles, 15 feet of Thanet sand and 329 feet of chalk, layers of flint and two layers of fossils."

There is a wonderful New York Jewish anarchistic character created by the writer Leo Rosten, one Hymie Caplan. Hymie is a zealous adult student wrestling with English in evening class. Often the consequences are wild, funny and infuriating, but the redoubtable Hymie's refusal to accept defeat often came to my mind when Ellis Hillman hoved into sight.

Illtyd Harrington

Ellis Simon Hillman, local politician: born 17 November 1928; GLC Councillor 1964-81; Principal Lecturer in Environmental Studies, University of East London (North East London Polytechnic/Polytechnic of East London) 1972-96; Vice- Chairman, ILEA 1980-81; Councillor (Labour), Colindale 1986-96; Mayor, London Borough of Barnet 1994-95; married (one son); died London 21 January 1996.

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