Coffins to Cosmology by John Salkeld reviewed by Brian Green

John Salkeld’s autobiography suggests, at times, that he has been borne through life in very much the same way as two of Evelyn Waugh’s literary heroes; Paul Pennyfeather from Decline and Fall and William Boot from Scoop,  both of which books he mentions and enjoys.  Like Boot and Pennyfeather, John Salkeld is plucked from obscurity, in his case from Tooting and through a series of initially mundane posts in the rather tarnished world of real estate finds himself as landlord to Douglas Fairbanks junior and being poured a cup of tea by the Duke of Windsor.

The Coffins part of the title derives from his father, who after a tough but unspoken time of military service in the First World War and its aftermath in the Middle East, returned to Civvy Street and soon became the driver of a Co-op undertaker’s hearse. It was a job he was pleased to have when the Great Depression coincided with the arrival of his only child.

The family’s move to their own terraced house in South Norwood confirms his father’s good sense in holding onto his job in hard times.  However his mother was the ambitious half of the marriage and preferred to describe her husband’s job to neighbours as a chauffeur or garage foreman.  John’s easy-going father would destroy this little charade “by regularly turning up outside the house for a cup of tea, bringing with him the pall-bearers with a string of hearses that they would park halfway down the road”.  John inherited his father’s love of cars and probably some of his restless nature from his ambitious mother and it was the combination of these two traits which would eventually bring him his big break into his ultimate career in property development.

Before this happened, there were long periods of study at the Brixton School of Building and an opening with a firm of chartered surveyors in Westminster where, although only on the very bottom rung, the senior partner made sure that John  got a decent training. An interval of National Service in the infantry made briefer through poor eyesight and a spell as a farm labourer delivered John back into the more familiar world of real estate.  Not that he was any good at it as he readily admits “Salkeld”, said one employer, “you are the most useless negotiator we have ever had.  I am told that you want to be a poet which I recommend you now consider very seriously indeed.  However, because I am a very kind person and because we have the annual cricket outing coming up in month’s time (John had trialled for Surrey Colts), I am not going to sack you just yet but I am transferring you to the valuation department, God help them.”

Here, with his love of mathematics, John found something he could enjoy and began to climb up the management ladder.  He had qualified as a surveyor, yet restless again, he applied for a job with the Crown Agents.  After a shaky interview in which he tore a hole in the seat of his trousers as he was getting up to leave, he heard nothing whatsoever of its outcome.  Four months later he was informed he had been appointed Revaluation Officer to the Nigerian Railway at a salary of £847, living expenses included.  There began an hilarious year of travelling throughout Nigeria, in his own railway carriage with his ‘team’ of assistants, valuing stations, platforms and warehouses for forthcoming independence.

Settling for a humdrum life has never been in John Salkeld’s canon and the Nigerian experience was a hard act to follow.  Carefree bachelor days and new-found independence followed leading to occupancy of smart London flats and even  a houseboat and it was a few years later, when he took a job with an upmarket firm of estate agents that he had the first of his brushes with high society.  The advertisement in the Estates Gazette which enticed his application read :   ‘Interesting position for surveyor.  Some foreign travel and involvement in property development’.  The job offered was run by a pleasant and well connected aristocrat out of a small office in the West End where the staff consisted of John and his employer, a secretary and a dog.  Over the first few years of the 1960’s the flight of wealthy investors to less tax-stressful climes like the Bahamas brought in a great deal of business and would lead to Douglas Fairbanks being John’s tenant and the encounter with the former Edward VIII.  This occurred when, newly married  he was about to take a Sabbatical and, with his wife Angela , was obliged to divert from their intended trip to the USA to the Bois de Boulogne to discuss with the Duke of Windsor the sale of the latter’s interest in a ranch in British Columbia.  Evidentally the presence of Angela quite diverted the Duke from the business in hand and after a butler brought in the tea tray it was duly poured by the host who later saw them to the front door, with the commission for the sale of the ranch safely secured.

Of course it was all too good to last and like many a property boom before and certainly since it all went pear-shaped.   By 1972 John had amassed a paper fortune of some £30million of today’s money, all invested in houses or blocks of flats around Regent’s Park or Knightsbridge.  It was all going too well. In fact boringly so and to satisfy his restless personality he enrolled at the London School of Economics as a mature student for a BA history degree with David Starkey as his tutor.  John had the distinction of probably being the only capitalist in what was then, essentially, the most left-wing university in the land.

1973 brought the miners’ strike, the three day week, a Middle-east war which drove up the price of oil and a tax hike to 93% on unearned income.  John’s property investment crashed from £4.6million (against which he had loans to the amount of 40%) and by the following year the game was up.  The Knightsbridge properties which were valued at £700,000 in the previous year could not be sold for £100,000.  He lost around three stones in weight and was advised by his doctor to see a psychiatrist, and informed his creditors that he could not pay the interest on the properties he held. For the next seven years he lived under the threat of bankruptcy just about able to hold onto his house in Dulwich and keep his three sons at school.

The Jensen went, the house in the South of France went and for those seven years he lived in a kind of limbo.  What he did have was a little income from his management of a Crown Estate property, Whitehall Court, a vast and prestigious Victorian block alongside the River which he had virtually saved from demolition and would have a thirty year on and off love affair with managing it.  David Starkey turned up trumps, allowing John to fit in his tutorials as best he could and he graduated in 1975  “practically catatonic with worry and tiredness”.  It was then, when things were at rock bottom that he came up with the idea of developing the ground floor of Whitehall Court, the remainder of which, apart from a hotel and the National Liberal Club, was largely composed of luxury flats, with offices.  Luck began to turn again and an ‘old fashioned’ bank manager from Barclays was prepared to take the risk and lend the money for the conversion.  The offices were let, and by 1980 his situation had eased sufficiently for him to think he was back where he was in 1960.

For the next sixteen years he gradually clawed his way back cautiously undertaking property development.  A MA in medieval archaeology at UCL as a guinea pig for the concept of a part-time degree then being launched allowed him to return to academia which he found he loved and when this finished he discovered a passion for art, began drawing and was accepted for art school.
Which is where the second part of the book’s title comes from.  John Salkeld likes painting his versions of the cosmos.  For now that is…….

Coffins to Cosmology: a personal journey through the twentieth century  by John Salkeld, published by Ondine Publishing £17.95 hardback 230 pps is available from Village Books, Dulwich Village.

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