I would like to apologise to the world famous, brilliant, awesome fantasy writer Neil Gaiman. When the chips were down - and those would be Cllr Lee Hunt's chips, that Cllr Mike Hancock MP pissed on - instead of naming a beautiful road after you, Mr Gaiman, which the Cabinet could have done, honouring you and your family - perhaps a sweeping route where Portsmouth seems to reach across the water to Portchester Castle as the sun sets behind the haunting, towering Roman and Mediaeval stones - well, instead you got to unveil a street sign placed in front of a hedge in a teeny-tiny bus-only road in Southsea. You were a great sport about it, and maybe you really didn't mind about the bus lane thing, but I honestly wish we could have done better for you.
This story, for me, began at an Informal Cabinet Meeting (i.e. behind closed doors) one morning and it would have been around the early part of 2013, looking at subsequent news reports. Lee - the then Cabinet Member for Culture and Leisure - was excited. That was Lee's style - forceful, excitable, loud and brash. He had news to tell us and he wanted us all on board with his idea, which was to name a road in Portsmouth after Neil Gaiman. It was to be a 'big win' of positive publicity.
And this proposal turned, as agenda items so often did at these meetings, into a ridiculous squabble. While it was often a relief when Hancock directed himself towards some other individual - on this occasion, Lee - these squabbles were nevertheless uncomfortable and frustrating scenes. No creative triumph was ever forged in the crucible of lost tempers and table banging. It's highly illustrative of how the Informal Cabinet Meetings of the Lib Dem administration operated post-2009, with forceful personalities and egos constantly cutting across each other - frequently in front of senior council officers and visitors, to the detriment of decision-making (and our dignity).
I'd heard of Neil Gaiman but didn't know the detail. Lee filled as much of that detail in as he was able to in the circumstances, and I read up on it later. The Gaiman family's local connection to Portsmouth is genuinely fascinating, a tale of Jewish immigrants originally from Eastern Europe coming to the city by way of the Netherlands shortly after 1916, and setting up a chain of grocery shops that became part of the landscape. When Neil Gaiman was born his family home was just outside of the city in Portchester, but he also stayed in Southsea and was Barmitzvahed in the Portsmouth Synagogue. He was inspired from a very young age to write, and became a huge writing sensation for his work on DC Comics, Marvel Comics, as well as for his award-winning scripts for the resurrected and globally popular Matt Smith-era Dr Who. When I asked my teenagers about Neil Gaiman later that day, their reaction was positive and instant.
Lee was right - this guy was a big star, and fitted in perfectly with the city's supposed desired to promote its connections with writers like Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle and enhance both its civic pride and its tourist revenue. It was the Cabinet's job to facilitate this plan. But, yet again, we didn't do what we were meant to do. It's embarrassing, looking back, how inept all these supposed 'big hitters' were when placed together in close quarters.
Hancock as I recall immediately mounted a very unexpected objection to Lee's plans. He, Hancock, didn't know who Neil Gaiman was. And it was interesting how complete an objection that was for Hancock to the whole idea going ahead, as though his lack of knowledge equated to an automatic veto. This wasn't a case of, oh sorry I don't know who is this is, please educate me. It was, I've never heard of him so your idea's no good. What should have been a straightforward, positive part of the meeting descended into chaos and yes, there was shouting. I remember the argument swinging backwards and forwards between Lee and Hancock, with Gerald (Vernon-Jackson) in the chair and a few of us trying to interject, but it seemed to me that Hancock really didn't appear to want this to happen.
Why? We can only guess. It wasn't the first time he'd pissed on someone's chips in Informal Cabinet and it wouldn't be the last. He did it to me over my campaign to try to combat dog fouling - he was dead set against one particular hard-hitting poster going out, and insisted on it being pulled; and then when one finally did appear at Kingston Recreation Ground - after he'd left the Cabinet - he had himself photographed next to it for one of his 'independent' leaflets. At the time he objected to it, a few other Group members suddenly decided that the posters were unacceptable, having been fine with them for weeks previously. Their number included one of the 'Dog Shit Two' who subsequently, and somewhat bewilderingly, thought it was a great publicity stunt to bring actual dog turds into the Council Chamber. Go figure.
Hancock had previously had a go at me for landing up in the national media for drawing attention to the resources that schools required to support the increasing number of languages being spoken by children in the city's schools - I think it was 67 then and it's many more now - a policy position which I still think was sensible then and which holds good today. Hancock called it the 'mess' I'd got into. (It was actually a prominent page of the Daily Mail I'd got into, but hey, he got his whole scandal-soaked front page on 23rd January 2014 so I'm sure that cheered him up no end.) My personal chip-pissing list could go on for a long time.
So what did Lee do? Well, like me, he worked around objections. The naming of the road did go ahead, but personally I don't think it had the fanfare that it should have had, and I'm not sure we picked the right road. I don't know if Lee stuck with what was an original plan or if it was some sort of a post-squabble compromise. I don't remember Lee getting any credit from his Cabinet Colleagues or the Group. And herein lies one of the murky problems of that Lib Dem administration. Hancock's chip-pissing, and Gerald's hapless enabling of it, created conditions where people like Lee, and me, ended up, I think, becoming different versions of ourselves in order to get anything done. Lee may disagree with me; but I hope he'll accept my generosity on this.
We had good, creative officers working with us, probably feeling constrained by philistines who refused to see the value of literary giants and income generating possibilities. 'Who's interested in Jane Austen?' was a typical response to an attempted discussion about the connection of the author and her family with Portsmouth and the Royal Navy. It was excruciating.
But I didn't want to just walk away from it all back then - I wouldn't give the colleagues who wanted me to walk the satisfaction to be honest - so I adapted. And some of my colleagues adapted to the point of acting in ways that were sometimes far too forceful, or secretive, or manipulative. We got used to others and sometimes ourselves being a state of denial in order to get anything done. It was frustrating, and it could be depressing. I've said before that this was not a therapeutic environment, and it had something of a cult feel about it at times. Gerald had talent in that Cabinet, but so much of it became corrupted by the atmosphere. Particularly from 2009 onwards, when the composition of the Cabinet swung towards a predominance of uber-forceful men, and - as we now know - Hancock's life was in a strange and tainted place, the fate of that Lib Dem administration was sealed.
And so the honouring of Neil Gaiman, and Lee's having a road named for him, went ahead in 2013. 'The Ocean At The End Of The Lane' - the title of a brilliant book by Neil Gaiman - is a dour stretch of tarmac that runs up towards the Southsea seafront in Portsmouth. It's a bus-route-only road that is maybe the length of three buses. The road sign only exists on the one side of the road, in front of a massive hedge that obscures line of sight into Canoe Lake. That such an inspiring book pierces the real world in such an uninspiring location encapsulates, I think, the stunted ambition of that Cabinet in the years leading up to its collapse. Yes, the sea is just over there, past the bus stop, over the road, that way ... and that's where we should have insisted on Neil Gaiman's stunning, shining work finding memorial form in reality.
I'd be happy to see that sign on any part of the seafront, directly overlooking a sun-lit tidal sea and Solent forts and passenger ships sailing in and out of the harbour, with movement and water-sound and the scent of salt and seaweed. Or I'd be happy to live on a real, in-your-face Neil Gaiman street, with his name on my home, his ideas stapled to the bricks and mortar. A 'Gaiman Way' could point to the eastern Europe of the Gaiman family forebears, from where so many of our early city inhabitants came. Or it could point to the east, or west, or south or north. To Portchester Castle, or towards other stones or sands and tides. Or it could point towards Jerusalem, wherever your Jerusalem lies. The world's too big to make commemorations so small.
Portchester may beat us to it first. But please, no more oceans at the end of bus lanes to honour our astonishingly talented friends. Sorry, Mr Gaiman.