Wednesday 28 November 2007

The elusive Mr Abrahams

David Who? From the Prime Minister down, leading Labour Party figures are lining up to claim that they have never met or even heard of the reclusive Newcastle landlord and property developer who has apparently been their third largest donor - until they had to pay it all back. I gather that there was a particularly impressive display of total ignorance by a prominent Newcastle Labour MP on last night’s ITV regional news.

It all seems mighty odd, given that the man at the centre of the controversy bears, at least some of the time, one of the best-known names in local politics. His father, sometime Lord Mayor of Newcastle Bennie Abrahams, truly was a local legend. I know, because I was brought up with him. Not literally; I’m not that old. In fact I’m exactly the same age as his son, according to the account that says he was born in 1954. Or not, if you believe the alternative theory that he was born in 1944. There seem to be at least two versions of reality in almost every line of this extraordinary story.

Anyway, to me and Bennie. He was my grandmother’s councillor and her hero. No other word will do. She lived for 65 years in a first floor rented flat in the West End of Newcastle, in a cobbled street which would now be classified as a slum. In fact, someone in authority must have reached that conclusion not long after Grandma died in 1973, at the age of 92, because it had been bulldozed out of existence when I went to pay a nostalgic visit a few years later.

Not that there was much to be nostalgic about. The flat had no heating apart from a coal-fired range in the kitchen. The lavatory was down a steep flight of steps in the backyard. There was no bathroom. Most incredibly of all, until the day she died the only lighting was from gas. I remember being despatched to the main Northern Gas showroom in Pilgrim Street, when I was in the sixth form at school, to buy her some new gas mantles. They eventually found some in a long forgotten store room, and handed them over with looks of frank astonishment.

When every other house in the street was converted to electricity in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Grandma told her landlord not to bother as she would be dead soon, and it wasn’t worth the upheaval. Such is the family tradition of positive thinking, which I am proud to represent today.

In fairness, she might well have believed it. My other three grandparents had all died by 1943, aged 60, 63 and 65.

Every Sunday lunchtime for 36 years, plus high days such as New Year, Easter and Christmas, my father drove across Newcastle to bring his mother to our house for lunch. My mother detested her, and the feeling was mutual. Mum used to spend a lot of time in the kitchen on her own, making a great deal of noise with the pots and pans, and muttering things like “Only the good die young.” And she undoubtedly had a point. If Grandma was anything to go by, the key to reaching the age of 92 is total self-obsession and an utter determination to live in and for the present. She had actually had an interesting childhood, emigrating to America with her parents and crossing the Mid-West in a genuine wagon train. (Yes, they had railways by the 1890s, but maybe the wagons were cheaper; or maybe the trains were operated by Virgin.) Displaying the brilliant judgement which I have also inherited, my great-grandfather decided that the USA was a busted flush, and brought his family back to England, where Grandma had caught glimpses of, among others, Queen Victoria and King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. But could you get her to talk about any of this? Not a chance. Ask her about the price of Tide, though (or was it Oxydol?), and there was no stopping her.

Our fraught weekly lunches were frequently dominated by talk of Bennie Abrahams: Bennie had promised this, Bennie was doing that. Bennie was a saint. No other word would do. My father, who had clambered far enough up the social ladder to become a staunch Tory, could be observed physically fuming.

Then came the evening in or around 1970 when Grandma was run over on a pedestrian crossing on her way home from a whist drive. Always a well-padded individual (there really is something in this heredity stuff, isn’t there?) she bounced off the tarmac quite nicely, but was nevertheless carted off to the General Hospital with a broken arm. The first reaction of the shocked medical staff was to put her on a strict diet in an ill-fated attempt to tackle her obesity. For some time afterwards, they talked about the strident yells that had rung down the ward when she was denied ice cream for her pudding: “I’m 90 years old, for God’s sake! What difference can it make?”

I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer to that question.

This was in the days before the compensation culture became universal, but the car driver who had run her down was clearly at fault, and my father was keen to do his best for her. He pleaded with her to let him hire a decent solicitor. No need, she insisted. Bennie Abrahams knew all about it, Bennie Abrahams was on the case, Bennie Abrahams was the best advocate in Newcastle and the only one she needed, as he had faithfully promised to represent her in person.

Came the day of the court case. Bennie Abrahams did not turn up.

Perhaps elusiveness is another one of those traits with a strong hereditary component.

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