Benjamin Disraeli, novelist and socialite, politician and Prime Minister of the UK

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Bill Keeth revels in a north Manchester connection

Readers may recall Benjamin Disraeli’s brief appearance in my debut novel which reads as follows:

“Larry Gilderdale (a bus driver with Manchester Corporation Transport Department) pulls up to let a woman with a kiddy get on at the bus stop outside the Harpurhey Con Club under the disdainful glance of Benjamin Disraeli above the doorway and diagonally across Rochdale Road from Bernard Manning’s World Famous Embassy Club.” [p.224, Every Street in Manchester ISBN 1859880657, pub. LEP, 2006]

Because a figurehead featuring the head of Benjamin Disraeli is set into the apex of the front entrance of Harpurhey Conservative Club, the precise location of which is 746 Rochdale Road, Manchester M9 4BP. Sadly, no name or no pack-drill is in evidence, but I resurrect the matter here in case any student of local history who has previously missed it (as had I until 2005, despite a misspent childhood and youth on the streets of Blackley and Harpurhey) may care to view it whilst it is still with us. BecauseHarpurhey Conservative Club, which was built in the latter-half of the nineteenth century (either during Disraeli’s 1868 or 1874 administration as Prime Minister, I tend to suspect) is currently in the process of being demolished.

However, notwithstanding the fact that the amiable Kevin McNally, RM Development’s west of Ireland voiced site Manager [Tel. 07785921838] tells me such items usually end up in a reclamation yard, I would for my part very much prefer it if the local Jewish community, local Conservatives and local historians were alerted to this eventuality in the hope that a more appropriate option may be arranged.

There are any number of anecdotes relating to Disraeli, who was of Italian-Jewish descent. His Sephardic family had converted to Anglicanism prior to 1820, without which Dizzy would, of course, have been debarred from holding office as Prime Minister, which he eventually did on two occasions.

A Chopin-like glamour boy in his youth, Disraeli latterly established himself as a compelling parliamentary speaker, though the failure of the Conservative leader, Sir Robert Peel (MP for Bury), to give him a cabinet position in 1841 prompted his bitter opposition to Peel’s decision to repeal the Corn Laws, the imposition of which had arguably led to starvation amongst the poor throughout the British Isles.

Peel resigned the following year, his departure heralding the birth of the Liberal Party. Then in 1852, Disraeli became Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord Derby’s minority government, serving as chancellor under Derby in three such governments and reforming parliament in 1865 with a bill that doubled the existing electorate.

When Derby retired in 1868, Disraeli ‘climbed to the top of a greasy pole’ (vide the famous Punch cartoon) as the new prime minister. In this capacity he oversaw a shift towards the emergence of two political parties, each with its own, coherent, policies – the (One-Nation) Conservatives under Disraeli (the kind whom Mrs Thatcher would one day unjustly term ‘wets’) and the Liberals under William Ewart Gladstone (MP for Hawarden).

Interesting I find it to recall that so many parliamentary constituencies within and adjacent to Greater Manchester were party to these heady goings-on. (Remember, too, that philanthropic twosome, Richard Cobden, variously MP for Stockport and Rochdale, and John Bright, MP for Manchester)

As it happens, Disraeli and Gladstone detested each other; with Queen Victoria herself expressing a decided preference for Disraeli, who retained all the manners and bearing of the salon. A novelist throughout his life, Disraeli’s speciality was the roman àclef – fiction within which real personalities are disguised by pseudonyms. He married a wealthy widow, reputedly for her money, though she herself attested: “If he had the chance again, he would marry me for love.”

Disraeli is famous, too, for a number of celebrated utterances, not the least of which is his humorous assertion concerning ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’.

Returning to our own locality though, what I would personally hope is that in a city such as Manchester, where there is already a Jewish Museum – indeed, any number of appropriate locations of note, whatever exposure I might contrive regarding the Disraeli figurehead may result in an arrangement whereby a suitable resting-place can be secured for this singular relic, quite possibly alongside an accompanying and explanatory plaque.

At street level it would perhaps serve as a reminder of the various Jewish shopkeepers who in the great long ago plied their trade adjacent to what I call ‘Moston Lane corner’ – the crossroads of Moston Lane with Rochdale Road. Rumour has it that Bernard Manning was himself of Jewish descent. (Who knows? Note, by way of example though that Jackie Mason, himself a Jew, tells the best Jewish jokes.) Meanwhile, alongside Bernard’s family there were Estalls, the grocers (whose grandson Peter went on to a headline career as a BBC producer), and the noisier if not larger than life Ben Dardick, an effervescent trader in undergarments and soft furnishings whose shop, I seem to recall, was ever a riot with bargains galore.

Pity I didn’t take more notice at the time. The trouble was, of course, that Ray McGrath, across from Harpurhey Baths, carried a more interesting stock in trade – bicycles and Dinky cars.

Where nowadays, I wonder, are there shopkeepers of their like? Where, too, are there politicians of such high calibre?

(16 July 2014)


See Amazon Kindle books recently published by Bill Keeth: Every Street in Manchester, Manchester 9, Write It Self-Publish It Sell It, Boost Your Pocket Money and Pension

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