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Homing in on ‘old school’ Isaaman

20 June, 2019 — By John Gulliver

Gerry Isaaman and the comedian Marty Feldman, right. Photo: Nigel Sutton

I COULDN’T get a tune out of my head for a day or two after I left the funeral of an old acquaintance, Gerald Isaaman, on Friday.

If ever a song summed up Gerry’s life it was When I Was a Lad, from Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta HMS Pinafore, and I can still hear it booming out to the packed chapel at Golders Green crematorium – with its punchy lines about a young poor boy who started at the bottom “polishing the door knob” at his office, worked his way up to the top, and ended as “the ruler of the Queen’s Navy!”

That was surely Gerry down to a tee.

His father walked out of the family when he was six, leaving his mother struggling to bring up four children in the desperate 1930s.

He started work on the local paper, The Stoke Newington Observer, at 16 as a messenger – and a few years later in 1968 became editor of the Ham and High.

He didn’t appear to have talked much about his early years to friends and colleagues and when his son Dan asked him to write a memoir, Gerry airily replied: “It’s all online!”

Except, of course, it wasn’t.

But then Gerry was a private man and wanted to keep some of his years to himself.

At the Ham and High he was lucky enough to work under a pretty unusual newspaper boss, Arthur Goss, who was an ardent supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and clearly a liberal-minded and cultured man.

I got to know Gerry over the years and you only had to read the “Ham” in the 70s and 80s to know its politics – it was fair to all political parties but its heart, or Gerry’s, lay with Labour.

Inevitably, as you’d expect, he fought to preserve Burgh House, promoted the early days of Hampstead Theatre, helped considerably to raise money to keep the old Hampstead Town Hall in Belsize Park in public hands – all fine campaigns.

He was also one of the few editors who backed a “closed shop” of his staff, all members of the National Union of Journalists in the 1970s.

But after I got chatting to some of his old staff at the family “wake” at the Bull and Bush in Hampstead on Friday afternoon, everything seemed to fall into a piece because I discovered something new about Gerry, something he never talked much about – the time he virtually pioneered a “co-ownership” housing scheme locally, enabling young people to find a home.

Under the scheme, Harold Wilson’s government in the early 70s had funded the purchase of houses that could be converted into flats with 100 per cent mortgages provided by local authorities.

There was one condition: the flats could not be sub-let by their new owners.

Gerry found four large Victorian houses in Hampstead and Kentish Town that could be bought under the scheme and formed a kind of housing association for what became known as “co-ownership”.

He found a flat in West Hampstead, for instance, for one of his staff who is still living there.

Gerry lived with his wife and son in the top flat of a house in Lyndhurst Road, Hampstead, that had once been owned by the Church of England before its purchase, in effect, by Camden Council.

Later, he moved with his wife Delphine out of London.

He was quite “young”, just turned 61, when he left the chair as editor in 1994 after 26 years, and I got the impression the new company which had taken over the “Ham” had eased him out.

Today it’s a shadow of its old self.

Bursting to write, he had much to give and I was only too glad to offer him an outlet. He became a regular feature writer for the New Journal.

Gerry was of the old school of journalists. Not many like him.

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