‘If in doubt, ask Abbo’ should have been our office motto

Eight hundred words may sound like a lot but let me tell you that it isn’t – not when you are attempting to pay homage to someone whose life and career exploits knocks your own into a cocked hat.
Born and bred in Shelton, John Abberley passed away at the weekend.
For 61 years he had been reporting and commenting on local life and championing the people of North Staffordshire.
It’s not a record I see anyone ever threatening.
I can’t tell you about John the family man, John the Port Vale trialist, John the broadcaster, John the semi-professional comedian or even John the publican.
But I can tell you a little about Abbo (as we all call him) the newspaper man and the bloke who I was privileged to call a friend.
I can tell you that right now there’s a void in The Sentinel’s newsroom that can’t be filled.
There is an empty chair next to a cluttered desk piled high with readers’ letters, newspaper cuttings, old photographs, reference books and the odd Werther’s Original sweet wrapper.
Suffice to say, I pity the poor sod who has to try to unravel Abbo’s unique filing system or ring his neverending list of contacts to break the bad news to them.
If you never met the man the first thing to say is that Abbo had a certain presence.
At six foot four he was a big bloke and he had a character to match that stature.
There is no doubt that the fact that he was so fit – still rambling up hills of a weekend in his late seventies – stood him in good stead for the fight against the cancer that eventually snuffed out this remarkable life.
Abbo was the father of our newsroom – the elder statesman to whom we could all turn when the cuttings, the internet or our colleagues let us down.
He was the arbiter of good taste, a stickler for the Queen’s English and never shy to remind us all of the responsibility we bear when wielding the written word.
I vividly remember him lecturing me some years ago when I was News Editor and one of my reporters incorrectly spelt the battle of El Alamein.
He was practically purple having received a complaint from one of his contacts who had been in North Africa with Monty.
I also recall his simple, straightforward email pointing out that 2010 did not, in fact, represent the centenary of Stoke-on-Trent but rather the centenary of the federation of the Six Towns.
A subtle but rather important difference, he rightly thought. That was Abbo, God bless him.
“If in doubt, ask Abbo” should have been our motto. After all, there wasn’t much the bloke who’d interviewed the likes of Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher didn’t know or couldn’t find out.
He treated all such inquiries – even from snot-nosed cubs – with extraordinarily good grace mainly because he loved a natter.
No-one ever had a brief conversation with Abbo.
Like any newsroom, ours has its cliques and not everyone is on Christmas card terms but it is fair to say that Abbo transcended such office politics and thus we all held him in the highest regard.
There was no reason for John and I to hit it off particularly – other than that we both worked daft, antisocial hours and could often been found burning the midnight oil at Sentinel House.
But I fondly remember him coming up to me the day my first opinion piece was published and passing judgment.
“Well, you don’t sit on the fence, do you?” he laughed. “I thought it was very interesting, actually. You’ll do all right.”
I don’t mind telling you that I felt like I’d been given the royal seal of approval.
Stuff what anyone else thought – I was a proper columnist now.
I always enjoyed our evening chats and felt very humble that this great man, who had been helping to shape people’s opinions for more than six decades, would occasionally ask for mine before jumping on to one of his favourite hobby horses.
Among others, EU commissioners will doubtless breathe a huge sigh of relief when news of Abbo’s passing filters through the champagne haze in Brussels. (That one’s for you, John).
A couple of months ago, as Abbo’s illness worsened, he sat in my office and talked about his intention to remain positive, fight like a tiger and keep on working.
I told him we ought to get his obituary written by speaking to the man himself because I feared no-one would be able to do him justice.
“But will anyone be interested?” he asked.
That was Abbo. Modest, down-to-earth, and thinking of others before himself – as he always did.
He was forthright, irreverent and wholly committed to the readers of this newspaper.
I hope Abbo will forgive me for saying that he was, and remains, a legend and we simply won’t see the like of him again.

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