Phil’s Forty, 11: Radishes to riches

It’s 40 years this year since Phil Ascough, our most prolific freelance contributor, arrived in Hull to begin a new episode in his journalistic career. Having spent two years on the weekly Doncaster Gazette, Phil headed east to the Hull Daily Mail. Apart from three years on the Royal Gazette in Bermuda and a short spell at the Teesside Gazette, he’s been here ever since. He worked for the Yorkshire Post and the BBC before returning to the Mail and becoming business editor. He moved into sports media with the Press Association in Leeds and then Howden, and set up his own PR consultancy in 2010. To mark the anniversary he has set out to write 40 essays looking at his career, our city and its people.

Paul and his son Patrick endorsing the Social Mobility Pledge in a meeting with former Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening.
Paul and his son Patrick endorsing the Social Mobility Pledge in a meeting with former Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening.

From radishes to riches, the story of Paul Sewell’s progress from potential fruit trader to the top of a local business employing 500 people and turning over £100m is a remarkable read.

Also pretty amazing is the public response over the first few days following the release of “Half a Lettuce”. 

Locally, Paul heard from a chap in his 90s who used to work alongside his Dad in Humber Street. Former Sewell Group colleagues have been in touch, as have team mates from Paul’s days playing cricket and semi-professional football. The fledgling author now knows what Alan Johnson, his sounding board for the project, meant when he described the book as important social history.

The former Hull West and Hessle MP is spot-on with his message on the front cover: “Few people have lived a life as interesting and varied as Paul Sewell and even fewer would be able to write about it with such warmth and wit.”

I approached the project with insight and independence. I’ve known Paul professionally and socially for more than 25 years and been writing about his firm for even longer, back in the 1980s during a first stint at the Hull Daily Mail and then more than six years with the Yorkshire Post in a first-floor office on Ferensway.

My favourite story – and one which you won’t find in the book – concerns events after a formal dinner in Hull Guildhall during my spell as the Mail’s Business Editor in the 1990s. We’ll get to it later.

From the first chapter of “Half a Lettuce” I sensed the authenticity of anecdotes and episodes which combine the language of the street, the Fruit Market, the football pitch and the various levels of the corporate world. They also display an honesty which might surprise many readers and a directness which shouldn’t surprise any.

There’s arrogance aplenty, but primarily in asserting a football talent which went unfulfilled. Perhaps perversely, there’s also acknowledgment of bouts of “imposter syndrome”, with Paul on occasions trying to persuade himself that he’s worth his place at the tables of high achievers.

Criticism, usually measured, is handed out – and also received and acknowledged – where it’s due, usually around mischief and a few misdeeds. A memoir wouldn’t be much of a read if it only ever patted people on the back.

Above all “Half a Lettuce” is fun and it’s full of insight. There’s an abundance of human comedy and tragedy – the lettuce story from York Market, the student streak in Roundhay – with quirky social history and local interest bits in between to make it a thoroughly entertaining read. But it’s also a serious business book. 

Paul Sewell
Paul Sewell. Photo: Jerome Whittingham @photomoments.

In his personal and professional life Paul Sewell has demonstrated a curiosity linked to razor sharp powers of observation, and a determination to develop business as a force for good which earns an endorsement here from former MP and Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening in her capacity as founder of the Social Mobility Pledge. 

All the elements are brought to life by an approach to storytelling which displays a real deftness to go with occasional daftness. 

The old fruit trader contacted Paul because the book brought back memories of Humber Street in its heyday. Others have been in touch about the references to Cottingham and the changes to a village which has remained home wherever Paul’s work, football and studies have taken him.

My interest is more in Paul’s own transformation from curious businessman to a fully-fledged entrepreneur who seized every opportunity to learn during a revolutionary period in Hull’s corporate scene.

There’ll be a story to come another time about the explosion in business support services which led to traditional, male-dominated trade associations and charitable groups gradually being overtaken by more modern organisations through the advent of “networking,” but for now I’m just thinking about the countless black tie dinners.

The best venue was the banqueting room at the Guildhall, and at the close of one posh event I wandered out with Paul. He suggested sharing a taxi back to Cottingham but I had a better plan, my failsafe Friday night post-Guildhall dinner routine. We could spend half an hour or more hanging around Lowgate or we could go and see Dogmeat.

There’ll be a story to come another time about why Alan Moses was known as Dogmeat, but the important bit is that Alan and his wife Beryl ran the Kingston in Trinity House Lane and would always welcome me to have a couple of pints with them and order an after-hours taxi.

As we strolled down Bowlalley Lane and through Land of Green Ginger I told Paul how Alan had come to be known as Dogmeat and how he should be handled with care. He’s a lovely bloke but with a bit of a short fuse and all we want is a couple of drinks so don’t go winding him up…

We tapped on the back door in North Church Side, Beryl let us in and we propped up the bar amid a haze of cigarette smoke and small bunch of regulars enjoying a late drink. Dogmeat extended the usual warm greeting and we drank and chatted until Paul chirped: “We’re gonna have to get out of here. That’s ceiling is way too high but I could fix it for you”.

Phil Ascough