Phil’s Forty, 26: Bermuda 2 Washington 0

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.

Drink, golf, religion. In 1989 I was advised they were the three pillars of life in Bermuda.

It was a different world. The first thing I noticed as the British Airways DC10 circled the collection of small islands which make up Bermuda was the Atlantic Ocean, 50 shades or more of blue.

Phil with Bob Hope, "probably the most famous person I’ve ever interviewed."
“Bob Hope, probably the most famous person I’ve ever interviewed,” says Phil.

Then the heat of Bermuda in August, and the chill of the customs staff, notorious then for their entirely humourless approach to searching luggage and quizzing visitors as well as returning locals.

It was the first time I’d been greeted at an airport by someone holding a card with my name on it. Jim McKee, a Bermudian journalist whose career began before I was born, had taken a break from his shift on the sub-editors’ desk at the Royal Gazette to pick me up and drive me to the Inverurie Hotel.

It was classic Bermuda pink, somehow compact but also rambling, and perched at the edge of Hamilton Harbour, which was dominated more by pleasure craft than commercial shipping and by the ferries which, as a commute to work, have never been bettered.

Jim told me about the other “limeys” in the newsroom. I knew – but had never met – Mark Lawrence as an old friend of my former Yorkshire Post colleague Neil “Charlie” Farley. The surprise was Martin Gould, who I hadn’t seen for nearly 10 years. A colleague of friends who worked on the Bury Free Press in Bury St Edmunds, Martin was a staunch trade unionist, Peterborough United fan, chewer of matchsticks and he shared his birthday with my Jayne.

There was more. Phil North, who had been one of my police contacts in Hull, was one of several Humberside officers who completed spells with the Bermuda force. When Jayne joined an office admin course top top-up her skills in readiness for joining me in Bermuda she sat next to another Hull girl who was also heading out there.

Bill Down.
Bill Down.

Bill Down, a former Port Chaplain in Hull who left to take up a post in Fremantle, Western Australia, arrived as Bishop of Bermuda. I did the story when he recruited a rifleman from the Bermuda Regiment to fire off some blank rounds as a test of the acoustics in Hamilton Cathedral. Bermuda has a lot of churches.

There were little pieces of Hull to be found everywhere but our friendships were with all nationalities. Our newsroom had a hard core of local journalists, with a sprinkling of foreigners brought in to provide experience and guidance. But most of us recognised the move as an opportunity to learn from our Bermudian colleagues about their community and culture. 

The work permit was good for three years and would then generally be renewed without fuss but you could never take it for granted. A few years ago there was a story about someone from Goole who worked in Bermuda for 20 years or more and suddenly had their work permit application rejected. A close friend of mine who still lives there managed to secure “Bermuda status” after 25 years, giving him the security which comes with the right to own property. A fellow journalist came close to being kicked off the island when he pilfered the police commissioners braided cap at a formal dinner. But such was his contrition they let him off and he’s still there now.

We had an Australian in the newsroom and a few Canadians including one who had worked for something called the Crowsnest Pass Herald, which I always felt sounded like something you would see in the Road Runner cartoons.

Jayne and Phil Ascough.
Jayne and Phil.

We had a close-knit team and many would gather for drinks after work three or four times a week, notably after a late shift, around 10pm in a restaurant and bar called the Lobster Pot. On weekends there would be house parties, barbecues, booze cruises, live English football on a Saturday morning in the expat-haven Robin Hood pub, triple-header American football gatherings. 

It’s always been a big island for sport. Clyde Best, Shaun Goater, Kyle Lightbourne and now Nahki Wells have all made an impact in English football and the island was popular with visiting sports teams. Manchester United played there, so did Hull City. In 1991 Australia brought some of the finest cricketers in the world. The following year England A brought some of the stars of the future. There’ll be more on that another time.

Legends of the rugby union world went to Bermuda every year for the World Rugby Classic, a festival of open, running rugby augmented by the Easter Classic starring some current players notably, in one particular year, David Campese and Jeremy Guscott. The tours were working holidays for the players who would show their supreme skills and take the chance to relax by swimming, sailing and partying. There was a lot of drinking in Bermuda.

The climate, cost and isolation made for an island paradise and an array of exclusive resorts which lured celebrities from all walks of life. Drinking in the Lobster Pot one evening after work we chatted with Terry Venables. Basketball legend Michael Jordan arrived on the island to play golf and I always suspected that was the real attraction for Bob Hope, probably the most famous person I’ve ever interviewed, when he filmed his CBS Christmas special in Hamilton. He was thoroughly charming, so helpful and quick to hush his pushy, clock-watching assistant with the words: “Tell them I’ll be there when I’ve finished talking to this nice English reporter.”

International events of the time made Bermuda a destination of choice for US–UK summits and I found myself covering the press conferences by George HW Bush and Margaret Thatcher in 1990 as they discussed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Lockerbie bombing. A year later it was Bush and John Major talking about the Gulf war and general issues of security in the Middle East.

Looking through coverage of Major’s speeches I found this: “When President Bush and I were deciding where we should meet we discussed Washington, we discussed London, we discussed Bermuda and Bermuda won by 2 votes to nil and we are delighted to be here.”

Even the mundane assignments of reporting on court and parliamentary proceedings came with the quirkiness of the participants as often as not wearing Bermuda shorts. The day-to-day also included petty and serious crime, art and culture, health and education and plenty of road accidents even with an island-wide speed limit of 30mph, or 20mph in “urban” areas. The vibrant business community was being developed as a centre for international finance to reduce the reliance on a tourism sector which was vulnerable to hurricanes and, now, even greater perils.

Why leave? Because of the absence of things like an authentic, Adelphi-style live music scene, afternoons watching Hull City, pubs with proper history and character, good curry houses. Also because of that lack of security and the potential threat of those three pillars to someone who doesn’t go to church, isn’t much of a golfer but does like a drink!

Phil Ascough

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