Phil’s Forty, 29: an explosive story

Phil Ascough writes:

That claim from a news editor about never finding good stories in pubs was never better exposed as utter nonsense over a couple of pints one Sunday lunchtime in the beer garden at The Queens.

Maybe he was trying to explode as a myth the association between journalists and bars. What came closer to blowing up was a terrace of houses down Westbourne Avenue.

"Arab arrested in dawn arms swoop." Phil Ascough, Yorkshire Post, 1987.
“Arab arrested in dawn arms swoop.” Phil Ascough, Yorkshire Post, 1987.

My drinking pal told me a squad of Special Branch officers had raided a ground floor flat at the crack of dawn a few days before. They had arrested “a man of Middle Eastern appearance”, trying to silence the protests of a neighbour who stormed out of his house in his dressing gown to complain about the officers parking on the grass verge and retorted: “Don’t you shush me!”

Sadly the story was too hot for my local police contacts and when confirmation came it was more than 24 hours later and from Scotland Yard. According to my piece in the Yorkshire Post they confirmed the discovery of 68lbs of “an undetectable” modern explosive, four assault rifles, seven hand grenades, detonators and clocks for making bombs, eight magazines loaded with ammunition and a large quantity of .38 and nine millimetre ammunition. You can’t even get that stuff in Walmart!

The Yard said the arms and explosives were being stored for future terrorist attacks across Europe and the whole episode was linked to the attempted assassination in London the previous month of a cartoonist who had upset Yasser Arafat.

My drinking pal had begin the conversation with the words: “I nearly called you the other day…” I still wonder what it would have taken for him to actually pick up the phone!

I don’t recall any particular stories from the White Hart in Alfred Gelder Street but it warrants a mention as the best pub in the city centre in the early 80s and the scene of a photograph which captures a fair chunk of the Hull Daily Mail newsroom of that time, one of whom is still there. 

In the White Hart pub, Alfred Gelder Street, Hull.

Mike and Audrey Hall ran the place, serving top quality Stella and pies and even putting your name on top of the suet crust when it was your birthday. We enjoyed long and regular lock-ins discussing such issues of the day as the miners’ strike but it was their previous pub that set the standards for after-hours drinking. 

They used to have regular blues nights at the Duke of Cumberland in North Ferriby. The last one before they moved to the White Hart featured Whamma Jamma, who I knew from the Donny music scene. It was about 3am when they kicked everybody out and, as designated driver, I took three very drunk colleagues home including my flatmate.

Chris has gone on to have a great career, much of it spent working in Argentina for the Daily Mail. But the morning after that gig we lost him. He’d set off to the bus station to do a story about Councillor Elliot Morley, a future MP who at the time wore hair and clothes in the style of the Bee Gees. But somewhere in the few hundred yards between the Mail office in Jameson Street and the bus station where St Stephen’s is Chris got lost. It turned out his head was still spinning from the night before and the diesel fumes did the rest as he escaped to the gents to avoid parking a pizza on the councillor’s gleaming white shoes. Chris is a great guy but was always a bit of a lightweight and you would never send him to get a story in a pub.

Unlike his predecessor as my flatmate. Alan Park was a fantastic photographer and a great drinking partner. We shared too many scrapes to remember, and some which can never be written down. As far as I know he’s still around. I tend to bump into him unexpectedly. Last time was at Hull City. Like many photographers who had spent far too many afternoons sitting behind the goal getting freezing and soaked he hated football, yet there he was as a paying fan.

Parky chronicled some of the more bizarre jobs and was prone to random acts of daftness. Instead of signing in at work as “Alan Park, Pics”, he once wrote “Alan Pork, Pigs”. I suspect it was after a job we did at Bishop Burton College.

Phil Ascough and a pig.
Phil, and pig.

As flatmates we were selected to go to Albert Dock early one morning to cover the departure of the Otago Galliard, renamed after being sold to a firm in New Zealand and about to set off on a long voyage to the new owners. If we look fed up it’s because we parked up at about 5am, with the Galliard and the Otago Buccaneer due to sail at six but with no sign of life. 

Alan Park and Phil Ascough.
Alan Park and Phil Ascough.

After a bit of shouting we managed to rouse the one crew member aboard. Yes, he said. Both ships were definitely still on to sail at 6am. Tomorrow. We’d been given the wrong day by the shipping correspondent, Bob Wellings, but he was a legend so we forgave him.

And as with anything else your luck evens itself out if you work hard and are resourceful. At the Yorkshire Post, Terry Carrott and I found ourselves needing to get three picture stores in the bag before lunch so we could get over to a meeting at head office in Leeds.

Our fallback in such situations was always a museum or gallery and sure enough we picked up a nice story from the Town Docks Museum. As smoker at the time I decided a cigarette might bring inspiration so went to buy some and spotted a protest notice in the window of the tobacconists next to the Ferens. They’d received a water bill even though they didn’t have a water supply. Good story.

As we stood in Queen Victoria Square, scratching our heads to come up with a third story we were joined by Tony Baynes, a freelance who occasionally covered for Terry, and memorably when the arrival of Harvey Proctor for a University of Hull speaking engagement prompted angry protests which ended with students being injured as the MP’s driver panicked and reversed into a crowd.

Tony, laden down with more cameras and lenses than Hilton’s front window, looked surprised and asked us how on earth we’d heard about the story. We had no idea what he was on about but played along to find out. 

A helicopter appeared. I don’t recall where it landed but a few minutes later Annabel Croft came running round the corner, filming Treasure Hunt, in Hull, on her birthday. Three stories in less than an hour. Thanks Tony, thanks Annabel. Game, set and match!

Phil Ascough

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.