Phil’s Forty, 39: Lessons from the old school

It was maybe five or six years ago that I sat in a client meeting and heard another journalist, aged thirty-something, describe himself as “old school”. Comfortably into my fifties at the time, listening to someone who probably wasn’t born when I first tickled a typewriter for remuneration, I wondered what that made me. 

I also thought about the lost colleagues who I’d considered to be “old school”, and what sort of lessons had been handed down. Then I remembered the thank-you note we received in the late 1980s from a local school student who became the first aspiring young journalist to spend a week on work experience in the Yorkshire Post’s Hull office.

The details now are as fuzzy as the photographs which accompany this piece but it’s inconceivable the young woman would have got through the week without meeting Mike Ackroyd and Gilbert Johnson, and without hearing of the antics of Peter Reekie.

Mike Ackroyd.
Mike Ackroyd.

Mike, who died in 2018, was a much-loved freelance journalist and PR consultant. Gilbert, whose obituary I wrote in 2011, was also a freelance, a lovable rogue who claimed to have been sacked by every national tabloid paper. Peter was the Yorkshire Post’s shipping correspondent from 1960, and Chief Reporter of the Hull office from 1983 until retirement in 1988.

Over the last 40 years there have been many more sad departures of treasured colleagues. At the Mail they included Reg Lucy, a photographer who I always remember as elderly but who had the energy and effervescence of a teenager. Fellow reporters Alan Burgess and Jeff Postlewaite were taken before their time. Alan developed brain cancer and I had the desperately painful honour of speaking at his funeral 17 years ago and trying not to be distracted by the sight of his daughter, then about three, pointing at his photograph on the order of service. A few years after that we heard that Jeff had early onset Alzheimer’s. At various points we lost Peter Moore, Deputy Editor of the Hull Daily Mail and then Editor of his beloved Grimsby Telegraph, Brian Taylor who’d had the presence of mind to take his hip flask to await the return of the Norland, and Mark Humphreys, a great journalist best known as a renowned restaurant critic.

Gilbert Johnson.
Gilbert Johnson.

Mike, Gilbert and Peter shared certain similarities – you’ll note each has a glass in his hand – but were also very different. Anyone familiar with their lifestyles will find it astonishing that Gilbert made it to 81.

Mike started working in the sports department at the Hull Daily Mail in 1957. By the time I met him in 1980 he was established as a freelance specialising in sport and business. He covered home games at City, FC and Rovers and set up MAPA, which became one of the region’s best and most trusted marketing and PR agencies as a result of Mike’s commitment – maintained by his daughter Catherine – to do things properly.

Throughout the 1980s I helped Mike cover matches at Boothferry Park, where he was the de facto father of the press box as City progressed from Fourth Division also-rans to serious contenders for promotion to the First Division.

He had an eye for a story and talent for turning a phrase and he was the first journalist I wanted to speak to in later years when I worked on some publishing projects about Hull City.

Here’s Mike on Bobby Collins as manager: “He used to hold the press conferences in his little, windowless office under the West Stand. There would be about 12 of us packed in and he would get out a whisky bottle and offer everyone a drink. He was very talkative.”

And on access to the press box via an iron staircase bolted to the back of the stand: “I remember some visiting managers refusing to use it to go to interviews in the press box. Coming down them late at night when there was a frost in the air and nobody else around was quite frightening. It was like being on the sloping deck of an abandoned ship.”

Mike and Gilbert had football reporting in common, along with their tendency to get caught drinking with an empty wallet.

In the obituary which I wrote at his family’s request, I described Gilbert as one of the last from the golden age of the British Press. I also described him as “one of the first” journalists to brand Peter Sutcliffe as the Yorkshire Ripper.

Of course Gilbert said he was the first. But a few of his tabloid rivals also claimed the distinction, and an obituary for just one of them was no place to hold the argument.

Gilbert had flirted with careers in boxing and the church before telling his priest he had decided mortal sin was much better so he would become a newspaperman.

He once sent a story to the Yorkshire Post about a bunch of squaddies playing football and a neighbour who confiscated the ball when it went in her garden. It was typical of Gilbert that he made the tale more interesting than the reality and that the neighbour should call our office to complain.

It was also typical of Gilbert to own up. No, he didn’t interview the woman. Yes, he did make up the quote. But it was what she would have said. 

The only time I saw him run away was when a woman who was not his wife spotted him through the window of a pub with another woman who was not his wife. Gilbert hid in the gents. 

I’ll need to do a bit of research to remind myself of the tap room tale which dated back to the days of the Daily Sketch and which included this from Gilbert, describing a fiery confrontation: “The vicar came at me like a tank!”

Peter Reekie.
Peter Reekie.

My notes from speaking at Peter’s funeral remind me how he once covered a Royal occasion at Sledmere House and asked Princess Margaret: “We’re having trouble describing your frock”.

He was a remarkable man whose claims to have been a young tank commander were ridiculed by colleagues until he went to do a story at Leconfield army base about the restoration of a Comet tank and proved himself more than adept at helping them fix it.

As shipping correspondent Peter built up a wealth of contacts at Trinity House, the Chamber of Commerce and North Sea Ferries, where on retirement he became the only person in the history of the company to be presented with a ticket to be used on any of their ships for life.

We decided to have his retirement lunch at the Café Lindenhof in Bruges and awoke in very fragile fashion as the ship docked in Zeebrugge one Saturday morning after we’d drunk our way across the North Sea. As the coach dropped us at the station for the short train ride into the city, Peter notice the nearby café was open.

The photographer Terry Carrott congratulated Peter on his powers of observation and said a good strong coffee was a very good idea. But too late. In no time Peter had sprinted across the road and set up a round of foaming halves of Stella.

The story of the nine-hour lunch which resulted in the editor of the Yorkshire Post collapsing into Peter’s garden hedge and the assistant editor underdoing treatment in Hull Royal Infirmary can wait for another day.

Peter had retired by the time we welcomed the work experience student, but his influence has never faded. We showed her all the office-based stuff including how to keep the news editors in Leeds at bay but we also took her to every job we attended that week, and on every research trip we conducted. Usually to the Bonny Boat in Trinity House Lane. The student had a great time and sent a very nice card thanking us for teaching her how to drink, swear and work out an each-way Yankee. Old school indeed.

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.