With Cayman Free Press Limited set to observe its 47th anniversary in October, it is fitting to chat with Brian Uzzell, its leader for the past 38 years, and to do so at the Lighthouse Restaurant, an establishment he’s been part owner of for 20 years in December.
Barely noticeable on page 4 of The Caymanian Compass edition of 14 November, 1974, was a new name in the masthead.
It appeared, in smaller print, under the name of then Cayman Free Press Limited President Doctor Roy E. McTaggart and under the names of the four company directors. But there, for the first time, was his name: Group General Manager Brian Uzzell.
It’s been there ever since.
How Uzzell ended up becoming a dominant player in Cayman’s publishing business through parts of five decades is a tale of the right person being in the right place at the right time. However, it’s also a tale of responsibility, persistence, humility and a desire to give back to his adopted home.
Over lunch at the Lighthouse Restaurant in Breakers, an establishment which he partially owns, Uzzell spoke about his remarkable 40-year journey in the Cayman Islands.
Born in Derby, England, Uzzell first arrived in the Cayman Islands in 1972, after having spent three years working for a retail business doing marketing and public relations in Nassau, Bahamas.
“I had come to the Bahamas direct from the UK,” he said. “I loved the Bahamas. I absolutely thought I had gone to Heaven – just the casual attitude, the constant sun and everything else – it was just straight up my street.”
Unattached by that point and in his early 30s, Uzzell was enjoying life in Nassau.
“There was lots going on there. It had a good nightlife and it had a good mix of tourism and everything else, plus there were quite a few young ladies around,” he said. “So… I was doing very nicely. Having recently been divorced, I was enjoying life.”
However, as the Bahamas edged closer to its 1973 independence from the UK, things started to change.
“Crime increased dramatically around ‘71… and we had a lot of break-ins in the last three or four months we were there,” he said. “You couldn’t walk on the beach without muggings. It was just thoroughly unpleasant. By then, I’d hooked up with a lady with two children and I wasn’t prepared to stay there with a family. So we looked around and we decided that we were going to go to the States and live there.”
However, just before they left, someone his company had engaged to do marketing asked him if he would consider opening an office in Cayman.
“I said, ‘Where is it?’ They said, “Well, it’s not far from here. Why don’t you go and have a look and let me know’.”
Uzzell did just that, finding when he arrived an Island much different than Nassau with only 10,000 people and not a lot to do.
“But I got a good feel from it,” he said. “Very friendly people, very patriotic to the UK. It wasn’t Americanised at all. And I saw potential. So I went back and said I’d be prepared to do a two-year contract.”
Like many expatriates, Uzzell fully intended to leave after fulfilling his two-year contract, but the Island had other things in store from him.
Walking into the Lighthouse Restaurant, Uzzell is greeted warmly by the staff. They know him well; he’s one of the owners.
Although most of his enterprises in Cayman revolve around publishing and printing, Uzzell also ventured into the restaurant business in 1992, when he bought shares in the Lighthouse Restaurant with three others.
“It came about because Nik van den Bok and myself were involved with the Caribbean Yellow Pages and we had sold it to Bell Canada,” he said.
The two men went to celebrate the sale at Periwinkle Restaurant, which was where Deckers Restaurant is now.
A young Italian restaurateur named Giuseppe Gatta, who Uzzell and van den Bok liked, was running Periwinkle at the time.
“He was very unhappy there,” Uzzell said “And we said… ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could help Giuseppe get out and get his own restaurant?’ So I said, “Why don’t we look around and see’.”
One day, Uzzell was talking to Red Mcguire, who owned the Lighthouse Restaurant and was leasing it out. He complained that he was tired of the hassles with his tenant at the time.
“He said, ‘I’m fed up with it. I’m moving to the States full time now and I want to get rid of it. I want to sell it’.”
Uzzell asked him how much he wanted.
“He said a figure and I said ‘That’s a bit high’. He said, ‘Well, are you interested in it seriously?’ and I said ‘I might be’. He said, ‘OK, let’s talk’.”
Mcguire didn’t renew the lease on the restaurant and instead offered it for sale, but not before the previous tenant had taken a toll on the place when moving out.
“I went to Red Mcguire and said ‘knock [the asking price] down 20 per cent and you’ve got a deal’,” Uzzell said. “So Nik and I and Giuseppe – and his head chef, who was David Chambers at that time – we all took a third each and that was it, the Lighthouse was born.”
It will be 20 years in December since the group bought the restaurant, but the venture faced its biggest test in September 2004 when Hurricane Ivan severely damaged the building, closing it for nearly a year. The restaurant was insured, but the pay-out didn’t come close to covering the cost of the repairs.
“That’s the thing; it’s a business you can’t just pick up and run with it again,” Uzzell said, adding that the in addition to the interior repairs, the restaurant needed extensive structural work.
“We’ve strengthened everything here now,” he said. “It’s all poured concrete and steel right the way through. It’s been really done properly, so barring another Cat 5 [hurricane]… I think we’re all right for a while.”
As his two-year contract in Cayman wound down, one of the last projects Uzzell worked on was a feasibility study for a bank on three related companies in the publishing business, including the company that produced The Caymanian Weekly newspaper.
After completing the feasibility study, Uzzell said he was asked by the company’s board of directors for his opinion on the way forward.
“I said, ‘Well, in summary, it’s been let go to such an extent that you owe five years’ gross takings, so unless you have a deep pocket and a strong person to manage it, I would suggest it would be time to shut it down’.”
But the Cayman Islands was developing nicely and starting to become a significant player in the financial services industry at the time and the board thought Cayman needed the newspaper, so they didn’t want to shut it down. Instead, they asked Uzzell to run it.
“I said, ‘I don’t know anything about running a newspaper.’ They said, ‘Well, you’ve done this big feasibility study and so you’ve learned a lot about this one’. So I said, ‘I’ll take it on for a couple of years’.”
The first task Uzzell had was dealing with the company’s huge amount of debt.
“I went to all the creditors and said, ‘Look, I know we owe you a lot of money, but I’m going to join the organisation and I will give you my word everything will be paid in full, but you just have to give me time’. They all went along with it.”
Uzzell said it took about four years, but all the creditors were paid in full.
One of the major changes Uzzell made early on was finding more uses for its printing press to increase revenue.
“When we first started, we had a little press that was printing the paper,” he said. “But that only took one day; the other four days it wasn’t doing anything. So I started to look around for other avenues for this to work and job printing – commercial printing – was one of the ones that came to mind. Also, our tourism was just about starting then… and we had to try to get to their neck of the woods as well.”
As a result, Cayman Free Press started publishing an annual Cayman Islands tourist map and a publication called Tourist Weekly as well.
“So there were two things that we attempted to do for, let’s say a special publication division,” he said. “So we had the newspaper, which by then was twice a week, we had some commercial print and then we has some special publications and those three arms are what have got us through by being a little bit diversified. With those three avenues we earned enough to grow.”
In 1974, The Caymanian Weekly was owned by the late Billy Bodden, who Uzzell said also owned The Cayman Compass, another weekly newspaper that was established in September 1972. In June of 1974 the two newspapers combined to become a weekly newspaper called The Caymanian Compass. Thirty-eight years later, it’s still around.
Along the way, it went from weekly, to twice weekly, and then, in October 1981, to five times weekly as it is now.
During the early days, when Cayman had a population of only about 10,000 people, Uzzell said he got to know many of the families on Grand Cayman.
“They were good days. They really were,” he said. “I thoroughly enjoyed the old Caymanians, their outlook and their strengths. The women were strong as well, because they had to do everything when the men went to sea, so the combination was very interesting indeed.”
Eventually, Uzzell had an opportunity to buy most of the shares of the company and, with the help of a bank loan, he did so.
Later, after all the company debts were paid, Uzzell said he started looking for property because the location the company had in George Town wasn’t ideal. He bought a small property on Shedden Road, where the current front desk and editorial department of Cayman Free Press is now. Over the years, Uzzell and the company continued to buy the surrounding properties to amass what they own now, including office space for more than 100 employees, a newspaper printing press and a commercial printing operation.
Many of the creditors that Uzzell made sure were paid were American companies that supplied newsprint and various machinery to the company. One of those companies was Goss Printing Press Company.
“They appreciated what I’d done, so much so they got me my first real press, which was in Panama,” said Uzzell. “That was the time when we really went from a one-press paper to a multi-press, which we’ve got now – a Goss Suburban.”
As has been his knack throughout his career, there was a little luck in timing involved.
“[Goss] used to send people down to help us, technicians and everything, and they mentioned to me that they were going into Panama to replace – now that the US had grabbed [Manuel] Noriega – it would all open up and the Goss Suburban that they had was going to be too small because suddenly they could print everything,” he said. “So they were going for a Metroliner – real big stuff. I said, ‘What’s happening with the Suburban?’ and they said, ‘Well, it’s up for sale’.”
Because of Noriega’s strong-arm tactics with the media, the Suburban was in great condition, having not been used a lot in the previous four years.
“They came up with a really good price and I said, ‘I think we better take a plunge on that’. This is how we got to it. So Mr. Noriega’s departure was good for me.”
Another fortuitous development for Cayman Free Press occurred when a man named Sam Mitchell paid Uzzell a visit. Mitchell was representing former media giant Conrad Black’s company Hollinger Inc. and it was interested in buying a share of Cayman Free Press.
“I was flattered that somebody as big as Hollinger was actually looking at me and what I’d done and they wanted to get into some sort of arrangement with me,” Uzzell said. “They wanted to buy a non-majority share holding, so… I agreed and sold out some of my shares to Hollinger.”
The sale gave Uzzell an opportunity to clean up some of the people who had been given a small number of shares in lieu of debts even before his time as they were bought out by Hollinger and formed part of that company’s share holding.
Although Hollinger eventually went bankrupt and Black was convicted of crimes relating to his company in the mid-2000s, Uzzell said Cayman Free Press only benefited from the sale.
“The [UK newspaper The Daily] Telegraph were feeding us all kinds of things,” he said. “They sent over technicians. I got some extremely good technicians from their American enterprises and they also sent me [printing press] units that I’ve still got today. They said, ‘Just pay for the shipping and you’ve got it’. So I had two or three units like that and they sent somebody down to set it all up and I got a lot of help from them.”
Uzzell said he only met Black once, when he visited Hollinger’s head office in Toronto.
“I went in there and this man was… just fantastic. He was big, he was grand, he was slightly vulgar, but in a pleasing way,” Uzzell said. “And you marvelled at what he’d done. He’d been all over the world, he’d mixed with all the royalties and he was telling funny stories about it. And he was just such an enigmatic sort of character; he was great.”
Uzzell said Black and Hollinger never had any control over Cayman Free Press and were never in a position – and never tried – to make decisions because they had a minority share holding.
“I never had any [trouble] with them whatsoever over anything,” said Uzzell “I just had help. It was a very, very good arrangement. “
Although the Lighthouse Restaurant has recently completed a dining deck out over the water – something that was just being replaced after being lost during Hurricane Ivan in 2004 – it was mid-day in September and hot. The sound of the waves slapping the shore also made for a difficult environment to record our interview, so we opted to have lunch in the air-conditioned wine room inside.
Uzzell recommended the red conch chowder, an original recipe from long-time Breakers resident Miss Nell Connor that has been on the Lighthouse menu since 1992.
“It’s still not left over from then,” Uzzell said, flashing the wit for which he is known in the office.
When the chowder came, it was topped with a splash of a concoction made with dark rum, sherry and scotch bonnet peppers, giving it a nice spiciness. It’s one of the best red conch chowders on Grand Cayman and it’s easy to see why it has been on the menu for 20 years.
We shared an order of tasty homemade garlic bread, which was baked to order.
For a main course, Uzzell chose the penne pasta with shrimp, while I chose the Grouper Breakers with Caesar salad.
My fish was prepared with bell peppers, scallions and herbs and was cooked perfectly.
Uzzell’s pasta looks great, but he immediately spotted something when the waiter served him.
“I see you have my unfavourite vegetable on the top,” he said. “Broccoli. I hate it.”
Uzzell told me he never liked broccoli and he explained why.
“My mother used to force me into eating green vegetables,” he said. “She had a technique that I really didn’t appreciate and that was if you didn’t eat it, it would be there for the next meal. And three or four times, I would have these cold greens stuck in front of me, so in the end, I had to eat it. I hated it.”
The waiter offered to bring another vegetable, but Uzzell said he’ll pick around the broccoli. He’s not one to cause a fuss about such things.
Although Uzzell has been in the newspaper business 38 years, he only wrote for the newspaper rarely.
“I don’t class myself as a writer,” he said. “I’m a stopgap writer and basically I always had people in the journalism world to do [the writing]. I was more on the business side.”
Over the years, Uzzell has seen many journalists come and go, some very talented, some not so much.
“I had a few interesting characters through there,” he said.
During the early days, Uzzell said he had hoped Sir Vassel Johnson’s daughter Tessa, who worked as a journalist for the newspaper back then, would stay on and become the editor of the newspaper. But when she decided to focus on having children and raising a family instead, Uzzell looked high and low for the right editor.
“I found one out of Bermuda, which I thought was going to be great because he’d had five years with the island press in Bermuda,” he said. “I thought, ‘here’s somebody who’s absolutely the perfect guy’. So he came – I can’t remember his name – he came and that’s the time I went on my first holiday, with the kids and the family because I thought at last I can rely on somebody.”
While he was away, he got a call from the printing press operator who said he’d put a hold on printing the newspaper. When Uzzell asked why, the press operator said, “Let me read you the proposed headline… ‘Shades of Nazism in ExCo’.”
ExCo, or Executive Council, was what Cabinet was called back then.
Uzzell said he asked the press operator to replace the headline with something suitable and came back on the next plane he could get.
“I came and I had to say to this guy, ‘I’m sorry, you’re not fitting into island life if that’s what you think you can get away with’. So he was gone.”
Another editor Uzzell hired was a Yorkshireman who he says was so cheap, he used to have one of the female journalists cut his hair – at his desk – during work.
“I think it was after that when Ursula [Gill] took over as editor,” he said. “She did some good stuff there. She was the first one who brought any sense of discipline into the editorial room. All the rest were too free and easy; I couldn’t control that.”
Of course, there were many characters throughout the Islands back in the early days.
“In the ’70s particularly, I can remember so many characters because there wasn’t much to do and the people who could stand it here would have to be characters,” he said with a laugh.
Some of those characters held political office, like Jim Bodden.
“I marvelled at that man,” said Uzzell, noting that Bodden had aura about him that is very similar to Premier McKeeva Bush.
“He was a very good orator; as McKeeva is. And he wasn’t afraid to take chances and put his hand up if things went wrong. There aren’t many of those people around.”
Uzzell said Bodden was like a renegade politician in his style.
“I think he went overboard in a few things, but also, he got a lot of things done,” he said. “I think he revitalised politics here. I remember he had an office in Governor’s Harbour and I had to wait to see him. When I was there, there was this non-stop procession of people he was supporting. And he was dipping into his pocket and giving them $50 and all this sort of thing and it happened every day of his life.”
When Bodden believed strongly that something would be in the best interests of the country, Uzzell said he would make sure it would get pushed through.
“For that he should be praised,” he said. “He was the first hero and he certainly was a tremendous character. But he got mixed up with a few nasties.”
Another one of the characters Uzzell dealt with was the late Desmond Seales, who actually once worked for him as a sales and marketing representative and later went on to become the strongest – and longest – competitor with two newspapers – Cayman Net News and The Pilot – as well as the Nor’wester magazine.
“Desmond was our big competition, really, he was always around,” he said. “As you know, I have a sneaking regard for Desmond. He wasn’t afraid to take on the politicians and tell them so. I didn’t see the advantage of doing that; I’d far rather talk to them, point out certain factions that were not necessarily good for the country and try and get some sort of compromise before putting it in print.”
That’s always been my way, whereas Desmond would just challenge them, totally.”
Uzzell said Seales’ style made a few enemies for himself, but also earned him some supporters. By the same token, Uzzell’s more cautious and responsible approach has been appreciated as well.
Sometimes, Seales’ daring style brought innovation to Cayman, like when he became the first news organisation with an online presence with Cayman Net News.
“His vision was good and he used to embrace technology for what it was,” Uzzell said. “I was more conservative. I’d be waiting to see where exactly it fell and looking for the less expensive way out because setting up online stuff was extremely costly and I couldn’t see any return – and still can’t.”
However, Uzzell realised that in today’s world, news media have to have an online presence, just as he realises the whole industry is fundamentally changing.
The media landscape in the Cayman Islands has changed dramatically since Uzzell’s early days, not only because of added competition, but also because of the advent of the Internet and online news sources. He says the media landscape has also changed because Cayman, and its politicians, have changed as well.
“Back in the ’70s the politicians weren’t so… let’s say thin-skinned, as they are today because they were businessmen,” he said. “They knew the run of the world and they appreciated what the overall lay was. Those people, they were statesmen a lot of them. You could deal with them. You could satisfy them. You could explain to them and they would listen. That time is gone. Politicians don’t listen to anybody now. It’s rough because there used to be some understanding between the public and the politician in those days and they had respect for each other. And I think to a large degree – not just in Cayman, but all over the world – that respect is gone.”
Although Cayman’s population has grown by more than five times over the 40 years he’s been here, the larger advertising pie is sliced among many more media outlets, including print publications, a number of radio stations, a television station and several online publications. Uzzell said with the industry changing the way it is, things have to be done differently in order to prosper.
“Now we would look at various ways to support our advertising clients,” he said. “Really we’ve become [more of a] marketing company and we’ll continue down that road because the secret, I believe, to future revenues is a combination of technologies to let the advertiser [display] the best of what they can do and we have to provide that, whether it’s online or not. And we have to find ways to make it pay, because that’s the big thing at the moment.”
Another of Uzzell’s strategies over the past six or seven years has included buying out competing publications – like the Observer, What’s Hot and Cayman Financial Review – and launching new publications – like The Chamber Magazine and Flava Magazine.
“Some of those [publications] won’t be making very much money, but all together they help the structure and present diversity.”
However, while some of Uzzell’s business strategies have changed, others have stayed the same since the early days.
“In the early ’70s, I used to stress that we were a community newspaper and we were there to help develop the Island, which I still believe we are,” he said. “Part of my approach was always to try and cut out sensationalism.”
Although sensationalism might sell newspapers in the short term, in the long run Uzzell believes it hurts the community and the good will a media house builds with that community, which in turn hurts advertising revenues.
“A community newspaper doesn’t do that,” he said. “I think [readers] finally appreciated what we tried to do and the advertisers were the people who supported us and that was very important.”
Uzzell noted that many short-lived newspapers have started – often around election time – and then failed because although they were supported initially by certain factions, advertisers ultimately want to see sales results from their advertising, which has always been the Cayman Free Press approach.
Another reason Uzzell hasn’t wanted to use a sensationalist approach for his publications is because sensationalism often creates enemies.
“The person you’re going to [anger], not only might sit next to you at the next Chamber meeting or something, but they are your potential advertisers and they’re not going to give you their money if you burn them off,” he said, adding that it doesn’t mean he would shy away from a legitimate news story that would anger an advertiser.
“But there has to be a very good reason if you do,” he said. “As I say, there are many ways to skin the cat.”
With virtually anyone with a personal computer and an Internet connection possibly calling themselves journalists these days, Uzzell knows there’s even more competition.
“But the [blogs and online news sites] still have got to be believable,” he said. “This is where we must be believable. It’s a very delicate balance between news and… advertorials. It can’t be seen to be our reporting. That’s not what we’re about. We will promote a product for a business; that’s a promotion. But there’s a lot of difference between that and journalism and the news. And that’s where we’ve got to be very careful.”
Uzzell has also kept a sharp eye on the dismal state of the newspaper industry in the United States, where even some major newspapers have folded in the face of a bad economy and the digital age. He does not believe Cayman is immune from the same kind of media downturn.
“Everything that happens in the States takes a couple of years to be filtrated down here,” he said. “But it still comes; it still eventually arrives and it does worry me with the way the industry is going.”
Ironically, one of Uzzell’s earliest strategies – being a community newspaper – could help the Caymanian Compass in the future.
“The funny thing is, the only newspapers that are still doing well [in the United States] are the community newspapers.”
Massive initial debt, the digital age and additional competition all pale in comparison to Uzzell’s and Cayman Free Press’ biggest challenge, that created by Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, when most of the company’s offices and production plant was destroyed.
“That was a crucial moment in our history because of the damage that we suffered,” he said.
Because the printing press was so badly damaged, the newspaper had to be printed off island in Jamaica for several months. As a result, Uzzell could only keep on some of the staff.
“One of the most painful moments in my entire career here was having to just say to more than two-thirds of my staff, ‘I can’t employ you at the moment’.”
With the prospects of a very expensive refit, Uzzell had to make the decision to eliminate or substantially lower the pay of about two-thirds of his staff. He kept the other third on full pay.
“It was roughly driven into thirds,” he said. “A third we kept on as a permanent force and I was all right with that; the second third was ‘We can give you something, but not very much’. And the third third was ‘We can’t offer you anything. If it comes back, we’ll get in touch with you, but otherwise [your job is] gone’.”
Terminating anyone’s employment isn’t something Uzzell takes lightly.
“It worries the daylights out of me,” he said. “I really am a softy for that. I would rather find – and I’ve done so in the past – somebody another job in a different company somewhere and say goodbye to them in that way rather than saying ‘you’re fired’. I think I’ve only fired half a dozen people if that and some of those were very definitely deserved.”
The many post-Ivan layoffs were obviously brutal for Uzzell.
“That was a very painful moment, because having grown up as a community newspaper, I got involved, sometimes more deeply than I should, with all of the people, all my staff’s families and everything else,” he said. “It was a difficult road to go, but that was the way I thought we should go and we did. And when something like that comes around and you have to say goodbye to a few people, it’s very hard because you know what their circumstances are.”
Although Cayman Free Press was well insured for the loss at the plant, the claim process took many months – a lifetime in the media business. What the company really needed was a bridging loan that would allow it to pay for the necessary repairs and replacement purchases while waiting for the insurance settlement.
“Bridging loans in face of hurricanes are not very popular with banks,” Uzzell said. “So we had to draw on our own devices and make sure we could go through with it.”
Fortuitously, Uzzell had put a substantial sum of company money aside for such a rainy day.
“And it was that which got us through,” he said.
Eight days after Ivan hit, the Compass published its first newspaper, three days after Cayman Net News published its first post-hurricane newspaper.
“[Cayman Net News Publisher Desmond Seales] was already printing in the US, which gave him an advantage.”
Uzzell said he could have been printing in the United States as well, but didn’t want to.
“I wanted to employ local people and produce everything on island,” he said. “I’ve always pushed for that and… we have a crew of printers, many of whom we’ve trained, but a lot of them are Caymanians.”
Uzzell has always tried to do the right thing for both Cayman and Caymanians.
Several of the Caymanians he employees have been with Cayman Free Press for more than 20 or 30 years.
“At one stage we had something like 15 people who had been with me for 20 years,” he said. “We built up on those people. They served me and I tried to reciprocate by giving them a living wage and we’re still together and that’s quite something.”
In the early days, Uzzell understood that although some Caymanians had strengths, those strengths didn’t necessarily mean they were highly educated and he made sure his employees didn’t try to exploit that.
“We had some journalists who thought it was clever to take an unusual track with some Caymanians,” he said. “Because they were cleverer than the Caymanians, they thought they could expose them to that. I would never stand for that. I thought it was just degrading. You have to have respect for the people here.”
Back in the early days, Uzzell said many Caymanians simply had not been exposed to higher education.
“Even when I started here in ’72, there were families that were becoming millionaires overnight because they had the right plot of land that people wanted and they would pay [a high price for it],” he said. “Those [Caymanians], although they had a million dollars, they weren’t necessarily highly educated, and you had to take that into consideration.”
Things are much different now, Uzzell said.
“Now you’ve got a really good calibre of educated young Caymanians who hopefully will progress into government and bring some sense and stability into the political arena,” he said. “The young businessmen of Cayman… there’s some very good people in there and I sincerely hope that they will do something.”
Uzzell said he believes that Cayman Free Press has played a role in the development of the Cayman Islands in a number of ways beyond just providing a responsible media house.
“That’s been my big aim and whatever we do, we’ve put back into the community,” he said. “We’ve reinvested, and continue to do so; and reinvested not just in machinery, but in people.”
Cayman Free Press has awarded many scholarships for Caymanians interested in the journalism profession. “Some… came back and worked for us, but a lot of them didn’t even do that,” he said. “I didn’t take that badly because at least we had made an opportunity for people to get a better education and come back and help their country.”
In 2009 Uzzell was recognised for his contributions with a Cayman Islands Certificate and Badge of Honour. Just as importantly for him is the number of people who still say hello.
“I’m amazed by the amount of people who say ‘hi Brian’,” he said, admitting that in his memory for names is not too good these days, but that he remembers their faces. “I’m proud to say a lot of Caymanians remember me and say hello to me, which is great. It’s a nice feeling.”
A little over two years ago, Uzzell – then 74 years old – suffered a heart attack while playing field hockey. Since then he’s had another medical issue.
However, contrary to the notions of some residents, Uzzell is doing just fine.
“I’ve got a clean bill of health now, but definitely the heart attack was something that hit me pretty badly,” he said.
As a result, he was told he couldn’t play field hockey any more.
“Mind you, I couldn’t play before,” he said, displaying his humility in his sense of humour.
Over the years, Uzzell has been active in many local sports in addition to field hockey, including cricket, rugby, football and even basketball.
“I’ve done all of those activities and I thoroughly enjoyed them,” he said. “It was mixing with local people and it’s great to do that. I never want to come out as a stuck-up sort of individual… as a foreigner; I always want to be one of the boys really.”
Since his heart attack, Uzzell has travelled more and taken a less active role at Cayman Free Press, although he still comes to the office every day he’s on island.
“I’m afraid certainly over the last couple of years I’ve taken a back seat,” he said. “I still get people calling me and saying ‘what are you doing’ and that sort of thing, so I have to be sure what [the editorial staff] is up to.”
He still gets calls from Premier McKeeva Bush occasionally, too, usually when something has been written that upsets Cayman’s political leader.
“I’ve always tried to listen to him and I’ve always tried to reason with him and I will always do so,” Uzzell said. “After all, he’s the premier and we have to give him respect. We may not like him, we may not agree with him, but we have to give him respect. And I’ve always done that and he knows that.”
For years, Uzzell attended many of the events to which Cayman Free Press was invited, but now he only does so occasionally.
“I was an important member of the social scene back then,” he said. “Thank God that’s changed because it really took it out of you. Particularly around Christmas time, I used to be in a hell of a state because of all the parties that we had to go to.”
Uzzell said he would never have imagined in his wildest dreams before he left the UK that he would end up spending the majority of his life in the Cayman Islands as the head of the country’s longest-standing newspaper.
“I’ve got to pinch myself now and again,” he said. “When I left the UK I was doing three jobs to meet the alimony payments. So I suddenly arrived in the Bahamas and wow… I’ve never looked back. And I never went back very much; just for a holiday.”
He said he has absolutely no regrets whatsoever.
“I’ve enjoyed all of my life, every second of it,” he said. “Would I do things differently if I could go back? Yeah, probably a few, but overall, I’ve had a wonderful life here and I’m very appreciative of Cayman.”
Uzzell reiterated that point.
“I just want to stress really that I owe a debt of gratitude to the Cayman Islands and I’ll continue to pay my debt as long as I can,” he said, adding that there’s still work to be done when it comes to educating the public on the role of the media in society.
“I hope that people will start to understand the role of journalism a little bit better,” he said. “They have come a long way, but they’ve got to understand that what we do is not always popular, but it is for the benefit of the Island. That’s the big thing. And we mustn’t shy away from it.”
This summer, there were four Uzzells working at Cayman Free Press, including Brian, his son Justin and two granddaughters, Holly and Abbie, from his eldest son.
“I made a pledge to [my sons] that I would put their children through university, which I’ve done. Abbie is the last one,” he said. “And university has made all the difference for those kids.
“But they’ve got that humility, which is very essential. It’s something a lot of people could learn – humility. Humility and responsibility are two of the big things.”
For Brian Uzzell, humility and responsibility in the Cayman Islands have served him very well indeed.