RIP Maggie: She must have been doing something right

A lady not for turning: Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

A lady not for turning: Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

I was at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery a couple of years ago for the 25th anniversary debate on the Miners’ Strike.

Despite the best efforts of the organisers and the chairman of the panel on stage, it felt rather more like an ambush than a genuine debate.

Understandably, a good number of people in the room were from mining communities and the bile and vitriol reserved for a former Conservative Minister was there for all to see.

Suffice to say, Edwina Currie – a woman who doesn’t need me to defend her – deserved the utmost respect for turning up to be shot at here in a solid Labour, working class city.

My overwhelming thought as I left the lecture theatre was ‘thank goodness it wasn’t Margaret Thatcher’.

Thatcher ‘the milk snatcher’; Thatcher: Who came up with the Poll Tax; Thatcher: Whose government oversaw the closure of 150 coalmines which devastated communities across the UK; Thatcher: Who crushed the trade unions; Thatcher: Whose belief in the free-market economy and privatisation promoted greed and selfishness on a scale never seen before.

You’ll read all of the above and more in the coming days as the country comes to terms with the loss of a towering political figure.

In my opinion, this is a very selective and simplistic version of the Margaret Thatcher story – and a markedly biased one which panders to left-wing rhetoric.

Since the news of Baroness Thatcher’s death broke yesterday we have witnessed the unedifying spectacle of people actually celebrating her passing.

‘Bing bong’ posted people on Facebook and Twitter – quoting ‘the witch is dead’ line from The Wizard of Oz.

I’m not sure which is worse – the fact that people are dancing on someone’s grave or that they can’t find a decent thing to say about one of only two leaders of note this country has seen since Churchill.

It was Tony Benn no less, that most respected of Labour heavyweights, who often held Margaret Thatcher up as an example of how a great political party should be led.

She came to power in 1979 as Britain’s first woman Prime Minister and, in doing so, sent shockwaves through the old boys’ club that was the Houses of Parliament.

Surely that ticks a box with everyone? Go on, admit it.

Let’s also not forget that Mrs Thatcher inherited a country in turmoil, paralysed by industrial unrest and half as productive and prosperous as it could have been.

Trade unions were trotting in and out of Downing Street with their demands, rubbish littered the streets, the dead lay un-buried and the IMF was banging on Britain’s door because ‘the sick man of Europe’ was bankrupt.

She set about transforming Britain’s economy – something she did at questionable social cost – and was vilified for her crusade against the very unions who had held previous Labour administrations to ransom.

Mrs Thatcher will be forever remembered as the Prime Minister who destroyed the UK’s mining industry. Few, however, are brave enough to concede that large parts of the industry were loss-making and that coal mines were also closing all over Europe.

Maggie’s government introduced the Right To Buy scheme for council homes – one of the most important pieces of empowering social legislation this country has ever seen.

She was despised by the IRA for her hard-line stance on terrorism and almost paid for it with her life. Even that didn’t cow her.

It was Mrs Thatcher’s deep-held sense of belief in standing up to aggressors and defending Britain, forged during the dark days of the Second World War, which shaped her response to the Falklands Crisis.

The resulting improbable victory was spectacular and owed much to Maggie’s unshakeable belief in the importance of defending ‘her people’.

The woman dubbed ‘The Iron Lady’ by her enemies in Moscow needed no spin doctors – unlike those who have succeeded her at Number 10. She was talked-about, respected and, crucially, listened to on the world stage and was certainly the equal of any statesman across the globe.

I dare say George W. Bush wouldn’t have got away with talking to Maggie the way he did the political poodle that was Tony Blair.

The very fact that she was the first Prime Minister to win three elections in a row tells me that Margaret Thatcher must have being doing something right in the eyes of the majority of those who could be bothered to vote.

Mother Town miracle as local people shine for Christmas

Burslem's Christmas lights campaigners celebrate their success.

Burslem’s Christmas lights campaigners celebrate their success.

Campaigners determined to bring a little festive cheer to the Mother Town have smashed their fund-raising target to pay for Christmas lights.

Saddened by the fact that Burslem was the only town in the Potteries with no public decorations, they set about trying to raise £3,200 to pay for three sets of tree lights and seven sets of street lights.

But in just nine days campaign organisers Louise Worthington, John and Jayne Flint, June Cartwright and their families and friends raised more than £5,000 to light up the streets.

Their remarkable success means the town will now have four lit Christmas trees and eleven sets of street lights.

What’s more, the group have pledged to do the same again for 2013 and are planning a meeting in the New Year to kick-start 12 months of fund-raising.

Jayne, aged 43, who lives in High Lane, Burslem, said: “We are so proud of everyone who has been involved. This is a genuine example of a community pulling together.

“The generosity of people really does bring a tear to you eye and, as a result, Burslem will shine this Christmas.”

The campaign was prompted by council cutbacks of £84,000 which meant that only Hanley received local authority funding for Christmas decorations.

Traders and local people in Stoke, Fenton, Longton and Tunstall organised their own trees and lights but it was looking like Burslem would be left in the shadows.

Then last week Burslem locals began their campaign by creating a page on social network Facebook which quickly attracted more than 1,300 supporters.

Various events and collections were organised – including a disco and raffle at Burslem’s oldest pub, Ye Olde Crown – and Port Vale fans donated more than £1,000 on away trip coaches and before Tuesday night’s home game against Bradford City.

The 67th Burslem Scout Group and Vale mascot Boomer were among those rattling collection buckets at Vale Park.

Businesses across the Mother Town also contributed including: Kelly Molyneux & Co. Accountants; New Image tattoo parlour; Chillz bar; the Bull’s Head pub; The Swan pub; The Leopard pub and Barewall art gallery.

Autonet Insurance, based in Nile Street, spent £550 to purchase an additional set of Christmas tree lights and its managing director Ian Donaldson said the firm, which employs 600 people, was looking forward to working with the campaigners next year.

Meanwhile, the owners of the Artbay gallery in Fenton also donated a special print which was auctioned off to raise £150.

Stoke-on-Trent Markets gave £300 but the largest single donation came from recycling firm Acumen, based on Hot Lane, which donated £1,500 to the cause.

Contracts manager Adrian Moore said: “I read about the campaign in Friday’s Sentinel and wondered if we could help out.

“We are a company which employs around 35 people from the local area and our owner John Hodges was very keen to contribute. It is terrific the way local people and businesses have worked together for the common good to make Christmas special in Burslem.”

*The lights will be switched on tomorrow when Santa Claus emerges from The George Hotel.

RAF’s returning Afghan heroes to lead Vale stars out on to pitch

Port Vale is rolling out the red carpet for two servicemen who recently returned from war-torn Afghanistan.

Corporal Steve Buffey and his pal Senior Aircraftman (SAC) Pete Blakeman will have the honour of leading out the teams before tomorrow night’s home game against Dagenham and Redbridge.

Together with their families, the two die-hard Vale supporters will then be treated to a VIP match experience.

The friends are part of the close-knit team in the RAF Tactical Supply Wing which is based at Stafford.

While in Afghanistan, the unit was stationed at Camp Bastion, and was responsible for refuelling battlefield helicopters and Harrier jump jets.

They kept their morale up with regular updates from home on the fortunes of their team and through banter with another member of the team – 22-year-old SAC Alex Haycock, from Sandyford, who is an ardent Stoke City fan.

Father-of-two Cpl Buffey, aged 36, grew up in Kidsgrove but now lives in Stafford.

He is a former Clough Hall High School pupil who joined the RAF 13 years ago after working in the pottery industry.

SAC Blakeman, aged 29, who lives in Cheadle, signed up four years and is due to marry his fiancée Natalie Holdcroft in May of next year.

The idea to treat the RAF personnel to a special night at Vale Park came from users of internet fans’ forum Onevalefan (OVF).

Founder and Editor Rob Fielding explained: “Steve and Pete are users of OVF who had been corresponding with me during their recent tour of Afghanistan.

“The OVF community felt it would be really nice to honour them on their return to the UK and the club have been brilliant about it and really made an effort.

“Fingers crossed the lads can get three points for Steve and Pete.

“We are also going to use the match as an opportunity to raise funds for forces charity Help For Heroes.”

Club Secretary Bill Lodey said: “We were only too happy to help in these circumstances and pay our own special tribute to lads who are risking their lives out in the Middle East.

“We want to give them a night to remember and have other surprises planned too.

“Rob Fielding has volunteered to collect for Help For Heroes from fans in the away end and family members and friends of Cpl Buffey and SAC Blakeman will have collection tins around the other stands.

“It is a very worthy cause and we know that Vale fans will respond with their usual generosity.”

I’m bored of the Olympics already. How about you?

NEWSFLASH: Contrary to what you may have been told, not everyone is obsessed with Olympics.

Despite what Lord Coe would have you believe, we aren’t all sitting at home wearing skin-tight, Team GB branded lycra outfits and waiting for the opening ceremony.

Some of us can live without tickets to the eagerly-anticipated Uruguay versus Outer Mongolia badminton clash.

Simply put, I reckon there are quite a few people like me – for whom – London 2012 can come and go. Really.

I won’t be sitting glued to the telly in 10 days’ time and assessing whether our opening show was better than the one in Beijing.

I can live without watching BBC presenters run out of adjectives again like they did during the Diamond Jubilee Thames pageant.

And don’t get me started on those ridiculous, one-eyed mascots – Wenlock and Mandeville – which are enough to frighten small children.

If truth be told I struggled to feign interest when the defective, fiery cheese-grater (sorry – I mean Olympic Torch) came to the Potteries.

It’s not that I don’t wish Team GB well. It’s not that I don’t want local heroes like pole vaulter Steven Lewis or rower Anna Watkins to be on the podium.

It is simply that I’m not that interested in the vast majority of sports served up by this overblown, over-hyped and over-commercialised behemoth.

This is sacrilege, of course and I will doubtless be roundly condemned in The Sentinel’s newsroom.

You see, I work in the media and thus I am obliged to get excited about any event involving more than half a dozen people, animals or vehicles. But I simply can’t stand the hypocrisy.

Maybe it’s my age but I can’t be doing with people becoming instant disciples of sports that they have never shown an interest in until five minutes before. Unless you are a child, of course.

I have friends who are hugely excited because they entered the lottery for tickets for London 2012 and managed to get a couple of passes for the first round of the weightlifting.

“It’s all about being able to say you were there,” they croon. “It’s about being part of a huge global sporting event. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Oh come on. It’s actually about sweating like a stuck pig on rammed tube trains and queuing for hours to watch eastern European athletes you’ve never heard of do stuff you’ve never tried in sports you’ll never understand and then wittering on about the ‘incredible atmosphere’.

For all that the Olympics is supposed to unite people through sport it’s actually a pretty bizarre and, I would argue, divisive event.

There are so many popular sports which aren’t even represented at the Olympics and a number of very odd, niche ones which are.

Let’s examine some of the sports on offer, shall we?

Beach volleyball: Do me a favour. We all know why lots of blokes will be watching this and it won’t be to enthuse about the Rally Point System.

Diving: This can’t be a sport, can it? Discuss.

Handball: I honestly had to look this one up and I’m still none the wiser.

Synchronised swimming: See diving. More a concept for entrants on a Simon Cowell talent show than a sport, surely.

Trampoline: Fun to watch the kids do at Rhyl. Beyond that I can’t see the point.

Wrestling (Greco-Roman or Freestyle): Can’t be taken seriously as Kendo Nagasaki, once of this parish, has now retired.

You see what I mean? The remainder of the offerings are niche at best – take canoeing, cycling, equestrian and fencing – hardly mass participation sports are they?

And when the Olympics does try to go mainstream we end up with some unique fudges.

For example, all but three of Team GB’s footballers have to be under the age of 23. Random or what? No wonder the governing bodies of world football sneer at the tournament.

Granted, the 100-metres final may pique your interest and you may enter the office sweepstake on the number of drug cheats caught out but, beyond the athletics, let’s not pretend most of us care. Especially if you live north of the Watford Gap.

As for it being an Olympics for the whole country I take my hat off to the organisers for doing their best to peddle that myth.

But I would suggest the only tangible legacy for the UK from this multi-billion pound extravaganza – funded during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression – will be new housing and sports facilities for a deprived area of London.

A small number of pottery firms may have made a few quid but I can’t see Northwood Stadium benefiting too much or see London 2012 inspiring a generation of youngsters in the Potteries to take up rhythmic gymnastics.

If this all sounds incredibly cynical then I make no apologies because the Olympics itself is a cynical, money-making enterprise.

Coming, as it does, hard on the heels of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the Euro 2012 football tournament (I enjoyed both) I just don’t think I have it in me to get excited about something which may as well be taking place on the other side of the world.

There may be too much football, cricket and rugby on the TV but you can always switch it off – just like I do when Wimbledrone and that awful John McEnroe person put in their annual appearance.

If the Olympics is your bag then I hope you have an absolute ball and thrive on every minute of it.

But if, like most of us, you’re not the slightest bit interested, then you’ll do your best to avoid this London-centric bonanza of weirdness.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

REVIEW: Slash at the Victoria Hall, Hanley (July 24, 2011)

They say the devil has all the best tunes. Not last night he didn’t.

Slash, AKA Saul Hudson, borrowed them for his long-awaited homecoming gig.

This was one of those rare musical ‘I was there’ moments.

Those lucky enough to get their greasy mits on a ticket were taken on an epic, three-hour rock odyssey.

I knew we were in for a treat because I spoke to Slash’s uncle Ian Hudson, from Tunstall, before the gig and he told me just how much the former Guns N’ Roses guitarist was looking forward to his return to the city where he spent the first six years of his life.

As the queue snaked around the Victoria Hall before the doors opened I sneaked in during the soundcheck and had the pleasure of watching Slash’s band warm up.

That’s when I came over all ‘We’re not worthy’ – à la Garth from Wayne’s World.

I stood up in the circle next to an amplifier, my ears bleeding and gazed down upon a rock legend not 30 feet away.

Now I’ve seen some decent guitarists in my time – Eddie van Halen in his pomp springs to mind, or Joe Perry from Aerosmith and, of course, my beloved Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi.

But I’ve experienced nothing which quite compares to the visceral thrill of watching Slash play his signature Gibson Les Paul to within an inch of its life in front of such a partisan crowd.

The audience came from all over: Paris; London, Bristol, Torquay, Portsmouth, Ayrshire and even Japan for a gig that sold out in two hours. But mostly they came from North Staffordshire to welcome home a bloke who left this city as wild child Saul Hudson and returned as rock royalty.

Slash doesn’t tend to say much. Not much that is printable, anyway.

However, he informed the crowd (to much whooping and hollering) that he had chosen Stoke-on-Trent to shoot the first tour DVD he’d made on his own.

He also said he’d been wanting to do this gig for ‘more years than he cared to remember’ and that it was special to be back, adding: “Needless to say it’s chuffin’ cool.”

OK. He didn’t say chuffin’.

When the bands you have been in have sold 120 million records and packed out stadiums across the globe, playing the Vicki Hall up Hanley on a Sunday night could be considered small beer.

However, Slash and his band worked their backsides off last night for the 1,500 people who turned this grand old venue into a cauldron. It’s hard to take your eyes off Slash and his jaw-dropping mastery of the strings.

But, in truth, one of the most memorable aspects of this intimate gig was the performance of frontman Myles Kennedy whose vocals were, dare I say, at least as good – if not better – than the deified Axl Rose.

Through it all Slash sweated, swaggered and strummed while his uncle Ian looked on proudly from the balcony above.

Highlights included Starlight – a single which is released today from Slash’s latest album and Slither from his days with Velvet Revolver.

But you could literally feel the building shaken to its foundations when the band played Guns N’ Roses tracks.

We were treated to Rocket Queen, Night Train, Mr Brownstone, Sweet Child O’ Mine and the epic Civil War before Paradise City brought the show to a shuddering climax.

Rock music simply doesn’t get any better than this.

From dinosaurs to a monster of rock

Sentinel columnist Martin Tideswell met up with a man who has more reason than most to be looking forward to the return of a music prodigy to his native city

When Tony Hudson told his family he was emigrating to America, his younger brother Ian was understandably upset – not least because it meant saying goodbye to his nephew Saul.

Ian took a lock of the lad’s hair, placed it in a photo album and shaped it into a number six – the age Saul was when he left the Potteries to start a new life overseas.

The year was 1971 and the States may as well have been another planet as far as your average Stokie was concerned.

Little did Ian know that the next time he would hear about the scruffy boy with a penchant for sticklebricks and drawing dinosaurs was through a book review in The Sentinel.

The book in question – Low Life In The Fast Lane – told the story of the biggest rock band in the world and there, on the cover, was the lad who had once turned little girls’ heads in Blurton.

The band was Guns N’ Roses, Saul had become its legendary lead guitarist Slash, and it dawned on Ian that his nephew was a megastar.

Ian, who works as a warehouse operative for DHL in Stoke, said: “I honestly couldn’t believe it. We were all absolutely thrilled to bits.

“You see, I remember Saul – as he was then – as this boisterous little guy who lived with my mum and dad, Cybil and Charles, in Consett Road, Blurton, and went to the local primary school.

“Saul was very close to his dad, adored his auntie Mabel and loved drawing. He was a very gentle boy really, and there was certainly nothing to indicate that he would become a hard rock musician or join a band.”

Ian said: “When we found out Guns were touring the UK in 1991 we managed to get in touch with the band’s PR company and asked Slash if he minded the Hudson family going along to the gig at Wembley and he said: ‘Great!’.

“The first time I saw him with Guns, strutting around with his guitar and flying across the stage with Axl it was just awesome.

“It was hard to believe it was the same little boy I knew from all those years ago.”

I took it as a good omen as I drove through Tunstall on my way to interview Ian that I had spotted a bloke wearing a faded Guns N’ Roses t-shirt.

You know the one – the classic, circular gold band logo with the two pistols and red roses.
It took me back…

Back to 1988, in fact – my final year at Holden Lane High – when an earthquake had transformed the music scene.

A certain American band had brought hard rock music to the masses with their multi-platinum album Appetite For Destruction.

Even the girls in my class, used to bopping around to the Theme From S-Express, were hooked.

“Slash’s from Stoke, you know,” I recall one of them saying – which, of course, made the lead guitarist even cooler. If that was possible.

Guns ’n Roses went on to become the biggest band in the world before drugs, touring and egos led to the implosion of the original line-up.

More than three decades later and the boy from Stoke – AKA Slash – is scheduled to play his first gig in the city where he spent the early years of his life.

Tickets sold out in under two hours – much to the delight of his uncle Ian who will be at a packed Victoria Hall in Hanley on July 24 along with his family and some lucky pals.

You wouldn’t know Ian had a famous relative. Not unless you get invited round to the home of his partner Jean Booth in Sandyford, that is.

In the cosy living room you’ll find framed pictures and magazine covers signed by Slash himself, along with back stage passes from past tours which are the equivalent of rocking horse poo to your average rock fan.

Ian, now 64 and living in Tunstall, has got used to having a famous nephew.

So used to it, in fact, that he can now look back and laugh at the time when he met a man in a pub in Fenton who claimed to be Slash’s uncle.

“I didn’t argue with him,” said Ian. “But it did make me smile to think that there was some bloke going around pretending to be me. I guess it just shows you how big Guns were.”

The living room at Jean’s house is where Slash’s father Tony spent two weeks sleeping on a camp bed in July last year when he stayed over in order to spend a little time with the brother he hadn’t seen for nearly 40 years.

Since that first Wembley concert experience, Ian has met up with his famous nephew several times – during UK gigs with his post-Guns ’n Roses outfits Slash’s Snakepit, supergroup Velvet Revolver and on his solo tour.

But when he heard that Blurton’s finest would actually be playing live here in the Potteries, Ian was understandably over the moon.

He said: “Slash had just got off stage from a gig in South America and he texted me. It said: ‘See you in Stoke on July 24’.

“I thought: ‘Stoke? Where on earth would he play in Stoke?’.

“When I found out it was the Victoria Hall I was thrilled because I’ve seen a few decent concerts there myself – people like Eric Clapton and ELO back in the 60s.

“It’s a great venue and it will be brilliant to see Slash back here in Stoke and not have to travel so far. I could even use my bus pass.”

Looking back, Ian fully understands why his older brother wanted to move away from the Potteries.

Tony, who will be 70 in August, was a gifted artist who went on to create album covers for musicians such as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.

Meanwhile, Slash’s mother Ola was an African-American costume designer whose clients included David Bowie.

Needless to say there wasn’t much in the way of work for them in the Potteries.

Tony moved his family to the Laurel Canyon neighbourhood of Los Angeles which, during the 1960s, became famous as a home to many of the Big Apple’s rock musicians, such as Frank Zappa and Jim Morrison.

Ian said: “I think Tony just felt that he could offer his family a better life.

“Obviously, back then none of us had any idea what would happen to Slash.

“When they first moved to the States we would get letters and Tony would send pictures of album sleeves he had been working on.

“Then, over time, the correspondence dried and up and we just lost touch.

“The success of Slash’s career has brought us back together really and I couldn’t be more proud.”

Ian rang The Sentinel after reading my column about Slash’s homecoming gig and the campaign to have a statue erected in his honour here in the Potteries.

He said: “I don’t think Slash really understands just how many fans he has here back here in Stoke-on-Trent.

“But I’m sure the crowd will let him know. It will be a very special night for all of us.”

Hitting the oatcake trail in Newcastle

Sentinel columnist Martin Tideswell puts his summer weight-loss plan on hold in his quest for the perfect oatcake…

Did I fancy going up ’Castle and trying out some oatcakes?

‘It’s sort of like a pub crawl but without the ale’ – was how it was sold to me.

Well, it was a tough ask, but I guess someone had to do it.

So the diet went out of the window for the morning as yours truly became chief taster on the Oatcake Trail.

Now, as anyone who knows me will attest to… I can eat.

However, I knew that even I wouldn’t manage portions at 10 of the 12 eateries offering a different take on North Staffordshire’s signature dish.

So I dragged along another accomplished Sentinel ‘foodie’ – Chief Photographer Neil Hulse.
Now before we start, let’s get something straight

Connoisseurs claim that the humble oatcake came about when soldiers returning to North Staffordshire from India tried to replicate the chapatis they had been eating.

Whatever the truth, I am a devout believer that our oatcakes are meant for savoury dishes.

They are not, and never will be, crêpes. Any attempt to put chocolate sauce, maple syrup, ice cream or fruit anywhere near our native dish should be outlawed. It’s against the natural order of things.

Secondly, buying oatcakes from a supermarket is just plain wrong.

Having been weaned on oatcakes cooked by a lovely bloke called Gordon on the hotplate at his terrace property opposite Hanley Central Forest Park, I have certain standards.

Thus I went into this exercise fairly skeptical of anyone attempting to fiddle around with culinary perfection.

That said, for two days only a dozen traditional oatcake shops, cafés, bistros and restaurants are having a go by cooking up their own unique version of the North Staffordshire delicacy as part of the first ever Oatcake Festival.

The event is part of the Shop Newcastle-under-Lyme campaign which is aimed at boosting the local economy.

I soon got talking to former newsagent turned oatcake entrepreneur Martyn Smith, of Foley’s Oatcakes.

Martyn, who owns a shop in Fenton, decided to branch out last November by selling oatcakes from a stall next to Newcastle’s Guildhall.

The venture is going really well. Interestingly, he told me he tried the same stunt in Sandbach, but sadly people there weren’t interested.

If you ask me, the Oatcake Trail is great idea and – if it adds to people’s enjoyment of a day out in Newcastle’s beautiful town centre – then I’m all for it.

Suffice to say that the staff at every single venue were as warm and welcoming as they oatcakes they served up. However, by the time Neil and I reached our tenth eaterie we were both flagging.

He was green at the gills and I was waddling like a lame duck.

So apologies to the Hippy Hippy Shake Company and Hector Garcia but, had we continued along the trail, then there was a very real possibility of one or both of us exploding in the style of Monty Python’s Mr Creosote.

As we headed back to our cars, we mulled over the brie, the roasted cherry tomatoes, the mint and lime chutney, the Yuletide flavours, Spanish spices and even the sea food.

But, in the end, Neil and I agreed that like Anthony and Cleopatra, Fred and Ginger or Hoddle and Waddle – oatcakes have already found their perfect partners.

Bacon and cheese… we salute you!