Wootton Bassett repatriation of a local soldier

RIP Barry Buxton.

RIP Barry Buxton.

The body of Lance Corporal Barry Buxton has been flown back to Britain. The 27-year-old Royal Engineer, from Meir, died in a road accident in Afghanistan after his vehicle rolled into a canal. Martin Tideswell headed to Wootton Bassett to witness his tragic homecoming…

Only by a quirk of fate has Wootton Bassett entered the public consciousness.

Until April 2007 the bodies of fallen British soldiers were repatriated to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.

But when renovation work began at Brize Norton, RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire took over the role.

That meant that, on their way to John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, the corteges had to pass through a sleepy, unremarkable market town which has become the focus for national mourning.

The chances are Wootton Bassett, located six miles south west of Swindon and with a population of around 11,000, would never have hit the national headlines.

It just happens to be the most notable population centre on this melancholy route.

In truth, the High Street boasts little evidence of the town’s special role. But the clues are there.

If you look closely, you may just spot the odd Help For Heroes poster in a shop window.

There are a few more Union flags and Crosses of Saint George than one would perhaps expect.

And, pinned to the door of the town council’s offices yesterday was a note informing locals of a repatriation ceremony ‘scheduled for 2pm’.

The town’s war memorial, erected in 2004 next to a pedestrian crossing on the main thoroughfare, is a simple affair.

It’s a stone pedestal topped by hands holding a globe, which was the vision of a local schoolgirl. Lying at the foot of the memorial, among the floral tributes, football scarves and military mementoes are two special letters of condolence from Royal visitors.

One reads: ‘In grateful and everlasting memory, Charles.’ The other reads: ‘With deepest gratitude, Camilla.’

It is this small edifice to which the crowds are drawn when the corteges pass through Wootton Bassett.

This is where the veterans of previous conflicts congregate to pay their respects – to give a salute only servicemen and women are entitled to give.

This is where the vehicles carrying the bodies of our brave lads and lasses briefly halt. It is a moment in time which bridges the gap between generations and unites all ages in sorrow and pride.

This was the homecoming for one of our own – Lance Corporal Barry Buxton, from Meir, and his comrades Corporal Harvey Alex Holmes and Sapper Daryn Roy.

Fully two hours before the cortege was due to arrive, the crowds started to form and the atmosphere began to change.

Subtly at first, a feeling of solemnity and anticipation settled over what had been a busy day in the market town.

Veterans stood shoulder-to-shoulder with cadets. Shopkeepers emerged to mingle with members of the public.

I saw the regalia of Normandy veterans, Falklands veterans, Korean veterans, Malayan veterans – to name but a few – as well as the dress uniforms of many a serving soldier. All ranks were represented from all branches of the Army, Royal Navy and RAF.

A young mum sheltered from the wind in a shop doorway, holding a boy of maybe three years in one arm while rocking her baby’s pram gently back and forth. An hour and a half she waited, determined to be part of the tribute.

Just like the elderly lady in the red jumper, supported by a walking frame, who grimaced with the effort of standing but refused to give up her space at the front of the crowd. The people of Wootton Bassett never asked for this responsibility but they bear the burden effortlessly.

In dribs and drabs the loved ones of the fallen arrived – three distinct groups of family and friends, some clutching flowers or carrying banners, and others wearing T-shirts bearing faces of their heroes.

The courage and dignity of these forlorn souls was immense and it lasted right up until the moment the church bells began to toll to herald the arrival of the cortege. Dark clouds which had threatened to rain on this parade suddenly abated and sunlight bathed the scene.

The sad convoy crept into view, led first by a police escort and then the solemn figure of a man clad in funereal top hat and tails and carrying a black cane.

The lead car carrying Lance Corporal Buxton’s coffin, draped in the Union flag, came to a halt at the war memorial.

At this point the families and friends of the three servicemen approached the cars – sobs and wails breaking the impeccably-observed silence.

Flowers were thrown on to the hearses as some mourners flung themselves at the vehicles to be close to those they had lost.

All the while the people of Wootton Bassett watched, the veterans held their shaky salutes and our hearts broke for those who grieved.

Our Barry and his comrades were home at last.

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General Election sketch piece – 2010

Sentinel columnist Martin Tideswell was covering his fifth General Election – his first being as a cub reporter at the King’s Hall in Stoke back in 1992…

“Evening”, said one of half a dozen blokes holding anti-fascist placards standing outside the King’s Hall.

“Owrate youth,” I replied, and he stood down – realising I was far too scruffy to be representing the BNP.

By 10.50pm we hacks were huddled around a TV in the press room as the teacher’s pets of the Houghton and Sunderland South constituency broke the land speed record to declare the first result.

Stoke-on-Trent’s ballot boxes were still being carried in at this point and the counters hadn’t even taken their seats.

“What’s going on?” asked the incredulous city council chief executive, as he watched people sipping coffee and leaning against walls. “Why haven’t we started, yet?”

I just shrugged my shoulders.

Three quarters of an hour later the feeding frenzy began – 220 counters going at the ballot papers like so many battery hens.

As they worked, the footsoldiers of each party hovered around them, grim-faced and taking copious notes in the fashion of over-zealous GCSE exam invigilators.

“What are you doing?” I asked one of them.

“We’re trying to get a sense of how it’s gone,” he answered, rather sheepishly, by way of explanation for his pointless scribbling.

Despite the mind-numbing inevitability of Labour winning all three city seats for the umpteenth time, the party faithful were still rather twitchy.

“We don’t take anything for granted,” said one veteran campaigner.

Certainly Stoke North’s long-serving MP Joan Walley wasn’t.

She had arrived at the count long before the ballot boxes, bless her – welcoming every vote home like a shepherd counting her flock.

The same couldn’t be said of her Labour party colleagues.

Curious, I went on a, er… Tristram Hunt.

“Bit of a poor show from your new bloke,” said a journalist colleague to a Labour party activist at 1.30am. “You’d have thought he’d have been here by now.”

“Actually, he is on his way,” said the man. “I’m Lord Hunt, Tristram’s father.”

Ouch.

He must have been confident of victory because Haringey’s finest didn’t arrive until after 2am – finally justifying the hordes of BBC staff who had descended on Stoke, doubtless using Multimap to find their way to the Potteries.

Now you know what Auntie spends your licence fee on.

Surprise, surprise – there were no surprises here in The Land That Time Forgot.

Which leaves our city very firmly in the red… in more ways than one.

Theatre star Christian Patterson’s review of my panto performance


Sentinel columnist Martin Tideswell is appearing in The Regent Theatre’s pantomime Dick Whittington. Here, pantomime dame Christian Patterson – a firm favourite with Potteries audiences – reviews Martin’s first night…

It’s not often that you have two first nights – but with this production of Dick Whittington the part of Alderman Fitzwarren has been divided between Pete Conway and Martin Tideswell.

Pete’s final performance was on Tuesday night and as I write this he is sitting beside a pool in Los Angeles leaving Martin to pick up the pieces in snowy Stoke-on-Trent.

From day one of rehearsals, nerves aside, Martin showed an abundance of enthusiasm towards the cast, the panto and his part.

As Fitzwarren he is quicker than his predecessor and delivers an all-round performance full of gusto.

He delivers the laugh lines beautifully and his presence on stage is warm, generous and giving – as is Martin himself.

His dancing, or rather his sense of rhythm, is quite another story. In fact I would go as far to say that Martin is to dance what King Herod is to babysitting.

However, he tries – I’ll give him that.

That aside he is as welcome a cast member as any other. And it gives me great pride that we will share the stage together until January 10.

Amy Diamond as Alice continues to sparkle, as her name suggests she would. Kayleigh McIntyre as Tommy the Cat is as cute as ever. Steve Serlin, who plays King Rat, and his evil ratlings continue to draw the boos and the hisses with great style and aplomb.

Shelia Ferguson as Fairy Oatcakes belts out her songs better than any diva that you’ll see this side of the Atlantic. Su Annagib is outstanding in her first stage performance; her natural singing and acting ability is nothing short of brilliant.

And so to Jonny Wilkes. In my opinion, Jonny is to The Regent panto what the ravens are to the Tower of London.

If he ever left I would fear the whole thing would collapse. Melodramatic? Not in my opinion. Jonny is a wonderful actor, has an incredible singing voice and is the glue that holds it all together.

But it is his passion for Stoke-on-Trent and its residents that is truly overwhelming.

For the three years that I have shared the stage with him, his mantra to me has always been “I want to make this the best one yet”.

This is Jonny’s fifth panto appearance at The Regent, and if he wasn’t here I fear they would be no choice but to ship in a foreign actor or soap star who had no affinity with the Potteries or its people.

It is in no small part due to Jonny, under the guidance of director Matt Salisbury, that the panto continues to draw wonderful audiences that leave the theatre having had a genuinely funny panto experience.

It is a joy to have had the last three years at The Regent. I‘d like to thank all the staff at the theatre, especially the its chief executive Richard Wingate, Jonny Wilkes and every member of the audience that has made my time here the happiest of my career.

This sounds like I’m leaving but there’s not a chance! All being well, I’ll be back on December 9, 2010. Meanwhile, in the words of Dick Whittington “Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”.

Once bitten, forever smitten with Buffy

So, you’ve got a week off work and there’s £80 burning a hole in your pocket. What do you do with yourself?

Enjoy a couple of nights out? Treat yourself and your partner to a nice meal, perhaps? Buy this season’s Vale/Stoke/Alex shirt?

Well, I decided none of the above was for me and instead I made a 500-mile plus trip to the south coast to attend a convention for fans of TV show Buffy The Vampire Slayer and its spin-off series Angel.

Madness, I hear you cry. I can’t argue. In my defence, I love both shows — I’ve been a fan since they were first aired and, more to the point, I came out of the closet early on.

Yes, I’ve got Buffy mugs, mousemats, books, CDs, posters, games — you name it. Merchandise from a show that, for the uninitiated, revolves around an American teenage girl — Buffy, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar — whose role in life is to save the world from vampires and all manner of other supernatural nastiness while trying to get a boyfriend and graduate from high school.

Buffy’s the kind of show you either love or hate. It either seduces you completely or makes you reach for the remote with the kind of split-second reaction time that even Olympic athletes would be envious of.

And even though satellite TV viewers have already watched the last episode of the seventh and final season of Buffy, its place in the sci-fi hall of fame is secure.

Buffy is a worldwide phenomenon thanks to five years of tightly-written scripts, innovative plots, first-rate acting and a host of televisual firsts (including an episode with almost no speaking and a musical episode) which have earned it a cult following.

Aside from the mountain of merchandise and obligatory plethora of dedicated websites, it even has its own dialect — Buffyspeak — which merrily dismantles the Queen’s English and, as one academic puts it, creates with each episode “a free-for-all grammar implosion”.

So whether or not you know your Watcher from your Willow or your Mr Pointy from your “wiggins”, the big question is, of course, what drives people to travel hundreds or thousands of miles and spend so much money to take part in conventions?

Ellis Cashmore, professor of media, culture and sport at Staffordshire University, traces the roots of conventions and the notion of being a “fan” back to the post-war paranoia environment of the late 1940s which spawned a raft of science fiction books and films.

At the time, particularly in North America, the fear of communism was such that it manifested itself with the concept of “aliens” — the kind from outer space — being among us.

Professor Cashmore said: “This is when the sci-fi genre really took off. This literary explosion led to the circulation of newsletters which were effectively the first ‘fanzines’ and then came the first conventions.

“The advent of rock music then led to other kinds of conventions such as those for Elvis fans and then, by far the most popular and enduring, conventions for fans of the TV series Star Trek.

“Star Trek conventions have proved beyond doubt that there are far more to such events than dressing up and buying memorabilia.

“Academics present scholarly papers on subjects far deeper than the storylines from the series, but which the show explores through metaphor in its plots.”

According to Professor Cashmore, being a fan is not just about escapism. He said: “It’s more than that. When these people come together with hundreds or thousands of kindred spirits in a convention environment they command and enjoy mutual respect. It empowers them.”

Of course, fan gatherings are nothing new to Staffordshire. The Daniel O’Donnell Appreciation Society is based in Uttoxeter. The worldwide Laurel and Hardy fan club Sons Of The Desert has a city branch called the Midnight Patrol Potteries Tent. Members produce their own newsletter, meet on the second Tuesday of every month and enjoy screenings of their idols’ classic films.

And until a few years ago Burslem pubs annually played host to local members of the Max Wall Society — giving many a pub-goer a double-take as a posse of Max lookalikes mimicked the comedian’s legendary funny walk on the streets of the Mother Town.

Personally, in spite of what Professor Cashmore might think, I didn’t feel particularly empowered when I arrived at the fan convention venue in Brighton on the morning of the event. I was just grateful for the bright sunshine and the clear blue skies.

The first thing I noticed was the now-famous shell of the burnt-out pier jutting from the calm sea. The second was the queue.

I had thought arriving an hour before the doors opened was a smart move. Thank God I was no later.

Five hundred or so of the 3,000-strong audience for day two of the three-day event were even keener.

The queue, comprising an eclectic mix of fans of all ages (OK, teenage girls were in the majority) snaked down the front and round the corner of The Brighton Centre — better known as a venue for political party conferences.

To my surprise there was no-one in costume — not a creature of the night to be seen, in fact. However, black was certainly the colour to be wearing and a lot of animals must have been sacrificed to satisfy the demand for leather trenchcoats.

Once the doors opened things moved quite quickly and your options were to queue for tickets to have your picture taken with stars from the shows or take your first-come, first-served seats in the auditorium.

The real star of the convention was David Boreanaz. In fact, the convention was called, rather grandly, The David Boreanaz European Event. He plays Angel — Buffy’s true love — a vampire with a soul. A character so cool, so popular with viewers and with such an “aaah” factor that the producers gave him his own spin-off series.

Boreanaz is all spiky black hair and brooding good looks. If you’ve not seen him in either show he’s also an up-and-coming Hollywood star and the hunk of tall, dark and handsome starring in the video for Dido’s latest single, White Flag.

Boreanaz brought with him from the States two stars from the original show — the ever-present Nicholas Brendon who plays Buffy’s friend Xander Harris and Kristine Sutherland, aka Buffy’s mum Joyce Summers.

They weren’t on time, of course. Kept us waiting for an-hour-and-a-half. Apparently, the helicopter was delayed. Public transport, eh?

I haven’t been to any other fan conventions, but at this point I should say that the organisation of this event left a lot to be desired. Plenty of words spring to mind, but shambolic just about edges it.

The basic problem was there were three sets of people working at the venue — the venue’s own staff, personnel from convention organisers Jealous Events (henceforth to be referred to as Muppets), and David Boreanaz’s own people.

That the itinerary went out the window owed much to the late arrival of the stars, but the shocking lack of information available to fans seemed to be down to the fact that no-one dared ask David’s people what the hell was going on.

I imagine the French revolution to have been less chaotic — and the less said about the seating fiasco the better. Suffice to say many a complaint form was filled in as the event drew to a close.

So, after much waiting around, an expectant hush fell over the auditorium and the compere (I use that term loosely when referring to a Muppet from the Black Country) announced the arrival of the star man.

Boreanaz appeared on stage amid a cacophony of whooping and cheering — just as cool and annoyingly good-looking in his slobs as he is on the show. The first fan to appear at the edge of the stage was literally lost for words as she tried in vain to form a question which resulted in a Norman Collier-esque moment.

“Breathe,” said Boreanaz, helpfully. And the laughter of the audience made the poor girl’s embarrassment complete.

Thus began the first of four question and answer sessions with the stars from both shows. Given the ages and motivations of some of those asking the questions, it was never going to be of the calibre of Jeremy Paxman versus Michael Howard.

But, in its own way, this was just as enthralling a spectacle. It really was Hollywood meets Portsmouth, Aberdeen, Dublin, Bristol, Birmingham, Holland, South Africa and even Sydney, Australia. Yes, people really did travel those distances to meet their idols. And yes, yours truly dutifully represented Stoke-on-Trent with a question posed to Buffy’s mum.

We had two hours of questions and, during the constant stream of “can you say hello to my friend/mum/sister/dad/brother who’s in row Z”, found out very little we didn’t already know about Mr Boreanaz. He was very Hollywood. Wearing shades indoors and his voice a slow drawl, he was polished, reserved and possibly just a tad embarrassed at the love emanating from the floor of the main hall.

The others — who appeared on stage together — were more laid-back. Nicholas Brendon bounded on stage and jigged around to the deliciously noisy Buffy theme tune. Even Kristine Sutherland, somewhat older than the rest of the cast, talked freely and laughed along with the crowd, who hung on her every word.

Perhaps the most telling remark was when Kristine Sutherland diplomatically spoke of the mother/daughter bond between her and Sarah Michelle Gellar and how they still keep in touch now the original show has ended.

“Well, will you say hi for me then, ’cos she never returns my calls,” answered Nick Brendon with the refreshing honesty of a man no longer contractually-obligated.

Fans had paid between £40 and £80 for the privilege of mixing with their TV favourites — and most came prepared to pay a further £49 each for a picture of themselves with Mr Boreanaz.

A privileged few who had shelled out several hundred pounds enjoyed a VIP backstage reception, while we mere mortals packed into the trade hall for a browse through Buffy/Angel memorabilia stalls.

There was even an evening themed disco/karaoke where the vampire wannabes and all those who have dreamed of playing bass guitar for Dingoes Ate My Baby at The Bronze nightclub (Buffy reference) could strut their stuff.

It was an enlightening experience to be surrounded by like-minded people and to catch a brief glimpse of the actors and actresses who have brought so much enjoyment to millions.

Speaking of her motivation for attending the event, one middle-aged mother-of-two who had her two teenage daughters in tow said: “It’s our hobby. It costs a lot of money to travel and see the stars and to buy all the gear, but we don’t have a football season ticket or go to concerts. This is what we do.”

To enjoy such a thing as a convention you have to be a hardcore fan. You have to be prepared to be patronised, messed about and charged exorbitant amounts of money. Because in the end, it’s worth it. That’s showbiz.

Austin Macauley reviews my passion for roleplaying games…

Between them they’ve poisoned, stabbed and bludgeoned to death dozens of innocent folk – yet they are still allowed to walk the streets.

One of their number openly admits to having garrotted someone last weekend, taking great glee in describing in grotesque detail exactly how he carried it out.

If it wasn’t all the stuff of fantasy, the Potteries would be a dangerous place to live.

The group in question are eight friends who meet up once a month in the city to lose themselves for hours on end in a game of Dungeons and Dragons.

Ranging in age from early 20s to late 30s, many have played it together since childhood and the game keeps them in contact with each other despite some having moved hundreds of miles away.

Their common bond is a passion for role play games – and Dungeons and Dragons is probably one of the oldest and best known examples of this pastime.

It’s one of hundreds of similar games and together with computer games make up one of the fastest-growing hobbies.

But D&D, as it known to players, is mere child’s play compared to a new game which has taken America by storm.

“Majestic” takes role play to a new level. Once you have signed up via the internet you can expect to be bombarded with funny phone calls, threatening text messages on your mobile and e-mailed instructions.

The idea is you are part of a suspense thriller with any number of sub-plots and conspiracies going on. Playing involves interacting with other players and those programmed by the makers – and it’s up to you to work out which is which.

Unlike D&D and PC games you can’t pack up or switch off. The only way to get out of the game is to solve the conspiracy or else ditch the mobile and cut the telephone chord.

At the moment there isn’t the technology to set it up in Britain, so for now we’ll have to make do with D&D, murder mystery weekends and the like.

So what is the attraction of role playing games? More importantly, what possesses people to play D&D – a game so entrenched in stigma?

When children first started playing the game in Britain in the early 1980s they were ridiculed by their peers, branded geeks and given a status previously only bestowed upon trainspotters.

But try telling that to Elton Hood and the friends who meet up at his home in Dresden every month.

The 27-year-old sports shop manager plays the game with a journalist, photographer, teacher, PR manager, fireplace fitter, pharmacist and someone who works in a music store. We’re talking about respectable people here.

“I only noticed the stigma after a couple of years,” said Elton, who started playing 14 years ago.

“As people were getting older it seemed to them quite a childish, sad, introverted game. I never agreed. It’s a social thing because you are playing with other people and have to work together to succeed.”

For the uninitiated, D&D involves creating a character for yourself with various skills and placing it, along with those of other players, in various “dungeons” – which could be anything from a forest to a castle.

The game involves progressing through each dungeon, picking up clues and treasure along the way and trying not to be killed off in the process.

It’s a game of guile, imagination and foresight, according to Elton and his mates.

To the outsider it’s a group of adults sitting round a board game over a weekend for hours on end pretending to be medieval warrior dwarves, wizards and thieves.

At the risk of being politically incorrect, the words warrior and dwarf are an unlikely coupling to say the least. Ask anyone who doesn’t play what they think of D&D and the word “sad” will be the most likely response.

Time for one of Elton’s mates to defend their honour. Step forward Martin Tideswell, a 29-year-old Sentinel journalist.

“People perceive it to be a bit of a nerdy thing to play and, to a certain extent, they are probably right and I don’t think that perception is ever going to change.”

So even the players themselves think it’s a bit sad?

“There are some people who take it a bit too seriously. At the tournaments you do see the stereotypical player. They will be male, aged 24-40, wearing black and they’ll be into heavy metal. They get into the character, put on the voice and really go overboard. When we play we don’t get into all that.

“We treat it like you’d treat a game of Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit and get together with a few beers and play. People who don’t play probably wonder why – at our age – we’re still playing.

“At school there was a small group of us who played and most stopped when they grew up. But I’m hooked and I’ll probably never stop playing it.”

Honour partially restored, Martin tried to explain the attraction.

“The difficult thing to explain to people who don’t play is that there is no winner. When I was a kid my dad used to ask ‘So, who’s won this week then?’ But it’s not that simple. Your character can get killed off, but I have characters which I’ve had since I was 11.”

One of the group is designated as the Dungeon Master (DM) and they run and referee the game – deciding what happens to characters depending on what decisions they make.

Just for the record, Martin has just finished his stint as DM and a few weeks ago killed Elton. Well, killed his character anyway.

The memory is still fresh in Elton’s mind.

“We were infiltrating a temple of ancient gods to retrieve artefacts when we came up against one of the gods and some of us got killed, including me.”

Dealing with loss is all part of the game, says Martin.

“Losing a character is really upsetting – I know, that sounds really sad, but you really do get attached to a character. It’s not because you think they are real but because you have spent so long developing them.

“As a DM I strongly believe in killing people off. It’s the only way to have any realism. I’ve killed them with rock falls, poison, spiked pits, magic spells, a blade from out of the darkness – all sorts of ways.”

Given that far more people spend far more hours playing role play games on their computers – alone – perhaps the derision D&D receives is slightly unfair.

“If people played it I think they would see it in a different light,” reckons Elton.

“You expect a certain amount of derision of you tell someone about it. From my point of view the game helps me at work as well. Because I’m a retail manager I have to do training with people and that can often involve role play.”

We all indulge in role play in some way, even if it is limited to the confines of our own imagination in the form of dreams and fantasies. Could feeling of a need to escape say anything about our real lives?

Professor Ellis Cashmore, a sociologist at Staffordshire University, wonders whether, for some, role play is an alternative to going the whole hog and doing a “Reggie Perrin”.

“I call it the Reggie Perrin Syndrome. When I look at situations some people are in I think if that was me I’d leave a pile of my clothes neatly folded on Brighton beach and disappear with a new identity.

“Roleplaying games are the mildest forms of this escape attempt. There’s always an element of attraction about being someone else.

“Perhaps the theme park of the future will be like in the film Total Recall with memory embolisms.
You don’t have to go anywhere or do anything for the escape. They just give you the memory of whatever thrill you want.”

The night my rock heroes reigned at The Brit

Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora at The Britannia Stadium in August 2000.

Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora at The Britannia Stadium in August 2000.

While thirty-odd thousand people were enjoying Toploader’s first song, yours truly was waiting patiently back-stage.

I was watching Richie Sambora, who had arrived only minutes earlier in a blacked-out V-reg Mercedes, meeting members of the Bon Jovi fan club.

As he headed back inside the stadium a bloke heckled him: “Richie, I’ve got a guitar here that we’re raffling off for a children’s hospice charity. Will you sign it for us?”

“Sure, man,” the big guy responded in a kind of Joey-from-Friends accent, shaking the fella’s hand and squeezing past the mean-looking guards in yellow T-shirts.

Seconds later, I too was whisked through the kind of security I imagine surrounds the SAS head-quarters in Hereford for a face to face interview with Jovi’s lead guitarist.

Wearing a white T-shirt, brown combat trousers and boots, he stood up as I entered the tiny hospitality suite and extended his hand.

“Sc’use the leftover food,” he said, motioning to a half-eaten bowl of pasta. “Take a seat. You want anything?”

At this point, my worst fear was that I was about to discover that one of my idols was a self-obsessed idiot with an ego bigger than his bank balance.

But, though tall and tanned like you’d expect for a multi-millionaire musician, Richie Sambora was, mercifully, a hell of a nice guy.

Down-to-earth, attentive, and witty – he made the interview a breeze and went out of his way to ensure I was given enough time as a frantic American PR woman hovered over us.

No, he doesn’t get nervous before gigs, he assured me. Neither does he or any of the band drink before or during a show.

“Not like the good old days man,” he smiles, sipping a pint of what looked distinctly like lager.

Gone are the girls, girls, girls, days of the Slippery and New Jersey tours.

“Most of us are married now and Jon and Dave have kids,” explains Richie. “Hell, we had a great time before Aids and all those social ills. Then you get money, of course, and you realise you can get sued,” he laughs.

The Crush tour differs from previous monstrous Bon Jovi journeys because it is paced differently, accord-ing to Richie.

“We leave more time free these days to keep our own sanity,” he says.

So is he amazed the band is still filling stadiums across the globe 14 years after the album that first rocketed them to stardom?

“Sure,” he says. “Every day. But then I look back at the amount of touring we’ve done and what goes into making our records and I can understand it a little better.

“For example, we write about 60 songs for a record and then choose 13 or 14 for the final cut. The rest don’t make it but we’re then able to choose quality for the fans. It just goes to prove there’s no substitute for hard work, my friend.”

So why is it that Bon Jovi are still together making records when so many of their peers have gone to the wall?

“Oh man,” he says. “If I had the answer to that one then you and I could bottle it and sell it and we’d make a million dollars. I do think, however, that it has something to do with where we came from, where we grew up.

“We’ll never forget that. Jon said the other day that this band is way past ever splitting up. We’ve grown up together man. We’re real close friends who just get together when we want to make a record. Simple as that.”

Richie then went on to say that he thought the band would be back in the UK on tour again next year.

At that point frantic American PR woman insists my time is up.

“You coming up to the bar?” says Richie, referring to the on-stage bar for VIP guests.

“Am I?” I ask PR woman.

Before she can answer Richie stands up and says: “You make sure he comes on stage with us.”

So she did.

Moments later and Jon Bon Jovi was climbing on to the aforementioned bar mid-way through One Wild Night and giving me a high-five. Of course, the concert cameras zoomed in on the action and for the 60 seconds JBJ was up there my pasty, ecstatic face was plastered all over the giant TV screen.

Needless to say I was on a high when I melted back into the crowd 15 minutes later.

The boys were at their brash, polished best last night. Launching straight into Livin’ On A Prayer and You Give Love A Bad Name.

Nothing like starting as you mean to go on is there?

The set was a mixture of old and new. An irresistible cocktail of Jovi anthems and ballads, spiced up with enough material from the new album to keep it fresh and exciting.

Who am I trying to kid? They could have got up there and played Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and I’d have hailed it a masterpiece.

In my opinion Bon Jovi are one of the world’s top acts.

They can play and sing live with the best of ’em. And they give two-and-a-half hours of sheer value for money.

You can’t help but marvel at Richie’s mastery of whichever guitar he picks up. Keyboardist David Bryan and drummer Tico Torres are the background troopers who never put a foot wrong.

And then there’s Jon. He only has to curl his lip and the crowd goes nuts. Covering more ground than a Premiership referee and sweating like a stuck pig, he always delivers the goods. And by the way – have you noticed how he never ages?

Bon Jovi were superb last night. How do I know?

Because a colleague who shall remain nameless went to the show with the serious intention of hating every last minute of it.

In the small hours of this morning, he admitted clapping his hands and singing along to Bad Medicine and, through gritted teeth, said he’d enjoyed himself. Not that he’d ever admit it, of course. As he said, he has a reputation to think of…

That’s why if you look up the dictionary definition of smug today, you’ll find my name next to it.

And so, Jon Bon Jovi and his cohorts continue to fill stadiums the world over – much to the annoyance of trendies who wouldn’t know a good band if they fell over one.

Last night’s gig at the Britannia was my 15th Bon Jovi concert – made all the more special because my wife was in the audience for the first time. Not because she was a fan you understand – until last night that is.

To see them in my home town was great but more importantly, surely a portent of things to come.

You see, it’s one thing for us to host whimsical events such as the Summer In The City with all their teeny-bopper appeal, but attracting the likes of Bon Jovi to the Potteries is undoubtedly a coup which should put the stadium on the touring map for top bands who play live rather than mime through their sets.

Bon Jovi are far from everyone’s cup of char. But like ’em or loathe ’em, they’re a quality act with 16 years of touring and album sales in excess of 60 million under their belts.

And anyone who thinks they simply faded away and took their bad haircuts with them after the success of Slippery When Wet needs to wake up and smell the coffee.

For while fine bands like Guns ‘n’ Roses were pressing the self-destruct button in the early 90s, the four original members of the New Jersey Syndicate have continued to reinvent themselves and still manage to cling on to and even broaden their fan base.

A mickey-taking colleague told me the other day that he had heard metal was making a comeback.

I just smiled ruefully, because Jovi fans like myself know it never really went away.