15 years… but I’m only just starting, really

Our Sir Stan tribute.

Our Sir Stan tribute.

A £500 pay cut and a demotion. That’s what it cost me to land a job here at The Sentinel in October 1998.

To be fair to the then Editor-in-Chief, who I’ll admit to being a little intimidated by, there were no vacancies on the Newsdesk and so I began life at my home city paper as a reporter.

As for the pay cut, I think it was perhaps his way of saying: ‘You’re on probation. Just another reporter. Show me what you can do.”

Against all odds, I’m still here – 15 years later – having seen off (in the nicest possible way) two editors and almost 200 journalist colleagues who have retired, been made redundant, left the company, or, in some sad cases, passed away.

To say that The Sentinel has changed a great deal during that time would be an understatement – both in terms of our working environment and what we do.

When I started, our photographers were still developing prints in the dark room.

Fax machines were still de rigueur. There was no internet and mobile telephones were still like bricks.

Few people had them and the idea of sitting there and being ignorant of the world and everyone around you while fiddling with a phone would have seemed preposterous.

The internet was still very much a geek thing and if you wanted information you couldn’t just ‘Google it’ or fall back on Wikipedia.

You either telephoned someone, picked up a reference book or looked in our library – which is probably one of the reasons I have such a healthy respect for our archive.

Many of my colleagues (particularly the crotchety old, cardigan-wearing sub-editors) at our Festival Park offices would disappear off to the pub at lunchtime for a couple of pints to ‘liven them up’ for the afternoon.

Half the journalists regularly frequented the ‘smoking room’ which was located up a corner of our vast ground floor editorial department.

It stunk to high heaven and every time someone opened the door the awful smell wafted across the newsroom.

Those early days are a blur for me. Within two weeks of starting my job I was doing shifts on the Newsdesk – the engine room of any newsroom.

The hours were long, as they still are, and I’d be up at 4am to drive into the office and prepare the news list for morning conference.

We had seven editions back then – all printed on site and staggered throughout the day. I couldn’t help but feel proud of working here.

Within a couple of months of me joining the paper the gaffer had appointed me Deputy News Editor.

Since then I’ve been privileged to be News Editor, Head of Content, Assistant Editor and now Deputy Editor and columnist.

My memories of colleagues who have moved on are still fresh and my recollections of each role vivid.

Our campaigns – such as Proud of the Potteries, in answer to some half-baked survey which said Stoke-on-Trent was the worst place to live in England and Wales – really mattered to me, as a local lad.

When Sir Stanley Matthews died I remember the UK Press Gazette (the trade magazine for hacks) lauding the Blackpool Gazette for its special 24-page tribute to the great man which had been produced by its journalists who had worked ‘through the night’.

We had worked 24 hours straight and produced 64 pages for the next day. From scratch. I’ve still got a copy.

I recall our 20,000-signature campaign for a new North Staffs Hospital – taken to 10 Downing Street by a little lad who must now be old enough to go the pub.

I remember the first time I planned and compered a Sentinel event – Our Heroes in 2006. I was so nervous I couldn’t eat a thing and spilt red wine down my tux.

I remember the first Stoke’s Top Talent variety contest – with a queue of entrants snaking round the Victoria Hall at half eight on a Saturday morning.

I recall planning our first Young Journalist Awards and Class Act competition which gave away tens of thousands of pounds to local schools.

I’ll never forget the sheer terror of walking on stage at The Regent theatre in panto for the first time – and the strange mixture of elation and sadness as I took my final bow 33 shows later.

More recently I returned to news writing to help expose wrong-doing by former directors at Port Vale and was proud to be involved in the subsequent battle to save the club.

I was also privileged to travel down to London with two veterans to present our 17,000-strong petition to save the name of The Staffords.

And so it goes on.

Fifteen years ago this week I joined The Sentinel and now I look around the newsroom and there are only a handful of people who have been here longer than yours truly. Suddenly (and I’m not quite sure how it happened) I’m one of the old heads.

Thankfully I’ve still got Rob Cotterill, Dave Blackhurst, Steve Bould and Dianne Gibbons to look up to.

Astonishingly, they’ve more than 150 years’ service between them.

All local. All proud.

I guess I’m only just starting, really.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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Time is running out to save Fenton Town Hall and its unique memorial

The Great War memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

The Great War memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

In less than two weeks’ time a group of campaigners from Stoke-on-Trent will take a trip to London to hand in a petition at 10 Downing Street.

This symbolic gesture is hugely significant because it takes the fight to protect and preserve what I believe is one of the city’s most important buildings to the heart of Government.

Last year Prime Minister David Cameron committed more than £50 million to commemorations of the Great War – including millions of pounds to encourage young people to learn about the conflict.

Consider then the irony of the fact that, as the nation gears up for four years of events to mark the ‘war to end all wars’, here in Stoke-on-Trent we are having to wage a battle to save a building which is inextricably linked to the First World War.

You see, despite what anyone says, the reality is Fenton Town Hall – and its Great War Memorial composed of Minton tiles – are under serious threat.

There’s a £500,000 price tag on the building which is now owned by the Ministry of Justice.

How it came to pass that the fate of a building bequeathed to the people of Stoke-on-Trent should rest with a Whitehall department is beyond me.

Yes, the future of Fenton Town Hall – for more than 40 years the central hub for North Staffordshire Magistrates – will not be decided upon by local people or even the local authority.

Rather it will be at the whim of civil servants who have no knowledge of the building or its heritage and no affinity with our city.

Civil servants presumably akin to the man with a clipboard who decided, inexplicably, a few years back that this historic gem wasn’t worthy of Listed Building status.

Since the Fenton498 campaign was launched a few months ago, more than 7,500 people have signed a petition to stop the desecration of the Great War Memorial inside the building.

The number 498 is important because that is how many local lads killed in the First World War are named on that tiled memorial inside a building none of us are allowed to enter.

The impressive memorial – which links directly to the cenotaph in the square which Fenton Town Hall dominates – was funded by local people who presumably thought it would stand the test of time.

But while the Ministry of Justice has given assurances that the memorial will be ‘preserved’ no matter what the future holds for the building, I – and those campaigning to have Fenton Town Hall transferred into community ownership – remain unconvinced.

For starters, if a private concern was to purchase the building I am not even sure this organisation would guarantee access for the public to allow people to pay their respects to the fallen – let alone look after the memorial it inherits.

The harsh truth here is that everyone on the fringes of this campaign is waiting for someone else to take a decision. The question is: Who will blink first?

Rest assured our MPs are well aware of what’s at stake. Officers at the city council seem at a loss to know which way to jump.

All the while a small band of campaigners are trying desperately to make their voices heard – stressing the importance of the building and its memorial while underlining the fact that Fenton really needs a community facility such as this.

Of course, the fight to save Fenton Town Hall and its Great War Memorial isn’t just about Fenton.

It’s about our city as whole and what we, as a wider society, think is important.

I, for one, think it’s vital to remember the sacrifices of past generations. I also think it’s crucial that future generations have impressive civic buildings of which they can be proud and in which they can come together.

In some respects, Fenton Town Hall can be considered a grave and, as such, I believe we should accord it due respect.

One of the campaigners travelling down to London on October 20 is Jane Jones, whose great-grandfather Ernest Heapy’s name is on the memorial.

I’d like to think that as the Great War commemorations begin Jane, and anyone else who wants to, can visit this breath-taking memorial to say thank you for his supreme sacrifice. If you agree with me, please make your voice heard.

*To sign the petition, log on to: http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/stop-the-desecration-of-fenton-great-war-memorial-1914-1918

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Let’s hope Army bosses use common sense and spare The Staffords

The first paragraph of the correspondence from the nice man at the Metropolitan Police is wonderfully quaint and reassuring.

‘Hello Ma’am, Your application to deliver a petition by hand to the door of number 10 Downing Street has been booked in for Thursday, November 1, at 1.15pm.’

After months of campaigning Sentinel journalists including yours truly together with Staffordshire Regimental Association representatives will be calling in on the Prime Minister later this week.

We will be presenting a 17,000-name petition calling for the name of the name of our county regiment to be preserved amid brutal Army cutbacks.

Our campaign was prompted by the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) decision to remove 3 Mercian (the Staffords) from the Order of Battle (ORBAT) – thus ending the county’s 297-year link with the British Army.

It is part of a huge reduction in the Army which will diminish its fighting strength from 102,000 to just 82,000 over the next few years and place a much heavier reliance on the Territorial Army.

Of course, it isn’t just the Staffords who have the axe hanging over them and other proud units are facing oblivion too.

But here in North Staffordshire feelings are running high and veterans and their relatives, serving soldiers and their families and the general public have united to oppose the MoD’s proposal.

We can’t speak for other areas or other units, but what can definitely say is that the Staffords are hugely important to local people.

Since the beginning of July The Sentinel has published more than 100 stories detailing the courage and selflessness of those who have served with the Staffordshire Regiment from the Great War to the present day.

Of course, this newspaper has been able to trawl its archives for reports on the breaching of the Hindenberg Line in 1918, the Battle of Arnhem in 1944 and the infamous raid on the Al Jameat Police Station in Iraq on Christmas Day in 2006.

But the vast majority of the articles The Sentinel has published in recent months have been prompted by readers who have written in with personal stories to tell of their association with the Staffordshire Regiment.

Some were former Staffords telling of their service during WWII, in Northern Ireland or more recent conflicts.

But many more were relatives of those who wore the cap badge and distinguished themselves all over the world.

These tales have shown just how proud the people of North Staffordshire are of their links with the military and of the Staffordshire Regiment’s battle honours.

That’s why they were sending goodwill parcels to Our Boys out in Iraq as part of this newspaper’s Operation Christmas Cheer campaign a full 12 months before General Sir Richard Dannatt was asking the British public to better support our Armed Forces personnel.

We don’t need to be told around here, you see. We’ve been doing it for years.

It was one thing to have the North and South Staffords merged. It was one thing for the regiment to become known as 3 Mercian (Staffords).

It is another thing entirely for the name ‘The Staffords’ be scrubbed from ORBAT altogether.

No-one involved with our campaign realistically expects the MoD to do a complete about-face and retain 3 Mercian.

But by the same token they have shown that the name The Mercian Regiment, derived from an ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom, means little or nothing to the people of Staffordshire.

It is a convenient construct which allowed Army chiefs to mash together the Staffordshire Regiment, Cheshire Regiment and Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters under one banner.

The truth is the people of Staffordshire and those with links to the Staffords have no great affiliation with the other counties or their respective regiments – and vice versa.

Any sense of pride for the Mercian Regiment relates instead to its antecedents, such as the Staffords, and their roles in various wars and conflicts over the centuries.

It is to be hoped that Army chiefs, when considering whether or not to retain the name The Staffords, and indeed the antecedents of The Mercian Regiment’s 1st and 2nd battalions, think long and hard about the consequences of making a clean break with tradition.

Let’s hope that common sense prevails and that future generations of young recruits from our neck of the woods will continue to want to follow in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers and serve with The Staffords – rather than opting instead for another unit with no links to our patch but equally good or perhaps better prospects.

Readers have until tomorrow (October 31) to sign our petition by logging on to: http://www.saveourstaffords.com or calling in at The Sentinel’s HQ in Etruria to sign the forms.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

New superhospital puts an end to a local healthcare scandal

Truly we are living through historic times: Days that many of us doubted we would ever see.
For decades the people of North Staffordshire have waited, moaned, campaigned and then waited some more for two major regeneration projects.
The first is the demolition of the great carbuncle that is Hanley bus station.
Well, many of us may have no time for the name City Sentral but what is surely more important is that a developer has finally committed to spending hundreds of millions of pounds creating a new shopping complex which will transform the city centre.
The second project was a new hospital, fit for the 21st Century, to replace the horrible hotch-potch of antiquated buildings which made up the Royal Infirmary and City General sites.
It is not over-egging the pudding to say that, for generations, the people of Stoke-on-Trent, Newcastle-under-Lyme and the Staffordshire Moorlands have been the poor relations to NHS patients in other areas with regard to hospital treatment.
For as much as the care offered by staff up at Hartshill may have been first class, the outdated buildings which they have been forced to operate from and the very nature of the sprawling sites means that they have, effectively, being toiling with one hand tied behind their backs.
Ignored by successive Tory administrations and often overlooked by their Labour counterparts, the people of the Potteries have for too long been forced to put up with a second-rate hospital.
I distinctly recall the day – January 3, 2001 – when The Sentinel’s then Editor and a little lad by the name of Jacob Bradbury went down to 10 Downing Street to present a petition calling for a new hospital.
Yours truly was on the Newsdesk at the time and I remember how we chose smiley, five-year-old Jacob to become the poster boy for our Caring For Tomorrow campaign.
The little lad, from Madeley, was one of those who had suffered as a result of inefficiencies up at the Hartshill complex – waiting years for treatment on his deformed jaw.
Thus it was Jacob who delivered the 19,000-plus petition of Sentinel readers, demanding a new hospital, to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair.
We deliberately timed the visit for maximum impact – just four months before the General Election.
Looking back now, it seems scandalous that the people of North Staffordshire had to ‘campaign’ at all for the same kind of hospital facilities that other towns and cities simply take for granted.
Hospitals are sacred places to us all. Places where we are born and often where we and our loved ones die. Places where we experience the whole range of human emotions – hope, fear, relief, sorrow.
They are simply too important to be neglected which is why the scandal of North Staffordshire’s wait for a hospital which is fit for purpose reflects so poorly on politicians of all colours.
Thankfully, this Saturday the long wait will be over when the first 80 patients move into our new superhospital.
Let us not forget the long and rocky road which we have travelled.
There were many setbacks and times, with costs spiralling out of control, when it seemed that the dream of ultra-modern hospital care was again to be denied to the people of the Potteries.
Therefore, we should not underestimate the significance of the hospital’s doors opening for the first time this weekend or the effect this building will have on North Staffordshire’s psyche.
Round here we often have to settle for second best, to make-do and mend and to live with half-finished projects and promises broken.
However, the unveiling of the new superhospital genuinely gives us a state-of-the-art building to be proud of as opposed to facilities to be embarrassed about which wouldn’t look out of place in a Victorian novel.
There will be teething troubles, no doubt, as with any major building project of a scale such as this.
For me, the proof of the pudding will be in whether or not community facilities can cope in the coming years in the light of our new ‘cathedral to healing’ having 290 fewer beds than its predecessors.
But, for now, let us celebrate this long overdue milestone in local healthcare.