City council should forget PR gurus: A decent reputation will come by doing a good job.

The city council's headquarters in Stoke.

The city council’s headquarters in Stoke.

Sometimes I despair, I really do. The fact that Stoke-on-Trent City Council felt it necessary to commission a reputational survey in late 2012 speaks volumes about the paranoia gripping the Civic Centre.

Does anyone really believe giving a PR firm run by another local authority ‘darn sarf’ £25,000 to telephone people across the Potteries represents a sensible use of taxpayers’ money?

I’d love to know who’s idea this was. Was it prompted by a senior officer, fresh in post, trying to make his or her mark?

Was it done at the behest of councillors fixating on the odd negative headline?

Or was it suggested by a highly-paid consultant – perhaps one of the Westco brigade (yes, we still pay oodles of cash for that sort of thing).

Is it any wonder that many people have little faith in the authority when it sanctions the frittering away of taxpayers’ cash on nonsense like this?

Let’s examine the ground-breaking findings of this document which is presumably titled: ‘Stating the bleedin’ obvious’.

Yes the survey produced such telling insights as ‘the perception that the council provides good value for money, at 30 per cent, is 26 points below the national average.’

Presumably this score wasn’t helped when respondents were told how much the daft survey was costing.

My favourite paragraph, however, reads: ‘The impact of reading The Sentinel is strong. Residents who have read it are more likely to form a negative judgement of the council. This is likely in part to be the newspaper reinforcing the views of local people.’

Goodness me. Heaven forbid a local newspaper reflects the views of local people. Whatever next.

Conversely, the report found that people reading the council’s own glossy newsletter – Our City – were more likely to view the authority positively. How about that?

So the newsletter which the council pays for and fills with its own propaganda gives a more positive impression of the local authority.

Could that perhaps be because it is hugely biased and not in any way balanced?

I do wonder when the penny will finally drop for senior officers and councillors that they just can’t ‘win ’em all’.

I’ve been a journalist long enough to remember the council’s two-strong press office of the early nineties.

Now the authority has legions of communications staff and – during my 16 years at The Sentinel – has gone through half a dozen PR gurus, each with their own flawed philosophy.

One kept trying to slap injunctions on this newspaper to prevent us from publishing stories the administration at the time didn’t like.

He didn’t last long.

Then, on his arrival, another PR expert famously summoned The Sentinel’s entire senior editorial team to the Civic Centre for a dressing down.

His opening gambit was to tell our previous Editor that his newspaper was way down the pecking order behind Sky TV, ITN and all the national newspapers (because, of course, they’re here a lot).

We all walked out of the meeting and needless to say that bloke didn’t last long either.

About 10 years ago the city council audited The Sentinel over several months and found that around 74 per cent of council-related stories were positive or neutral – thus exploding the myth that this newspaper only peddles bad news.

I dare say very little has changed as we’re not in the business of turning down positive news stories as and when we are presented with them.

Thus the suggestion that the council now aims for a two-to-one ratio of positive to negative stories is nonsense because this is already happening.

The fact is this newspaper will never shy away from challenging local organisations – including the council.

If the authority has a poor reputation I would suggest there are several reasons why this is the case.

Huge PR gaffs in recent years (deciding to let TV cameras in to film the documentary The Year The Town Hall Shrank was one) don’t help. Just thinking about the millions of people who watched that makes me cringe.

The camels no-show in Hanley last Christmas was yet another daft, embarrassing failure.

I could go on as there have been many.

Then there’s the trust issue. The Dimensions splash pool saga was hugely damaging to the council’s reputation – irrespective of who was involved.

As is the fact that the ludicrously-named City Sentral shopping complex still doesn’t exist despite all the hype.

You see, it’s no use blaming the developer in this situation. If you nail your colours to a mast then there’s no point trying to disassociate yourself with the ship when it flounders.

I also think that there is a perception that the leadership at the council simply doesn’t listen to ordinary people – adopting instead a ‘we know best’ approach to everything from cost-cutting to promotion of the city.

I would suggest a little humility and the occasional holding up of hands and admitting mistakes would go a long way in terms of establishing trust and credibility.

Finally, there’s no doubt in my mind that many people think the council often gets its priorities wrong.

For example, it spent £800,000 on bringing a cycle race (watched by three men and a dog on ITV4) to Stoke-on-Trent.

It is again about to spend a minimum £250,000 on a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show which none of us will ever see – the tangible benefits of which are, to date, zero.
For what it’s worth, here’s my PR advice (and it’s free):

*Stop worrying about things you can’t change and stop sulking over occasional negative headlines or readers’ letters in The Sentinel. People don’t tend to put pen to paper if they’re ‘satisfied’;

*Accept that you’re in the business of cutting services, thanks to central Government, and this inevitably makes the council unpopular. Yes, it’s unfair, but that’s the way it is;

*Listen more closely to taxpayers and the things they care about. Show a little empathy when you’re cutting services rather than hiding behind economics;

*Focus on all the positive things which are happening across the city (and there are many) and start valuing the terrific staff you employ;

*Stop seeing the local media as the enemy or something which can be neutered or controlled. It can’t be and won’t be.

You see, it’s not rocket science, this PR lark – despite what highly-paid consultants might try to tell you.

It’s just about knowing how and when to roll with the punches because, frankly, some things aren’t worth going to war over.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel


A good toy is a good toy… for boys or girls

The Evel Knievel rev-up motorcycle.

The Evel Knievel rev-up motorcycle.

Hopefully, by the time this column returns next week Santa Claus will have visited chez Tideswell and made two little girls very happy once more.

On Christmas Day the most difficult decision they will probably have to make will be which toy to play with.

I reckon Santa knows them well enough by now to realise that they aren’t really girly-girls – if such creatures ever existed.

The truth is my two are just as likely to play with Nerf guns, walkie-talkies or superhero figures as they are to dress up as Disney princesses or play school with their teddies.

Yours truly wouldn’t have it any other way and I’ve positively encouraged my daughters to play with whatever toys take their fancy – not simply the ones packaged in pink boxes and involving fairies and ponies.

The news (Tweeted to a Labour politician) that Marks & Spencer is to become the latest high street name to make its toys ‘gender neutral’ (I hate that phrase) is a good move in my book.

When we, as a family, browse the toy aisles in any store my girls are just as likely to get excited about toys which have been marketed specifically for boys.

If you delve in their dressing up box, alongside the fairy gowns, wigs and cat outfits you’ll find holsters and cowboy guns, swords and shields.

Ask my two about superheroes (usually considered a preserve of lads) and they can name virtually every Marvel comic book character and tell you their powers.

Talk to them about Dungeons and Dragons and they’ll tell you that clerics have the best chance of defeating zombies because they’re undead. Obviously.

Today, our eldest – Lois – gets to take a toy into school as it’s the last day of term.

She has chosen the Tauriel action figure – complete with bow, quiver of arrows and two swords (as has her friend Lizzie).

So while other girls in her class will be playing whatever they’re playing, Lois and Lizzie will be re-enacting scenes from the latest Hobbit movie. And why not?

This doesn’t mean my Lois and her younger sister Mina won’t want to read the Rainbow Fairies books in bed at night anymore, or have their nails painted by mum, or make bead necklaces for their friends or collect Beanie Boos.

It just means they like a bit of variety and I’m glad they don’t feel boxed in to playing with things which are only fluffy or pink.

When I was four I used to follow my cousin Joanne around like a sheep. I thought she was marvellous. (Obviously you still are, Jo). Whatever Joanne played with I wanted too. Consequently I nagged my mum for a doll and she gave in. Lord knows what my dad must have thought.

My doll’s name was Susie and I have vivid memories of carrying her around and talking to her.

At one stage she was definitely in a relationship with my second-hand Eagle-Eyed Action Man and they lived in a shoe box.

Bear in mind I was born in 1972 and even back then toys were marketed very specifically along male/female lines.

I grew up in the age of games and toys like Tank Command and Tin Can Alley, the Evel Knievel rev-up motorcycle and Scalextric – all aimed at boys.

But, in truth, my favourite toy up until high school was soldiers – something which saw no television marketing.

I had a tin of tiny plastic ones which included British and German Second World War soldiers, Napoleonic infantry and U.S. cavalry troopers.

It was a collection I’d built up over several years and that tin went everywhere with me.

Mum and dad will tell you it kept me quiet for hours and I dare say they didn’t know they’d got me most of the time.

Then I discovered Dungeons and Dragons and the experience of creating adventures while playing tabletop games with your friends.

That is, I suppose, the beauty of a good game or toy. It feeds your imagination and it doesn’t really matter what it is or who it was targeted at as long as it achieves that aim.

You see, despite what those toy marketing gurus might think, girls like to build Lego and boys like to dress up. Thankfully, Father Christmas had this sussed a long time before Marks & Sparks started mithering about it because of the politically-correct brigade and a few crusading politicians.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Cycle pioneer Brian is still making tracks at 73

It’s Christmas Day in the early Eighties and the boys of Stoke-on-Trent are heading downstairs hoping that Santa Claus has done the business.

I’m one of them and sure enough, next to my Santa sack filled with presents, stands a gleaming new, light blue Raleigh Grifter.

Back then it was a fairly straight choice for boys of a certain age: Grifter or Chopper.

One of Santa’s little helpers who made dreams come true for generations of Potteries children was making that choice was Brian Rourke.

The 73-year-old’s name is synonymous with cycling in the city and remembers only too well the days when Raleigh’s bikes were household names.

He said: “Those were the bikes that started me off, really. The Choppers, Grifters, Tomahawks and Budgies.

“We sold a hell of a lot of them back when it was manic in the run up to Christmas and then fairly quiet for the rest of the year.”

Brian borrowed £200 from a friendly bank manager to start his business in Waterloo Road, Burslem, in 1972.

By then he was a 33-year-old veteran cyclist, a winner of numerous races and someone with enough experience and expertise to turn his passion into a business.

Brian actually came to cycling quite late.

He explained: “I never owned a bike until after I left school. It would have been the mid-1950s and my dad had refused to buy me one because he thought there was too much traffic on the roads. I suppose it’s a good job he’s not around now!

“I think perhaps because I’d been denied cycling when I was younger I wanted it all the more when I finally got my own bike.”

Brian added: “My love of cycling was actually fuelled by the fact that I wasn’t able to follow my dream to become a professional footballer. I played for Stoke-on-Trent schoolboys twice but that came to an end because they wouldn’t let me play wearing my thick glasses. There was, of course, no such thing as contact lenses in those days. I was devastated and so turned my attenton to cycling.

“At first it was just about me and my mates riding to see other friends up Packmoor way. Then we would cycle a bit further to places likes Congleton.

“Over time we would go further and further to places like Macclesfield. Looking back it’s amazing how far we travelled on the bikes we had.”

In the early Sixties, after he had completed his National Service, Brian began to race competitively.

He went on to ride all over the UK and abroad – taking part in three Tour of Britain rides with his close friend Les West, another Potteries cycling legend.

Brian said: “Back then the tour was about 1,600 miles – not the 900-or-so it is today and we did it with our feet strapped on to the pedals. I remember the straps used to leave marks.

“Everything has changed so much over the years. Bike technology has advanced incredibly. These days and all the gear is made for speed and comfort and is so much lighter.”

Brian is thrilled that cycling is enjoying such a renaissance – thanks in no small part to British riders such as Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish enjoying success at the Tour De France and London 2012.

Stoke-on-Trent has been quick to seize the initiative – cultivating a reputation as a ‘cycling city’.

On September 13 the fifth stage of this year’s Tour of Britain comes to the Potteries – followed 10 days later by the Tour Ride where ordinary people and charity fund-raisers can follow in the tracks of the world’s top riders.

Brian said: “It’s great for the city. Cycling tends to go through phases – with different types of cycling enjoying popularity.

“At the moment it’s the road racers who are riding high – which is good for my business – but BMX and mountain bikes have had their moments too.”

Brian recently drew on his five decades of experience to coach celebrity riders including Stoke City manager Tony Pulis and comedian Nick Hancock who took part in a charity cycle ride from John O’Groats to Land’s End in aid of the Donna Louise Children’s Hospice.

He said: “None of them were really riders but they showed what anyone can do with proper advice, preparation and the right gear. At the end of the day, when you boil it down, it’s just one person and the bike they are riding.”

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

Stalwart Mick recalls opening of Potteries Shopping Centre

With a new bus station due and a multi-million pound shopping centre soon to follow, the landscape is certainly changing up ’Anley.

Not since the late Eighties have we seen development on this scale in the town.

Back then we were all awaiting the opening of a new venue that would, quite literally, transform what people were starting to call the city centre.

For what seemed like an eternity, white hoardings surrounded the vast building site.

Then, on June 1, 1988 The Potteries Shopping Centre opened its doors to customers for the first time.

Working that day was Michael Steele, who had begun his job as a security officer two weeks earlier.

Almost a quarter of a century later and Mick is still keeping customers safe and happy in his role as Operations Manager.

Mick, who lives in Burslem, remembers that time vividly as the new job represented a leap into the unknown for him.

He said: “I had previously worked at H&R Johnson’s for 11 years and was made redundant in the April of 1988.

“I saw the job advertised in The Sentinel and I remember the day of my interview quite clearly as I had to fight through workmen to get to the offices for the meeting.

“It was very daunting at the time. I had only ever worked in a factory environment and so this sort of job was all new to me.

“I remember the boss telling us to ‘get lost’ and he meant it. He wanted us all to know the place like the back of our hands because he knew that very soon there would be people asking us for directions.

“I remember thinking how big it was. Five and a half acres and 11,000 square metres of corridors.” etc.”

Of course, not everyone was impressed with the new-fangled shopping mall.

Mick, pictured, said: “I remember one elderly gentlemen coming through the doors for the first time and saying to a young woman, who I assumed to be his daughter, ‘I’ll give it five years before it’s a bowling alley’.”

Fortunately, that particular visitor was wrong and 24 years later The Potteries Shopping Centre remains a huge success story.

It currently boasts around 80 stores and has a popular 120-stall market underneath it. Together, they attract more than 13 million visitors each year.

Surprisingly, many of the shopping centre’s first tenants – such as Burton and Dorothy Perkins – are still in situ alongside newer arrivals like Costa Coffee and the Disney store.

Mick said: “There have been changes and comings and goings, obviously, but not as many as people might think.

“I think people are now quite proud of The Potteries Shopping Centre and the market. It helps that we are very well integrated in the local community and do a lot of charity work.”

Over the years Mick has rubbed shoulders with a variety of celebrities who have turned up on his doorstep – from the TV Gladiator Panther and comedians Cannon and Ball to stargazer Patrick Moore. CBE.

There was also the time when the Power Rangers visited the mall and Mick, wielding a loud hailer, was left to deal with expectant crowds of mums and children when the superheroes’ train was delayed.

“Oh, and I held the door open for Britt Ekland too,” said the 59-year-old.

There’s no doubt, however, that Christmas is Mick’s favourite time of the year.

He said: “The atmosphere transforms in November when our opening hours change and the Christmas lights are switched on.

“Now that Lewis’s has gone I suppose The Potteries Shopping Centre is the focal point for Christmas celebrations because we have Santa’s grotto and it’s great to be a part of the planning process. An awful lot of work goes in to making it a special time.”

Last year it was announced that the venue’s owners, Capital Shopping Centres, are to spend £14 million expanding the complex to create a 10-screen cinema and six ‘family-friendly’ restaurants overlooking a new pedestrian avenue.

And, fingers crossed, Mick will be here to oversee that next chapter.

He added: “I’ve probably got another five years left to work – if they keep me – and I can honestly say working here remains an absolute pleasure. I’ve been very lucky.”

Pick up a copy of the Weekly Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

Dungeons & Dragons: My constant companion for 30 years

The year was 1983. I was eleven years old and I’d made a new friend at high school.
His name was Richard, or Spud to his mates, and he lived in the manor house up Norton.
It was a huge, wonderful old building which was fascinating to someone like me who had only ever been inside a three-bed semi.
What’s more it was next to a graveyard where we’d lark about playing hide a seek and chucking crab apples.
I quickly became best mates with Spud and ‘the manor’, as we referred to it, became my second home for the next 15 years.
Spud had an older brother, Gary, who was cool on a number of levels: Firstly, he had a black leather jacket which I would have given my right arm for; Secondly, he had a quality stereo system and a stack of rock albums and CDs.
But it was Spud’s other older brother, Chris, who was to have the greatest impact on me.
One evening I saw him sitting in the dining room reading something and scribbling notes. On the table in front of him were a couple of dozen tiny, metal figures and some funny-shaped dice.
I asked him what he was doing and he told me about Dungeons & Dragons.
A week later Spud and I were playing the game – using rulebooks, miniatures and dice borrowed from Chris.
I remember exactly how I felt during that first session of The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. I can even tell you what happened to the characters involved.
It was as if all my Christmases had come at once. It didn’t matter anymore that fat asthmatic yours truly was last pick for football.
This was the game I’d been waiting for. This was a hobby I could properly invest in.
All I needed was a few pencils, some dice, the rulebooks, my imagination and my mates.
I am now just a week away from my 40th birthday and I’m still playing the game which was actually created in the U.S. in 1974 but which really took off around the world in the mid-Eighties.
It spawned a cartoon series, a stinker of a movie starring Jeremy Irons and is now firmly established in popular culture as the sole preserve of geeks.
Dungeons & Dragons – or DnD – as we players call it, is the daddy of all roleplaying games (RPGs).
Every single best-selling computer and video RPG – from Tomb Raider, Resident Evil and Final Fantasy series to mass multi-player online sensations such as World of Warcraft – owes a debt to DnD’s simple tabletop concept.
It is estimated that more than 25 million people have played the game and as many as five million are currently involved worldwide.
Not bad for an 80s craze which has received its fair share of negative publicity of the years – including its alleged promotion of devil worship and witchcraft and for the naked breasts in drawings of female monsters such as harpies and succubi in the original rulebooks.
So what is DnD? Well, do you remember when you were a child and you’d watch a cowboy film or a space adventure movie and then run outside wanting to act the part of the hero?
Basically, DnD allows its players to do just that – in their heads that is.
It is set in a fictional world of swords and sorcery where magic is real and monsters exist. (Think Lord of the Rings and you’re not far wrong).
Players take on the role of a character such as a warrior, a thief or a wizard and work as a team to overcome puzzles, challenges and villains in a series of never-ending adventures.
As I’ve told my dad more times than I care to remember, there is no ‘winner’ in DnD. Your character survives, grows more powerful and gains fortune and glory – or it doesn’t.
Players use those ‘funny-shaped dice’ – four, six, eight, 10, 12 and 20-sided – and their characters are represented on the ‘floorplan’ or ‘battlegrid’ by miniature figures.
The game is controlled by the Dungeon Master, or DM, who acts as the storyteller cum referee.
Over the years yours truly has played dozens of games with scores of people – usually at someone’s house.
But I’ve also taken part in huge four-day conventions all over the UK where hundreds of players meet up for tournaments.
I don’t care that people take the mickey out of me. The fact is, I owe DnD a lot.
In school it helped with my history, maths and English and fuelled my love of creative writing and fantasy fiction.
And my knowledge of medieval weaponry? Second to none.
Crucially, as well as providing me with enormous fun, it has helped me to stay in touch with a great circle of friends.
I’ve spent literally thousands of pounds on my DnD collection and am now teaching the game to a new generation of players – including my own children who absolutely love it.
I’ve even started writing games and supplements which are being bought by other players around the world.
What’s more, for my 40th birthday I’m fulfilling a long-standing ambition by jetting off to the States to take part in the largest roleplaying game convention in the world: Gen Con Indy.
Yes, I am that nerd…

Memories of the decade when music made a statement…

You know you’re getting old when you look around the pub table at the lads you grew up with and they’re all either bald, receding or have grey hair.
Back in the late Eighties, we always started our Christmas pub crawls at the Old Brown Jug in Newcastle and this year 10 of us made the annual reunion.
The only thing that hasn’t changed since those halcyon days is our pub of choice – complete with its wooden floors and proper ales.
This year yours truly was driving and so remembers everything and didn’t embarrass himself.
Now, maybe it’s my rose-tinted spectacles again but I remember Newcastle being busier back when I was young, free and single.
I remember the music being so much better. I also remember girls wearing skirts that didn’t resemble arm bands.
It seems I’m not the only one, either.
DJ Mark Porter has been entertaining crowds for more than a quarter of a century and, like me, he laments the good old days.
The 42-year-old, from Kidsgrove, learned his craft at the ‘Kids’ Night’ at The Place nightclub in Hanley – putting on records for the resident DJ when he nipped to the loo.
From such inauspicious beginnings Mark went on to DJ at The Place, as well as Maxim’s in Newcastle and at The Highlight (formerly Jollees) in Longton.
When asked the straight question: Which decade do you prefer for music, he is unequivocal.
“The Eighties, definitely,” said Mark. “So many of the tracks from back then are still popular. So many of the bands and artists from back then are either still going or have reformed.
“Yes, there was some proper cheese like Joe Dolce’s Shaddap You Face and Black Lace’s Agadoo and some of the fashions were – in retrospect – horrendous.
“For example, I remember seeing people wearing sweatbands round their heads and leg warmers.
“But the Eighties was a decade of great guitar bands and proper pop groups like Duran Duran, the Human League, Spandau Ballet and Heaven 17.
“Remember the likes of Joy Division/New Order. Look at what Queen and U2 achieved. Just think of the line up at the Live Aid concert.
“I like to think as the Eighties as the modern Sixties – a decade where musicians were making a real statement – along with the people who listened to them.
“Nowadays I look around and, to be honest, I despair at the manufactured acts which the music industry moguls inflict on us. These days, the sad truth is anybody can be a pop star.”
Mark, who currently DJs at the Bel Air nightclub at The Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, genuinely misses the Eighties and he’s not afraid to admit it.
He said: “I think it’s a case of you don’t appreciate what you’ve got until it’s gone.
“At the time I don’t think we realised just how good the music scene was and what a great time it was to be growing up.
“It’s certainly different these days. Back then going out on a Friday or Saturday night was a big deal. People got dressed up for it – none of this jeans and trainers business.
“Back then nightclubs were destination venues. People went out on the town and then rocked up at the nightclub at around 11am and stayed their until 2am. That was what everyone did.
“Nowadays I occasionally feel a similar buzz to all those nights back in the day but it’s pretty rare and depends very much on the crowd that’s in.”
After 25 years as a DJ, Mark also has an interesting theory on Potteries pop superstar Robbie Williams.
He said: “I can’t help but think that Robbie was heavily influenced by growing up in the Eighties and going to nightclubs like The Place.
“Like the rest of us he would have listened to the new romantics, the synth pop and the kind of sounds which emerged towards the end of the decade and I see lots of those influences coming through in the music that he has written and performed.”

Christmas feel-good factor can’t come soon enough

There’s a farm near our house selling Nordman Firs, Norwegian Spruces and Scotch Pines.

This is where yours truly will be driving home from at lunchtime on Saturday with the top of a six-foot tree sticking out of one of the rear passenger windows of his tiny motor.

It may only be December 3 but that’s when the festive season will officially commence at chez Tideswell.

There are those who will tell you you shouldn’t put your tree or decorations up until Christmas Eve.

They are the kind of people who moan about the families in their street who light up the outside of their homes with 40,000 bulbs and have an inflatable Santa hanging on a rope ladder from their roof.

All I can say is they don’t half cheer me up when I’m walking the dog on a cold December night.

Unfortunately, I’ve got a Scrooge living a few doors away from me.

When he moved in a couple of years ago, just to be neighbourly, we knocked on and handed him a Christmas card – only to be told: ‘Thanks, but we don’t send cards or gifts.’

‘I bet it’s fun in your house on Christmas Day morning’, I thought to myself as he closed the door and returned to drying out used tea bags on a clothes horse.

Suffice to say he won’t be invited round to our house on Saturday.

Against the backdrop of carols from King’s College, Cambridge, we’ll be decorating the tree and the living room, eating mince pies and sipping sherry.

We’ll even enjoy writing masses of Christmas cards – rather than viewing it as a huge chore or something you can wangle your way out of by sending a blanket email to all your friends and colleagues and donating a fiver to Save The Whales.

The way I see it, Christmas cards present the one genuine opportunity each year to reach out to people you rarely see or speak to – such as relatives and friends who live far away – and show you care by putting pen to paper.

Conversely, they give you the chance to show your work mates – those people you spend more time with than your own family – that they are more than just colleagues. To thank them for being friends.

In our house we choose our cards carefully. Traditional festive themes, Father Christmas, snow men, charity cards and even Nativity scenes (if we can find any) all make the cut.

But there’s absolutely no joke cards or children’s TV characters to take away from the sentiment expressed inside the cards.

By the same token, the advent calendar for Lois and Mina which is going up on Thursday won’t be advertising Hello Kitty, Glee or Peppa Pig. It’ll be a plain red wooden truck filled with chocolates by mum and dad.

It will sit next to a traditional Nativity scene complete with stable and ceramic figurines to serve as a constant reminder of the true meaning of season of goodwill.

We’ll even make a rare trip to church for the Christingle service so my girls can sing Little Donkey and Away In A Manger while eating Jelly Tots and trying not to burn themselves with candle wax.

Given that all the anticipation and the magic evaporates by around teatime on Christmas Day I take the view we should make the festive season last as long as possible.

It was interesting that – even with a much-reduced budget – the Hanley Christmas lights switch-on event attracted thousands more people to the city centre than the previous year.

Proof – if any were needed – that, given the grim state of the economy, the job losses, the austerity measures and the looming strikes – we need the Christmas feel-good factor more than ever and it can’t come soon enough.

PS: I wasn’t joking about wanting a Santa sack again, mum.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday