Tell me who the real animals are…

My dog Starbuck.

My dog Starbuck.

Over the weekend, I found myself wondering how a dog I’d never met was faring after reading yet another harrowing account of animal cruelty.

Max the Staffordshire Bull Terrier was kicked several times and thrown to the floor by his owner – because it kept wandering into a Co-op store near his home.

On Friday 26-year-old Samuel Byatt, of Fenton, was given an eight-week prison sentence – suspended for 12 months, with 12 months of supervision by magistrates at North Staffordshire Justice Centre.

It isn’t just me that thinks this is unduly lenient and that cowardly bullies like Byatt should be handed much stiffer penalties for abusing animals.

Alsager Animals in Need volunteer Hilary Baxter, who was named Charity Champion/Volunteer of the Year at The Sentinel and Aspire’s Our Heroes Awards recently, agrees.

Hilary, who has rescued more than 4,000 cats and dogs over almost a quarter of a century, said: “I think anyone who kicks a dog will not hesitate to kick a fellow human being.” I couldn’t agree more. Simply put, you surely have to be wired wrong to inflict that kind of pain on an animal which looks up to you for food, shelter and protection.

The sad fact is that not a week goes by when we don’t read stories in this newspaper about pet dogs, cats and other animals – as well as fish and birds at local parks or nature reserves – suffering unspeakable cruelty at the hands of supposedly more intelligent beings.

The most recent RSPCA figures showed that 48 people in our patch were prosecuted for animal cruelty over a 12-month period.

These included Neil Stockton, of Cobridge, who kicked his dog in the air in full view of two police officers.

Then there was Maxine Davenport, of Bentilee, who failed to take her pet whippet zero to the vet despite its weight plummeting.

Or how about Simon Land, of Congleton, who hit his pet cat Mia on the head with a metal bar? Or perhaps you remember back in July the Staffordshire Bull Terrier pup found running around at Greenway Bank with horrific facial wounds.

RSPCA officials blamed his injuries, including the loss of an eye, on illegal dog fighting or ratting and said he had probably been abandoned because of his failing health.

Then in March there was the story of grandmother Margaret Brereton, of Fenton, who was horrified to find her pet rabbit Thumper had been killed and his eyes gouged out. And so it goes on…

The truth is these cases represent the tip of the iceberg and casual cruelty against animals – pets or otherwise – goes on, day-in, day-out.

No matter what your personal circumstances are, no matter how poor you are, neglect of animals who are clearly ill or in need is simply indefensible.

But when someone actually takes it upon themselves to hurt, maim, or kill a defenceless creature out of spite, for fun, or just because they can then – in my book – they cross a line.

The main image on this page is my dog Starbuck – a two-year-old family pet who wants nothing more from life than to be walked twice a day, play fetch with his toys, enjoy the occasional rawhide bone, be fed and watered and receive plenty of fuss when ‘his pack’ are around.

In return he gives unconditional love and loyalty that frankly shames many humans.

He’s brilliant with my daughters – teaching them the importance of being responsible and caring towards others – and isn’t half a bad guard dog either.

Contrast his behaviour then with that of Samuel Byatt and tell me which one is the animal.

He was convicted in his absence and given what many will view as little more than a slap on the wrist.

Lord knows what has become of Max.

Now I don’t believe for a second that tougher sentences and larger fines would solve the problem of animal cruelty but I do think it would be a step in the right direction and perhaps make some morons think twice about their actions.

I suspect spending a while in clink explaining to other inmates that they’re doing time for kicking a dog/killing a rabbit or throwing a kitten into a stream may well be a sobering experience.

Perhaps harsher penalties could also be tied in with unpaid work on behalf of the many terrific animal charities which often have to pick up the pieces in cases such as these.

Forcing those who have shown so little regard for other species to work to tackle the effects of cruelty and neglect is one way of shaming them into never doing it again.

Of course, the real answer – as with so many of society’s ills – lies with education.

It may seem barmy to most of us but clearly there are some people who do need to be told what’s right and wrong when it comes to how you treat animals and this has to be taught from a young age.

They say that a society should be measured on how well it looks after its elderly.

I would say the same about how well our society treats animals.

These defenceless creatures have no voice and so it is up to us to speak up for them and say: ‘Enough is enough’.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Newsagent who made his own sporting headlines

Come on, admit it: You all thought hockey was a game for girls. Most people still do.

But on October 1, 1988, this sport grabbed us all by the, er… short and Kerlys.

Sean Kerly, to be precise. Team GB’s talismanic top scorer – sort of like Gary Lineker with a hockey stick – and his teammates became household names.

We all huddled round the telly watching the action unfold in the 12,000-seater Songnam Stadium.

I was 16, had just left school, and remember it as though it was yesterday.

As is the way with many Olympic sports, we were all momentarily swept along on a tide of hope and euphoria.

Yes, our footballers may have consistently under-achieved since 1966, but apparently the men’s hockey team were good!

Unfortunately, standing between our boys and gold medal glory on that fateful day were the old enemy.

Yes, with typical Teutonic efficiency, the Germans had swept all before them on the way to the final in Seoul.

Their progress included a 2-1 win over Team GB. As omens went, it wasn’t great…

What hope did we have? Surely the inevitable penalty shoot-out heartache beckoned.

This time, however, the Germans had reckoned without a certain newsagent from Stoke-on-Trent.

Imran Sherwani, who ran a business in Cobridge, was the name on the lips of all Sentinel readers.

Little did we know, of course, that the man who had given up a career in the police because he couldn’t get enough time off to train for international matches, would become the hero of the hour.

As it turned out, the wing wizard had a dream game – scoring the first and last of Team GB’s three goals and prompting a veteran BBC commentator into a now infamous (and very un-BBC-like) outburst.

As Imran swept home Team GB’s third goal, the normally consummate pro Barry Davies asked the nation: “Where, oh where were the Germans? And, frankly, who cares?” Oh how we smiled.

Team GB won the match 3 – 1 – prompting scenes of delirium.

Imran threw his stick into the air… and never saw it again.

Perhaps it hit an official because he and Sean Kerly (now an MBE) were whisked off for a random drugs test and missed much of the after-match celebrations.

On their return to the UK, Imran and his teammates were treated to the kind of media scrum usually reserved for football stars – with crowds of cheering well-wishers waiting to greet them as they landed at Heathrow Airport.

Capped 45 times for Britain and 49 times for England, Imran played club hockey for Stourport and Stone before playing for and helping to coach at Leek Hockey Club. Aged 49, he now works as director of hockey at Denstone College in Uttoxeter.

Mercifully, he has long-since dispensed with the shockingly-bad moustache which he sported in Seoul and which I can only assume put the Germans off marking him properly.

This year, quite rightly, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) is making a fuss of all Team GB medal-winners and so Imran will be in demand.

But even when the London Olympics has come and gone I am pleased to say that Imran will never be taken for granted here in his home city.

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Imran and his wife Louise through the organising of the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality Of The Year Awards. For as long as I’ve been involved in the awards, Imran has been a VIP guest.

After all, how many Olympic gold medal winners do we have here in the Potteries?

He’s also given up his time freely to be a judge – passing on his wisdom and expertise for the benefit of the city’s emerging sporting talents and coaching stalwarts.

May 30 this year will be a very proud day for Imran when he becomes one of the few people to carry the Olympic torch in his home city on its route to the London games.

It is an honour which I think we all agree is thoroughly deserved.

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

A job left unfinished

Keen observers of regeneration projects in and around the Potteries won’t be surprised to hear the Audit Commission’s final findings on the performance of RENEW North Staffordshire. To sum up: it’s a job half-done. Anyone who drives around Stoke-on-Trent will find areas of cleared land – the legacy of visions unfulfilled. The fact is, RENEW North Staffordshire should have been a 15-year programme to revitalise our communities. In the end we got funding enough for just half that time and it means that areas like Cobridge have been left to stagnate. The onus is now on the local authority and our MPs to argue that our city is a special case and push the desperate need for further funding to finish the job so that some of our most deprived estates aren’t just left to rot. The people who live in these areas deserve better than blueprints and broken promises.

My wish-list to give our city a happy and prosperous 2011

Being so busy over the next few days, it’s unlikely that Father Christmas will deliver the presents I want for Stoke-on-Trent.
So here’s my wish-list to give our city a happy and prosperous 2011…
I hope that the families living on deprived neighbourhoods are not left to their fate with the winding down of Renew North Staffordshire at the end of March.
Stoke-on-Trent City Council has worked hand in glove with the regeneration agency that was given hundreds of millions of pounds of public money to transform the Potteries.
Estates such as Cobridge must not simply be abandoned to inexorable decline. It is the responsibility of local politicians to champion their areas.
I hope that work will finally (finally!) commence on building a new bus station for Hanley.
This project, which has been on the drawing board since before yours truly was sitting his GCSEs, is vital to the ultimate renaissance of the city centre. Please can everyone make a note in their diaries on March 28 so that if we don’t see men with hard hats wandering around we can kick up an almighty fuss.
I hope the much-vaunted Local Enterprise Partnership or LEP becomes more than just a talking shop for men in suits – we’ve had too many of these in recent years.
The effectiveness of this body should be assessed on a regular basis by the amount of funding it is able to bring to North Staffordshire.
I hope that a decision can be taken as soon as possible to close the great white elephant that is Ceramica and find a new use for this iconic building. Burslem’s beautiful Grade II-listed Town Hall deserves better than a continuing depreciation in value and a trickle of visitors at this ill thought-ought carbuncle which loses money year after year.
I hope that we don’t all forget about the Staffordshire Hoard. We’ve got a unique tourist attraction – up at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. It’s all gone rather quiet, however. Let’s start marketing ourselves as the home of the hoard, build a great big statue of a Saxon warrior overlooking the M6 to brand our city as such, and start raising the money to have these breathtaking exhibits properly displayed.
I hope the wonderful Donna Louise Children’s Hospice – which is a credit to Stoke-on-Trent – is finally on a sound enough financial footing to be able to open its doors seven days a week.
I hope the project to build stronger links with Lidice in the Czech Republic is a roaring success. If ever a local campaign deserved to succeed – this is it – as it shows the people of the Potteries in their best, most selfless light.
The role our city played in breathing new life into a village which Hitler tried to wipe off the map must never be forgotten.
I’d like my beloved Port Vale to win automatic promotion, retain the services of Micky Adams and earn the kind of investment which secures the long-term future of the club. This would enable the current board of directors to step down with heads held high – rather than being hounded down Hamil Road by disaffected fans.
I wish Stoke City would make it into Europe – even if it’s in that Mickey Mouse competition that Liverpool are in this season.
As well as giving the Potteries more exposure, perhaps then the Match Of The Day crew would at last give Tony Pulis’s team their due and find alternative adjectives to ‘hard-working’, ‘physical’ and ‘well-organised’.
I’d like Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor to finally get the recognition he deserves and win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. Failing that, can we not give the bloke the Freedom of the City?
To round off the year I’d like my mate Jonny Wilkes to bring Paddy McGuinness and their adult pantomime to The Regent theatre. You never know, it may even shut up the critics who for years have slated Jonny for putting bums on seats at our premier theatre.
“Oh no it won’t…”

Families have been betrayed by this half-finished project

Rarely has a Sentinel front page stirred my emotions as much as yesterday’s which carried the story of Stoke-on-Trent’s 15-year, £2.3 billion housing renewal programme being hit by Government funding cuts.
It’s not that I was surprised. After all, it doesn’t take a political analyst to work out that the Tory/Lib-Dem Coalition was unlikely to support Labour’s much-vaunted Pathfinder programme.
But as I read the news that the city council had been forced to call a halt to demolition work I couldn’t help but feel angry for the thousands of people caught up in what could well be the death throes of RENEW North Staffordshire.
Some of our most deprived communities have been betrayed and it seems the families who live in the blighted streets are the victims of a half-finished project.
The big questions are: Who is to blame and what can we do to help the families being forced to live in squalor?
I well remember Regeneration Agency RENEW being launched with much fanfare in 2004.
Back then it seemed that the Potteries, which had for so long been the poor relation of other cities like Liverpool, had at last struck lucky.
As the millions of pounds of regeneration funding began to flow and new neighbourhoods started to take shape there was a genuine sense that real, lasting, significant change was upon us.
Of course, from day one there were the cynics and the critics who slated RENEW for everything from poor public consultation to what was perceived as a ‘scatter-gun’ approach to regeneration.
There was bound to be a backlash because people were literally fighting for their homes and some simply couldn’t understand why their houses had to be demolished.
Similarly there were others, just a few streets away, who were heartbroken to discover that their properties fell just outside of clearance areas and would, therefore, remain untouched.
Irrespective of the vocal minority, no-one could deny the great strides made in areas such as the former mining community of Coalville or at the new City Waterside development.
Of course, the problem was that in order to effect change on such a grand scale RENEW was always going to require a great deal of money and time to fulfil its potential.
And no-one knew just how much of either resource was actually going to be forthcoming.
Keeping the 15-year programme ticking over was always going to depend on two things: a) Labour being re-elected to government for fourth and fifth terms; and b) Labour remaining committed to spending hundreds of millions of pounds on a city with three safe Labour seats.
It was a bit like trying to bake a cake and starting off with some of the ingredients but relying on a dodgy cooker and hoping that the leccy wouldn’t be cut off before you’d finished baking.
To be fair, we shouldn’t underestimate the effect that the global economic crisis has had on our Pathfinder project.
Perhaps 10 or 15 years ago developers would have been queuing up to work on sites that had been cleared by RENEW but in the past two or three years they have been thin on the ground to say the least.
The net result is that across North Staffordshire today you will find semi-derelict streets and large swathes of land where homes once stood.
In communities such as Middleport and Cobridge, families are quite literally living in limbo – not knowing whether or not they will be moving or staying put.
Meanwhile, levels of crime and vandalism in these areas continue to increase.
Others face being forced to live among boarded-up properties while the bean-counters at Whitehall complete their comprehensive spending review and decide what, if any, crumbs from the table will fall at our feet.
It would be easy to point the finger of blame at the newly-elected Coalition Government which, after all, may soon stop the funding for our housing renewal programme.
That would be wrong.
To me, what is most staggering is that no-one from RENEW, the city council or the previous Government had the wherewithal to pre-empt this disgraceful state of affairs.
Many fine examples of regeneration work have been achieved by RENEW and I’ve met some passionate and dedicated employees who are committed to improving the lives of local people.
However, RENEW and the city council seem to have merrily ploughed on with consultation work and clearance of properties without the proper funding or partnerships for rebuilding being in place.
It is now 10 years since the Nevin Report exposed the full scale of Stoke-on-Trent’s housing crisis — revealing a city saddled with the legacy of almost 20,000 crumbling terrace properties.
This was, and still remains, the greatest social challenge facing North Staffordshire and it seems that a decade on, far from coming up with a solution, we may only have succeeded in perpetuating the problem.

Only investment will wake Mother Town from slumber

Burslem Town Hall.

Burslem Town Hall.

There’s no doubt I have a real soft spot for Burslem. Sure, it’s home to my beloved Port Vale – but that’s only one reason why the Mother Town of the Potteries holds a special place in my affections.

Firstly, Burslem is where this scribe spent the formative years of his journalistic career – working out of a grand old building in Westport Road during the early Nineties.

I remember I started on the princely sum of £80 a week and carried a pager around with me before graduating to using a mobile phone the size of a house brick.

I had money in my pocket and a yellow Metro to get me from A to B. Happy days.

A few years earlier, this was the town where, as a 16-year-old, I enjoyed my first pub crawl.

This culminated in yours truly throwing up in the gutter outside The American on Waterloo Road after three and a half pints – to my eternal shame.

I was once told that Burslem had more pubs per square mile than any other town in England. I never believed the claim but I liked the idea all the same.

Going back even further Burslem reminds me of Saturday mornings as a youngster.

Dad was invariably working and my mum, my brother and I would walk from our home in Sneyd Green to visit uncle Dave and auntie Jean in Cobridge.

Then it was on to Burslem for the weekly shop and the Aladdin’s cave that was the indoor market.

That was, of course, when the Mother Town had an indoor market. And a Woolies. And some shops.

It was a time before the great white elephant that is Ceramica was tacked on to the Town Hall.

A time when you could still buy a pair of shoes in Burslem – when retail was the beating heart of the town.

Anyone old enough to remember Burslem as the thriving place it was 30 years ago will have experienced the same sense of sadness I feel every time I drive along Newcastle Street.

For more than a decade it has had the feel of a ghost town with boarded-up shops and precious little activity.

There is no doubt Burslem has always boasted the finest architecture of any of the Six Towns, but the dereliction of bog-standard buildings has, in recent years, acted like a thief of grandeur.

However, it seems the powers-that-be may finally have recognised that, with a little tlc, old Boslem may scrub up alright.

Plans were unveiled this week to build a £4.5 million link road to divert traffic away from the town centre – making it more ‘shopper-friendly’. It is hoped work will commence in 2011.

Sounds good. But, to throw in a little healthy cynicism, I would suggest that to have any shoppers you have to have a few, er… shops.

And therein lies the problem.

It is true to say that some money has been spent in the ST6 postcode area since 2001 under the auspices of the well-intentioned Burslem Regeneration Company.

Obvious examples are the Swan Square area and the various business and enterprise units dotted around the town.

To the casual observer, however, it may seem that precious little has changed in Burslem in recent years.

The experts will, of course, tell you that any city worth its salt needs a well-defined centre for tourists and shoppers – a focus for the local economy. (Yes, even a one-Starbucks city like Stoke-on-Trent).

This presumably explains why the city council has chucked millions of pounds at Hanley in recent years – and precious little at Burslem, Fenton, Longton, Stoke and Tunstall.

And while I’m all for a vibrant city centre with a Cultural Quarter and big-name stores, what price the failure to stimulate trade and attract investment to our other towns?

At present Burslem sleeps. And it will take a lot more than a relief road to shake it from its slumber.

The town is, quite simply, a sad monument to short-term thinking and a lack of investment.

In describing Burslem, Arnold Bennett wrote: “… beauty was achieved, and none saw it.”

I would suggest that unless we see a coherent vision and some serious investment in the Mother Town’s retail heart there is a very real danger the Potteries author’s words will continue to ring true.

Pay our brave soldiers the respect they deserve

It is a sad fact that the veterans of World War II won’t be with us for much longer to mark cataclysmic events such as the D-Day Landings.

This weekend’s incredibly poignant commemorations of the invasion which spelt the beginning of the end for the Nazi war machine involved old soldiers who are now in their mid to late eighties.

It is 65 years since they joined 160,000 allied troops in the largest ever, single day amphibious assault and, one by one, the last of that great generation are making their final salutes.

When you read their memories of that momentous time in history it is incredibly humbling.

None of them consider themselves heroes. They just “had a job to do”, as one Fenton veteran put it last week.

This statement seems patently ridiculous to most of us and is one which, perhaps, only servicemen and women can truly understand.

Suffice to say that it is because of such individuals that people like myself are able to sit around pontificating the rights and wrongs of major world events such as the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We may not always believe that the actions of our Armed Forces are justified.

However, the truth is that most of us have family or friends who have, at some point, risked their lives for Queen (or King) and country.

Take my own family, for instance. The bloke on the end of the bottom row on the picture above is my great grandfather, William Tansey. Or should I say, private William Tansey, of B Company, 1st Battalion, the North Staffs Regiment.

He died forty odd years before I was born.

However, his First World War medals – the 1914-18 ‘Mons Star’, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal – came into my possession when my nan died a few years ago.

They, and the picture of him with his comrades, taken before they shipped out to France, are among my most treasured possessions.

I never knew William Tansey but I have very fond recollections of another ex-serviceman in my family.

My mum’s brother, David Colclough, who lived in Cobridge all his life, was – to borrow a quaint phrase – one of the nicest men ever to put on a pair of shoes.

To me, he was just uncle Dave – the man who made me bacon and potato pie, let me watch The Lone Ranger on Saturday mornings while my mum was out shopping (back when Burslem had shops and an indoor market) and taught me to recite all the ranks in the British Army off by heart.

He never spoke of his war service but I know his glass eye was the result of a shrapnel wound and that he was held captive in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

Uncle Dave died in 1994 but my grandfather’s brother – my great uncle Dennis Tideswell – is still going strong.

Dennis, who lives in Bucknall, is a veteran of the Malayan Emergency, when he fought in the jungle with the Worcestershire Regiment, and he often speaks with great fondness of his old pals in the forces.

He has an infectious enthusiasm which he channels into organising reunions for ‘the lads’, as he calls them, and is involved in organising the annual veterans’ celebrations in the city.

Dennis is a true gentleman and, like my great-grandfather and my uncle Dave, I am extremely proud of him.

As you read this, many of our servicemen and women continue to risk their lives in the heat of the Middle East.

It is in recognition of these brave men and women, as well as all those before them who have fought for us in various wars and conflicts around the globe, that the Armed Forces Day parades will take place across the country later this month.

So, on June 27, let us pay them the respect they deserve and show them just how grateful we are.

Moreover, when you next visit Morrison’s supermarket at Festival Park, rather than being solely focused on your shopping list, make a point of clocking the roundabout and say a little prayer of thanks for our own Victoria Cross winner, Lance-Sergeant Jack Baskeyfield, whose bravery at Arnhem is immortalised with that impressive statue.

And, when you next see a soldier, smile at him or her or, better still, buy them a drink.

They are special people for special circumstances and, irrespective of the passing of time, this is something we must never forget.