New Year’s Honours list makes me think of North Staffordshire’s unsung heroes

Stoke-on-Trent film-maker Chris Stone.

Stoke-on-Trent film-maker Chris Stone.

It’s always nice to read about ordinary local people among those recognised in the New Year’s Honours list alongside the requisite celebrities, sporting stars and captains of industry.

By ordinary I simply mean they don’t get paid a fortune, they’re not in the public eye and they don’t do what they do for power or glory.

This time I was delighted to see that one of The Sentinel’s Our Heroes Awards winners – Maureen Upton, of Meir Heath – earned an OBE for services to the voluntary sector after racking up more than 45 years working for the St John Ambulance.

I was also pleased to see Penkhull historian Richard Talbot had made the cut.

Richard’s MBE is a reward not only for the pivotal role he played in kick-starting Hanley’s Cultural Quarter but also an acknowledgement of his fund-raising for worthy local causes and his work in the community over many years.

The publication of the honours lists always makes me think of other worthy individuals who get precious little recognition.

That being the case, I humbly offer up the names of half a dozen locals who I believe help to enrich our communities and who will continue to do so throughout 2014.

First up I’d like to doff my cap to a couple of blokes who may never have met for all I know but who have a shared passion for film-making.

The first is the superbly-talented Chris Stone who, over the past few years, has produced some sparkling movies – the scenes for many of which were shot in his native North Staffordshire.

If you’ve never seen it, search out his vampire web series Blood And Bone China which has been viewed by more than 300,000 people online.

Or if you pop in to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery to view the new Staffordshire Hoard exhibition, he’s the man behind the epic movie The Last Dragonhunter which is playing in the background and includes eye-popping animation by another of my local heroes – artist Rob Pointon, of Burslem.

His kindred spirit is a film-maker who I think deserves huge recognition for his artistic endeavour.

John Williams, of Wolstanton, is currently putting the finishing touches to The Mothertown – a zombie apocalypse movie based in Burslem and involving literally hundreds of extras which is helping to raise funds for three-year-old leukaemia sufferer Frankie Allen.

Anyone who has seen John’s posts on social media and viewed his special effects handiwork can’t fail to be impressed.

But it’s his passion for the medium which inspires people and, like Chris, he’s a terrific, creative ambassador for the Potteries.

Speaking of which, I’d like to mention two other people who work tirelessly to promote their community and our city.

Alan and Cheryl Gerrard, of Fenton, were responsible for rekindling this area’s remarkable links with the Czech town of Lidice – destroyed by the Nazis during the Second World War and rebuilt with the help of the people of North Staffordshire.

I first met them a few years ago when they asked for The Sentinel’s help in planning a debate to mark the 25th anniversary of the Miners’ Strike. Alan and Cheryl are both passionate advocates for the people of the Potteries which often means they aren’t popular with the powers-that-be.

However, their honest and forthright approach to campaigns such as the battle to save Fenton Town Hall and its Great War memorial have won them far more friends than enemies and I count myself among the former.

Another friend of mine whose work enhances our reputation is local sculptor Andy Edwards whose work you can see on display at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.
Andy produced the nine foot statue of a Saxon warrior which takes pride of place in the foyer.

It was commissioned to celebrate the acquisition of the priceless Staffordshire Hoard and Andy is currently working on a 15 foot version, to be unveiled soon, which will stand guard outside the county council HQ in Stafford.

Andy’s other works have included statues which have been presented to Barack Obama, Muhammad Ali and Desmond Tutu.

However, a more proud and passionate Stokie you could not meet and we should be incredibly proud to call him one of our own.

Please indulge me as I mention two other people who actually work alongside me here at The Sentinel.

The first is our award-winning health reporter Dave Blackhurst who has been with this newspaper for 35 years and who is planning to retire in March.

He may not have been honoured by Her Majesty but Dave’s work has won the admiration of readers, colleagues and health professionals over three decades during which he has been an unflinching champion of his patch and its people.

Finally, a quick mention for the legend that is Dianne Gibbons – our court reporter who has been with The Sentinel for 51 years and who laid on a spread, as we call it in these parts, for her colleagues unlucky enough to be working on New Year’s Day.

If only we could bottle Dianne’s enthusiasm and pride in her job and this newspaper.

I consider it a privilege to work with both Dave and Dianne.

They may not have a gong (yet) but, like the others on my little list, they remain an inspiration to me and, I’m sure, many others.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

It’s time to be positive about our city centre

I’ve often said that we Stokies are far too slow to trumpet our achievements.
There is perhaps something in the water in the ST postcode area which makes us hide our light under the proverbial bushel.
Round here, we are simply not very good at shouting about what we do.
We tend not to get very excited about anything new and, thanks to the many follies and failures inflicted on us in recent years, we view change with a healthy dose of scepticism.
Other cities have mastered the art of maximising their potential.
We have mastered the art of talking ourselves down –preferring instead to whinge on about what what’s missing rather than focusing on what we’ve actually got.
Ever the optimist, I’ve a feeling that all this is about to change.
Why? One word: Hanley.
Even a confirmed Boslemite like myself can’t help but feel excited about the regeneration work taking place in and around the Hanley at present.
A few days ago I was fortunate enough to be taken on a tour around the new Mitchell Memorial Youth Arts Centre by my friend and Sentinel colleague Fred Hughes who is chairman of the trust which runs the ‘Mitch’ as we all know it.
The new £4.3 million venue officially opens its doors on Monday, September 5, to coincide with the start of Battle of Britain week and I can tell you that performers and punters alike are in for a real treat.
It is a piece of architecture to be proud of which walks that fine line of being unashamedly modern and functional while giving a respectful nod to the past.
With its Spitfire wing roof curving out like some protective arm round the shoulder of Piccadilly, the new Mitch is a state of the art venue worthy of the name of the man whose iconic aircraft design helped to turn the tide of the Second World War.
It boasts a revamped theatre/cinema, 1,000 square foot dance studio, updated dressing rooms and toilets, a new roof terrace and a glass-fronted café.
But it is the attention detail which proper Potters will love – such as the original blueprints of Reginald Mitchell’s legendary fighter plane writ large on decorative panels in the auditorium.
I dare say you won’t find a better community and performing arts centre anywhere in the UK and it is a wonderful addition to the Cultural Quarter.
But what excites me is that the new Mitch is just one piece in the jigsaw puzzle which is at last coming together to turn Hanley into something more than just the place where most of us do our shopping.
Just up the road, the renaissance of Bethesda Chapel continues at a sedate pace which rather suits the grand old lady.
But, make no mistake about it, when the refurbishment is completed in 2013, Bethesda will become the jewel in the Cultural Quarter’s crown.
As with the Mitch, the rebirth of the Methodist chapel draws heavily on the city’s heritage.
Together the magnificent Regent Theatre, these buildings will give us three very different venues for the performing arts, exhibitions and civic functions.
At the same time, senior staff at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery are drawing up proposals to bid for funding around the acquisition of the Staffordshire Hoard.
The potential afforded by the transformation of our showpiece museum by this breathtaking archaeological discovery is limitless.
Equally importantly, at long last we are going to get a new bus station. Wonders never cease.
Who knows, maybe soon someone at the Civic Centre will come up with a viable plan to make use of Hanley Town Hall – another architectural gem just waiting to be polished.
What’s more, the city council is spending several million pounds on improving the public realm in Hanley – that’s planner and architect-speak for the space in between private buildings – including pavements, streets, squares and parks.
In other words, they are going to make the city centre a much more attractive place for people to visit and work in which will hopefully help to drive outside investment.
I can’t remember a more exciting time for the heart of our city since the opening of the Potteries Shopping Centre.
Sure, there will be the usual nay-sayers but, just for once, I think we can afford to be positive and be proud of not only what we’ve got, but what is to come.

Charging for admission to museum is a nonsense

Museums and libraries are the perennial soft targets for cash-strapped councils.
As political priorities go, it is certainly far easier to justify cutbacks to such non-essential services than it is to persuade people of the wisdom, for example, of closing children’s centres or reducing the frequency of refuse collections.
Thus it comes as no great surprise that the powers-that-be at Stoke-on-Trent City Council are considering charging for admission to their flagship venue.
Home to one of the finest collections of ceramics in the world, the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery (PMAG) should be the city’s pride and joy.
Unfortunately, right now, that’s about all it has going for it – unless, of course, you include the modest display of items from the Staffordshire Hoard.
I should say that I am a great admirer of the PMAG and view it as one of the potential jewels of our much-maligned Cultural Quarter.
However, there is no hiding the fact that the venue, in its current form, is tired and ill thought-out when compared with some more modern museums.
It suffers from having no real focal point and, to use marketing terminology, its ‘unique selling point’ of crocks is bland and uninspiring to most people.
(Yes, I’m allowed to say that as a proud plate-turner).
I’m pretty sure that privately even the museum’s staff and volunteers would accept that the PMAG needs a fair wedge spending on it to bring it up to scratch.
Take, for example, the Spitfire exhibit. This tribute to Reginald Mitchell is, frankly, an embarrassment – tucked away as it is like some after-thought.
Visitors certainly wouldn’t think that the man whose invention turned the tide of the Second World War was a native of North Staffordshire.
If I had my way we would celebrate all our local heroes properly at PMAG – including Robbie Williams and darts maestro Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor.
This is because, as I’ve alluded to before, I think it needs more than the likes of a Majolica peacock to draw in the crowds.
I know that museum bosses are currently putting together bids for funding with which to transform the museum on the back of the acquisition of the Staffordshire Hoard.
But until any such bids are successful, the fact is we are stuck with a museum which hasn’t really evolved a great deal in 30 years.
So to consider charging for admission in order to raise a paltry estimated £73,000-a-year seems nonsensical to me.
That figure is a drop in the ocean given that it costs £2.16 million a year to run the PMAG so why are we even bothering introducing what is simply a deterrent to visitors?
If, as rumour has it, campaigners have raised a decent sum to postpone the introduction of the £2.50 adult admission charge, I fear they are simply delaying the inevitable.
Indeed, that money would be better spent on something tangible to improve facilities at PMAG – rather than being allowed to disappear into the great black hole that is operating costs.
Courtesy of the Staffordshire Hoard our city has been gifted a fantastic opportunity for rebranding and regeneration.
The Hoard gives us the chance to create a truly unique and inspiring visitor experience and to tempt people into our city centre.
At present our Cultural Quarter is a work in progress but one which I remain excited at the prospect of.
How sad it would be then if an empty museum was the result of this ill-conceived and short-sighted policy of attempting to charge people for something which is still free in many towns and cities across the UK.

A price worth paying for culture

The queue of contestants for the first year of the Stoke's Top Talent variety contest outside the Victoria Hall in Hanley.

The queue of contestants for the first year of the Stoke’s Top Talent variety contest outside the Victoria Hall in Hanley.

Against a backdrop of cutbacks, closures and austerity measures, the future of The Regent Theatre and Victoria Hall will come under scrutiny like never before in the coming months.

Councillors have to decide whether or not to renew Stoke-on-Trent Theatres’ lease – which runs out next March – or find someone else to run the Hanley venues.

The report to elected members states: “Discussions will also include how to manage the theatres in the most cost-effective way and how they can attract a greater number of West End productions to boost visitors and income.”

At the centre of the debate is an annual subsidy of around £500,000 of taxpayers’ money.

It’s not a sum to be sniffed at in the current climate but, at the risk of annoying campaigners battling to save closure-threatened swimming pools and various other council-run services, I’m convinced this is money well spent.

Of course, councillors have every right to query the validity of this public propping-up of a private business.

However, the question that needs to be asked is: what would happen to The Regent and Vicki Hall if we didn’t offer such an incentive?

After all, the venues are still operating at a loss – albeit a small one – in spite of the subsidy.

In all probability the simple answer is that the city council would be unable to find a theatre company to take on the lease.

Thus the local authority would be forced to either enter the cut-throat world of entertainment – i.e. attempt to operate the venues itself – or to mothball them.

At this point it is worth saying that in other towns and cities across the UK similar subsidy arrangements exist between councils and theatre companies.

The fact is that if we want to see top-rate touring shows such as Calendar Girls and The Sound of Music and we want musicians of the calibre of Slash and Morrisey to stop by then we are going to have to make a contribution from the public purse.

We can gnash our teeth all we want over the original Cultural Quarter overspend but the legacy of a badly-executed vision is two top class entertainment venues.

To bring the curtain down on them now would be a crime – and one which would undermine all the good work which is taking place to improve the city centre.

The £4 million refurbishment of the Mitchell Memorial Youth Arts Centre is now complete and work to breathe new life into Bethesda Chapel is well underway.

In addition, we are still grappling with the potential of the acquisition of the Staffordshire Hoard and what this will mean for the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery (PMAG).

If we play our cards right, what it should ultimately equate to is the complete re-interpretation of the museum’s galleries which will drag them into the 21st Century.

Rather than simply boasting one of the finest ceramics collections in the world (and a hidden shrine to the creator of the Spitfire), the PMAG would also become renowned as the home of this priceless Anglo-Saxon treasure hoard.

The icing on the cake is that I am starting to believe we may actually see a new bus station in my lifetime. Pinch me.

When you add all this together you start to realise that rather than being a rather grand label for a few streets with al fresco bars, our Cultural Quarter could soon become a genuine source of pride.

More to the point, it would be a dedicated area of the city centre where visitors could genuinely spend a whole day.

There will always be a debate over the range and calibre of shows and artists attracted to The Regent and Victoria Hall, as well as box office prices in an area where families are not blessed with heaps of disposable income.

However, what is surely beyond question is that they are the original jewels in Stoke-on-Trent’s Cultural Quarter and I believe £500,000 a year is a small price to pay for polishing them.

Slash is returning to Paradise City

Yes! He’s back! A little older. Perhaps even a little wiser. But with the same laid-back attitude.

No, I’m not talking about former Elected Mayor Mark Meredith.

I refer, of course to the return to his native city of a music legend: A rock icon; A guitar hero;

I could go on…

The truth is that Labour’s landslide victory in the local elections pales into insignificance alongside the big story of the week.

Let’s face it, any fool could have predicted that voters in Stoke (or at least those who could be bothered) would revert to type and stick an X next to candidate wearing a red rosette.

It seems all is forgiven for Worldgate/the Cultural Quarter etc. (insert as appropriate).

The only thing that would have prevented a Labour candidate winning in most wards is if a certain Saul Hudson had stood for election on a ticket of free smokes and Jack Daniels for all.

Mr Hudson, better known the world over as Slash, would have romped home, I assure you.

It is testament to the pulling power of the former Guns ’n Roses guitarist that tickets for his first ever gig in Stoke-on-Trent sold out in under two hours.

THAT is the big story of the week, ladies and gentlemen.

A colleague of mine, who shall remain nameless, simply couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about when I told her I’d lined up an interview with the man himself.

“He’s hardly local, is he?” she asked in the dismissive tones of one who had clearly never appreciated the magnificence of Appetite For Destruction or the unbridled genius of the opening riff to Sweet Child ’O Mine.

I don’t care if he only lived in Stoke-on-Trent until he was five, I’m claiming him as one of ours.
It seems I’m not the only one, either, as an online campaign to honour Slash and Motörhead stalwart Lemmy Kilmister with statues in their home city continues to attract signatures.

FA Cup Final or no FA Cup Final — they both hail from the Mother Town, by the way, so technically they should be Vale fans too.

Having been fortunate (or unfortunate — depending on your perspective) enough to have rubbed shoulders with a fair few celebrities over the last 20 years I don’t generally get star-struck.

Fair enough, I haven’t washed since shaking hands with The Fonz but — that aside — I am generally underwhelmed by showbiz stars, footballers and even royalty.

Slash is, however, a bit different and when his PR bloke confirmed I could have an interview I admit the denim-wearing 17-year-old in me played air guitar momentarily.

You see, it is a little-known fact that Stoke-on-Trent is a bastion of rock music.

Indeed, I have it on good authority that there are more Bon Jovi, Guns ’n Roses and Queen fans per head of population in the Potteries than almost anywhere else in the UK.

I should know, I’ve queued with most of them to get into every stadium from Milton Keynes to Manchester, from Wembley to Gateshead over the past two decades.

It’s something to do with our fair city being stuck in 1987, according to a friend of mine.

For those of you still wondering what all the fuss is about, Slash is widely considered one of the greatest rock guitar players of all time.

He has received countless accolades and awards including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame alongside his idols Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix.

He has performed alongside everyone from Elton John and Stevie Wonder to Michael Jackson and Ray Charles.

More to the point, sales of the 10 studio albums released by the bands he has been the heartbeat of since 1986 — Guns ’n Roses, Slash’s Snakepit and supergroup Velvet Revolver — have sold in excess of 120 million records.

Thus the arrival of the great man, now an elder statesman of the rock scene, for his first ever gig in the city where he was raised in his early years is something of a coup for the Victoria Hall.

As I said in a previous column, the powers-that-be at the King’s Hall should take note that this gig could have sold out five times over.

Not that I am surprised by either the response to the tickets going on sale or the decision by this music legend to come home.

Slash is returning at long last to Paradise City — “where the grass is green and the girls are pretty”.

OK. You can stop laughing now.

I’ll be there on July 24 with my faded jeans, an earring and a G’n’R tee-shirt.

I may even grow my hair again — although I will have to give the bandana a miss this time.

Election? What election?

A new bus station… Am I dreaming?

Am I dreaming? I can’t quite believe it. I just wish my nan was alive to see it. Work really is to start next week on a new bus station for Hanley. If you’re not from Stoke-on-Trent then you simply won’t understand the significance of this development. For decades us Potters have been moaning about the horrible carbuncle which welcomes  (I use that term loosely) visitors to our city centre. It is no surprise that when the Daily Mirror ran an article a few years back claiming our city was the worst place to live in England and Wales they chose to run a picture of the bus station underpass. This dirty, great concrete monstrosity has been an embarrassment for years and the quicker it is pulled down the better. I may be speaking to soon but this could finally be the thing which kickstarts the regeneration of Hanley and holds up the top end of the Cultural Quarter. After all, first impressions do  count…

We must see the light about the whole city’s prosperity

I spent half an hour on the telephone the other day to a lovely bloke from Longton.
He was bemoaning the fact that The Sentinel hadn’t published a special supplement to publicise the switch-on of Longton’s Christmas lights – similar to the one we produced for Hanley.
Inevitably, it turned into a conversation about why one town in Stoke-on-Trent seems to receive all the money and support while the other five struggle or stagnate.
I had some sympathy for the passionate Longtonian’s plight but at the same time I did my best to make him see the light.
Stoke-on-Trent has to have a city centre and there’s no getting away from the fact that Hanley is it.
That being the case it is only natural, I told him, to expect that much of the money, most of the council’s endeavour and a lot of the big public events are focused on the town that has for so long been the city’s heart.
I tell everyone I meet how proud I am of the Mother Town.
But as much as I want Burslem and all the other towns to thrive, I know that, ultimately, a successful Hanley is key to the future prosperity of the city as a whole.
Hanley has the city’s main museum, our biggest library, the best theatre and the widest variety of shops and restaurants anywhere in North Staffordshire.
Thus it will always be the biggest draw for shoppers and tourists alike.
This is why I’m not pressing the panic button just yet, like some seem to be, over the opening of the behemoth that is the new Tesco superstore at the bottom of Piccadilly.
There is real concern in some quarters, particularly among retailers, that this one-stop shop will suck the life out of the city centre – killing off trade and forcing other stores to close.
They simply can’t understand why this development was given the green light.
After all, an application to increase the size of the Tesco store in Trent Vale was turned down on the grounds that it could be detrimental to trade in Newcastle.
Yet just a few miles up the road a gigantic superstore has been allowed to open just half a mile from The Potteries Shopping Centre.
I suspect the reason for this contradiction is twofold.
Firstly, Hanley is bigger, experiences greater footfall and has many more shops and attractions than Newcastle.
This all means it is better equipped to cope with the advent of another offer to consumers.
Secondly, giving the go-ahead for this mammoth store certainly solved a huge headache for the city council’s planning officers in that it facilitated the completion of the ring road.
One area of Hanley now looks a lot more modern, clean and attractive than it did 12 months ago as a result of the Tesco development and the accompanying new infrastructure.
It’s certainly a damn site more appealing than derelict buildings and wasteland.
While I don’t believe the third largest retailer in the world to be Hanley’s saviour neither do I consider Tesco to be the retail equivalent of the Devil incarnate.
When I visit Hanley I may indeed do some grocery shopping at Tesco.
Then again, I may call in at Sainsbury’s, just to be awkward.
What I do know is that I’ll still want to nip in Costa for a cappuccino (other coffee houses are available), I’ll always have a mooch around Forbidden Planet on Stafford Street, I’ll certainly have a butcher’s at the clothes in the Potteries Shopping Centre and I’ll always visit my mum on the oatcake stall in the market.
Free parking or not, Tesco does not spell the end of Hanley as a retail centre.
Not if the powers-that-be continue to invest time and money into the city centre.
Not if we can finally get a new bus station built and put the finishing touches to our Cultural Quarter.
Not if we make the most of the fabulous opportunity afforded us by the acquisition of the Staffordshire Hoard.
Let’s not forget that Hanley has had a Tesco for years.
In my opinion, the new superstore is a welcome addition to the city centre’s retail stable and we should stop mithering and keep supporting all the traders in Hanley.
After all, I’ve heard that ‘every little helps…’