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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Mission accomplished: It seems there really is no place like home…

mina

I’ve learned a thing or two in the last three months. Firstly, The Sentinel’s Managing Director has something of an eye for (obsession for) interior design.

Thus I have been forced to sit through discussions involving feature walls, carpet colours, kitchen splash backs and dishy chairs (I confess I had to look the last one up).

Choosing the decor and the furnishings was, of course, a very small but important part of the process of relocating to our new offices in Hanley – which we finally did over the weekend.

I’ve lived and breathed this project since July.

It’s the reason calls to my phone have gone unanswered, emails still await replies, meetings have been cancelled and I’ve dodged catch-ups with my best contacts.

It’s also the reason I’ve had precious little dad time which was why on Saturday I made sure my girls were among the first to see The Sentinel’s new home.

Apologies to all. I’ll make it up to you. Promise.

I’ve been well and truly out of my comfort zone and up to my eyes in seating plans (changed eight times), parking permits, grant applications and all manner of stuff involved in moving more than 100 staff (including almost 50 journalists) and a seven-day a week business into the heart of the city centre.

In truth there are still bits ‘n’ bobs to do. Some furniture and white goods have yet to arrive, there’s more carpentry and painting to do, we’re missing some plastic cups. A couple of the screens in the newsroom aren’t yet showing the digital analytics we’d like them to do. But, to borrow one of the gaffer’s phrases: ‘It’s just detail’.

He’s right. To all intents and purposes The Sentinel is up Hanley, duck, and fully operational.

As I sit here now looking out over a newsroom that you can’t help but feel proud of, there’s an enormous feeling of satisfaction and relief.

The move had to be completed over a weekend – four days technically – without any disruption to the newspaper or our website.

In that regard it’s mission accomplished. But what went on during those four days will long live in the memory.

Things such as my dad fixing shelving and coat hooks and making benches and desks for our precious archive room.

Or the sight of The Sentinel’s Editor manfully carrying an extremely heavy ceramic wall bust of this newspaper’s founder across the newsroom to see where it would sit best.

Or our MD carefully placing lime green coasters and purple cushions in offices and break-out areas.

Or yours truly lugging furniture around and unpacking crate after crate of beautiful leather bound volumes of The Sentinel and creating an impressive new library in the newsroom.

Plenty of people played their part in an exercise which showed that this is far more than just a workplace – it’s the home of a heritage brand that we’re all extremely proud to be associated with which has just refurbished a landmark.

In six years’ time the former Bethesda Sunday school which we now occupy will celebrate its 200th anniversary and it’s more than appropriate that ours is the business which has breathed new life into such an historic and iconic building.

Indeed the man who designed the interior of our new offices described it as the most satisfying (if stressful) project he has ever worked on – and the best building.

It’s easy to see why. Two of my colleagues told me, unsolicited, on Sunday that they came into work with a spring in their steps having seen the completed ground floor a few days earlier.

Even the most cynical, hard-bitten hacks in the newsroom struggled to grumble when they saw the beautiful sash windows, the high ceilings, the plasma screen and – yes – the lovely new carpets and furnishings.

It’s certainly a more inspirational place in which to work than our former home at Etruria and in keeping with a business that’s almost 160 years old itself.

It goes without saying that working for a newspaper (I’m supposed to say digital publishing business) isn’t a nine to five, Monday to Friday job and it doesn’t half help when your working environment is stunning and the front of your building looks like a Victorian postcard scene.

It’ll be nice to be able to wander over to the Potteries Museum to view the Staffordshire Hoard and the Spitfire gallery of a lunchtime. (Occasionally we have one).

It’ll be nice to stroll up Piccadilly to see my mum on the oatcake stall in the market or to have a coffee with Jonny Wilkes and Christian Patterson during rehearsals for panto at The Regent. It’ll be nice to be able to do a bit of Christmas shopping when we’re working late one night.

Most importantly, of course, we hope our readers and customers like the new place too.

I’ve already promised two readers who used to attend Bethesda Sunday School a personal tour of the building to stir the memories.

A few readers popped in at the weekend – past the crates and the teams of removal people – to have a nosey before we’d even opened. It was great to see their enthusiasm.

One couple said they were delighted we were back in Hanley as they’d now only have to catch the one bus from Trentham to come and see us. It seems there really is no place like home…

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Archive is a treasure trove which reminds us where we’ve come from and who has gone before

The Sentinel microfilm archive.

The Sentinel microfilm archive.

Myself and three colleagues have just completed what, for me, has been something of a labour of love.

In case you don’t know, in less than two weeks’ time The Sentinel will relocate from its home of more than a quarter of a century to new, or perhaps I should say ‘old’, premises in Hanley.

From September 16 our new home will be the Grade II-listed Bethesda Sunday School building.

It’s in a great location for a local newspaper: Opposite the library and Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, just down from the Victoria Hall, Regent Theatre and new bus station, and over the road from the police station and crown court.

An awful lot of money has been spent transforming the interior of this impressive, ocean liner of a two-storey building into a modern media hub.

But alongside the funky furniture, brightly-coloured feature walls and the hi-tech kit you’d expect to find in any newspaper HQ, there’s plenty to remind us of what’s gone before.

This is something I, personally, am very keen on as someone who grew up reading the paper, then delivering it and now having the privilege of writing for it.

As you can imagine, a newspaper accumulates quite a lot of stuff over 159 years and my office has, for several weeks now, resembled an antique shop.

By rummaging through the MD’s office, various locked cabinets and darkened storerooms I have unearthed all kinds of treasures.

Gems such as a former Editor’s dictionary from the 1930s and a solid gold Sentinel cricket competition medal from the same decade.

Then there’s the documents relating to the company being created back in 1854 or the grubby and soot-blackened Wedgwood white ware unearthed when the foundations were laid at our present site in Etruria back in 1986 (the site of old Josiah’s former factory, of course).

Or how about the dozen or so black and white photographs of our former offices in Trinity Street, Hanley, when it first opened its doors 80-odds years ago?

Or the Royal Doulton figurines of newspaper sellers, or detritus from the press from the days of hot metal, or copies of Sentinel football annuals dating back to the 1920s.

Or the copy of the programme from the provincial premiere of the the 1952 movie The Card, based on Arnold Bennett’s novel of the same name.

Or the 100-year-old poster promoting a boxing match between Newcastle’s Billy Gerkin and Hanley’s Jack Matthews.

Some of these items will go on display in cabinets for the benefit of visitors to our new offices.

Others will be safely stored in the new home of our archive which yours truly and friends have spent the past three months auditing and indexing.

It saddens me to think that some of my colleagues have never experienced the sheer frustration of trawling through cuttings, old prints or negatives to find information and the simple joy of a successful hunt.

Many among the Google and Wikipedia generation believe the world started in the mid-1990s and all useful data is freely available at the touch of a button. Rest assured that I do my best to dispel this myth at every opportunity.

I tell people that our microfilm archive, for example, dates to 1854 and runs until around the year 2000. That’s every page of every Sentinel edition – Weekly and Evening – for 140 odd years.

Then there’s the leather-bound copies of every Sentinel produced since the day we stopped archiving editions on microfilm.

Finally there’s our cuttings and prints archive – all 195 box files. This contains everything from historic editions of the paper through to royal visits, all our coverage of the notorious Black Panther murders, all the pit closures and pottery firm redundancies as well as black and white and colour prints of Stoke City, Port Vale and Crewe Alex players dating back to the 1930s.

The importance of a newspaper’s archive cannot, in my opinion, be overstated – especially when it is as old and extensive as The Sentinel’s.

It is little wonder that historians revel in it, our readers continue to call upon it and that local lads like me, and Abbo before me, enjoy bringing some of it to light.

Our archive is an acknowledgment of who and what has gone before and a reminder that we journalists are in an extremely privileged position – simply the latest caretakers of an enduring brand.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

New building, new gaffer… but The Sentinel carries on

Former Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Mike Sassi.

Former Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Mike Sassi.

Last week was a momentous one for Sentinel staff with the announcement of the impending move to the city centre and the departure of our Editor-in-Chief.

We had known about both decisions for some time and, while they were tinged with sadness, they also mark the beginning of an exciting new chapter in the newspaper’s history.

They remind us that while buildings and people may change, the newspaper itself continues inexorably – constantly adapting and evolving to suit its readership and patch.

Relocating to Hanley, where The Sentinel has been based for most of its 159 years, represents a return to our spiritual home.

The move makes absolute sense as we no longer have a print works here at Etruria and, happily, it coincides with the multi-million regeneration of the city centre.

Our new home from the Autumn, the former Bethesda Sunday School, is steeped in history and we couldn’t have chosen a better base for a company which has been part of the fabric of life in this neck of the woods since 1854.

Handily located next to the Cultural Quarter and the proposed Central Business District, it means shoppers and anyone working in the area can nip in for a chat with a Sentinel reporter.

We’ll also only be a stone’s throw away from Hanley Police Station, Hanley Community Fire Station, the crown court and our contacts at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, The Regent Theatre and the Vicki Hall – among others.

That’s not to say that moving won’t be a wrench. The Sentinel has been at Festival Park since 1987 and many of us have fond memories of colleagues, past editions and countless hours spent here at this sprawling site next to the canal where the last remnants of Josiah Wedgwood’s original factory stand as a reminder of the city’s proud industrial heritage.

For exactly half the 15 years yours truly has been with my home-town newspaper, the man who has just vacated the big chair has been my ‘gaffer’.

I knew Mike Sassi before he arrived in North Staffordshire, having previously worked with him at the Derby Telegraph.

No two Editors are ever the same and, believe me, the appointment of the top man, or woman, is still a matter of great significance – and not just for the writers and photographers who report to them.

To my mind a newspaper, partisan or non-partisan, will always reflect the personality and passions of its Editor.

In that respect, I think we dropped lucky when Mike Sassi took over in December 2005 (I can say that without being accused of fishing for a pay rise because he’s gone).

I think it’s fair to say that he was at the helm during some of the most turbulent years that the newspaper industry has faced – given the economic situation and the way in which the internet has changed the game.

However, rather than retreating, Mike had us reaching out to our readership in new and innovative ways, staging major public events and forging partnerships with a variety of organisations.

The Our Heroes awards, the Class Act campaign which gave away tens of thousands of pounds to local schools, the Young Journalist Awards, and the hugely-popular Stoke’s Top Talent variety competition all happened on his watch.

These weren’t events intended to make us money or flog papers. Rather they were intended to cement The Sentinel at the heart of the communities it serves.

The campaigns we ran were the same: From Save Our Staffords which successfully fought to preserve the name of our local regiment with a 17,000-strong petition, through to the battle to bring the Staffordshire Hoard at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

But perhaps what I will remember most about Mike’s tenure was a night in December 2011 when yours truly was up to his neck in the troubles engulfing Port Vale.

It was Mike’s brave decision to run with the stories exposing how supporters had been misled by the then board of directors which led to the resignation of the club’s chief executive and the subsequent sacking of its chairman.

Any journalist will tell you that having the support of your Editor when the big calls are made is absolutely priceless.

Mike Sassi worked extremely hard to try to learn what makes North Staffordshire and its people tick.

He was as excited as anyone with Stoke City’s appearance at Wembley and the club’s adventures in Europe; Chuffed to bits with Vale’s recent promotion and genuinely proud to see the Staffordshire Saxon statue unveiled at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

I think our loss is genuinely the Nottingham Post’s gain but, as Mike will tell you himself, any Editor is simply the custodian – the caretaker, if you will – for the brand. He’ll hate this fuss but he’s earned it, in my opinion, and I’d like to wish Mike all the best in his new job.

Meanwhile, the original Neverending Story that is The Sentinel continues…

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

The Signal for a new era in broadcasting locally

Signal Radio DJ, the late Mel Scholes.

Signal Radio DJ, the late Mel Scholes.

As someone who grew up with the BBC Radio Stoke on in the background, September 5, 1983 was quite a momentous day.

That’s the date that a new commercial radio station took to the air and, for the first time, gave the people of North Staffordshire and South Cheshire a choice.

DJ John Evington uttered the first words around 6am and chose Neil Diamond’s Beautiful Noise as the station’s first track.

Signal Radio was named after newspaper The Signal in the novels of Potteries author Arnold Bennett which, of course, was based on the then Evening Sentinel.

I well recall the early days of Signal, 30 years old this year, because – as an 11-year-old it provided a more ‘trendy’ alternative to the BBC station I had listened to every morning before school for years.

Radio Stoke was where I always hoped to find out at 8am that my school was closed because the boiler wasn’t working and there had been a couple of inches of snow.

Signal Radio, however, was different. In fact, I remember listening one Saturday morning and entering a trivia quiz against a bloke from Alsager.

I managed to win and the DJ promised to send me a single!

I waited for several days, the excitement building, until at last the parcel arrived.

I ripped it open to discover I’d been sent a copy of We’ve Got A Good Fire Goin’ by Don Williams.

I could have cried. I didn’t even know who he was.

Despite the crushing disappointment for me personally, Signal Radio’s appeal continued to grow.

The station, based in Stoke Road, Shelton, was one of the last in the country to split its frequencies.

It initially broadcast on 104.3 and 1170 – changing to 102.6 FM later.

Like any commercial station, in the early days it didn’t have the greatest budget but the dedication and enthusiasm of its staff and a bit of creative thinking more than made up for that.

In 1986, for example, it secured the UK’s first Restrictive Service Licence to cover the National Garden Festival in Etruria.

The station – now broadcasting as Signal 1 and Signal 2 – has been instrumental in staging many shows including the Battle of the Bands, a Young DJ contest and the annual Live in the City pop concert – as well as raising tens of thousands of pounds for various charities.

Over the years a number of stars who have gone on to make household names for themselves gained invaluable experience presenting shows or working for Signal.

They include comedienne Caroline Aherne, DJ Chris Moyles (formerly of Radio One), BBC NorthWest Tonight’s Annabel Tiffin, the late Potteries entertainment legend Mel Scholes, of Jollees nightclub fame, and even a certain Robbie Williams.

Showbiz sisters Anthea Turner and Wendy Turner-Webster also cut their teeth at the station.

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

Don’t write local newspapers like The Sentinel off just yet

There is a book in the mini library in my office. It is blue with gold lettering and is entitled: ‘Rendezvous With The Past: Sentinel Centenary’.

It celebrates the first 100 years of the newspaper I work for and, unbelievably, was published back in 1954 – almost 20 years before I was born.

That’s right, The Sentinel is 158 years old. Its first issue emerged on January 7, 1854, and it was sold for threepence.

Since then, through two World Wars, various economic crises, under several monarchs, and despite numerous technological advances, this newspaper has been part and parcel of life in North Staffordshire and South Cheshire.

Last week, however, some of our colleagues in the broadcast media were voicing The Sentinel’s obituary.

Blurring the stories of the takeover our parent company with a separate decision to close the Daily Mail’s printing press in Stoke-on-Trent, they were helpfully reading us the last rites.

The first many of us knew of the rumours of our demise were from the messages of condolence which appeared on social media on Thursday morning.

‘Sad to hear about The Sentinel closing’ Tweeted one concerned city councillor.

Then readers began ringing in and advertisers started querying their accounts.

Suffice to say The Editor-in-Chief wasn’t best pleased and the thin partition wall separating our rooms did little to muffle his annoyance.

To be fair, many ‘experts’ – usually former journalists or academics – have been predicting The Sentinel’s imminent closure for several years now.

Indeed, if I had a fiver for every time someone had claimed the end is nigh for us old-fashioned print hacks here at Etruria I’d have enough money to, well… buy an annual subscription for The Sentinel.

The doom-mongers’ logic is simple: The circulation figures of every newspaper in the country – both national and local – have fallen over the last 20 years, thanks in large part to the advent of the internet and digital media.

They argue that people can now access information on their telephones and other hand-held devices or computers at home and in the workplace and many enjoy the immediacy of broadcast media.

It is also absolutely correct to say the economic downturn has hit advertising revenues hard and my industry has suffered more than its fair share of redundancies since 2008.

On the face of it, the prognosis seems gloomy and it is, of course, in the interests of our colleagues in radio and television to talk up our decline.

Their pessimism is shared by many former newspaper journalists turned public relations professionals/retired persons espousing the view that standards have fallen and things are ‘not how they were in their day’.

At the same time we have seen the rise of so-called ‘citizen journalism’.

It seems anyone can be a journalist these days. You don’t need any training, you don’t need any knowledge of the law and you don’t need to be able to assimilate information or even string a sentence together.

Just get yourself access to the internet, a funky pseudonym and an attitude and, hey presto, you’re Clark Kent. Or not.

You see, it’s one thing to write some unsubstantiated nonsense on a website read by three men and a dog and another thing entirely to have you work printed in a format which is properly scrutinised daily by hundreds of thousands of people.

Very few people record radio station news bulletins or can be bothered to listen again or watch TV news programmes on the internet.

However, there are plenty who will march into The Sentinel’s reception waving a copy of yesterday’s paper and crying foul if we make a mistake.

Working for a newspaper is harder than working as a broadcast journalist and please don’t let anyone ever tell you different.

As one of the few people left at The Sentinel who has ever had the dubious privilege of making a phone call and saying the immortal words: ‘Stop the press’, I’d just like to say: Don’t write us off just yet.

The Sentinel still sells almost 50,000 copies every day – making it the sixth biggest-selling regional newspaper in the country.

In addition, our website is visited by more than 400,000 unique users each month. See, we can do new-fangled too.

Here at Etruria we employ nearly 50 full-time journalists and still see it as vital to cover council meetings and court hearings and inquests every day – something no other media organisation locally has the staff to do on anything other than an occasional basis.

How many times does a regional television camera crew visit the ST postcode area each month? How often do you hear local radio stations following our lead on stories?

What’s more, The Sentinel still understands the importance of championing the communities it serves – as do its journalists, many of whom are local to the area.

Think about the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality of the Year Awards; The Sentinel’s Business Awards; the Class Act campaign for local schools; the Young Journalist Awards and Stoke’s Top Talent variety competition.

Whether it’s through the Our Heroes community awards, the Save Our Staffords campaign or by breaking the stories such as the ones which led to the removal of the discredited board of directors at Port Vale – this newspaper provides what I honestly believe is an invaluable service.

The Sentinel had been doing its job for 118 years when yours truly was born and I’m confident it will still be delivering journalism to local people long after I’ve gone.

We walk with the ghosts of colleagues long since passed here at The Sentinel and let me tell you we carry the burden of the weight of history proudly.

So the next time someone tells you the local rag is finished, just give a wry smile and tell them you’ll only believe it when you read it in The Sentinel.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

A salute to The Duke and other lost Potteries locals

I was 17 when I first walked into the Duke of Wellington pub. Little did I know that the innocuous little boozer in Norton was to become my ‘local’ for the next decade – even though I lived in Sneyd Green.

There was nothing fancy about ‘The Duke’, as we referred to it. Yes, it was an old pub dating back to the 1840s but the interior was nothing to shout about.

It had one proper toilet for us blokes (which had seen better days) and a bunch of urinals.

The Duke was a good size though – boasting a lounge and a bar, a pool table, jukebox and a couple of fruit machines.

The clientele was genuinely mixed and on Friday and Saturday nights it would be rammed.

My friends and I came to know it as our second home – supping Lowenbrau at 89p per pint as the Eighties drew to a close and the indie music scene really kicked in.

My mates Rob, Richie and I were part of The Duke’s away pool team back then and I’m pleased to say I’ve still got my cue.

I have hazy, fond memories of New Year’s Eve parties, Christmas Eve celebrations and many a lock-in with the curtains closed.

It was a pub where young and old co-existed quite happily. A place where you could still have a conversation and hear yourself think – even if yours truly had stuck the Stone Roses or the Wonderstuff on again.

Sadly, unlike my pool cue, The Duke hasn’t survived. The last time I ventured into the place it was 1999 and quiet as the grave. It closed not long after.

Like so many pubs across the Potteries it fell victim to changing lifestyles and poor management and, although the building remains, it is now a private as opposed to a public house.

As historian and spokesman for the Potteries Pub Preservation Group, Mervyn Edwards explained, it is a familiar tale. He agreed that we have probably lost around a fifth of public houses in North Staffordshire over the last quarter of a century.

Mervyn said: “I thing that may even be a conservative estimate. We’ve seen many, many pubs close and many be demolished over the last 30 years or so.

“The reasons are multifarious but a key one is the loss of jobs in traditional industries. Take Longton, for example. Right up to the end of the 1980s and even later pubs were a key part of the infrastructure of the town.

“They existed to serve employers like the potbanks and even at lunchtimes you would see pottery workers from places like John Tams going to the pie shops and then in to their favourite haunts for a pint.

“When you lose industry like the Potteries has then it is impossible for many pubs to remain profitable. At the same time, people’s habits have changed. They can buy cheap alcohol from supermarkets, rent or buy videos and DVDs or use the internet and play computer games.

“People simply have far more options and have perhaps fallen out of love with simple pleasures like conversing with friends in a pub.

“Then there was the smoking ban of 2007 which really was a hammer-blow for pubs. I was one of the people who thought there might be people who would start going in to pubs as a result of them being smoke-free but it seems that just didn’t happen.

“Add to all of these things the high taxation on alcoholic beverages and the fact that a night out at the pub is actually quite expensive and you can understand why so many have closed or are struggling.”

Off the top of his head Mervyn lists a number of good pubs which we’ve lost in the last 25 years.

Most recent is The Cavalier at Bradwell – built as a one of a number of estate pubs in 1963.

Also mentioned in despatches are the once flagship Joules pub the King’s Arms, in Meir, the Oxford Arms in Maybank and pubs like The Great Eastern, The Staff of Life and the Ancient Briton in and around the Mother Town of Burslem.

I asked Mervyn what the biggest difference we would notice if we went back 30 years to a 1980s pub.

He said: “We would be acutely aware of the lack of what I call ‘creature comforts’. These days pubs have all sorts of gadgets and gizmos – from wall-to-wall satellite television and free Wifi to game consoles like the Wii to keep people amused.

“Thirty years ago you would have had the odd telly and perhaps a jukebox or a fruit machine but they weren’t intrusive. I think it’s very sad how things have changed, really.”

He added: “I think that the bigger pubs will survive. What really needs to improve, however, is the level of customer service. Very often it is poor. There are exceptions – such as The Holy Inadequate at Etruria and The Bluebell at Kidsgrove – but generally speaking many pubs could improve”.

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