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

I’m proud of the latest piece in Hanley’s jigsaw puzzle

Hanley's new bus station.

Hanley’s new bus station.

In April 2001 Stoke-on-Trent was branded the worst place to live in England and Wales in a survey of hundreds of towns and cities.

The Potteries was placed at the bottom of a quality of life league table covering more than 370 council areas.

This damning judgement was made by researchers from global information solutions consultant Experian who pulled together data for the Sunday Times on subjects ranging from housing, jobs, traffic congestion and schools to crime and even shopping.

Other national newspapers then followed this up – with one tabloid even using a picture of Hanley Bus Station at its most depressing to reinforce the report’s findings.

While there was understandable outrage here in the city over the study’s findings, few could argue with the choice of image used by that one paper to represent our city centre.

The bus station looked like what it was – a grim, decaying, concrete carbuncle blighted by vacant shops.

If nothing else it backed up what most people in these parts had been saying for 20 years about the need for a new bus station.

I wonder what picture the red tops would use to show Stoke-on-Trent in a grim light in 2013?

Presumably one of the many areas of cleared land where the RENEW North Staffordshire Pathfinder project bulldozed scores of terraced homes.

Or perhaps some of the emails that were flirting about when certain people wanted to close Dimensions…

It certainly wouldn’t be our brand spanking new £15 million bus station which officially opened this morning.

I, for one, love this iconic piece of architecture which gives a nod to our heritage through the use of materials used in its construction but is also bold and modern in its design.

It’s the kind of development that makes a welcoming statement to visitors as they arrive in Hanley – irrespective of how far they have travelled.

Like I did when the enormous new Tesco opened up, I Tweeted proudly about the new bus station – having driven past it the other night when it was all lit up.

I was inevitably met with derision from those who simply couldn’t understand what I was getting excited about.

That’s because they aren’t from this neck of the woods.

Anyone who travelled on a PMT or Sammy Turner’s bus during the Eighties and Nineties and either arrived at or left from Hanley Bus Station will tell you they couldn’t wait to get out of there.

It was dark, dirty and graffiti-strewn and only the smell of freshly-baked bloomer loaves from the bakery in the underpass could hide the smell of urine.

The bus station, shopping area (I use that term loosely) and the multi-story car park were well past their use-by date and we could all see it.

Yes the powers-that-be have gone and called it Stoke-on-Trent City Centre Bus Station in their quest to airbrush one of the Six Towns out of history but we locals will all still refer to it as Hanley Bus Station.

Whatever its name, we should be proud that another piece of the jigsaw puzzle has fallen into place.

First Tesco. Now the bus station. If we can: Revamp the Potteries Museum to better showcase the Staffordshire Hoard, our Spitfire and our pots; Finish the restoration of Bethesda Chapel; Find a new use for the old Town Hall and secure that oddly-titled new shopping complex we will genuinely have a city centre worthy of the name.

In the meantime, I’m sure Ambassador Theatre Group – which operates The Regent Theatre and Victoria Hall – along with other city centre businesses must be chuffed to bits that a) the bus station work is complete and b) that the new main terminus is hi-tech, clean and safe.

There’s an awful lot of negativity about the city centre at the moment – especially from those campaigning against the council moving its Civic Centre to the new Central Business District.

There are those who feel that Hanley (or the city centre as we’re supposed to start calling it) gets all the cash and all the effort at the expense of Burslem, Fenton, Longton, Stoke and Tunstall.

While I would agree that more needs to be done to help each of the towns develop its own unique selling point I can also understand what the city council is trying to do up ’Anley.

The ambition is to create a powerful brand and, like it or not, Hanley has been the beating heart of the Potteries for many years.

To that end I’m genuinely thrilled to see the new bus station open and I am now looking forward to the completion of the City Sentral shopping centre.

Even if it is a daft name.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

The Football Final and a paper round… how I fell in love with newspapers

A Sentinel front page from July 1988.

A Sentinel front page from July 1988.

I can tell you exactly when I fell in love with newspapers. I would have been about 10 years old and it was The Sentinel that hooked me.

My mum and dad had the paper delivered and I would nick the Football Final and sit alone in the back room reading the brief match reports and scanning the league tables.

I remember thinking at the time that it was incredible that within an hour and a half of the final whistle a page full of information had been printed on the back of our local paper and delivered to our door.

At the age of 15 I began my paper round – delivering The Sentinel and national newspapers to homes in Sneyd Green and Smallthorne.

My ‘run’ was very hilly and was the longest of any of the paper boys and girls working out of the newsagents on Mornington Road.

The year was 1987 and I would get up at 5.30am on a school day and a similar time at weekends and have to be at the paper shop by 4.30pm each day after school.

I earned the princely sum of £5.50 per week but consoled myself with the fact that I lost a stone in weight in three months lugging that great heavy bag around.

I remember weekends being toughest because my bag was heavier – filled with numerous lifestyle supplements and magazines which the nationals produced to add value to their reader offer.

Being a paper boy helped me to develop a healthy interest in current affairs – from the trials and tribulations of ‘gender-bender’ Boy George to the kidnapping of Terry Waite and the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise.

I would browse the nationals before delivering them – something my boss Joe frowned upon because he feared complaints from customers irked by papers with creased pages.

I slowly learned the differences between each of the tabloids, began to spot the spin and the political bias, and marvelled at how the same story could be told two or three different ways.

It was while at Sixth Form College, Fenton, a couple of years after I gave up my paper round, that I applied for a job with a local press agency – determined to carve a career in journalism.

It’s no secret that sales of newspapers, both national and local, have been declining since their peak in the 1950s – never more so than following the advent of the internet.

Two of the national newspapers I delivered as a paper boy – The News of the World and Today – are no longer with us.

The former was shut down in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal while the other, which had only launched in 1986, closed nine years later due to financial pressures.

I am proud to say that having delivered both I worked for and had articles published in both during my time as a ‘stringer’ for a local press agency. Back in the mid to late Eighties newspaper circulation figures were still astonishingly high.

In 1987 the News of the World was selling an average of 5,360,000 copies a week while the Sunday Mirror was selling almost three million.

The Sun was selling almost four million copies daily and the Daily Telegraph 1.15 million copies.

The circulation of all these titles, and all regional newspapers has plummeted dramatically over the last 20 years as technology has advanced and the way in which people access information has changed – prompting many observers to predict the death of newspapers.

Far fewer people take a newspaper to work and far more work at a computer or have a phone which gives them instant access to all the news, sport and features that they want.

However, in the week that politicians carved a highly unsatisfactory deal between themselves and anti-Press activists, I’d like to think there’s life in the old dogs yet.

Blogs and the broadcast media are all well and good but, in the final analysis: No-one does in-depth like newspapers; No-one chronicles history like newspapers; No organisations do investigations like newspapers. No other media organisations have the resources to do what newspapers like The Sentinel do here in North Staffordshire.

That’s our USP and that’s why, in my opinion, even in this age of ever-changing technology newspapers still have a vital role to play.

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

Just time for one last tour then school’s out… forever

The old building at Holden Lane High which is due to be demolished in January 2014.

The old buildings at Holden Lane High which are due to be demolished in January 2014.

There is a framed picture in head teacher John Patino’s office. It is an aerial photograph which I’m guessing, from the look of the vehicles, was taken around 1983 when yours truly started at Holden Lane High School.

It shows the mobile classrooms which had been built on an area previously home to cricket nets to accommodate for the double-intake that year.

This included 11-year-old, destined-to-be GCSE guinea-pigs.

My lot.

One of those mobiles, top right, became my ‘home’, or form room, for five years.

If you look closely you can just make out the speck of a lad on a bicycle – presumably riding home.

I wondered briefly if I knew him. Maybe he was in my year. Perhaps we’re still in touch on Facebook.

Schools are special places, you see. You spend so long there and your actions are so routine that they become ingrained in your memory.

As I sat there listening to John’s vision of the future for my old school I couldn’t help but reminisce.

I couldn’t help but think about teachers whose big personalities or quirky traits left such an impression on young me.

Even now, 25 years after leaving, I can still hear Mr Ball barking orders down the corridors and giving out lines and detention to ne’er do wells.

I can still hear my form tutor Mr Jones enforcing discipline with a sergeant major’s humour and the threat of the ruler and the cane.

I can still recall the dread of P.E. That feeling in the pit of my stomach from knowing that fat, asthmatic yours truly couldn’t run about without getting out of breath.

Rubbish at football. Always last at cross-country.

That’s just the way it was.

I can still remember music teacher Mr Baddeley rolling his eyes at me as I failed the recorder test.

I can still recall being smitten from day one when I first spotted a girl in the top class.

John bought me back to down to earth with a bump: From September, he explained, Holden Lane High in Sneyd Green will cease to exist.

It will be replaced by the brand new £11 million Excel Academy which is currently under construction.

In January the buildings of my old school will no longer be used and then the bulldozers will move in.

Much as it tugs at my heart strings, there are sound reasons for this.

A couple of years ago Holden Lane went in to special measures after a damning Ofsted inspection.

The number of pupils has fallen from 1,300 or so in its hey-day to just 800 or so. This desperately needs to change.

The buildings I refer to with such fondness are, to put it mildly, well past their best. This isn’t something a lick of paint or a refurbishment can mask because five decades and literally tens of thousands of pupils have taken their toll on the old girl.

Yes, what I didn’t realise was that Holden Lane High this year celebrates its 50th anniversary and will just about reach that milestone before it’s demolition time.

In order to reverse falling pupil numbers and exorcise the ghost of that Ofsted report a new academy will rise from the ashes – funded by the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.

It will be an academy the pupils deserve with state-of-the-art facilities and one which, John and the governors hope, will tempt families to again look favourably on a school that has fallen from grace in recent years.

There will be a new uniform with a red rather than a blue tie. Yes, it’s all-change at Holden Lane – sorry, the Excel Academy – and it’s nothing more than present and future generations deserve.

John took me on a tour of the old building and I made him laugh by remembering where all my fifth year classrooms were across three floors.

The corridors that once were so daunting seemed woefully small, the stairwells antiquated and the windows, well, rather draughty.

Happily, however, not much had changed in a quarter of a century since 16-year-old me left to do his A-levels at Sixth Form College, Fenton.

There’ll be one hell of a reunion before they knock the place down, I’ll make sure of that.

I may even take a brick as a keepsake.

I’ll certainly want to take one final tour round the school before that happens – perhaps accompanied this time by some old friends from class 5/1. You know who you are.

It’ll be mint. Ace. Be there or be square.

Inside the old building at Holden Lane High which is due to be demolished in January 2014.

Inside the old buildings at Holden Lane High which are due to be demolished in January 2014.

Why growing up was a (fancy) dress rehearsal for Pete

Peter Crowder, left with his mum Sue and father Bernard and his brother Charles.

Peter Crowder, left, with his mum Sue and father Bernard and his brother Charles.

Never, for one moment, did Pete Crowder think he’d go into the family business. Especially not when he and his brother were sitting outside a pub, waiting in the car while his dad delivered a singing telegram.

Pete explained: “We knew no different so I suppose for us it wasn’t unusual. For everyone else I’m sure it would have been.

“We could often be found in the car waiting while dad delivered a telegram dressed as Tarzan or Rambo or a gorilla or some such thing.

“Looking back now it’s something that’s funnier the older we get.”

This most unusual of family businesses started in the early 1980s with Pete’s mum and dad Sue and Bernard Crowder.

Pete, aged 30, said: “They met while working for an accountancy firm and mum wanted to find a way in which they could work together.

“They began with the singing telegram business and then owned a joke shop and then began selling fancy dress costumes.”

From these humble beginnings the award-winning Charlie Crow costumes company was formed.

Established in 1985 and based in Fenton ever since, the firm began with Pete’s mum being asked to make fancy dress costumes for adults.

He said: “Over the years the business has become very much focused on children’s costumes.

“I have to say I never grew up expecting to work here but I found myself at a loose end after college, did a bit of work here, and found that I could design costumes like my mum.

“I suppose living in the environment had an affect on me. I had a really fun childhood. There are pictures of me knocking about dressed as a dalmatian and trying on all sorts of costumes. To my brother and I that was the norm.

“We got to try on all the designs and it became something of a tradition that any children in the family – or our extended family – became models for the business.”

Charlie Crow now employs 14 people and sells to schools as well as individuals all over the world.

Its popular lines for children include animals (the dalmatian is still a favourite, apparently), dinosaurs, fairies, Halloween, king and queen and Victorian fancy dress costumes.

Pete, who lives in Wetley Rocks with his wife Jade and their two young children Freyja and Leon, said: “We do obviously go through fads but some designs seem to be ever popular – like our ‘Ernest the Urchin’ which is similar to a sort of Dickensian Oliver Twist-type costume.

“We get a lot of requests for king costumes around Christmas time and last year we had a lot of people wanting king and queen costumes around the time of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

“It’s nice when I see one of our costumes being used – it gives us all our real buzz.

“The ideas for the costumes come from everyone – friends, family, me or my mum who still likes to design 10 costumes each year.”

Pete agreed that dressing up for children was one of the simplest and most enjoyable forms of play which fires the imagination.

He said: “Kids have always dressed up and always will. Parents can pick up, say, a witch’s costume in a supermarket for a few quid and the truth is ours cost a lot more than that.

“However, people soon realise that you get what your pay for and very often our costumes get handed down from one child to a younger brother or sister.”

Pete added: “Looking back I know that when people asked my parents what they did for a living and they said ‘delivering singing telegrams, running a joke shop or selling fancy dress costumes’ the conversation never stopped there. It was certainly never dull in our house.”

Mother Town miracle as local people shine for Christmas

Burslem's Christmas lights campaigners celebrate their success.

Burslem’s Christmas lights campaigners celebrate their success.

Campaigners determined to bring a little festive cheer to the Mother Town have smashed their fund-raising target to pay for Christmas lights.

Saddened by the fact that Burslem was the only town in the Potteries with no public decorations, they set about trying to raise £3,200 to pay for three sets of tree lights and seven sets of street lights.

But in just nine days campaign organisers Louise Worthington, John and Jayne Flint, June Cartwright and their families and friends raised more than £5,000 to light up the streets.

Their remarkable success means the town will now have four lit Christmas trees and eleven sets of street lights.

What’s more, the group have pledged to do the same again for 2013 and are planning a meeting in the New Year to kick-start 12 months of fund-raising.

Jayne, aged 43, who lives in High Lane, Burslem, said: “We are so proud of everyone who has been involved. This is a genuine example of a community pulling together.

“The generosity of people really does bring a tear to you eye and, as a result, Burslem will shine this Christmas.”

The campaign was prompted by council cutbacks of £84,000 which meant that only Hanley received local authority funding for Christmas decorations.

Traders and local people in Stoke, Fenton, Longton and Tunstall organised their own trees and lights but it was looking like Burslem would be left in the shadows.

Then last week Burslem locals began their campaign by creating a page on social network Facebook which quickly attracted more than 1,300 supporters.

Various events and collections were organised – including a disco and raffle at Burslem’s oldest pub, Ye Olde Crown – and Port Vale fans donated more than £1,000 on away trip coaches and before Tuesday night’s home game against Bradford City.

The 67th Burslem Scout Group and Vale mascot Boomer were among those rattling collection buckets at Vale Park.

Businesses across the Mother Town also contributed including: Kelly Molyneux & Co. Accountants; New Image tattoo parlour; Chillz bar; the Bull’s Head pub; The Swan pub; The Leopard pub and Barewall art gallery.

Autonet Insurance, based in Nile Street, spent £550 to purchase an additional set of Christmas tree lights and its managing director Ian Donaldson said the firm, which employs 600 people, was looking forward to working with the campaigners next year.

Meanwhile, the owners of the Artbay gallery in Fenton also donated a special print which was auctioned off to raise £150.

Stoke-on-Trent Markets gave £300 but the largest single donation came from recycling firm Acumen, based on Hot Lane, which donated £1,500 to the cause.

Contracts manager Adrian Moore said: “I read about the campaign in Friday’s Sentinel and wondered if we could help out.

“We are a company which employs around 35 people from the local area and our owner John Hodges was very keen to contribute. It is terrific the way local people and businesses have worked together for the common good to make Christmas special in Burslem.”

*The lights will be switched on tomorrow when Santa Claus emerges from The George Hotel.

How The Stone Roses transported me back to that glorious summer of 1989

It was one for my personal ‘bucket-list’. An ambition realised seemingly against all the odds. As the light faded over Manchester four stars came out to shine.

Like many others, I never thought I’d see the day: The Stone Roses were back on stage together again and it was simply glorious.

It didn’t matter that summer showers had reduced much of Heaton Park to a Glastonbury-esque mudbath.

It didn’t matter that a fair proportion of the 70,000-strong crowd were wasted on drink or drugs. Or perhaps both.

It didn’t matter that 30 feet to the left of us a man was randomly urinating as he danced about – a JD Sports carrier bag full of alcohol slung over his shoulder as he twirled around.

Not pleasant, granted, but it didn’t bother us overly.

When the first strains of I Wanna Be Adored swept across the expectant hordes there was an audible gasp.

The disparate elements of an Eighties musical phenomenon had been reunited and the resulting chemistry was irresistible.

When the Stone Roses’s seminal first album was released in April 1989 it seemed to perfectly capture that moment in time.

They had produced arguably the perfect debut album. There’s not a single duff track which is why it sounds as good today as it did when Eastern Europe was in revolution and Maggie’s Poll Tax was being inflicted on Scotland.

The Stone Roses were in the vanguard of a renaissance for British guitar bands.

Without the Roses there would arguably have been no Brit pop. There would certainly have been no Oasis.

That’s why everyone from the Gallagher brothers to artist Damien Hirst and even Hollywood icons like Brad Pitt have lined up to pay homage to four northern lads who gave music a good kick in the you-know-whats just when it needed it.

In 1989 yours truly was 17 and a student at Sixth Form College, Fenton.

I had a Saturday job at the Brittain Adams fireplace and bathroom showroom in Tunstall which paid me a tenner.

That was enough to pay for student night at Ritzy’s in Newcastle where indie kids like me could jig about to everything from the Happy Mondays and the Inspiral Carpets to The Wonder Stuff and Carter USM.

But the Stone Roses towered above all other bands of that era. They were simply a class apart.

Their music. Their look. Their attitude. It was all brilliantly distinctive.

The Roses’s debut album was the most played cassette tape in my mate Rob’s blue Ford Orion. He was the only one of us who had a car, you see.

Long before Manchester United’s multi-million pound heroes were running out on to the Hallowed turf at Old Trafford with This Is The One ringing in their ears, it was the euphoric warm-up track for our pool team at the now-defunct Duke of Wellington pub at Norton.

On Sunday night in Manchester it was, for me, the high-point of a two-hour gig which transported me back to my days of long(ish) hair, baggy jeans and no responsibilities.

The classics flowed, along with the beer, as Fools Gold, Sally Cinnamon, Sugar Spun Sister, Made Of Stone and I Am The Resurrection brought the memories flooding back.

Square and safe as we were, my mates and I never did drugs and so seeing the ‘popper’ sellers on the streets and spaced-out people falling over in the mud was something of a shock. I guess we just forgot how strange and brave things were as the Eighties came to a close.

Will Ian, John, Mani and Reni manage to stick together to complete this tour?

Will we ever see a third album and will it be any good?

Who knows.

But for a brief moment at least the Mancunian band’s brilliance has been reignited for a new generation – as well as old gits like me and my mate Rob for whom the memory of last Sunday will forever be special.

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