It’s good that, at last, we are giving due recognition to our Armed Forces

Mercian Regiment emblem.

Mercian Regiment emblem.

I don’t have a personal connection with 3Mercian, or The Staffords, as we call them in these parts.

Not unless you count the fact that my great-grandfather was with the North Staffords, fighting in France during the First World War.

Or the fact that the last commanding officer of The Staffords, before they became 3Mercian, is a mate of mine.

But I’ve always felt an enormous sense of pride in our local regiment, in its history and honours, and in the lads who don the uniform and do what must be one of the toughest jobs imaginable.

That was why I thought it was so important that we fought to save the name of The Staffords earlier this year when Ministry of Defence (MoD) cutbacks almost led to the name being erased from the Army’s Order of Battle.

During the summer I took my girls to the Staffordshire Regiment Museum at Lichfield.

We enjoyed looking at all the exhibits – from Great War machine guns, Waterloo colours and battle dioramas to medals for valour and the terrific Coltman VC Trench – a faithful recreation of a WWI frontline British trench, complete with sound effects.

What came across to me during that visit was that The Staffords is, and always has been, a collection of remarkable individuals, rather than simply a regiment or a unit – each man as important as the next.

When the news broke on Tuesday evening that one of the lads from 3Mercian had been killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan I experienced a strange mixture of emotions.

I found it incredible that anyone would be mad enough to do such a thing.

I felt desperately sad about such a tragic waste of life and the heartache that it will bring to the soldier’s family and friends.

I also felt enormous pride at being reminded that the fallen Stafford and his comrades have been out there in Helmand again, gutsing it out, and under no illusion that they may have to make the ultimate sacrifice for Queen and country.

Warrant Officer Class 2 Ian Fisher, who lived in Werrington, was killed doing the job he loved in the certain knowledge that his family and friends were justly proud of the man he was.

The loss of any British soldier is an absolute tragedy but it will always be felt more keenly in the areas where recruiting for his unit is strongest and that bond with a city, town or county will, to my mind, always be priceless.

That we view them as ‘Our Boys’ (or girls) has to be a good thing.

It is good to know then that this newspaper has always supported our troops – from as far back as the Zulu Wars to last week’s update on operations in Helmand province.

I’m told that soldiers on operational tours love to hear news from back home, whether that’s Stoke and Vale results or the stuff of day-to-day life that fills the column inches of The Sentinel Monday to Saturday.

By the same token, our readers – not simply relatives and friends of services personnel – are genuinely fascinated by the work they do and love to read about local lads ‘doing their bit’, as we say round here.

It’s a mutually-beneficial relationship and one which I value enormously. Long may it continue.

Last night I was asked to officiate at the signing of the local Armed Forces Community Covenant at the in Stoke.

This is an MoD initiative whereby local authorities across the country pledge to do more, in conjunction with other organisations (and, ultimately local businesses), to offer help and support to ex-services personnel who settle in the area.

This help and support can include guarantees to give job interviews, provide assistance with benefits and housing needs and generally help ease the transition from military life to a civilian one.

It was pleasing to see so many people at the King’s Hall last night and to hear that so many local organisations are prepared to give a virtual hug to some very worthwhile individuals who have served their country.

It is well documented that ex-services personnel, given the demands of their unique roles, often find it hard to adjust from military to civilian life, put down roots or start a new career.

In my view the least we can do, as a society and – more pertinently – as a city and county, is to offer them our full support and acknowledge the debt of gratitude we owe for the job they’ve done.

I’ve always felt that we should be more like America in our attitude towards services personnel.

The job they do is extraordinary and it is one which, in truth, very few of us are cut out for.

Perhaps, at last, we are starting to recognise this.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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Eurovision: Always terrible but at least it used to have a novelty value

Bucks Fizz in 1981.

Bucks Fizz in 1981.

Eurovision: A party political broadcast on behalf of Euro-sceptics if ever there was one.

Anyone wishing to persuade their compatriots that Britain really should leave the European Union as a matter of urgency simply has tell them to tune into BBC1 tonight for this annual cheese-fest.

Masquerading as a music contest, this bloated televisual nightmare is simply an excuse for all the other countries of Europe (especially France) to show just how much they dislike us.

Mind you, we don’t do ourselves any favours, do we?

I mean, Bonnie Tyler is this year’s United Kingdom Entry. Really?

Don’t get me wrong I’m as fond as the next man of her massive Eighties hit Total Eclipse Of The Heart.

The video alone – with its weird imagery taken at an all boys school where nudity and the consumption of drugs which make your eyeballs turn into small suns seems commonplace – is frankly unforgettable.

But if we are reduced to wheeling out stars from 30 years ago then surely we’d be better off opting for Duran Duran or asking Wham to reform.

I’ve nothing against the Welsh warbler selected to champion this Sceptered Isle in Malmö tonight, other than that she appears to be somewhat past her best.

I guess we’ll see when the block-voting by members of the former Soviet Union commences this evening.

Maybe it’s my age but I don’t remember it always being a foregone conclusion that the UK would receive fewer points than Lichtenstein.

Although, to be fair, during the 1980s the countries taking part in the competition were at least in Europe.

Nowadays they’ll take anyone – including Israel, Cyprus and various intercontinental countries such as Russia and Turkey.

My first memory of Eurovision is of the year when family-friendly Bucks Fizz were the toast of Europe.

The grinning four-piece, with their daring outfit change, won the contest in 1981 with Making Your Mind Up – a song so bad all the other countries in Europe voted for it so that we were forced to keep listening to it and seeing the group’s garish outfits on Top of the Pops.

These days, Eurovision has its own website and there’s even an app to download – should you run out of chores to do – which allows you to immerse yourself in competition trivia and learn all the words to Moldova’s entry.

Of course, 30 years ago – even though the contest was well-established there was still a huge novelty factor when countries most of us only knew from O-Level or GCSE geography came together on the same night via the wonder of the small screen in our living rooms.

Back then we laughed at the idiosyncrasies of Europe’s smaller nations – until, that is, they started beating us with songs which sounded like they’d been made up by a drunken medieval peasant.

We didn’t mind so much when Ireland’s Johnny Logan kicked off the decade by winning with What’s Another Year. At least we could understand what he was saying.

But did the Aussie-born singer really have to return in 1987 and win again with Hold Me Now? Surely there should be rules against that sort of thing.

I bet Terry Wogan agrees with me.

Of course, Eurovision in the Eighties also introduced the watching public to a little-known, Canadian-born singer by the name of Celine Dion whose Ne partez pas sans moi won first place for Switzerland in 1988.

She was 20 at the time, years before she hit full diva mode with her epic theme from the movie Titanic.

That victory launched Celine Dion on the path to global stardom. Yes, it’s Eurovision’s fault.

Oh well, at least we can thank it for the music of Abba.

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

Let’s have a proper debate about the UK’s membership of Europe

The European Parliament in Brussels.

The European Parliament in Brussels.

Amid the bizarre weather, the complaints about the gritting lorries, the flooding and the general January malaise, many people may have missed the debate on Britain’s membership of the EU.

But the issue which may not seem very important to us on a cold winter’s day in 2013 is sure to become THE political hot potato as the months tick by.

Indeed, there is a good chance that Europe – or rather the UK’s involvement with it – could be the topic which defines the next General Election.

David Cameron’s stated ambition to give the British people a referendum on the country’s membership of the EU was not entirely unexpected.

In response growing public discontent about the power of Brussels, the Prime Minister said it was ‘time for the British people to have their say”. (Well, if he’s still in power after the country goes to the polls, that is).

Mr Cameron has pledged an in/out referendum because he says the democratic consent for our membership of the EU is currently ‘wafer thin’.

Some Conservatives and Euro-sceptics branded the speech ‘statesmanlike’, saying it was long-overdue from a British Prime Minister.

Other political commentators felt it was ill-judged grand-standing which was bound to upset our continental neighbours and give businesses the jitters.

I think the truth lies somewhere in between these two extreme views.

Sentinel Letter writer Ivan Latham is unequivocal in his opposition to the referendum and the idea of this country leaving the EU.

He wrote: ‘The day the UK exits the EU is the day I will book the tickets for a one-way trip for our family back to Berlin.’

Mr Latham believes the country needs a Pro-European voice to ‘counter the whining of Little Englanders who comprise UKIP and Euro-sceptics.’

While I can’t agree that only those two camps are concerned about our membership of the EU – and, more importantly, all it entails – Mr Latham is right about one thing.

He questioned: ‘Just how educated is your average Brit to make an informed decision?’

The truth is we don’t tend to have enlightened debate about Europe in this country.

Discussions are always hi-jacked by those who would have us ditch what they see as a blood-sucking, federalist nightmare and those who would have us building even closer ties with Brussels.

Mr Cameron seems to have bet his party’s (and possibly the UK’s) medium-term future on 17 red, as it were, and is preparing to spin the wheel if re-elected.

The problem, as I see it, is precisely one of education because the British public, as it stands now, is in no position to cast a vote.

We simply don’t understand the arguments for and against membership of the EU and we don’t really know what’s at stake.

For example, the EU is, unquestionably, Britain’s key trading partner and one can understand UK businesses feeling nervous about severing the umbilical cord to the continent.

But the truth is no-one really knows what the effect would be on UK trade and jobs of us ‘opting out’.

It’s not as if being in the EU is the only option. Other countries within Europe trade with the EU while retaining far greater independence.

My fear is that there is a very real danger the facts will be lost amid the rhetoric and the mud-slinging.

One thing that I am sure the Pro-EU campaigners would not contest is that, in recent years, very real and genuine concerns have built up in British households about the growing influence of Europe in our daily lives.

There is a feeling among many (and I’m not just talking here about the far right, UKIP or fully paid-up Euro-sceptics) that the British Government and, indeed, our judicial system is slowly losing power to the behemoth that is the EU.

These issues are understandably wrapped up with concerns over immigration, over EU nationals ‘milking’ the British welfare system and moves towards constructs such as a European Army which many feel are undermining this country’s independence.

There is no getting away from the fact that the reason no British Government in recent years has held a referendum on Britain adopting the Euro over the Pound is because the powers-that-be know damn well it would have been a resounding ‘no’.

On this Sceptered Isle there’s never been much of an appetite for the EU project which countries like France and Germany have embraced so warmly in the light of wars which ravaged the continent.

In the light of the PM’s speech, now is the time for an honest and open on the pros and cons, the benefits and disadvantages of our membership of the EU.

How much does it cost the British taxpayer? How much do we, as country, receive in return? What are the genuine benefits of membership to your average Briton? How does the UK fare compared to countries such as France and Germany? Will opting out of the EU give this country greater controls over its borders and improve job prospects for British workers?

Ignore the hysteria. As my late Sentinel colleague John Abberley argued many times, asking such questions doesn’t mean you are anti-European, a racist or a troublemaker.

It simply means that you are asking the right questions – as you are perfectly entitled to do.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

Lessons to be learned from topless royal pictures

As a former agency hack, a wry smile creases my face when I hear the editors of British national newspapers speaking of their disgust and dismay at a French magazine’s decision to run with topless pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge.

Call me a cynic, but their stance couldn’t have anything to do with the imminent publication of the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press, could it?

The reaction reminds me of the BBC’s attempts to distance itself from those awful print journalists in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal and the demise of the News of the World.

It is hypocrisy of the highest order, in my book. As is the decision by Richard Desmond to try to close down the Irish Daily Star newspaper after its editor chose to publish the same images.

Another case of jobs and a news title being sacrificed, amid feigned outrage, to protect commercial interests.

Turn the clock back a few years, before the paranoia, and I dare say all the UK tabloids would have paid good money for said images of Kate Middleton.

What’s more, the British public would have bought the papers in their millions and poor Kate’s picture would have been adorning the walls of more than a few workshops and garages.

Let’s face it: for two decades or more, topless or scantily-clad women have been the staple currency of tabloid newsrooms – and members of the royal family haven’t been immune.

I was a cub reporter back in August 1992 when the Daily Mirror published topless images of the Duchess of York having her toes sucked by American businessman John Bryan while on holiday in a remote villa in the south of France.

Each to his or her own, I guess.
True, the episode did little for Fergie’s marriage to the Duke of York, but she recovered her reputation sufficiently to be flogging Wedgwood to the Yanks a few years later.

No matter how embarrassed or angry Prince William and the Duchess are right now, the truth is that this incident will blow over.

Their reputations are intact. Indeed, the French mag’s indiscretion seems to have simply served to endear the newlyweds even more to many people as they are, quite clearly, the victims.

There are understandable, continuous comparisons between the heir-to-the-throne’s wife and his late mother – Diana, Princess of Wales. There always will be.

The way in which the tabloid press dogged Diana throughout her marriage to prince Charles, and the involvement of the paparazzi in the tragic accident which led to her death, obviously means that Prince William’s relationship with the media will always be strained.

But we shouldn’t forget that the late Princess of Wales used and manipulated the media as and when it suited her, and so all is not as black and white as some would have us believe.

Let’s be clear: the photographer was wrong to take the pictures of William and Kate and the French magazine was wrong to publish them.

It is wrong now as it was wrong 20 years ago with Fergie.

What has happened in Aix-en-Provence was a gross invasion of privacy in a country which, ironically, is held up as a shining example because it has some of the world’s toughest privacy laws.

By the same token, the British press was right to refuse to publish the images of the topless Duchess.

You see, it’s one thing to justify printing images of a naked Prince Harry fooling about in a hotel room when they have already been seen by millions of people on the internet.

It is quite something else to expose the future Queen to such scrutiny when the images of her were taken by stealth in a private moment where she could have reasonably expected a degree of personal freedom.

There are several lessons to be learned here. Firstly, members of the royal family should not disrobe in public – and what I mean by that is basically: “Don’t take your kit off outside”. No matter where you are.

It may not seem fair and it may not be right, but the Duke and Duchess are – next to Brand Beckham – arguably THE most popular celebrities in Christendom and thus will spend the rest of their lives under the scrutiny of camera lenses – some of which will have a very long reach.

The second lesson to learn from this is that draconian privacy laws simply don’t work – as evidenced here. Those penning the final pages of the Leveson Inquiry report and recommendations would do well to take this onboard.

I’m all for the British national press cleaning up its act.

Indeed, I think it has and will further because the phone-hacking scandal is a genuine watershed moment.

However, we must be careful not to turn the pursuit of better standards into a witch hunt because a toothless, neutered press really would be neither use nor ornament.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Can Roy Hodgson’s England erase 46 years of hurt?

We’re doing it again, aren’t we? Building our hopes up. Having those ‘what if?’ conversations in living rooms, workplaces and pubs.

What if we can get past the group stage? What if Andy Carroll comes good? What if Roy Hodgson’s appointment is actually a stroke of genius? What if Rooney doesn’t get sent off?

Despite years of crushing disappointment and the failure of the ‘Golden Generation’ to shine, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and roll out the Three Lions song from Euro ’96.

It’s no longer 30 years of hurt. Or even 40. It’s, er… 46 years since the England football team actually won anything.

Since then we’ve had odd flashes of brilliance, the occasional dalliance with a semi-final and plenty of penalty shoot-out misery. But, for my entire life, it’s been soul-crushing, gut-wrenching, toe-curling disappointment and endless frustration. It’s been a montage of tears, tantrums, bizarre dismissals and the obligatory elimination courtesy of Teutonic spot kick efficiency.

OK. So we may not have had the most technically-gifted footballers in the world.

But we humble England fans would just like someone to explain to us why talented individuals who play out of their skins for their clubs in what is billed as the best league in the world become useless donkeys when they pull on an England shirt. Why does a lion of Istanbul become a lamb in Bloemfontein? Why does the top of the bill at the Theatre of Dreams suddenly get stage fright?

Is it because there’s no money at stake? Is it because their club contracts are so much more important? Is it because our many and varied managers have been deficient?

Or are we just, well, rubbish? Do we delude ourselves that we have ‘world class’ players when, in actual fact, they can’t do it on the biggest stages?

If we are being honest, it’s probably all of the above which explains the love/hate relationship England fans have with their team. Combine that with some pretty tepid or downright dire performances and we could be forgiven for chucking our St. George foam hats and red novelty wigs in the bin with our dog-eared copies of Hoddle and Waddle’s Diamond Lights.

In spite of all this, we can’t help ourselves but be reinvigorated with renewed optimism every time a major tournament comes around. It’s tribal, so I’ve been told.

We simply can’t prevent the hope of the glory.

We all have our favourite moments but some bond us together in the way that only sport can.

Moments such as captain marvel Bryan Robson scoring the fastest-ever World Cup goal against France at Spain in ’82.

Or never-booked Gary Lineker scoring a hat-trick against Poland at the ’86 World Cup in Mexico.

We get all choked up remembering Gazza’s tears at Italia ’90 and eulogise about THAT goal he scored against Scotland at Euro ’96.

We talk about Shearer and Sheringham dismantling Holland on that memorable night when we put four past the pass masters.

We recall David Platt’s sublime volley to end Belgium’s World Cup challenge.

We remember lion-hearted Stuart Pearce having the bottle to take a spot kick against Spain after messing up in a previous tournament shoot-out.

We savour shaven-headed Becks’ astonishing free kick against Greece and his fearless penalty against the Argies which exorcised the demons of his youthful indiscretion against Diego Simeone.
We enjoy replays of the 5 – 1 demolition of Germany in Munich when even Emile Heskey managed to score.

You see, England may have won nowt in the last four decades but we now have a rich history of glorious failure.

It is a heritage which marks us out as the nearly men of European and world football.

Roy Hodgson may be as dull as a dissertation on the Yellow Pages but that’s maybe no bad thing as, for once, expectation levels have not gone beyond the borders of reality.

Not just yet, anyway…

For now, at least, he’s our Roy and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is this year’s Theo Walcott.

As always, hope springs eternal in the birthplace of the beautiful game.

It’s back to two banks of four, men behind the ball and a big bloke up front.

All is well with the world.

Come on Engerland…

This is why the Second World War generation was so special…

I’m always moved by the death of an old soldier such as Dunkirk veteran William Brindley whose funeral was reported in weekend editions of The Sentinel.

It goes without saying that the passing of Bill represents a great loss to his family and friends.

Sadly his death also further erodes our links with a tumultuous period in this country’s history.

With the passing of each such individual then the risk of us losing perspective on what happened 70-odd years ago increases just a little.

You see, warfare has changed beyond all recognition in the last 40 years – both from the point of view of the combatants themselves and the public left mithering over them back at home.
I would argue it actually changed for us here in the UK back in 1982.

In a week or so we will be in reflective mood as we mark the 30th anniversary of the start of the Falklands Conflict.

It was all over in 74 days but the ‘war’ had a profound effect on the psyche of our nation.

For the first time, we didn’t have to just rely on national newspapers for updates on how ‘Our Boys’ (and girls) were doing.

Nightly television news bulletins beamed pictures into our living rooms and we viewed the horrors of war in full colour – albeit a heavily-edited version of the actual events.

We learned about the heroics of 2 Para and Lieutenant Colonel H. Jones’ at Goose Green.

We discussed the fall of St. Georgia, the battle for Mount Tumbledown and the strategic importance of the airfield at Port Stanley.

We marvelled at the Harrier Jump jet’s vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) ability and gave due respect to Prince Andrew for flying the Royal Navy’s Sea King helicopters into the danger zone.

We came to know that ‘the Argies’ had Skyhawk jets and French-made Exocet missiles. We watched the Sir Galahad burn. We watched HMS Sheffield sink.

The Falklands may have been almost 8,000 miles away and we may never have heard of them before April 1982 but for a couple of months that year we all lived and breathed the battle for those islands.

These days, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, any conflict anywhere in the world seems immediate, close and personal and we now take for granted up-to-the-minute television news updates.

Take, for instance, the reporting on the life or death clashes in Iraq or Afghanistan – which has been made so much easier thanks to the internet and satellite communications.

Wars and conflicts these days – while no less bloody or tragic – are better scrutinised, better explained and better understood.

What’s more, the advent of ‘smart bombs’ (or precision-guided munitions to give them their correct term), aerial drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) and more and more powerful and clinical weapons means that the art of warfare itself has changed radically. It’s simply no longer a case of who has the most troops, tanks and heavy artillery.

This certainly isn’t warfare as Bill Brindley and his mates in the North Staffordshire Regiment would recognise it.

Of the 1,000 men in the regiment who went to France with Bill only half of them returned. Let us stop for a second and just think about that: 500 men from just one regiment.

That’s more than the total number of deaths suffered by the UK thus far during operations in Afghanistan.

Our Bill lied about his age to get into the Army and signed up when he was just 17.

During the British Expeditionary Force’s evacuation from Dunkirk wounded Bill’s hospital ship was hit by a torpedo and sunk.

He was fished out of the water by a civilian in one of the many small boats which took part in the operation to rescue allied troops from Hitler’s encircling armies.

He then returned to the fray with the 8th Army – serving in North Africa, Italy, France and finally Germany.

This is Boy’s Own stuff – it really is. But the truth is, Bill’s story was fairly commonplace back then because it was a time of ordinary men and women doing extraordinary things.

These days the media analyses the minutiae of every tiny skirmish to the nth degree.

Just imagine what Sky News would have made of the Dunkirk evacuation – an event so momentous and powerful that we still refer to it to this day when referencing a never-say-die spirit.

Bill’s generation is special because they fought in a global war which threatened the sovereignty of our nation and shaped the very history of the world.

I dare say that never again will we see conflict on such a scale and with so much at stake for so many.

Bill and his comrades sailed and flew overseas not as global policemen but as genuine freedom fighters knowing that defeat meant their loved ones would suffer.

They were our last line of defence and their relatives and friends back in Blighty had absolutely no idea how the war would pan out or what fate would befall their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers.

Without the Bill Brindleys of this world who knows what Britain in 2012 would look like.

The Second World War generation may be dying off but we will remember them because we should remember them.

What’s more, it’s up to us left behind to instil in future generations the importance of the sacrifices they made and the debt we owe them.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel