Lessons cancelled for a bit of television history

It’s one of my most vivid memories from primary school and one of those televisual events from the Eighties which, like the Falklands Conflict and the Live Aid concert, gripped the nation.

I was 10 at the time and probably recall it so well because it meant something other than lessons for the pupils at was Holden Lane First and Middle School in Sneyd Green.

We shuffled into the assembly hall to sit in rows on the cold floor in front of the school’s one, large colour TV which rested on a trolley in front of the stage.

What unfolded before us over the next couple of hours was pure drama and kept 120 under-11s amazingly quiet and interested.

It was a scene, I’m sure, that was repeated at schools across the country as archaeology came to the masses.

The first few timbers of the Mary Rose broke the surface just after 9am on October 11, 1982, cradled in the arms of a chunky yellow lifting rig.

For someone like yours truly, fascinated by history, it was a tremendous bit of telly and I can’t quite believe it is 30 years ago this week.

First there was the genuine concern that the salvage operation would not be successful – pioneering as it was.

It had taken years of planning and had been delayed by the fact that a detachment of Royal Engineers, who had been working on the project, had been forced to pull out because they had more pressing business with Argentines soldiers in the South Atlantic.

Indeed, the operation was not without its hairy moments – like when a corner of the frame slipped a full metre and we all gasped in horror and the thought of Henry VIII’s flagship disintegrating.

The commentators filled our heads with doomsday scenarios of the hull snapping or the wood deteriorating with exposure to 20th century air.

We simply crossed our fingers that everything would be OK and wondered what treasures the Tudor time capsule would yield when it was eventually brought ashore.

The raising of the Mary Rose was one of the most ambitious and expensive operations in the history of maritime archaeology.

It was significant in that the people behind the privately-funded project weren’t forced to sell-off bits of their treasure trove to cover their costs and led to the creation of the first historic shipwreck museum in the UK to receive funding from the Government.

Mum and dad took my brother and I down to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard to visit the Mary Rose Museum when I was in my early teens and I remember standing on the viewing balcony over looking the great hulk which was being sprayed with salt water.

The great warship had been sailing to attack a French fleet when she sank in the Solent – the straits north of the Isle of Wight – on July 19, 1545.

It was no surprise then that among the 26,000 artifacts recovered were weapons which gave us a window on warfare during the Tudor period – including cannons, guns, longbows and arrows.

But the Mary Rose was a floating community which is why everything from casks containing food and drinks to chests of carpentry tools were also salvaged along with rosaries, musical instruments, navigation equipment, clothing and even medical supplies used by the ship’s barber surgeon.

The silt of the Solent had preserved many of the objects well but the underwater environment which had been their home for hundreds of years had made them sensitive to exposure to air. Thus, for the last three decades, work to conserve the wreck and its artifacts has been unceasing.

Millions of pounds have been spent on the Mary Rose to preserve this Great British treasure for future generations.

The final phase if the conservation process – controlled air drying of the hull – is expected to be completed no later the 2015.

I’m sure old Henry would be proud.

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

1982: The year I realised there was life beyond Sneyd Green…

Let’s turn back the clock 30 years. Yours truly was tubby, aged 10, and at infant school.

I was still happily playing with a tin of toy soldiers and nipping over the railings for a game of footie on the high school playing fields of a weekend (goalkeeper, obviously, because this asthmatic didn’t do much running about).

Then things changed. This was the year I looked beyond Sneyd Green and started to take notice of, well… other stuff.

I think this was because 1982 was a momentous year – for all sorts of reasons.

Indeed, I’m convinced it was the events of those 12 months which switched me on to current affairs.

No, I’m not talking about the arrival of the BMX or the ZX Spectrum home computer – I had neither.

Nor did I go in for Deely Boppers, ra-ra skirts or leg warmers – which all made their bow in ’82.

I’m not talking about the launch of Channel 4 with its first edition of Countdown, either.

No, what struck me when I watched the evening news was the crushing misery of real life.

Unemployment hit three million for the first time since the Thirties and I learned what a dole queue was.

Of course, there was no bigger story than the Falklands Conflict – which unfolded before our eyes on television from April to June.

For a starters, my mum suggested we stop buying Fray Bentos steak and kidney pies because of their country of origin. She only suggested it, mind.

As a 10-year-old I recall being worried as Maggie’s Task Force sailed off but I didn’t really know why.

The Falklands Conflict was the first ‘war’ which us Brits witnessed via nightly updates on the TV news.

For anyone who saw them, even a youngster like me, there are certain names and images which will be seared into your mind.

Mirage fighter planes, Exocet missiles, Harrier jump jets, Goose Green, Mount Tumbledown, the blazing Sir Galahad, the sinking General Belgrano.

For the 74-day duration of the conflict pictures were beamed into our living rooms every teatime – exposing for the first time the full horrors of war to us back home.

In the end, we won, but the cost was steep: 255 British military personnel, almost 650 Argentine military personnel and a handful of Falkland Islanders died.

Last year I met Simon Weston OBE – the remarkable survivor of that fire on the Sir Galahad – at a theme park in Cornwall of all places. He remains an inspiration.

Television also provided other vivid memories of that year for me.

In October I was one of more than 120 pupils at Holden Lane First and Middle who huddled around the school’s only beast of a TV and watched as King Henry VIII’s flagship the Mary Rose was raised from the murky depths of The Solent.

This was history at its most exciting and I was hooked for life.

I also watched virtually every game of the World Cup in Spain and very nearly completed the Panini Sticker album for the tournament – eventually giving up on a couple of Hungarian midfielders.

It was a year to be Italian and I recall the Boys’ Brigade lads playing football on the grass up at Wesley Hall Methodist church (trees for goalposts) all wanting to be Paolo Rossi.

1982 was also a year of contrasting royal stories. There was joy for the House of Windsor when Diana, Princess of Wales, gave birth to her son and future heir to the throne Prince William in June.

But a month later I remember being horrified that the Queen had spent 10 minutes chatting to intruder Michael Fagan when she woke up to find him sitting on the end of her bed.

Ten-year-old me was genuinely concerned about Her Majesty’s safety for several days after that.

Thirty years later and our Liz is approaching her Diamond Jubilee so I guess I needn’t have worried.

Happy anniversary, your Majesty.

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

Why are we allowed to waste our money on fireworks?

I think, that at 39, I am officially old. It’s not the increasing prevalence of grey hairs which makes me feel this way.
No. It is my intolerance for people having fun in relation to one of our great British traditions.
I simply cannot get my head around our fascination with fireworks and the fact that ordinary people are able to get their hands on enough ordnance to, er, blow up the Houses of Parliament.
I have no problem with Guy Fawkes’ Night, bonfires or the peculiar notion of marking a terrorist attack which almost wiped out the government and killed our King.
It’s just the manner of the celebrations which leaves me scratching my head.
It’s not even as if the British firework industry is key to our economy. It only generates about £20 million a year.
So could someone explain to me why middle-aged blokes are allowed to leave supermarkets carrying armfuls of explosives?
It is all I can do to stop myself saying: “Mate. That must have cost you fifty quid and, if you don’t maim yourself in the process, they’ll be gone in five minutes.”
In a country where the gun laws are among the tightest in the world we are perfectly happy for untrained oiks to let off shedloads of fireworks in their back garden.
Inevitably some of these are handled by the inept, those under-the-influence and the underage – leading to an annual spike in injuries and fatalities.
But nobody seems to care.
I guess part of my incredulity stems from a childhood bereft of domestic firework parties.
Only once did my dad put on a fireworks display – when he went halves with Mr Macdonald over the road.
I would have been nine or 10 and, apart from the novelty of holding a sparkler for the first time, I recall spending the evening mithered to death that my dad was going to blow himself up.
I blame this on a project we did at Holden Lane First and Middle School on the firework code and those terrifying Seventies firework safety adverts on the telly.
You remember: One ended with the words: “Make sure your child doesn’t start November 6th like this…” and a picture of a little girl with third degree burns.
As it turned out, the Tideswell firework display was all over in about half an hour and everyone agreed it was something of a damp squib.
After that, each November 5 was the same. My brother and I were given extra pocket money and we sat looking out of the bay window in mum and dad’s room watching everyone else’s fireworks.
I can honestly say I never felt like I missed out and I could never understand the waste of money.
Basically, if you want see some fireworks on Bonfire Night then stand outside your front door between 6pm and 11pm and you can enjoy everyone else’s for free.
Why would you spend £30, £40 or even £50 or more on your own fireworks?
If anyone wants to see money go up in smoke I suggest they set fire to their wallets. It’s less noisy.
Of course, there are other well-documented downfalls to the availability of fireworks for domestic use.
Every night for the two weeks leading up to November 5 we have to listen to random explosions.
This isn’t much fun if you have pets. Watching your dog hide behind the sofa, in wardrobes and even in the bath in a vain attempt to escape the incessant barrage is pitiful.
Even New Year’s Eve has become a firework fest – with people waiting until the stroke of midnight to ruin the night of anyone with young children.
On Saturday night I took my two, now aged five and seven, with their friends to a free, 20-minute display in a local park.
They enjoyed the show, the excitement of being out in the dark and munched a chocolate-covered apple on a stick. Job done.
These days there are so many professionally-run, safe bonfires and firework displays for families to enjoy – many of which are free or in aid of charity – that I don’t understand why anyone would go it alone. Or, indeed, why they are allowed to.

The 80s gave us some great toys… and a few to forget


I had to smile when I read that sales of LEGO were up by 25 per cent in the first six months of this year.
Astonishingly those little plastic blocks and their assorted figures currently account for seven per cent of the global toy market.
Which just goes to show that, in spite of fads, fashions, gadgets and gizmos, not much can compete with the simple pleasure of building with your imagination and then starting again from scratch.
As a child I loved LEGO. In fact, LEGO is one of my claims to fame. No, really, it is.
I’ll have you know that my space station was judged third in the Christmas LEGO building competition at the Lewis’s department store in Hanley.
The year was 1983. I was 11 at the time and it was my single greatest achievement – surpassing even the moment when Glyn Shelley and I won the wheelbarrow race at Holden Lane First and Middle School’s sports day.
Never mind the phrase ‘Like a kid in a sweet shop’, the toy department at Lewis’s was quite literally my favourite place in the world.
It was worth a trip to Hanley and the associated trudge around clothing stores for the treat of a Tiko’s pasty with gravy and a gander at what we couldn’t afford in the Aladdin’s cave that was Lewis’s toy department.
Apart from anything else that’s where Santa’s grotto was – the magical appeal of which never faded, for me.
Being a lad in the Eighties it was all toy soldiers, Action Man and the like for yours truly. Not forgetting, LEGO, of course.
Back then, the range of LEGO was far more modest. None of this movie tie-in mullarky that you get these days.
I was the proud owner of two space sets (still in mum’s wardrobe) while my brother Matthew was given the very dull airport and far more exciting castle set.
LEGO, which takes its name from the Danish phrase ‘leg godt’ which means ‘play well’, is one of those toys which I associate with my childhood in the Eighties.
But you may be surprised to discover that it’s not just LEGO that is still filling Christmas stockings and Santa sacks a quarter of a century later.
Many iconic Eighties toys are still in production and selling by the bucketload as parents like me try to inflict their childhood passions on their children.
For example, last year one of those toys I always wanted but never got made a comeback.
Who could forget BigTrak – the six-wheeled tank which looked like something from Star Wars?
It had headlamps and a keypad into which you could programme instructions like ‘move forward five lengths’, ‘turn 30 degrees right’ or ‘fire phaser’ and such like. Genius.
In 1984 I was just the right age to be hooked by Transformers – AKA robots in disguise.
You know, the big red truck Optimus Prime and his mechanical buddies versus the evil (and much cooler) Megatron – leader of the Decepticons.
I distinctly remember spending a big chunk of my Sentinel paper round money on the Transformers comic and loving the cartoon series which had spawned it.
Despite the best efforts of critics, today’s youngsters (and their dads) are still lapping up Transformers action nearly 30 years later thanks to three eminently-forgettable movies.
Slightly less complicated and far more infuriating is the toy which screams Eighties louder than shoulder pads, big hair and ripped jeans – the Rubik’s Cube.
A staggering 350 million cubes have been sold since the 3-D mechanical puzzle debuted in 1980.
I knew plenty of people who owned them but not one who could actually solve the puzzle.
Having said that I owned the cheapo version which was in the shape of a ball and I could fashion something which vaguely resembled a cobra snake. If you squinted, anyway.
Still going (I won’t say strong) with its third animated series planned for next year is the absurdly-named Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
I was never a fan of Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello but millions of children were – which explains the comics, cartoons, toys, video games and a turkey of a movie.
Oh, and the phrase ‘Cowabunga’. Sorry for the flashback.
It isn’t just boys’ toys that have stood the test of time, either.
The Eighties has to take responsibility for inflicting The Care Bears, My Little Pony and the Cabbage Patch Kids on an unsuspecting public.
Three decades later, because I’ve got two little girls, I’m still dodging the first two on children’s TV channels while doing my best to pretend the latter never existed.
I love the Eighties but some things are simply indefensible.

No real concerns about the class of 2011


That increase in traffic which has added 20 minutes to your journey into work can only mean one thing: The school holidays are over.
While many parents will be breathing a huge sigh of relief that their little darlings are out from under their feet, others – like yours truly – are experiencing entirely different emotions.
My little ’un, Mina, starts school in the next few days which means that I am (all-at-once) sad, proud and mithered to death.
It’s not like we haven’t planned for this day.
The Hello Kitty lunchbox and water bottle have been in the cupboard for months, along with the bottle green sweaters, grey pinafores and white t-shirts.
We’ve put in the hard yards with regards reading, writing and arithmetic.
Mina has had stories every bedtime without fail since she was six months old and has been doing mock homework with her big sister since she was three.
She turns five in a couple of weeks and will therefore be one of the oldest children in the class.
Nevertheless, I can guarantee you that when she puts her uniform on for the first time there will be tears. There will be from me, anyway.
I can only recall one thing from my first few days at Holden Lane First and Middle School in Sneyd Green back in September 1976.
I remember that my coat peg had a boat on it.
I loved that little boat but I have it on good authority that it didn’t prevent me from screaming the place down when my mum dropped me off – every day for the first week or more.
Apparently, I clung to mum’s leg for grim death and had to peeled away from her by the nice Mrs Holmes.
Of course, things have changed a lot since those days – apart from the coat peg scenario – but I am still viewing Mina’s arrival at school with trepidation.
I am sad because there will be no more ‘daddy days’ at home with my little girl.
No more trips to Asda for tea and toast after we’ve walked the dog.
No more cuddles on the settee while watching Scooby-Doo.
No more priceless little chats with Mina about everything from what is the point of belly buttons to what goes on in heaven.
I really will have to get stuck into the housework, now.
Yes, however you dress it up, your child’s first day at school is a great leap into the unknown.
They say you never get two the same and my girls are like chalk and cheese and so I can’t even look back on Lois’s first weeks at school for pointers.
Thus I am currently beset by the same nagging fears I had for Lois.
Will Mina remember how to button up her cardie, zip her coat and remember all the dos and don’ts of toilet time?
Will she make friends or be left standing there on the playground at lunchtime looking all forlorn? Will she be picked on?
Will she have the confidence to stick her hand up in class and ask a question or tell the teacher when she knows the answer?
Hang on a minute, this is Mina…
She thinks nothing of handling creepy crawlies that would have most girls (and some grown-ups) hiding under a quilt.
She stood on stage in front of 800 people at The Regent Theatre during the song sheet for my pantomime and sang Baa Baa Black Sheep to Jonny Wilkes.
She swims, rides horses and is built like a pocket battleship.
Come to think of it, the only real concern I have is that Mina remembers that she is not actually Black Widow from The Avengers cartoon and therefore keeps the simulated martial arts in the playground to a minimum.

Will yours truly be any good in panto? Judge for yourself…

Potteries stage star Jonathan Wilkes at the press launch for the Dick Whittington pantomime.

Potteries stage star Jonathan Wilkes at the press launch for the Dick Whittington pantomime.

Once the word got out, amid the hysterics from my colleagues, the first question I was asked was: “Do you have to share a sweaty costume with Robbie’s dad?”

The second question was: “Do you have to sing?”

Mercifully, the answer to both appears to be no – but yes I will be appearing in this year’s Christmas pantomime at Hanley’s Regent Theatre.

When I broke the news to The Sentinel’s Editor-in-Chief, he said it was a marvellous idea. He has, rather predictably, referred to me as ‘Buttons’, ever since.

The gaffer’s personal assistant laughed so hard at the thought of it I feared she had done herself an injury.

But that’s kind of the reaction you’re hoping for, I guess, if you are prepared to dress up in medieval garb and tights for a bit of slapstick festive comedy.

Working in a newsroom for 20 years makes you fairly thick-skinned anyway.

There’s what you might term a ‘robust’ atmosphere – i.e. everyone takes the Mickey out of everyone else – and there’s very little room for shrinking violets.

The panto role came about when Jonny Wilkes rang me to ask how I felt about taking over from Pete Conway and playing his character in the second half of the run.

To be honest, it was a no-brainer – once I’d got the necessary permissions from my family and employer and convinced myself I wasn’t going to let anyone down.

After all, if it’s good enough for The Fonz (AKA American actor Henry Winkler who is appearing in panto in Liverpool), then it’s good enough for me.

Let’s face it, it’s a fantastic opportunity to experience what’s it’s like to be on stage in front of thousands of people for a couple of weeks with the likes of Wilkesy and the legendary Sheila Ferguson.

I’ll also get to see what really goes on behind the scenes (before, of course, dutifully reporting any gossip back to Sentinel readers).

In addition, this unexpected opportunity gives me the chance to work with Su-Annagib – winner of Stoke’s Top Talent 2009.

I was a judge again this year and, while the other Top Talent judges all bring theatrical expertise to the panel, I’m there very much as a representative of the audience.

Next year, however, I’ll be able to draw upon my own memories of Su’s panto journey – which will hopefully be her first step on the road to a career in musical theatre.

And it is not as though I am without some pedigree in the performing arts…

In 1981 I was the court chamberlain in a play at Holden Lane First and Middle School in Sneyd Green. I was nine.

Wearing a large cloak and strange hat, I carried a metal-tipped staff and banged it down hard on the stage three times.

What’s more, I can even remember my lines. I bellowed: “His majesty, the King!” Followed by: “Her majesty, the Queen!”

That was it.

I suspect I’ll have a few more words to say as Alderman FitzSentinel in The Regent’s production of Dick Whittington.

The draft script was 85 pages long and my character appears on at least half of them, so this is no walk in the park.

In fact, I’ve already had the ‘forgetting my lines on stage’ dream.

“Oh no you haven’t.” Oh yes, I honestly have.

Will I be any good? You’ll have to judge that for yourself.

However, I’m acutely aware that a lot of people pay good money to enjoy this Christmas tradition that I am privileged to be a part of and so I will give it my all.

There is, of course, a precedent for an amateur in this type of role at The Regent. Signal Radio’s Andy Goulding had this gig for a few years and I reckon anything a DJ can do a local newspaper hack can do just as well… if not better.

My daughters (aged three and five) weren’t too sure about it all when I told them dad would be on stage.

(They want to sit with me, you see, and share my pic ‘n’ mix).

But they soon warmed to the idea of me wearing a funny costume and making everyone laugh. At least, that’s the plan.

Recently, I spoke to my colleague John Abberley before he wrote very eloquently and powerfully about his battle with cancer. It was something I could identify with.

John reminded me that life is short – and so I’m seizing the moment.

Roll on December 23…

Are school days really that different to 30 years ago?

Believe it or not, I can remember moments from my first day at school.
Only brief flashes, of course. Well it was 33 years ago…
Amazingly, I can actually recall the fear as I walked down the corridor at what was Holden Lane First and Middle School for the first time.
I vividly remember being shown my coat peg denoted by a tiny picture of a boat which cheered me up somewhat.
I also have a recollection of watching in fascination as a lad (who I later came to know as Ian Holmes) picked his nose, showed me his dirty finger and then ate what he’d found up his right nostril.
I can even tell you where we were when he did it. We were kneeling at the goldfish pond which was set into the floor of the classroom – the very thought of which is doubtless enough to give modern Health and Safety types a coronary.
I entered this daunting new environment as a shy, fat, four-year-old who couldn’t tie his own shoelaces.
I can now tie my shoelaces.
When I entered school for the first time, I had mastered the art of visiting the little boys’ room alone (so I’m reliably informed), could write my own name and loved having stories read to me.
I was, in every way, an unremarkable child.
And, according to one teaching union, I was very lucky to attend school when I did back in the good old days of the mid-Seventies.
Lesley Ward, the new president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), paints a grim picture of UK primary schools in September 2009.
The ATL chief says children from some of the poorest communities are coming to school for the first time unable to dress themselves, use a knife and fork, or without being toilet trained.
I don’t doubt for a second the veracity of these claims, but I wonder just how widespread these problems are. Does she have any empirical data, or are we relying on the anecdotes of a number of disgruntled ATL members?
Whatever the basis of these claims, I’m getting rather sick and tired of the growing trend for parent and child-bashing and this assumption that everything was rosy way back when.
Like many mums and dads, last week was very special for me because my eldest started school.
She skipped in full of confidence kitted out in a lovely new uniform which made her look two years older than she actually is and left dad outside – a gibbering wreck.
Her school is lovely. It’s clean, safe, modern – and without a goldfish pond to be seen.
The school and its staff are regularly inspected to within an inch of their lives.
Healthy eating and exercise are key ingredients of the school’s philosophy and the curriculum is broad and stimulating.
Lois can write her own name, knows all the letters of the alphabet, can count up to forty-odd (by which time she gets a bit bored), can dress herself and isn’t half bad with paints, pencils and crayons. Through weekly gym sessions and constant encouragement from mum and dad she’s also become fit and physically confident.
But, at this age, the truth is my pride and joy is probably indistinguishable from most other new starters at her primary school.
She has stories read to her every night before bed by mum, dad, grandparents and assorted family friends and every day we try to improve her reading, writing and general knowledge.
And guess what? We are in no way unique.
Countless thousands of parents the length and breadth of this country do the same.
I’ve no doubt there are some unfortunate children who arrive at school on their first day less prepared than their peers. Sadly, their parents either don’t care or haven’t the time or the skills to devote to developing their offspring.
As a result, they will go through life at a distinct disadvantage.
But this is nothing new. T’was ever thus.
I’m sure we can all name a child from our own school days who fits this description.
But rather than labelling the current crop of school children as somehow inferior or unskilled in comparison to previous generations, why don’t we look at the glass half full for a change?
After all, how many four-year-olds back in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties – for example – were capable of using a mouse and PC keyboard to navigate a website?
None. We didn’t have any.
That’s just one positive example of the differences between the majority of youngsters today and the nursery class at a Sneyd Green primary school in 1976.
I bet they still pick their noses, though.