Pay our brave soldiers the respect they deserve

It is a sad fact that the veterans of World War II won’t be with us for much longer to mark cataclysmic events such as the D-Day Landings.

This weekend’s incredibly poignant commemorations of the invasion which spelt the beginning of the end for the Nazi war machine involved old soldiers who are now in their mid to late eighties.

It is 65 years since they joined 160,000 allied troops in the largest ever, single day amphibious assault and, one by one, the last of that great generation are making their final salutes.

When you read their memories of that momentous time in history it is incredibly humbling.

None of them consider themselves heroes. They just “had a job to do”, as one Fenton veteran put it last week.

This statement seems patently ridiculous to most of us and is one which, perhaps, only servicemen and women can truly understand.

Suffice to say that it is because of such individuals that people like myself are able to sit around pontificating the rights and wrongs of major world events such as the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We may not always believe that the actions of our Armed Forces are justified.

However, the truth is that most of us have family or friends who have, at some point, risked their lives for Queen (or King) and country.

Take my own family, for instance. The bloke on the end of the bottom row on the picture above is my great grandfather, William Tansey. Or should I say, private William Tansey, of B Company, 1st Battalion, the North Staffs Regiment.

He died forty odd years before I was born.

However, his First World War medals – the 1914-18 ‘Mons Star’, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal – came into my possession when my nan died a few years ago.

They, and the picture of him with his comrades, taken before they shipped out to France, are among my most treasured possessions.

I never knew William Tansey but I have very fond recollections of another ex-serviceman in my family.

My mum’s brother, David Colclough, who lived in Cobridge all his life, was – to borrow a quaint phrase – one of the nicest men ever to put on a pair of shoes.

To me, he was just uncle Dave – the man who made me bacon and potato pie, let me watch The Lone Ranger on Saturday mornings while my mum was out shopping (back when Burslem had shops and an indoor market) and taught me to recite all the ranks in the British Army off by heart.

He never spoke of his war service but I know his glass eye was the result of a shrapnel wound and that he was held captive in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

Uncle Dave died in 1994 but my grandfather’s brother – my great uncle Dennis Tideswell – is still going strong.

Dennis, who lives in Bucknall, is a veteran of the Malayan Emergency, when he fought in the jungle with the Worcestershire Regiment, and he often speaks with great fondness of his old pals in the forces.

He has an infectious enthusiasm which he channels into organising reunions for ‘the lads’, as he calls them, and is involved in organising the annual veterans’ celebrations in the city.

Dennis is a true gentleman and, like my great-grandfather and my uncle Dave, I am extremely proud of him.

As you read this, many of our servicemen and women continue to risk their lives in the heat of the Middle East.

It is in recognition of these brave men and women, as well as all those before them who have fought for us in various wars and conflicts around the globe, that the Armed Forces Day parades will take place across the country later this month.

So, on June 27, let us pay them the respect they deserve and show them just how grateful we are.

Moreover, when you next visit Morrison’s supermarket at Festival Park, rather than being solely focused on your shopping list, make a point of clocking the roundabout and say a little prayer of thanks for our own Victoria Cross winner, Lance-Sergeant Jack Baskeyfield, whose bravery at Arnhem is immortalised with that impressive statue.

And, when you next see a soldier, smile at him or her or, better still, buy them a drink.

They are special people for special circumstances and, irrespective of the passing of time, this is something we must never forget.

We must be more proud of our stunningly-rich heritage

Until this week I thought I was reasonably well versed in the history of the Potteries.

Then I met the Reverend Robert Mountford, founder of City Vision Ministries in Burslem and a passionate local historian.

He’s a bit like TV favourite Simon Schama… having taken the drug ‘speed’.

In 25 minutes Robert raced through his presentation on the history of what we now call ‘the Potteries’ from the time of the Celts to 2009.

The truth is, he could have talked for hours. And hours. Such is the fascinating story of how North Staffordshire became the unique, diverse and ultimately flawed conurbation it is today.

Simple things stood out for me. For example – do you know where the name Stoke-on-Trent originates and what it means?

I have to confess, I didn’t.

Well, the first centre of Christian preaching and worship in the area (as early as the 7th Century AD) was situated in the valley at the place where the infant River Trent met the even smaller Fowlea Brook.

Stoke Minster now stands on this site. The name given to this ancient place of meeting and worship was ‘Stoke-upon-Trent’.

The name ‘Trent’ was originally Celtic and meant ‘the trespasser’ or ‘the flooding river’. ‘Stoke’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘stoc’, which meant in the first instance ‘a place’, but carried the usual, secondary meanings of ‘a religious place, a holy place, a church’, and ‘a dependent settlement’.

Thus the name Stoke-on-Trent could actually be translated as ‘the holy place upon the flooding river’.

I don’t know about you, but I quite like the sound of that. And the fact that the city’s roots can be traced back more than 1,400 years.

Of course, North Staffordshire’s history goes back much further than that.

Chesterton was a Roman fortress which archaeologists estimate was probably occupied from the late 1st to early 2nd Century AD.

Which means we have almost 2,000 years of history to talk about.

So why don’t we? Why are we so poor at trumpeting our rich past?

Is it because we are so often told that we shouldn’t keep harping on about the past?

Is it because critics blame our current social and economic difficulties on our inability to embrace change?

‘Why call yourselves the Potteries’, they say, ‘when there is so little of that industry left to be proud of’?

We may be resistant to change, but – conversely – there is certainly also something in the DNA of the average potter which makes him or her reluctant to crow about the area’s history and achievements.

Why? We should be shouting it from the rooftops.

Why isn’t every local school teaching Roman history through the eyes of the legionnaries based at Chesterton during the Flavian period?

Why aren’t all our children taught about the monks of Hulton Abbey?

Why isn’t the most important period in North Staffordshire’s history a bigger part of the curriculum in local schools? Aren’t Josiah Wedgwood, his mate James Brindley and the roots of the Methodist Church (which have direct links to trade unionism in this country) worth talking up?

What about the stories of the tens of thousands of local people who lived and died around the pits and pots on which the city built its worldwide reputation?

What about Burslem’s Second World War Victoria Cross winner Lance-Sergeant Jack Baskeyfield, and Butt Lane’s Reginald Mitchell whose Spitfire turned the tide of the Battle of Britain?

Shouldn’t they be lauded in our classrooms? I think so.

I had a truly brilliant history teacher at Holden Lane High, to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude. (That’s you, Geoff Ball).

Thus, this isn’t a criticism of the teaching profession. It’s more a plea for us, as a city, to strike the right balance between history and progress.

I suspect more tourists would visit us if we simply made more of our heritage.

“Come to see our factory shops”, we should say. “But don’t miss out on our interactive history trail.

“Learn about the Celts and Romans who lived here, sample the ruins of our Cistercian monastery, walk in the footsteps of the great pioneers of the Industrial Revolution, visit the birthplaces of the captain of the Titanic, an Arnhem hero, and the man whose aircraft defied the Luftwaffe.

“Oh, and don’t forget to pop in for a drink at Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor’s pub, drive past Robbie Williams’s old house and have your picture taken alongside Sir Stan’s statue. Have a nice trip!”

Welcome to North Staffordshire. (Not just that place on the way to Alton Towers).

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday