15 years… but I’m only just starting, really

Our Sir Stan tribute.

Our Sir Stan tribute.

A £500 pay cut and a demotion. That’s what it cost me to land a job here at The Sentinel in October 1998.

To be fair to the then Editor-in-Chief, who I’ll admit to being a little intimidated by, there were no vacancies on the Newsdesk and so I began life at my home city paper as a reporter.

As for the pay cut, I think it was perhaps his way of saying: ‘You’re on probation. Just another reporter. Show me what you can do.”

Against all odds, I’m still here – 15 years later – having seen off (in the nicest possible way) two editors and almost 200 journalist colleagues who have retired, been made redundant, left the company, or, in some sad cases, passed away.

To say that The Sentinel has changed a great deal during that time would be an understatement – both in terms of our working environment and what we do.

When I started, our photographers were still developing prints in the dark room.

Fax machines were still de rigueur. There was no internet and mobile telephones were still like bricks.

Few people had them and the idea of sitting there and being ignorant of the world and everyone around you while fiddling with a phone would have seemed preposterous.

The internet was still very much a geek thing and if you wanted information you couldn’t just ‘Google it’ or fall back on Wikipedia.

You either telephoned someone, picked up a reference book or looked in our library – which is probably one of the reasons I have such a healthy respect for our archive.

Many of my colleagues (particularly the crotchety old, cardigan-wearing sub-editors) at our Festival Park offices would disappear off to the pub at lunchtime for a couple of pints to ‘liven them up’ for the afternoon.

Half the journalists regularly frequented the ‘smoking room’ which was located up a corner of our vast ground floor editorial department.

It stunk to high heaven and every time someone opened the door the awful smell wafted across the newsroom.

Those early days are a blur for me. Within two weeks of starting my job I was doing shifts on the Newsdesk – the engine room of any newsroom.

The hours were long, as they still are, and I’d be up at 4am to drive into the office and prepare the news list for morning conference.

We had seven editions back then – all printed on site and staggered throughout the day. I couldn’t help but feel proud of working here.

Within a couple of months of me joining the paper the gaffer had appointed me Deputy News Editor.

Since then I’ve been privileged to be News Editor, Head of Content, Assistant Editor and now Deputy Editor and columnist.

My memories of colleagues who have moved on are still fresh and my recollections of each role vivid.

Our campaigns – such as Proud of the Potteries, in answer to some half-baked survey which said Stoke-on-Trent was the worst place to live in England and Wales – really mattered to me, as a local lad.

When Sir Stanley Matthews died I remember the UK Press Gazette (the trade magazine for hacks) lauding the Blackpool Gazette for its special 24-page tribute to the great man which had been produced by its journalists who had worked ‘through the night’.

We had worked 24 hours straight and produced 64 pages for the next day. From scratch. I’ve still got a copy.

I recall our 20,000-signature campaign for a new North Staffs Hospital – taken to 10 Downing Street by a little lad who must now be old enough to go the pub.

I remember the first time I planned and compered a Sentinel event – Our Heroes in 2006. I was so nervous I couldn’t eat a thing and spilt red wine down my tux.

I remember the first Stoke’s Top Talent variety contest – with a queue of entrants snaking round the Victoria Hall at half eight on a Saturday morning.

I recall planning our first Young Journalist Awards and Class Act competition which gave away tens of thousands of pounds to local schools.

I’ll never forget the sheer terror of walking on stage at The Regent theatre in panto for the first time – and the strange mixture of elation and sadness as I took my final bow 33 shows later.

More recently I returned to news writing to help expose wrong-doing by former directors at Port Vale and was proud to be involved in the subsequent battle to save the club.

I was also privileged to travel down to London with two veterans to present our 17,000-strong petition to save the name of The Staffords.

And so it goes on.

Fifteen years ago this week I joined The Sentinel and now I look around the newsroom and there are only a handful of people who have been here longer than yours truly. Suddenly (and I’m not quite sure how it happened) I’m one of the old heads.

Thankfully I’ve still got Rob Cotterill, Dave Blackhurst, Steve Bould and Dianne Gibbons to look up to.

Astonishingly, they’ve more than 150 years’ service between them.

All local. All proud.

I guess I’m only just starting, really.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel


We’ve all this technology so why does it feel like we’re going backwards?

The little ‘chat’ screen on the bottom right hand corner of my Facebook page popped up. It was my cousin Steven in New Zealand.

“Great win for Vale,” he wrote, before informing me that he’s been flat-hunting in Wellington for his daughter who is about to take up a job as an air hostess.

A quick exchange of messages and he was off to bed, leaving yours truly, who is stuck in the office, to marvel at the wonders of modern technology which allow me to hook up regularly with a bloke who is 11,500 miles away.

This same technology has allowed me to plan my first trip to the States later this year – with the help of an American friend on the same social networking site who is going halves with me on hotel costs. Result.

Chez Tideswell now has a brilliant, super-fast computer in the living room which all of us (including my five and seven-year-olds) use for both work and play.

The little ’uns are on there most days playing superhero games or navigating their school’s ‘virtual learning environment’ – their mastery of the mouse never ceasing to amaze me.

Meanwhile, we grown-ups log in to do a bit of work from home or use the computer to pay for shopping with plastic, check cinema times or just look stuff up.

At the same time our mobile telephones are never far away – beeping, buzzing or flashing to tell us we’ve had a text message or email.

It’s all about that instant connection, the must-have applications and essential convenience for our ‘busier-than-ever’ lives.

The strange thing is that for all the advancements and the benefits, for all that the world has never been a smaller place, I dare say many of us have never felt more alone.

Notorious Eighties throwback I may be, but I can’t help but feel that because of all this technology we’ve actually lost something very precious.

Take social networking, for example: It’s brilliant for keeping in touch with people you don’t see very often or who live overseas and it’s a wonderful tool for organising reunions, charity dos and the like.

It can also be a great force for good, for bringing together like-minded people and, as I discovered recently, for finding lost pets.

More to the point, however, it’s a whingers’ paradise filled with the minutiae of people’s lives that even they can’t possibly find interesting.

Whereas a few years ago every street had the nosey-neighbour curtain-twitchers who knew everything, these days it’s far easier for anyone with a PC.

Just log on to Facebook for streams of: ‘I can’t believe it’s Monday. Can’t be bothered with work’; ‘I’m sooooooo fed up :-(’; ‘I am so lucky to have such-and-such in my life’; or ‘After all I’ve done for you and you treat me like this’ type nonsense.

Worse still is the: ‘Joanne Bloggs is 18 weeks pregnant today which means her baby is the size of a satsuma’ type updates. I kid you not.

This is all done for attention, of course, with people failing to realise there’s a fine line between sharing something funny or unusual with a virtual community and filling up other people’s ‘news feeds’ with pointless drivel.

Like an addiction, social networking cons many users into thinking that they must post daily – or even every couple of hours – despite the fact they have nothing of any consequence to say.

Rather than getting out meeting real people or having friends and relatives visit them, it seems many social networkers would rather sit at their computers having virtual relationships where caring involves simply clicking the ‘like’ button. Surely that can’t be healthy.

There are at least a couple of generations now who have grown up with this technology and, because of it, many of them are seriously socially-challenged.

Teenagers have always been renowned for being know-it-all ignoramuses but mobile telephones have taken this to a whole new level.

In my youth Walkmans were seen as the big evil because they produced zombies who were unable to acknowledge the existence of others. Nowadays it’s worse because you have children who are either texting, tweeting or updating their Facebook statuses while listening to music and ignoring you at the same time.

If I’m coming across as an old fart then I make no apologies because I don’t think I’m alone in despairing at the way in which technology actually diminishes our lives as much as it enhances them.

I was talking to a teacher the other night. For the record, she’s younger than me and she was bemoaning the fact that her boss hadn’t banned mobile telephones in the secondary school where she works.

Her view was that they make it very hard to enforce discipline or hold the attention of pupils who come up with all manner of excuses as to why they need to be checking them every five minutes (usually something to do with a sick relative, apparently).

As for ‘cyber-bullying’, let’s just say she hadn’t a clue how society should tackle something she reckoned was rife.

Interestingly, my teacher friend also despairs at the way in which the internet is producing students who are unable to think for themselves and for whom the answer to everything is ‘Google’.

She said: “I say to them that the very least they should do when they copy and paste stuff from the internet is to change a few words around”.

In contrast, I remember bus trips up to the reference library at Hanley on a Saturday morning when I was 15 to research my history homework. To this day I still love libraries.

Call me old fashioned, but I still read books each night before bed. Currently I’m on The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

Give it a try. It’s great.

However, sadly, there are millions for whom picking up a physical book – with a cover and pages – is an alien concept these days.

There are even more who will never know the simple pleasure of making an arrangement to meet their mates on a Friday night and then not speaking to them for a week – which means you can catch up and actually have something to say.

It was author Aldous Huxley who wrote: “Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards.”

With a high street on its knees – thanks in no small part to the internet – with text speak replacing the English language for many, and social networking replacing real relationships, it is hard to argue with his logic.

Anyway, must dash. Have to update my Facebook status with a moan about me working too hard. Lol.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

Theatre star Christian Patterson’s review of my panto performance

Sentinel columnist Martin Tideswell is appearing in The Regent Theatre’s pantomime Dick Whittington. Here, pantomime dame Christian Patterson – a firm favourite with Potteries audiences – reviews Martin’s first night…

It’s not often that you have two first nights – but with this production of Dick Whittington the part of Alderman Fitzwarren has been divided between Pete Conway and Martin Tideswell.

Pete’s final performance was on Tuesday night and as I write this he is sitting beside a pool in Los Angeles leaving Martin to pick up the pieces in snowy Stoke-on-Trent.

From day one of rehearsals, nerves aside, Martin showed an abundance of enthusiasm towards the cast, the panto and his part.

As Fitzwarren he is quicker than his predecessor and delivers an all-round performance full of gusto.

He delivers the laugh lines beautifully and his presence on stage is warm, generous and giving – as is Martin himself.

His dancing, or rather his sense of rhythm, is quite another story. In fact I would go as far to say that Martin is to dance what King Herod is to babysitting.

However, he tries – I’ll give him that.

That aside he is as welcome a cast member as any other. And it gives me great pride that we will share the stage together until January 10.

Amy Diamond as Alice continues to sparkle, as her name suggests she would. Kayleigh McIntyre as Tommy the Cat is as cute as ever. Steve Serlin, who plays King Rat, and his evil ratlings continue to draw the boos and the hisses with great style and aplomb.

Shelia Ferguson as Fairy Oatcakes belts out her songs better than any diva that you’ll see this side of the Atlantic. Su Annagib is outstanding in her first stage performance; her natural singing and acting ability is nothing short of brilliant.

And so to Jonny Wilkes. In my opinion, Jonny is to The Regent panto what the ravens are to the Tower of London.

If he ever left I would fear the whole thing would collapse. Melodramatic? Not in my opinion. Jonny is a wonderful actor, has an incredible singing voice and is the glue that holds it all together.

But it is his passion for Stoke-on-Trent and its residents that is truly overwhelming.

For the three years that I have shared the stage with him, his mantra to me has always been “I want to make this the best one yet”.

This is Jonny’s fifth panto appearance at The Regent, and if he wasn’t here I fear they would be no choice but to ship in a foreign actor or soap star who had no affinity with the Potteries or its people.

It is in no small part due to Jonny, under the guidance of director Matt Salisbury, that the panto continues to draw wonderful audiences that leave the theatre having had a genuinely funny panto experience.

It is a joy to have had the last three years at The Regent. I‘d like to thank all the staff at the theatre, especially the its chief executive Richard Wingate, Jonny Wilkes and every member of the audience that has made my time here the happiest of my career.

This sounds like I’m leaving but there’s not a chance! All being well, I’ll be back on December 9, 2010. Meanwhile, in the words of Dick Whittington “Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”.

Austin Macauley reviews my passion for roleplaying games…

Between them they’ve poisoned, stabbed and bludgeoned to death dozens of innocent folk – yet they are still allowed to walk the streets.

One of their number openly admits to having garrotted someone last weekend, taking great glee in describing in grotesque detail exactly how he carried it out.

If it wasn’t all the stuff of fantasy, the Potteries would be a dangerous place to live.

The group in question are eight friends who meet up once a month in the city to lose themselves for hours on end in a game of Dungeons and Dragons.

Ranging in age from early 20s to late 30s, many have played it together since childhood and the game keeps them in contact with each other despite some having moved hundreds of miles away.

Their common bond is a passion for role play games – and Dungeons and Dragons is probably one of the oldest and best known examples of this pastime.

It’s one of hundreds of similar games and together with computer games make up one of the fastest-growing hobbies.

But D&D, as it known to players, is mere child’s play compared to a new game which has taken America by storm.

“Majestic” takes role play to a new level. Once you have signed up via the internet you can expect to be bombarded with funny phone calls, threatening text messages on your mobile and e-mailed instructions.

The idea is you are part of a suspense thriller with any number of sub-plots and conspiracies going on. Playing involves interacting with other players and those programmed by the makers – and it’s up to you to work out which is which.

Unlike D&D and PC games you can’t pack up or switch off. The only way to get out of the game is to solve the conspiracy or else ditch the mobile and cut the telephone chord.

At the moment there isn’t the technology to set it up in Britain, so for now we’ll have to make do with D&D, murder mystery weekends and the like.

So what is the attraction of role playing games? More importantly, what possesses people to play D&D – a game so entrenched in stigma?

When children first started playing the game in Britain in the early 1980s they were ridiculed by their peers, branded geeks and given a status previously only bestowed upon trainspotters.

But try telling that to Elton Hood and the friends who meet up at his home in Dresden every month.

The 27-year-old sports shop manager plays the game with a journalist, photographer, teacher, PR manager, fireplace fitter, pharmacist and someone who works in a music store. We’re talking about respectable people here.

“I only noticed the stigma after a couple of years,” said Elton, who started playing 14 years ago.

“As people were getting older it seemed to them quite a childish, sad, introverted game. I never agreed. It’s a social thing because you are playing with other people and have to work together to succeed.”

For the uninitiated, D&D involves creating a character for yourself with various skills and placing it, along with those of other players, in various “dungeons” – which could be anything from a forest to a castle.

The game involves progressing through each dungeon, picking up clues and treasure along the way and trying not to be killed off in the process.

It’s a game of guile, imagination and foresight, according to Elton and his mates.

To the outsider it’s a group of adults sitting round a board game over a weekend for hours on end pretending to be medieval warrior dwarves, wizards and thieves.

At the risk of being politically incorrect, the words warrior and dwarf are an unlikely coupling to say the least. Ask anyone who doesn’t play what they think of D&D and the word “sad” will be the most likely response.

Time for one of Elton’s mates to defend their honour. Step forward Martin Tideswell, a 29-year-old Sentinel journalist.

“People perceive it to be a bit of a nerdy thing to play and, to a certain extent, they are probably right and I don’t think that perception is ever going to change.”

So even the players themselves think it’s a bit sad?

“There are some people who take it a bit too seriously. At the tournaments you do see the stereotypical player. They will be male, aged 24-40, wearing black and they’ll be into heavy metal. They get into the character, put on the voice and really go overboard. When we play we don’t get into all that.

“We treat it like you’d treat a game of Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit and get together with a few beers and play. People who don’t play probably wonder why – at our age – we’re still playing.

“At school there was a small group of us who played and most stopped when they grew up. But I’m hooked and I’ll probably never stop playing it.”

Honour partially restored, Martin tried to explain the attraction.

“The difficult thing to explain to people who don’t play is that there is no winner. When I was a kid my dad used to ask ‘So, who’s won this week then?’ But it’s not that simple. Your character can get killed off, but I have characters which I’ve had since I was 11.”

One of the group is designated as the Dungeon Master (DM) and they run and referee the game – deciding what happens to characters depending on what decisions they make.

Just for the record, Martin has just finished his stint as DM and a few weeks ago killed Elton. Well, killed his character anyway.

The memory is still fresh in Elton’s mind.

“We were infiltrating a temple of ancient gods to retrieve artefacts when we came up against one of the gods and some of us got killed, including me.”

Dealing with loss is all part of the game, says Martin.

“Losing a character is really upsetting – I know, that sounds really sad, but you really do get attached to a character. It’s not because you think they are real but because you have spent so long developing them.

“As a DM I strongly believe in killing people off. It’s the only way to have any realism. I’ve killed them with rock falls, poison, spiked pits, magic spells, a blade from out of the darkness – all sorts of ways.”

Given that far more people spend far more hours playing role play games on their computers – alone – perhaps the derision D&D receives is slightly unfair.

“If people played it I think they would see it in a different light,” reckons Elton.

“You expect a certain amount of derision of you tell someone about it. From my point of view the game helps me at work as well. Because I’m a retail manager I have to do training with people and that can often involve role play.”

We all indulge in role play in some way, even if it is limited to the confines of our own imagination in the form of dreams and fantasies. Could feeling of a need to escape say anything about our real lives?

Professor Ellis Cashmore, a sociologist at Staffordshire University, wonders whether, for some, role play is an alternative to going the whole hog and doing a “Reggie Perrin”.

“I call it the Reggie Perrin Syndrome. When I look at situations some people are in I think if that was me I’d leave a pile of my clothes neatly folded on Brighton beach and disappear with a new identity.

“Roleplaying games are the mildest forms of this escape attempt. There’s always an element of attraction about being someone else.

“Perhaps the theme park of the future will be like in the film Total Recall with memory embolisms.
You don’t have to go anywhere or do anything for the escape. They just give you the memory of whatever thrill you want.”