Night-time economy is vital for Hanley and our city as a whole

A police officer on the look-out for trouble in Hanley.

A police officer on the look-out for trouble in Hanley.

Nightclubs are, mercifully, a distant memory for me. As much as I enjoyed shoe-gazing to Indie tunes in the late Eighties and early Nineties at The Ritzy in Newcastle, ‘dance music’ – and the whole popping pills mullarky – left me cold.

It didn’t help that I’m no Travolta, neither. When I was in The Regent theatre’s panto a couple of years ago, Welsh star Christian Patterson, who played the dame, wrote: ‘Martin is to dancing what King Herod was to babysitting.’

It was a harsh, but fair assessment.

My drinking days are long gone too.

In truth, I never really enjoyed booze like my peers did and was almost always the driver for my mates when we went on pub crawls around Hanley or up ’Castle.

My friends would shrink with embarrassment when I ordered a glass of red wine in a pub as part of their round of manly pints.

Four bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale or four pints of Löwenbräu (laughing juice as we used to call it) up the Duke of Wellington at Norton and I didn’t know whether it was Friday or Norway.

To be honest, I could never understand why anyone would want to drink pints of anything. It just made me need the loo. I always regretted it the day after too: Waking up with a banging headache and stinking of cigarette smoke.

We weren’t bad lads by any stretch of the imagination.

Unless you count running past Hanley nick late at night with a traffic cone on your head and being chased by a couple of coppers.

Then there was the time I drove down the A500 in the dark in my bright yellow Austin Metro, forgetting to put the lights on and barely able to see out of the windscreen because of the smoke from the marijuana spliffs being passed around by my passengers.

In truth we were far too square to get into any real trouble.

However, even in our day – 20 odd years ago now – there were always idiots looking for a fight in pubs and clubs and we got into a few scrapes.

It seems some things haven’t changed.

This week’s figures showing that Stoke-on-Trent is ranked as the 15th worst local authority area in England and Wales in terms of violent crime, shouldn’t really surprise anyone.

For starters, the city is 16th in the list of most populous built-up areas in England and Wales, according to the Office for National Statistics, so our position in the ‘league table of troublespots’ sort of makes sense.

Around 13 per cent of violent incidents in the Potteries happen in Hanley. Again, this is to be expected, I suppose – given that the city centre has a large number of pubs and clubs concentrated in a relatively small area. Apparently, most of the trouble – involving drunken youths – occurs between 9pm and 4am.

Why anyone would still be out drinking at three or four o’clock in the morning is beyond me.

It was only when I met recently with Hanley’s pub and club owners that I realised that the night-time scene has actually changed beyond all recognition in the last two decades.

Gone are the days when 10, 15 or even 20,000 people were out in the city centre on a Friday or Saturday night – moving from pub to pub and ending up at The Place or Valentino’s – then finishing up with a kebab and a taxi ride home before mum got too worried.

Nowadays, Hanley is a ghost town most nights.

Licensees are fighting for custom from the two to four thousand young people who don’t actually turn up in Hanley until after 10 o’clock – many arriving ‘preloaded’, having drunk copious amounts of alcohol before leaving the house.

They then flock to the Trinity Street area and cause police a huge headache – especially at closing time.

The real problem here, in my opinion, isn’t the fact that a minority of boneheads can’t handle their ale – it’s that Hanley is dead of an evening – with the exception of audiences who visit The Regent, the Victoria Hall or Mitchell Youth Arts Centre when there’s a show on.

This is absolutely not the case in other comparable city centres which have a far more cosmopolitan ambiance and where people of all ages feel comfortable walking round.

The night-time economy in Hanley is genuinely struggling and really needs some urgent help. It is simply not viewed by over-30s as somewhere they’d like to be of a Friday or Saturday night – unless they have a theatre ticket.

Even if they do visit the theatre, the vast majority park up, watch the show, and go home – rather than heading to a pub or going for a meal. Hanley is currently undergoing major regeneration work involving the expansion of the Potteries Shopping Centre and the creation of the Central Business District.

Meanwhile, we’ve all had a punt in the great sweepstake on whether or not the ridiculously-named City Sentral development will actually happen and finally lead to a much-needed makeover of the old bus station site. Over to you, Realis…

Parts of our city centre now look bright and modern but the problem remains that it isn’t somewhere most people over the age of 30 or anyone with children really wants to visit.
This isn’t a question of demonising young people.

I don’t believe for a second that there is a higher proportion of yobs these days than there was when I was queueing at the bars in Macy’s or the Market Tavern.

Helping the police to reduce violence is, of course, important but – to me – of equal value is assisting those businesses who rely on night-time trade for their survival.

That includes the restaurants and businesses which don’t benefit from an influx of teenagers and 20-somethings of a weekend.

While Hanley is, undoubtedly, a work in progress I think that more needs to be done to tempt families, couples and those born before 1985 to spend their evenings in the city centre.

Christmas shopping nights shouldn’t be the only time when the majority of us want to visit Hanley of an evening. There should be more continental markets and street entertainment, the superb Potteries Museum – for example – could be opened up for evening visitors and more should be done to promote some of the terrific restaurants.

Successful city centres don’t close down at 5.30pm and I would suggest we neglect Hanley’s night-time economy at our peril.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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Middle-age approaches – and I’m taking it seriously… sort of

2012 is a very important year. Well, it is for me, anyway.
This has nothing to do with the London Olympics or even the fact that I have tickets to see The Stone Roses in concert.
No, 2012 is the year I officially become middle-aged.
Some would argue, of course, that this begins when you hit 30.
However, we all know that the big Four-O is the age everyone really dreads and I’m just 68 days away. (Hard to believe, I know).
Yes, I was born in 1972 – a year of momentous events such as Britain finally joining the E.E.C… and the airing of the first episode of Emmerdale Farm.
It’s hard to work out which has since proved the more entertaining soap opera, isn’t it?
One thing’s for sure – there’s nothing like a looming milestone to make you reflect on what has gone before.
In the last decade I have experienced endless sleeplessness and the indescribable pleasure of watching my daughters be born and grow into brilliant little people with whom I can now have proper conversations.
In the last 10 years I have also done things I never thought I’d do – such as visit relatives in New Zealand, try my hand at public speaking, start an internet blog, appear in a pantomime, beat cancer (touch wood) and, crucially, meet Bon Jovi’s guitarist Richie Sambora and The Fonz.
Through my job I’ve also crossed paths with some amazing people in the last decade – people like the Treetops Hospice kids and cancer drug campaigner Dot Griffiths.
My thirties have been very painful for me, at times – not least because the fortunes of my beloved Port Vale have taken such an awful nose-dive.
During the last 10 years, many of the people I looked up to and actually helped to shape who I am have also passed on – leaving genuine voids.
Remarkable people like my old Boys’ Brigade captain Roy Harrison, my Sentinel colleague John Abberley and my nan Ethel.
Suddenly I’m the one people are looking to for words of wisdom or leaning on and, frankly, it’s a sobering thought. As most people are fighting the urge to break two-day old New Year’s resolutions I am trying to crystal ball-gaze into my next 10 years.
Oh yes, I’m taking 40 seriously, alright. Even so, as of March 12 don’t expect me to suddenly start acting my age.
I may wear slippers and I may be on the cusp of middle-age but I’ve still got all my own teeth and (most of) my hair to let down.
There’s certainly no danger of me suddenly liking gardening or starting to watch BBC period dramas.
I won’t be getting a tattoo or anything because I did that when I hit 30. (Chinese symbols – right upper arm, in case you wondered).
However, I will be marking my 40th year with my first trip to the States and having a party with everyone I’ve ever met. More or less.
If you don’t get an invite, don’t worry – just assume yours got lost in the post.
Mine’s a bottle of Newcastle Brown. Cheers.

I don’t get out much, these days. Working long hours, small children… you know the score.

In fact, the last ‘local’ I had was the Duke of Wellington in Norton which closed down and was converted into a house about, ooh… 10 years ago.

But on Saturday I rolled back the years and returned to my old stomping ground for a night out with ‘the lads’.

It knew I was in for a good time because, as I drove to my parents’ house to cadge a lift, I flicked on the radio to listen to some music – something a dedicated news and sport listener like me would never normally do.

And the first song I heard?

The Boys Are Back In Town by Thin Lizzy…

‘Guess who just got back today,
Those wild-eyed boys who have been away,
Haven’t changed, haven’t much to say…’

Genius. Game on, I thought.

There was a time when every Christmas I would lead a group of my school and college mates on a pub crawl around Newcastle.

We chose ’Castle, of course, because bitter experience had taught us that Hanley was rougher and we were much more likely to get into a scuffle there with boozed-up boneheads.

In an age when weekends away in Dublin are the norm, I suppose our Christmas dos would now seem fairly tame.

But, to us, it was the highlight of the year.

In those days Ritzy was the nightclub of choice – a place where we could shoe-gaze the night away to The Smiths, The Stone Roses, James and The Levellers et al.

But long before we hit the dancefloor our evenings would begin with a rendezvous at The Old Brown Jug.

And so it was to that fine establishment that 10 of us returned on Saturday.

Three of the original gang couldn’t make it (shame on you), but I was still pleased with the turnout – given the fact that getting some of the boys out for the night is like pulling teeth these days.

I was delighted to see that the wooden-floored Jug hadn’t changed much – except that the clientele looked a lot older than I remembered.

Then I glanced around at my chums. What a motley crew. Grey hair, no hair, spectacles and more than enough nominated drivers.

Then there was yours truly weighing two stone more than I had the last time I propped up that bar and sporting my ridiculous panto beard.

Suddenly I felt very old.

Happily, the time flew because despite the receding hair lines and sensible clothing these boys are still my heroes. After all, they wrote the soundtrack to my youth.

So I just sat back, relaxed and let the conversations wash over me.

Five bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale later and, against my better judgment, we wandered up into the town centre.

Unless I’m mistaken very little has changed since I last enjoyed a festive pub crawl round ’Castle.

It’s still more civilised than the city centre – even if some of the girls should, by rights, be dead from hypothermia given the amount of bare flesh on display on a cold December evening.

In my head, of course, I’m still twenty-odd and I take some convincing that I’m the same age as everyone else reliving their youth in ’80s bar Reflex.

But even the strains of Deacon Blue’s unforgettable Real Gone Kid weren’t enough to convince us to stick around for more than one pint.

And so it was that we made our way back to the Jug and it’s welcoming real fire for the dying embers of the evening.

Although I disgraced myself and proved yet again that I simply cannot take my ale, everyone stayed until the bitter end and we all agreed to stop being such a bunch of wet blankets and meet up again next year.

I’m delighted, because I’m nothing if not a sentimental old sod and I get an enormous buzz out of reuniting my old friends.

As the saying goes… there comes a point in your life when you realise who really matters, who never did, and who always will.

Cheers, boys.