Fond memories of my one encounter with the Queen

I remember the day quite clearly. It was Thursday, May 1, 1986 and yours truly, my mum, younger brother Matthew and my nan and grandad waited in the weak sunshine for the arrival of a very special visitor from Stoke Station.
I have to admit I wasn’t that keen on flowers and I certainly didn’t understand the term ‘regeneration’.
Nevertheless, we had just bought season tickets to the National Garden Festival which had transformed a 180-acre eyesore which had, until 1979, been the site of the Shelton Bar steelworks.
After five years of planning, earth-moving and landscaping and millions of pounds of Government funding, the Garden Festival – billed as a celebration of the best of British gardening – was ready to receive its Royal seal of approval.
I had never seen the Queen before and even 14-year-old me, besotted with football and Dungeons & Dragons, was excited as we stood in the drizzle with 14,000 other people waiting for Her Majesty to arrive.
I had never seen so many police officers and I remember grandad telling me they were worried about the threat of a terrorist attack.
We didn’t have a great spot in the crowd, if truth be told, and I remember craning my neck to catch a glimpse of the monarch as she stepped out of a shiny black Rolls-Royce.
She was wearing a vivid blue woollen coat and a black hat and seemed to have a fixed grin as we waved our Union Flags and Garden Festival carrier bags like things possessed – convinced that she was waving at us.
We listened to the opening ceremony during which the Queen said some very nice things about Stoke-on-Trent and told us she thought pottery pioneer Josiah Wedgwood would be proud of what had been achieved at Etruria.
Then she joined civic dignitaries for a one and a quarter mile train ride around the Garden Festival.
That’s when most people lost track of Her Majesty and, like us, went off to explore the remarkable site.
My brother had his picture taken with children’s telly witch Grotbags and I was chuffed to have met Central TV news presenter Bob Warman.
We marvelled at the strange waterfall made of Twyfords bathroom ware, enjoyed having a nosey around the new show homes and were thrilled to be taken on a cable car ride.
Then I remember great excitement as parachutists paid tribute to the Queen by dropping in, unexpected, on Festival-goers.
The Red Arrows also flew over the site and left a red, white and blue vapour trail which was pretty cool viewing to a teenager like me who was still harbouring dreams of joining the RAF when he left school.
After touring the festival site the Queen made her way over to the new Beth Johnson Housing Association complex in Etruria Locks – arriving in style aboard a red, white and blue narrowboat decorated with flowers.
As the boat went by, dozens of Sentinel employees could be seen waving from the newspaper’s new offices next to the Festival site.
This was the first and only time I laid eyes on the Queen and, having shared the occasion with my family, the memory is all the more special to me.
Since then I’ve been fortune enough to chat to Prince Edward, meet Prince Charles and Princess Anne and take photographs of the late Princess Diana and her sons William and Harry during a visit to Alton Towers.
However, I remain a great admirer of the Queen who, through all the trial and tribulations of the last two decades has remained a dignified and reliable ambassador for both the monarchy and Britain.
Whoever succeeds her certainly has big shoes to fill and I dare say we will never see the like again – both in terms of Her Majesty’s longevity and grace.

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

Royal mix-up a real missed opportunity to mark 100 years

My picture of Princess Diana on the log flume at Alton Towers. Picture copyright Smith Davis Press.

My picture of Princess Diana on the log flume at Alton Towers. Picture copyright Smith Davis Press.

Through my work I’ve been very fortunate (if you like this sort of thing) over the last 20 years to have met several members of our royal family in the flesh.

I’ve chatted to Prince Charles, Prince Edward and Prince Andrew and – here’s my trump card for use against people who like to name-drop – met the late Princess Diana.

Back in my days as a cub reporter I was tipped off by a national newspaper that Princess Di would be taking her boys to Alton Towers one Sunday afternoon.

I raced over to the theme park in my little yellow Metro, paid to get in as any punter would, and then set about trying to find the royal party.

Alton Towers is a surprisingly big place, you know. After half an hour of me running around like a headless chicken, Diana, William and Harry sailed past me on the Log Flume.

I caught up with them, said hello, ignored the withering looks from their minders and snapped them all as they walked past me.

My story and pictures of them on various rides were used in The Sun and the Daily Express the following day and I was chuffed to bits.

However, as a proud Englishman, I have to say that nothing can top seeing the Queen up close and personal.

I first saw Her Majesty at the National Garden Festival here at Etruria in 1986.

I also met Grotbags the TV witch and Central News anchorman Bob Warman on the day.

No offence to either but, for me, seeing Liz just shaded it.

I was 14 at the time and I remember standing in the rain amid the throng and doing my level best to attract the Queen’s attention by waving and shouting – all to no avail, of course.

Despite the bizarre nature of some of the exhibits – a fountain made of toilets springs to mind – the Garden Festival was, for Stoke-on-Trent, an unmitigated success.

It kickstarted the regeneration of a huge parcel of land close to the city centre which is now the thriving retail and business park we all take for granted.

Indeed, where do you think yours truly is sitting while typing this? (The Sentinel’s HQ moved from Hanley to Festival Park in 1986)

What a shame it is then that Her Majesty won’t be coming up in March to help us celebrate the centenary of the federation of the Six Towns.

I can’t help but think that this is something of an own goal.

The word was that the Queen was definitely coming up in the New Year but someone, somewhere seems to have dropped a right royal clanger.

I mean, it’s not like we didn’t know the centenary was coming up, is it?

You would have thought that the Lord Lieutenant, the city council and Buck House could have got their collective act together to make sure the Queen was in town to give the royal seal of approval to a special day for Burslem, Fenton, Hanley, Longton, Stoke and Tunstall.

Is anyone prepared to hold their hand up and take responsibility? No, I thought not.

We may well get a visit from another member of the royal family but if any occasion merited a visit from the Queen it was our centenary, don’t you think?

What a great lift it would have given to Potters to have Her Majesty drop in and say hello as we struggle through the worst recession in living memory.

Despite what the anti-monarchy brigade might say, I’m a huge fan of the Windsors and of royal visits.

Having the Queen here in 1986 and again when the refurbished Regent Theatre opened its doors in 1999 created a huge buzz.

There’s no politics to such an event – just flag-waving, happy faces and a moment in the sun for a city that has suffered more than most during the current economic downturn.

These occasions remind the rest of the country that there’s more to Stoke-on-Trent than ailing potbanks, ill-health and council cock-ups.

At least, we all think there is.

It’s just a shame we won’t be able to remind our wonderful monarch at a time when it really matters.