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.

I grew up in an era of proper celebrities who earned their fame

Another week and another non-entity leaves the X-Factor while whatsisface wins the latest edition of Big Brother.

All this and Strictly Come Dancing trundles on as I’m a Celebrity prepares to resuscitate (or kill-off entirely) the careers of a dozen Z-listers.

As someone who avoids such shows like the plague, I often yearn for the days when stars were stars – not someone who had simply blubbed in front of the nation or showered for the cameras.

The definition of a celebrity is a famous or well-known person but these days the word has been diluted to such an extent that any Tom, Dick or Harry who has been on the telly for five minutes – irrespective of their obvious talent vacuum – can earn the label.

People we wouldn’t know if we fell over them in the street – the ‘stars’ of Geordie Shore, The Only Way Is Essex or My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding – are tragically classed as famous. Basically for being, er… famous.

But it wasn’t always like this. Turn back the clock a quarter of a century and there was no internet to speak of, no reality TV and mobile communications were in their infancy.

Back in the Eighties, if you were famous it was usually because you were good at something and people liked or at least respected you for it.

Generally speaking, you also had to have served your time – shown enough talent and been around long enough to have been talked about, written about and seen enough to warrant fame.

When I recall the celebrities – for want of a better word – who dominated my formative years, they had that status on merit.

(I am not, here, talking about the time that I met Grotbags at the Garden Festival).

As the blockbuster movie phenomenon took hold, stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Eddie Murphy, Harrison Ford and the assorted beautiful people who made up the Brat Pack loomed large into our collective consciousness.

Then there were the sporting celebrities of that period – genuine icons whose auras haven’t diminished with the passing of time. For instance, I put my love of cricket down to watching the colossus that was Ian Botham (now Sir Ian) almost single-handedly wrestle the little urn from the Aussies back in 1981.

I know the killer statistic off-by-heart: Five wickets for one run off 28 balls. Enough said.

Then there was Daley Thompson (now a CBE) whose gold medal-winning heroics at the Olympics in 1980 and 1984 enthralled millions.

Let’s face it, most Olympic sports are boring and rubbish but Daley ran, jumped and chucked stuff better than anyone. I mean, what’s not to like about the decathlon?

Sticking with athletics, who could forget the rivalry between working class hero Steve Ovett and the posh lad Seb Coe? Those boys made actually made running watchable. For a short while, at least.

The Eighties was also the decade that snooker entered our living rooms and we all, inexplicably, sat up until the wee small hours watching a one-man domination of a sport.

This, of course, prompted a huge spike in sales of fold-away, six foot by three foot snooker tables like the one mum and dad brought me for Christmas in 1983.

A world champion no less than six times in the decade, the ginger magician Steve Davis OBE was nothing if not interesting.

At the time, Gary Lineker was the darling of England football fans – back when yours truly still gave a monkey’s about the national team.

Famously never booked or sent off during his illustrious career, his reputation at the time was as white as his freshly-pressed Spurs shirt.

He was a far cry from today’s high-profile England stars who can’t seem to go a week without appearing in the tabloid press for all the wrong reasons.

Interestingly, back in the 80s even politicians seemed to have genuine stature and a celebrity status which transcended the kind of spin-doctoring that goes on today.

I wonder how much of this was down to a certain television programme which mercilessly poked fun at the great and the good?

First airing in 1984, the multi BAFTA-nominted Spitting Image turned the country’s top politicians into figures of fun. And we loved it.

There was a time when many people could name all of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet – simply because they had been so brilliantly caricatured by Spitting Image.

It helped, of course, that the Iron Lady herself was such a powerful figure – not only in the UK but also on the world stage.

No matter what anyone thinks of her now, I somehow can’t see Maggie playing lap-dog to George W. Bush like a certain Prime Minister of ours famously did not so long ago.

By the same token, even the royal family seemed larger than life back then – prior to the scandals and the tragedy which rocked the house of Windsor to its foundations in the Nineties.

In my lifetime, there hasn’t been a more famous person than Princess Diana whom I bumped into at Alton Towers, of all places, while I was learning my trade as a cub reporter.

She was out with her two young boys and they went past me on the Log Flume.

At the time I remember thinking that I had just taken a photograph of the most famous person in the world.

For all her faults – the beautiful, vulnerable, misunderstood and ultimately tragic Princess of Wales deserved the fame she both enjoyed and hated in equal measure.

I honestly can’t think of a single, modern celebrity who can hold a candle to her.

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

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.