New Year’s Honours list makes me think of North Staffordshire’s unsung heroes

Stoke-on-Trent film-maker Chris Stone.

Stoke-on-Trent film-maker Chris Stone.

It’s always nice to read about ordinary local people among those recognised in the New Year’s Honours list alongside the requisite celebrities, sporting stars and captains of industry.

By ordinary I simply mean they don’t get paid a fortune, they’re not in the public eye and they don’t do what they do for power or glory.

This time I was delighted to see that one of The Sentinel’s Our Heroes Awards winners – Maureen Upton, of Meir Heath – earned an OBE for services to the voluntary sector after racking up more than 45 years working for the St John Ambulance.

I was also pleased to see Penkhull historian Richard Talbot had made the cut.

Richard’s MBE is a reward not only for the pivotal role he played in kick-starting Hanley’s Cultural Quarter but also an acknowledgement of his fund-raising for worthy local causes and his work in the community over many years.

The publication of the honours lists always makes me think of other worthy individuals who get precious little recognition.

That being the case, I humbly offer up the names of half a dozen locals who I believe help to enrich our communities and who will continue to do so throughout 2014.

First up I’d like to doff my cap to a couple of blokes who may never have met for all I know but who have a shared passion for film-making.

The first is the superbly-talented Chris Stone who, over the past few years, has produced some sparkling movies – the scenes for many of which were shot in his native North Staffordshire.

If you’ve never seen it, search out his vampire web series Blood And Bone China which has been viewed by more than 300,000 people online.

Or if you pop in to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery to view the new Staffordshire Hoard exhibition, he’s the man behind the epic movie The Last Dragonhunter which is playing in the background and includes eye-popping animation by another of my local heroes – artist Rob Pointon, of Burslem.

His kindred spirit is a film-maker who I think deserves huge recognition for his artistic endeavour.

John Williams, of Wolstanton, is currently putting the finishing touches to The Mothertown – a zombie apocalypse movie based in Burslem and involving literally hundreds of extras which is helping to raise funds for three-year-old leukaemia sufferer Frankie Allen.

Anyone who has seen John’s posts on social media and viewed his special effects handiwork can’t fail to be impressed.

But it’s his passion for the medium which inspires people and, like Chris, he’s a terrific, creative ambassador for the Potteries.

Speaking of which, I’d like to mention two other people who work tirelessly to promote their community and our city.

Alan and Cheryl Gerrard, of Fenton, were responsible for rekindling this area’s remarkable links with the Czech town of Lidice – destroyed by the Nazis during the Second World War and rebuilt with the help of the people of North Staffordshire.

I first met them a few years ago when they asked for The Sentinel’s help in planning a debate to mark the 25th anniversary of the Miners’ Strike. Alan and Cheryl are both passionate advocates for the people of the Potteries which often means they aren’t popular with the powers-that-be.

However, their honest and forthright approach to campaigns such as the battle to save Fenton Town Hall and its Great War memorial have won them far more friends than enemies and I count myself among the former.

Another friend of mine whose work enhances our reputation is local sculptor Andy Edwards whose work you can see on display at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.
Andy produced the nine foot statue of a Saxon warrior which takes pride of place in the foyer.

It was commissioned to celebrate the acquisition of the priceless Staffordshire Hoard and Andy is currently working on a 15 foot version, to be unveiled soon, which will stand guard outside the county council HQ in Stafford.

Andy’s other works have included statues which have been presented to Barack Obama, Muhammad Ali and Desmond Tutu.

However, a more proud and passionate Stokie you could not meet and we should be incredibly proud to call him one of our own.

Please indulge me as I mention two other people who actually work alongside me here at The Sentinel.

The first is our award-winning health reporter Dave Blackhurst who has been with this newspaper for 35 years and who is planning to retire in March.

He may not have been honoured by Her Majesty but Dave’s work has won the admiration of readers, colleagues and health professionals over three decades during which he has been an unflinching champion of his patch and its people.

Finally, a quick mention for the legend that is Dianne Gibbons – our court reporter who has been with The Sentinel for 51 years and who laid on a spread, as we call it in these parts, for her colleagues unlucky enough to be working on New Year’s Day.

If only we could bottle Dianne’s enthusiasm and pride in her job and this newspaper.

I consider it a privilege to work with both Dave and Dianne.

They may not have a gong (yet) but, like the others on my little list, they remain an inspiration to me and, I’m sure, many others.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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Saxon sculpture could be an angel to transform our fortunes

Pieces of the priceless Staffordshire Hoard.

Pieces of the priceless Staffordshire Hoard.

There you are, minding your own business as you drive along the M6 approaching Stoke-on-Trent.

Suddenly, off to the left, the gentle monotony of rolling fields is broken by something huge dominating your vision.

Atop a ridge, framed by a stormy grey sky, is a colossal figure – easily 70 feet tall.

The cloaked warrior, a sword strapped to his back, wears a full-face helm and chainmail armour and carries a large round shield and a spear, which is thrust towards the heavens.

Sculpted from a russet brown metal, he is only visible from the knees up as though this god of war had burst from the soil.

This is the world-famous Staffordshire Saxon.

It signifies the county’s ancient history and reminds everyone, who passes by that the Staffordshire Hoard was dug up in a field not far away.

It tells coach-loads of tourists that they are close to their destination – the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, in Hanley, – where much of the Hoard is on permanent exhibition to the public.

Now, before you shoot me down and tell me such a monstrosity would spoil the countryside, be a distraction to motorists, is in the wrong place, or would cost far too much money, hear me out.

In 1994, work began on a landmark project to create an iconic public work of art in England.

It was finally completed in 1998 and cost more than £800,000.

Twelve years on and the Angel of the North has become an instantly recognisable sculpture and one of the most viewed pieces of art in the world – seen by more than 33 million people every year.

In addition, about 400,000 people visit the sculpture each year.

What’s more, the Angel is credited with helping to revitalise the North East and aiding Gateshead Council in attracting around £145 million of lottery funding.

A new report states: “The value in promotional terms (of the Angel) cannot be accurately measured, but the exposure generated for Gateshead would have cost millions of pounds in advertising.”

It goes on to say: “The process set in train by the Angel has boosted employment in the tourism and cultural industries.”

The report also states: “Importantly, the economic growth ushered in during the Angel era appears sustainable and the regeneration activities that followed its installation are ongoing.”

Now the Angel of the North is undoubtedly a fine piece of art but it was the vision of one man – sculptor Anthony Gormley.

It was not created to coincide with a breathtaking archaeological discovery of international significance.

Yes, we can argue about the cost and location all we want – we are very good at throwing obstacles in the way of radical proposals.

However, the news that the joint bid to keep the Staffordshire Hoard in the Midlands has been successful presents us with a unique opportunity.

So before Britain’s ‘second city’ steals our thunder let us seize the day as our Saxon warrior ancestors would have.

Let us position the Potteries – and not Birmingham – as the centre for the Hoard’s legacy so that inward investment and tourism flows into North Staffordshire.

Over the next few years, millions of pounds more will have to be raised to create the so-called ‘Mercian Trail’ in order that our museum can be radically altered to accommodate the permanent Hoard exhibition.

Already our colleges and universities are tapping into the interest generated by the Hoard and laying on courses about Anglo-Saxon England.

The time is right to think big, throw off the shackles of our industrial past and create for ourselves a new identity.

On TV at present there is a slick, beautifully-shot advertisement featuring beaches, castles, galloping horses and a helicopter flying low over hills and dales.

A gravelly-voiced bloke tells of an amazing land ‘where the tempo rises as the sun goes down’.
Where is this magical place, you may ask?

It is the North East of England – the giveaway being a shot of the Angel of the North during the final couple of seconds.

Thus, the makeover is complete.

And there is absolutely no reason why Stoke-on-Trent can’t ‘do a Gateshead’ and enjoy the same sort of renaissance.