There are few greater gifts for a child than a love of reading

The Famous Five: Still cool.

The Famous Five: Still cool.

In our house ‘storytime’ is special. It’s that half an hour or so before the kids go to bed when me, the missus and our six and eight year olds snuggle up together on the bunk bed and read to each other.

Forget mealtimes: This is proper family time. It is the one time of day when telephones are ignored, the TV is switched off and we all focus on an old-fashioned printed tome.

Guests at chez Tideswell (notably and my mum) will tell you they’re are not immune, either, as very often Lois and Mina will ask them to read a chapter or two of whatever book we’re half way through.

For years now, little ’un has refused to go to sleep without a story. (She doesn’t know that big ’un then reads under the duvet with her Disney Princess torch when the lights go out).

We’ve read to our girls since they were three months old – reinforcing the idea of a quiet time before bed and getting the babies used to sound of our voices.

We began with flap books and the ones with textured pages before graduating to storybooks with tales that could be read in a session.

We started by Going On A Bear Hunt, met The Gruffalo, found Room On The Broom and probably over-stayed our welcome with the Mister Men.

Our readings involve funny voices and as much excitement as we can muster after a long day at work.

More recently we moved on to the offerings of comedian turned-author David Walliams and were thrilled to discover one of them, Mr Stink, was a television special last Christmas starring the excellent Hugh Bonneville.

But it is an author who first entertained children with her tales of adventure and lashings of ginger beer during the dark days of the Second World War who has really grabbed the imagination of my two.

Yes, to live at our house you have to be a fully paid-up member of the Famous Five fan club.

Forget any ideas of the language being out-dated or that dear old Enid Blyton somehow perpetuated sexist stereotypes: My kids absolutely love these stories.

I swear if Julian, Dick and Anne, George and Timmy the Dog (that tune will stay with you all day, now) lived next door I wouldn’t see my girls over the summer holidays.

We are currently reading book number 11 of the 21 in the Famous Five series and I genuinely don’t know what we’ll do when we reach the end. Probably turn in desperation for the Secret Seven, I should imagine.

Finishing the series is a matter of such concern to Lois that she’s started rationing the books to holiday periods so that they last longer. I kid you not.

I’m chuffed to bits that my girls love to read and enjoy being read to. I think there are few greater gifts you can bestow on your child than a love of books.

E-readers, game consoles, mobile phones and touch-screen tablets are all well and good but nothing beats the simple pleasure of losing yourself in a book.

What’s more, you aren’t half giving your child a good platform for his or her education if you can nurture in them a love of reading.

This storytime scenario in our house is a scene which is doubtless repeated in homes across the land.

No matter how tired they are or what kind of day they’ve had, many parents make the time to read to their children every day and it makes a hell of a difference.

Ask any teacher. They will tell you it’s easy to spot the children who receive help and support with reading at home and, likewise, those who don’t know one end of a book from the other.

Sadly, Stoke-on-Trent fares extremely poorly when it comes to reading – with 40 per cent of children in the city starting school with literacy levels below the national standard.

Results for seven-year-olds also show Stoke-on-Trent is bottom of the league tables in England for reading, writing and mathematics.

There are no excuses because other cities have the same problems.

We can blame levels of deprivation; We can blame an over-emphasis on computers and modern technology.

In the end it doesn’t matter. All that matters is the generations of children who are growing up without the essential communication tools needed to get a decent education and get on in life.

Given the grim statistics, I welcome news of the Stoke Reads scheme, funded by the city council, which is part of a campaign to boost literacy standards.
It will initially be piloted with 80 parents who will be trained to use fun techniques to get pre-school children excited about reading.

This is just the first of a series of initiatives planned over the next three years – including encouraging better links between primary schools and libraries – but is significant, to me, in that it acknowledges that it is often parents who need assistance in order to be able to help their children.

No-one sets out to be bad parent but the fact is that there are too many mums and dads who have neither the skills nor the inclination, perhaps both, to pass on to their children the simple, free gift of reading.

For some parents it is clearly easier to let their child suck on a dummy for longer than is good for their speech development or use the telly as a babysitter rather than interact with a noisy toddler.

It is this skills vacuum, and – like it or not – an abdication of responsibility by some mums and dads, which is limiting the prospects of generations of youngsters from our neck of the woods.

In my book, anything which stops the rot and better equips parents to support their children’s education is worth supporting.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

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Chocks away for campaign to save city’s Spitfire

Peter Coates presents a cheque for £20,000 to Operation Spitfire's Julian Mitchell.

Peter Coates presents a cheque for £20,000 to Operation Spitfire’s Julian Mitchell.

Stoke-on-Trent is extremely fortunate to have a couple of wealthy philanthropists who are passionate about the city and want to give something back.

Mobile phones billionaire John Caudwell’s charitable works are well documented.

Earlier this year he gave £2 million to the cost of unveiling a memorial to the heroes of Bomber Command for their sacrifices during the Second World War.

However, John is best known for the charity which bears his name – Caudwell Children – which raises money to provide help, support and an annual dream holidays for the families of youngsters with life-limiting illnesses, many of whom hail from the ST postcode area.

In Peter Coates, Stoke City supporters already know the rejuvenating effect his money and vision have had on the club he has supported all his life.

But what many don’t perhaps realise is that the Potters’ chairman often puts his hand in his pocket to help local worthy causes.

His most recent charitable donation of £20,000 gets a really important local fund-raising campaign off to a flying start.

The money will be used to create a Spitfire cockpit simulator which will be housed at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery alongside the city’s Mark XVI plane.

When finished, it will allow visitors to sit in an interactive piece of kit featuring authentic controls and instruments and experience something akin to taking off in arguably the most iconic aircraft the world has ever seen.

The donation also means its chocks away for the Operation Spitfire fund-raising appeal, chaired by Julian Mitchell – the great nephew of Spitfire designer Reginald Mitchell, once of this parish.

Our Spitfire, model number RW 388, is now more than 70 years old and needs a great deal of tender loving care if we are to save this unique piece of aviation history.

This isn’t the kind of project that the cash-strapped city council, which currently operates the venue, can afford to underwrite.

What’s more, these days there are fewer grants to aim for than there would have been, say, a decade ago.

No, like Britain those Spitfires defended back in 1940, we are on our own in trying to raise the brass to preserve and conserve this gem.

Peter Coates has done his bit – now it is down to us, the wider community of North Staffordshire, to come together to raise the necessary funds for ongoing repairs and restoration work for an aircraft that is now well past its intended shelf-life.

At a time of great austerity, and with so many worthy causes needing support, some would argue that other local charities are perhaps more deserving than a chunk of ageing metal.

However, we should understand that this will be an ongoing fund-raising campaign which – although currently being championed by Julian Mitchell – is likely, as he has admitted to me, to be completed by his children some years down the line.

It is also worth remembering that, in addition to cash, the Operation Spitfire volunteers are also looking for local companies to come to the table offering time and resources.

This is a long-term project which will involve schools, colleges and universities – providing a stimulating addition to the curriculum and the opportunity for both academics and local engineering firms the chance to bring their expertise and innovation to the fore.

The Spitfire was itself a pioneering creation which defied convention and played a huge role in protecting this country from Nazi tyranny.

That its creator was born and educated locally is and must remain a source of a great pride.

There can be no better way of honouring his legacy than by ensuring an example of his work remains on display, in all its glory, for future generations to marvel at.

*For more information about the city’s Spitfire or to find out how to make a donation, call Steve Adams at Staffordshire Community Foundation or visit: http://www.operationspitfire.org.uk

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

God save the Queen! A serene and graceful, reassuring presence

Well I did my bit for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

Granted, I didn’t MC the pageant on the Thames but entertaining 180 four to seven-year-olds for a couple of hours is surely worthy of a mention in despatches.

I was the DJ at a disco at the school my daughters attend.

The assembly hall was resplendent with bunting, balloons and the obligatory Union Flags which we had put up the night before.

To cap it off there was a huge picture of a smiling Her Majesty and two Corgis (who may or may not have been smiling) on the projector screen.

It was almost as if the Queen was watching over proceedings with wry amusement as the youngsters – drunk with excitement – jigged about to tunes from One Direction and other bands I’ve never heard of.

Many were dressed for the occasion in red, white and blue and so I had suggested we get them all together for a souvenir photograph.

This involved yours truly, wearing a Captain Britain T-shirt, presumably breaching Health & Safety rules by climbing on to the school roof – much to the amusement of everyone in the playground below.

The teachers tried valiantly to herd the children into the shape of a ‘6’ and a ‘0’ to mark the Jubilee but, in the end, the ‘o’ in the six sort of vanished so the picture is rather ambiguous in that it could be read as ‘Go’.

Still, I suppose it’s the thought that counts when you are hundreds of a miles away from the capital.

At one point during the disco I sat on a little bench with one lad from the reception class.

“Have you had a good day, mate?” I asked him.

Cake crumbs round his mouth and icing oozing through his teeth as he smiled, he replied: “This has been the best day of my life.”

When a five-year-old says that to you, it’s hard to argue.

So while many of the children may not have fully appreciated the significance of the Queen’s milestone, they knew she was reason we were celebrating and they had a damn good time nonetheless.

I’ve still got my Silver Jubilee mug and coins (or rather, my mum has) and I’ll make sure my Lois and Mina keep souvenirs.

Between the Olympic Torch Relay, the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, the European Championships and the Olympics proper, I reckon we’ll have flag fatigue come the end of the month.
But for now, at least, the sense of occasion is carrying us along.

That is what prompted me to pitch a gazebo up in the rain at the local park and join scores of families for a Diamond Jubilee picnic.

Card-carrying monarchist that I am, I defy anyone to say these celebrations haven’t generated a genuine collective pride – a coming together only usually associated with wartime or great sporting triumphs.

This IS something special. There has been a real frisson in the air – a sense of history in the making.

The monarchy may cost taxpayers millions of pounds each year but I believe we are infinitely richer – both financially and culturally – for having one.

For the Queen’s reign to have lasted 60 years is remarkable in itself.

But what is far more remarkable is the way in which Her Majesty has conducted herself during those tumultuous six decades.

For me, the Queen has been a serene anchor of the establishment while many other institutions have fallen from grace.

While other royals have embarrassed themselves, while MPs have been ripping us off or getting into bed with media moguls and/or the police, Her Majesty has remained serenely aloof – untainted by these many scandals.

Time is indeed a great healer and the time served by Queen Elizabeth has papered over some of the cracks which could have irrevocably damaged the House of Windsor.

Whether it be the state opening of Parliament, the Trooping of the Colours, the hosting of U.S. Presidents or the Christmas Day message on TV as we all slump on to sofas stuffed with turkey, Her Majesty is a constant, reassuring presence.

She is, in many ways, our final link with the dark days of the Second World War and, with her ultimate passing – and that of a very special generation – I think we lose something very precious.

Social commentators have talked endlessly in recent days about Britishness and what it means to live in, or come from, these relatively insignificant islands which have ever been a cultural melting-pot.

I would suggest that to be British you must be able to moan about having things which people from many other nations would give their right arms for right now. Like the Pound.

With a referendum on Scottish independence looming, the future of the Union – or Britain as we know it – is far from certain.

By the same token, Her Majesty is now 86 and so who knows how many more years we have to cherish a monarch of supreme grace and integrity? Who knows what will happen to the royal family with her passing?

Whatever the future holds, I dare say people will look back on the reign of Queen Elizabeth II with great fondness because you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Saving our Spitfire is the least we can do

There can’t be many blokes my age who didn’t have an Airfix model aeroplane hanging from their bedroom ceiling at some point during their childhood.

My guess is that, of those who did, most will have chosen a Spitfire over a Tornado or a Harrier jump jet – along with the obligatory Messerschmit ME 109.

Transforming those fragile bits of grey plastic into something vaguely resembling the fighter plane which saw off the Luftwaffe and turned the tide of the Battle of Britain was actually something of a challenge.

I recall I accidentally glued the cockpit hood on before realising I had forgotten to put the tiny pilot in his seat. A schoolboy error.

My painting wasn’t great, neither. It still looked pretty good hanging from the lightshade on a piece of black cotton, though.

After all, it was a Spitfire. Sleek lines, the curvature of those wings – one of the most iconic and important pieces of engineering the world has ever seen.

Perhaps not the one in my bedroom, like, but you take my point.

How proud I am – Indeed, how proud we should all be – to say that the man who designed this work of genius hailed from our neck of the woods.

Not only that, but our city is lucky enough to actually own one of Reginald Mitchell’s stunning creations.

As a youngster I remember visiting the ‘greenhouse’ which housed our Spitfire outside the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

In an age of simulators, jaw-dropping movie CGI, hand-held consoles and video games which are so life-like you have to pinch yourself, it is perhaps hard to explain to children and young people how an old aircraft can be impressive and inspirational.

This is worrying when you consider that there are millions of people in this country who have no link with anyone who lived through or fought in the Second World War.

When I was a kid we were still watching all those epic war movies made in the Sixties and Seventies.

Our grandfathers had fought against the Nazis. It all seemed relatively recent history and therefore still relevant.

Ask my mum and she’ll tell you how many hours I spent drawing pictures of battlefield scenes involving Tiger tanks and Lancaster bombers or playing on the back room carpet and in the garden with little toy soldiers who were my ‘Tommies’ and ‘Jerries’.

Present most children today with a pack of plastic soldiers and they will look at you as if you’ve gone daft.

The fact is it’s now almost 70 years since VE Day and the great generation who can remember those momentous times, and to whom we owe so much, are dying off.

Not long from now World War II, its commanders, battles and weaponry will be the stuff of dusty museums and the preserve of a minority of people like me who are fascinated by military history.

They will feel no more relevant to people in 30 years’ time than the Battle of Waterloo, the Iron Duke and the Baker rifle do to most people today.

Thankfully, we have an opportunity to ensure that here in Stoke-on-Trent, our Spitfire, along with its creator, are never forgotten and that the significance of their role in the fight against Hitler’s tyranny is properly explained to future generations.

Sadly, our plane – the Mk XVI Spitfire RW388 now housed at the Potteries Museum – is in need of a little TLC (about £50,000 worth to be precise) to prevent the old girl from rusting.

The Friends of The Museum have launched a major fund-raising drive to bring this amazing exhibit to life through an interactive display.

I wholeheartedly applaud this endeavour as I’ve felt for some time that our Spitfire is, at present, somewhat hidden away at the museum.

Indeed, when I visited the venue recently I talked with museum bosses about their plans to enhance one of their three unique attractions.

I even suggested they recreate the cockpit as part of the exhibition. Bugger Health and Safety concerns with the actual plane. I want to know what it was like to sit in a Spitfire.

During these austere times the city council was never going to throw £50,000 at conserving one museum exhibit.

Not to worry, I’m confident that we – the people of North Staffordshire – can come to the aid of our Spitfire in its hour of need.

I’ve made a donation to the appeal and I would urge everyone to support this very worthy cause.

If we all chuck in a couple of quid we’ll have the old girl scramble-ready before you know it.

I would suggest it’s the very least she, and Reginald Mitchell deserve, from their native city.

*To make a donation, visit: http://www.uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/spitfire or call 01782 232502.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Titanic’s captain was just a bloke from Stoke in the wrong place at the wrong time

I was lucky enough to be enjoying a tour of the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery as staff were putting the finishing touches to its new Titanic exhibition.

As the centenary of the disaster approaches, bosses at the city centre venue are understandably hoping for an increase in visitors riding, if you will pardon the pun, on a wave of nostalgia for the ill-fated liner.

But what struck me most about the display was the way in which people were being asked to vote on who they thought was to blame for the demise of the ‘unsinkable’ RMS Titanic.

Pictures of some of the ship’s officers are pinned to the wall – along with details of their role in the doomed maiden voyage.

This is a novel approach to telling the Titanic story through the people whose actions (or lack of) contributed to a catastrophe which captured the imagination of the public in 1912 and which endures to this day.

Among the suspects is the skipper who is, of course, the sole reason why one of the most land-locked cities in England is staging an exhibition to mark this most horrific of maritime disasters.

Captain Edward John Smith, from Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, was given the plum job of sailing the White Star Line’s luxurious new ship from Southampton to New York.

When news of the liner’s fate first reached the UK, my predecessors at The Staffordshire Sentinel wrote in glowing terms about the man dubbed ‘The Millionaires’ Captain’ – so favoured was he by the great and the good.

Smith was described thus: “He is one of the most experienced commanders and his knowledge of the Atlantic and its moods and phases is perhaps unique”.

Our report of April 15, 1912 – the day after the Titanic struck an iceberg – went on to speak of him as “exceedingly popular with his officers” and admired for his “tact, firmness and professional skill”.

Sadly, I reckon our city’s relationship with Captain Smith and, indeed, with the Titanic will always be a uncomfortable one.

It should have been a voyage that went down in history as a feather in the cap of our city.

Instead it was the great ship itself which went down in the icy waters of the Atlantic – bringing ignominy to one of our most famous sons.

Despite various inquiries and new evidence unearthed since the wreck was discovered in 1985, many questions remain about an event which has been immortalised in poems, books and by Hollywood.

The bottom line is that, like it or not, Captain Smith, from Hanley, was in charge of the Titanic on the night it sank with the loss of 1,517 lives.

No attempt to apportion blame on outdated safety procedures, inadequate numbers of lifeboats, missing binoculars or various members of the crew can free our man from that heavy burden.

You cannot rewrite history and I, for one, am glad that Captain Smith’s statue is in Lichfield.

I can’t think of any reason why Stoke-on-Trent would want to commemorate this unfortunate man beyond the plaque tucked away in Hanley Town Hall.

Our connection to the Titanic is nothing to be proud of – rather it is a quirk of fate.

Captain Smith just happened to come from Hanley and just happened to be the top man on the Titanic when it sank.

He didn’t design the vessel. He didn’t build it and, despite various romantic stories, we don’t know for sure how he conducted himself during those final two hours after his ship struck an iceberg.

It would be a different story entirely if he had personally rescued third class passengers from below decks, carried a dozen children to safety or ensured better use was made of the pitiful number of lifeboats the Titanic had.

The fact is we just don’t know what happened to the man who was at the centre of this awful human tragedy.

As a city we understandably celebrate the fact that the man who designed the fighter plane which helped to turn the tide of the Second World War comes from our neck of the woods.

But Captain Smith of the Titanic is no Reginald Mitchell of Spitfire fame.

To my mind, he was simply a man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Bare-faced cheek of travellers killed off museum fund-raiser

That’s another Bank Holiday break gone – another weekend chock-full of events for families to enjoy.

Did anyone attend the re-enactment event at the Staffordshire Regimental Museum yesterday or Sunday?

No, you didn’t… because you couldn’t. Because the annual event, which raises much-needed funds for the museum dedicated to honouring the memory of those who have served with our county regiment, had to be cancelled.

Why? Because a week before the show, a group of travellers turned up out of the blue and parked their caravans on land where the re-enactment was due to take place.

They refused to move until yesterday, forcing officials at the venue near Lichfield to cancel the show – costing the museum about £3,000.

That’s the cost, of course, before the operation begins to tidy up the mess left by these uninvited guests.

This will involve cleaning up a Second World War pillbox they were using as a toilet.
Charming.

When asked when they would be moving on, a spokesman for the travellers said: “If the museum will provide us with another patch of land – a bit of wasteland will do – we will move before Saturday (the re-enactment was due to take place on Sunday and Monday).

“Otherwise we will probably go on Monday.”

The barefaced cheek of this statement leaves me speechless. Why should the museum lift a finger to assist such a bunch of ignoramuses?

I’m not sure what makes me more angry – the inconsiderate behaviour of this bloke and his clan or the inability of local authorities to tackle the nuisance that such travelling bands represent.

I bet if you and I turned up with a few friends and parked up illegally in a field ahead of a major public event the boys in blue would be paying us a visit pretty sharpish.

Of course, we wouldn’t do that, would we?

Because we wouldn’t dream of spoiling the fun for thousands of visitors or depriving the museum of thousands of pounds in lost revenue.

The frustrating thing is that this isn’t a one-off.

Every couple of weeks in The Sentinel you can read stories of convoys of caravans arriving on waste land or in a field somewhere, using it as a base for several days, then vanishing and leaving local taxpayers or private landowners to bear the financial burden of cleaning up the mess.

Last week there were groups of travellers parked in Shelton and off Westbourne Drive near the Tunstall Northern Bypass.

Last month, another group descended on the former Chatterley Whitfield sports centre at Fegg Hayes – much to the annoyance of locals.

And so it goes on.

Some will argue that those who kick up a stink about travellers are simply NIMBYs who should be more tolerant.

But, given the associated noise nuisance and mess, should anyone really have to put up with a bunch of cars and caravans turning up unannounced and parking up on a patch of land near their homes for days or even weeks at a time? Of course not.

Should taxpayers or private landlords have to foot the bill because these unwelcome visitors can’t be bothered to find a toilet or put their rubbish in a bin? No they shouldn’t.

It’s not bloody Glastonbury. There are permanent sites for the traveller community all around the country and, following the Housing Act of 2006, all local authorities have to assess the accommodation needs for gipsies and travellers.

Councils employ traveller co-ordinators to ensure the community gains access to health care and educational support.

This is all well and good and, in this day and age, it is only right that all ethnic and cultural groups are given access to basic services.

However, I can’t help but think that there is something very wrong with a system under which I can be fined for dropping a crisp packet but which allows scores of people to get away with parking illegally for weeks on end, churning up fields and creating thousands of pounds of damage and mess which others then have to pay for.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday