A poodle is one thing, but we shouldn’t be anyone’s lap-dog

I am pleasantly surprised to record that my faith in British politics and politicians has been somewhat restored in recent weeks.

First MPs shocked us all when the Government was defeated in the House of Commons in a vote over the possibility of military intervention in Syria.

Appalled as we all are at the thought of anyone using chemical weapons, I have to say I felt hugely uncomfortable at the prospect of the UK rushing into another Middle East conflict it can ill afford and which our over-stretched Armed Forces can certainly do without.

Thus I was encouraged that Parliamentarians seemed to have learned from past mistakes and, in particular, the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’ and exercised a degree of restraint.

Some were even prepared to vote against their own parties rather than galloping towards another endless war in a country most of us would struggle to pinpoint on a map.

No nation should ever go to war lightly but it helps when the public at least understands the reasons why its leaders may choose to do so and are sympathetic to the cause.

In the case of Syria, at the time when the Prime Minister called for the vote there were simply too many unanswered questions and a majority of MPs quite rightly, in my opinion, said no.

They had correctly judged the mood of the nation and certainly, at the time, there was simply no appetite for more ‘world policing’.

To his credit, the Prime Minister took the defeat on the chin as his right honourable friends on the opposition benches revelled in the moment.
David Cameron then, quite unexpectedly, did something I haven’t seen a British PM do for about 20 years.

Reacting to remarks allegedly made by a Russian diplomat who had described Britain as ‘a little island nobody listens to’, our Dave actually went and stood up for us.

The Prime Minister gave what I thought was a rather charming, indignant, Love Actually-esque defence of our Sceptered Isle.

He threw in Shakespeare, the abolition of slavery, great inventions. Oh and The Beatles.

I have to admit I almost cheered to hear it – so used am I to our glorious leaders being pathetically wet and insipid when it comes to international affairs.

Who can forget, for instance, the way in which that towering intellect George W Bush treated our then PM Tony Blair.

We may be a poodle on the world stage when compared to the U.S. and Russia but it is nice, just occasionally, to not be portrayed as some other country’s lap dog.
Of course, most people’s reactions to the Prime Minister’s defence of Britain was coloured by their political affiliations – with those on the left steadfastly refusing to give any credit.

‘A nice bit of myopic jingoism’ was how one of my Twitter followers described it – which I thought was a tad harsh.

I like to think, naively perhaps, that David Cameron stuck up for Britain, its traditions and values, because he believes in them.

It’s the kind of thing I’d expect any Prime Minister worth his or her salt to do but the sad truth is that, in recent years at leas, there has been nothing in the way of Statesmanship from the those living at Number 10.

It may just have been window dressing against the background of a summit at which precious little was actually achieved, but I was heartened – nonetheless – by the PM’s language and the sentiment.

The Britain of 2013 is a far cry from the global superpower it once was but it is clearly still important enough for the Americans to view us as a key ally – at least in terms of public perception, if not militarily.

I’d like to think that, going forward, any Prime Minister – from whichever party – understands that the British electorate deserves to be represented proudly in international affairs. If that means being unpopular, then so be it.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

There’s nothing wrong with having a little pride in our country’s heritage

A section of the front page fromThe Sentinel in 1918 when the Great War Armistice was declared.

A section of the front page from The Sentinel in 1918 when the Great War Armistice was declared.

If there was a poll to find the most unpopular person in England right now then Education Secretary Michael Gove would surely be in with a shout.

As many of his predecessors have been wont to do, Mr Gove has made it his business to tinker…

He’s tinkered with the curriculum. He’s even tinkered with teachers’ terms and conditions.

Granted, it has felt at times during the past three years as though the Government has been constantly attacking the teaching profession.

The problem is that when a politician attempts to change the way children are taught this inevitably puts him or her on a collision course with teaching professionals (and their unions).

Politicians can bring in all the experts they want: All the professors, academics and even celebrities. It won’t make a scrap of difference.

They will still be accused of poking their nose in business they know nothing about, bringing the morale of teachers down to rock bottom and endangering children’s education for generations to come.

In 2007 the then Labour Government controversially took the decision to remove key historical figures from the curriculum – including Churchill and Hitler – leading to accusations of a ‘dumbing down’.

Now Michael Gove wants our Winston back in again – and a lot more names besides.

His new draft curriculum would see five to 14-year-olds learning about the Romans, the Vikings, the Magna Carta, the Reformation, the English Civil War, the development of the British Empire, the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, the First and Second World Wars and the creation of the NHS.

They would learn history up to 1066 at primary school and find out about the Norman Conquest during their secondary education.

Sound OK so far? Well, it did to me, but apparently not to some education professionals.

More than 100 teachers from a variety of schools have signed a letter to a national newspaper claiming the proposals amount to a breach of their legal duty to avoid “the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school”.

They point to the ‘jingoistic’ way in which both Mr Gove and the Prime Minister have promoted plans to change the curriculum and claim certain sections of the community – “ethnic minority groups and girls even” – may feel excluded by the proposals.

It’s at this point that I rather lose patience with the letter writers.

I often visit my daughters’ schools and enjoy viewing all the work they’ve done on topics as varied – for example – as space travel, the Great Fire of London and Diwali.

Frankly, I don’t have a problem with any of them and my girls will often come home and proudly explain what they’ve learned on any given day.

As far as I can see, studying something like the Gunpowder Plot and its remarkable legacy or the wonderful annual Hindu Festival of Light is all part of the rich tapestry of our unashamedly multi-cultural nation.

At the same time I can’t help but feel there’s been a creeping change in recent years in the way in which certain subjects and topics have been approached and taught in our schools.

I’m not sure at what point it happened but, at some time during the past 20 years, it seems to have ceased to be acceptable to be proud to be English or British in a historical context or to be proud of our country’s heritage.

Certain colossal figures have been airbrushed from the curriculum and, as a nation, we’ve done an awful lot of soul-searching about (and apologising for) past misdeeds.

I’ve never really understood this desperate need to appease and to avoid offending any and everyone because I don’t see how we, here in the 21st century, can be held responsible for events which happened hundreds of years ago.

For example, I don’t want an apology from the good people of France for the Battle of Hastings. Honestly, I’m over it.

The fact is Great Britain had an empire and it was mainly run or administered by men and thus the majority of ‘great’ (I use this term advisedly) historical figures were blokes.

I don’t say this to alienate women or girls: It’s just a fact.

Thankfully, the role of women has changed dramatically in the past 100 years or so to the extent that historians of the future will include far more women in the lists of ‘great historical figures’ than history teachers could when I was at school during the 1980s.

It’s also a fact that in any nation’s history there will be good and bad – things to be proud of and to be appalled at.

These are historical facts and I can’t see anything wrong in highlighting both while, at the same time, giving young people a sense of pride and belonging.

Surely it’s better that they learn about and admire figures such as Shakespeare, the Duke of Wellington, Florence Nightingale or Churchill than whichever
X-Factor winner happens to be on their iPod shuffle this week?

There will doubtless be a huge debate in the coming months about the way in which we mark the centenary of the start of the Great War and the Government will do that thing of trying not to upset our German friends.

I’ve already started ploughing through The Sentinel’s archive as we here at this regional newspaper plan our coverage.

It’s not about offending anyone. We take the view that it’s important to honour the men from our neck of the woods who fought and died in the mud at Mons, Passchendaele or Ypres – just as other media outlets will be doing for their ‘patch’.

To that end, I would argue that being partisan, in this case, isn’t a bad thing at all.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Small price hike should not stop us celebrating heritage

Granted, it is a sad state of affairs when taxpayers have to pay twice to use municipal facilities.
In an ideal world, given the importance of cultural oases such as museums, admission should be free. But amid swingeing cutbacks to public services and the reality is that if we want to retain such buildings then there is a price to be paid.
The announcement that the city council is considering increasing admission charges to its museums by around 20 per cent came as no great surprise to me.
No stone will be left unturned as local authorities attempt to reduce their budgets.
The proposed increases of £1 on the £5.95 adult ticket for the Gladstone Pottery Museum, or 50p on the current £2.50 admission price for Ford Green Hall and Etruria Industrial Museum, may seem quite steep.
However, I don’t see these increases being prohibitive. If someone is interested enough to look up such venues then I’m pretty sure the cost won’t put them off. What concerns me more is the fact that such price increases will only generate an estimated additional £10,300 a year for the museums service.
That is a piffling amount and begs the question: just how many people are actually going through the doors of these venues?
Even my simple grasp of maths tells me that it can’t be very many.
The fact is we have some wonderful museums in Stoke-on-Trent which speak for the city’s rich and precious industrial history. As well as preserving them for future generations, we have a duty to ensure that they are well used.
We are still known as ‘the Potteries’ and that nickname is still used by many natives.
But I wonder how many of us have actually ever been to Gladstone Pottery Museum and walked among the bottle ovens and the barrels?
I wonder how many city schools make sure that every child travels to Gladstone to learn a little more about the industry on which Stoke-on-Trent’s reputation was built? I never went on a school trip to a local museum – but I did enjoy visits to the Jorvik Viking Centre in York and Alderley Edge.
While I enjoyed the days out, I can’t help but thinking that local history was neglected as I learned nothing of the pottery industry, the coal mines, Shelton Bar or the canal network.
You see, there is little point having such gems as Gladstone unless we locals start to use them more because, in all honesty, the numbers of visitors to such museums from outside North Staffordshire must be fairly small.
We need to think more creatively about how our tourist attractions can be used – to maximise both footfall and revenue generation.
Murder mystery evenings, ghost hunts and open-air Shakespeare productions have all been successfully staged at museums and we need to see more of such activity at ours.
We need to make the visitor experiences more vivid and attractive because I see tourism – both local and national – becoming increasingly important to our economy. As we start to get to grips with the restoration, interpretation and presentation of artefacts from the Staffordshire Hoard, we can begin to see the potential of the acquisition of this breathtaking archaeological discovery.
If we play our cards right we could market ourselves as the home of the Hoard and use it to bring visitors into the city centre.
Once we’ve got them to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery we could signpost our other cultural destinations – creating a genuine museums trail which showcases our heritage.
Whether it be public art, museums or libraries we must ensure that – amid the most challenging of economic circumstances – these assets which help to define us from the other cities are protected and nurtured.
The benefits of culture are sometimes hard to quantify.
Suffice to say that without the likes of the Gladstone Pottery Museum and its ilk, our city would be much the poorer.

College memories make the summer of ’89 ever golden

For Bryan Adams, it was the summer of ’69. For me it was the summer of ’89.

He got his first real six string, had a band and they tried real hard.

I got the PMT bus from Sneyd Green to Fenton five days a week, started playing pool for a pub team and first kissed a girl.

Granted, Bryan’s youth was a little more rock ‘n roll than mine. But I wouldn’t swap my golden memories of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College – even for a number one ballad.

When I read yesterday that college staff were clearing out the class rooms and lecture theatres ahead of the move to a new £33 million campus in Stoke, those memories came flooding back.

I knew the big day was imminent, but seeing it in print still left me feeling rather sad.

In 1989 I was 17 and the world was my oyster. The Stone Roses, the Inspiral Carpets and Depeche Mode were topping the Indie music charts and I had a part-time job in a fireplace showroom in Tunstall which provided my first disposable income.

You probably won’t remember but in 1989 the UK experienced an exceptional 12 months meteorologically.

It was a long, hot, dry summer which (to quote Bryan) “seemed to last forever.”

It was the summer which saw yours truly sunbathing at lunchtimes on the college’s football pitches while listening to cassettes on his cheapo version of a Walkman.

I’m sure someone somewhere can say just how many students have walked up those concrete steps at Fenton and passed through the doors since 1970.

The figure will doubtless be in the hundreds of thousands – the vast majority of whom were from North Staffordshire – and I am proud to say that I’m one of them.

For me, Sixth Form College – like university to many others – equalled freedom on many levels.

I was out of the high school bubble of friends – some of whom I’d known since playgroup. A few came with me but many more didn’t. It was time to meet new people.

I had to organise myself to catch buses every morning. There was no uniform and I sorted my own lunches.

I chose to study A-levels in European History, British Government and Politics and English Literature and, at times, it was bloody hard work.

I recall the Sixth Form library being a wonder to me. Split over two floors and boasting study cubicles and a number of PCs, it seemed vast and alluring.

I enjoyed lectures enormously because we were able to debate topics rather than simply being talked at.

“How would you describe Hamlet’s love for his mother?” That one went on a while, I can tell you.

What was more, the staff treated you like young adults which represented a big change from the school environment.

That meant it was up to you to motivate yourself to attend lectures or fall behind on the coursework. (At this point I’d like to apologise to my politics lecturer Mr Smith for bobbing off lessons with Richard Murphy so that we could play pool at Shipley’s Amusements).

Actually, nobody minded the work because college social life opened up a world of opportunities – especially to a wide-eyed teenager like me whose previous idea of a wild night was spending more than 20 pence at the outdoor.

The Sixth Form had its own radio station run by geeks who piped music into my favourite place – the common room.

Apart from being home to Pat’s Pantry (beef burgers: 35 pence each), it was the place where my mate Mark and I learned to play Blackjack while our pal Brian canoodled incessantly with his latest rock chick girlfriend.

It was there where tickets for discos (I’m afraid that was still the word, back then) at Chico’s by Hanley bus station exchanged hands for a quid.

I never went – preferring instead the dubious pleasures of indie night at Ritzy in Newcastle on Thursdays where I shoe-gazed for England.

Thanks to Fenton’s Sixth Form College I met my first and second girlfriends – one of whom dragged me to my first live rock concert in Milton Keynes.

I also developed a love of Shakespeare and I made one very good friend for life.

Such is the fondness with which I hold the college that I returned a couple of years ago to visit my old English teacher Nigel Mansfield to see how the place had changed and to thank him for inspiring me.

One thing is for sure – when they start to demolish the Sixth Form the ghost of a skinny 17-year-old with floppy curtain hair and a rucksack slung over one shoulder won’t be walking the grounds alone.