The Football Final and a paper round… how I fell in love with newspapers

A Sentinel front page from July 1988.

A Sentinel front page from July 1988.

I can tell you exactly when I fell in love with newspapers. I would have been about 10 years old and it was The Sentinel that hooked me.

My mum and dad had the paper delivered and I would nick the Football Final and sit alone in the back room reading the brief match reports and scanning the league tables.

I remember thinking at the time that it was incredible that within an hour and a half of the final whistle a page full of information had been printed on the back of our local paper and delivered to our door.

At the age of 15 I began my paper round – delivering The Sentinel and national newspapers to homes in Sneyd Green and Smallthorne.

My ‘run’ was very hilly and was the longest of any of the paper boys and girls working out of the newsagents on Mornington Road.

The year was 1987 and I would get up at 5.30am on a school day and a similar time at weekends and have to be at the paper shop by 4.30pm each day after school.

I earned the princely sum of £5.50 per week but consoled myself with the fact that I lost a stone in weight in three months lugging that great heavy bag around.

I remember weekends being toughest because my bag was heavier – filled with numerous lifestyle supplements and magazines which the nationals produced to add value to their reader offer.

Being a paper boy helped me to develop a healthy interest in current affairs – from the trials and tribulations of ‘gender-bender’ Boy George to the kidnapping of Terry Waite and the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise.

I would browse the nationals before delivering them – something my boss Joe frowned upon because he feared complaints from customers irked by papers with creased pages.

I slowly learned the differences between each of the tabloids, began to spot the spin and the political bias, and marvelled at how the same story could be told two or three different ways.

It was while at Sixth Form College, Fenton, a couple of years after I gave up my paper round, that I applied for a job with a local press agency – determined to carve a career in journalism.

It’s no secret that sales of newspapers, both national and local, have been declining since their peak in the 1950s – never more so than following the advent of the internet.

Two of the national newspapers I delivered as a paper boy – The News of the World and Today – are no longer with us.

The former was shut down in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal while the other, which had only launched in 1986, closed nine years later due to financial pressures.

I am proud to say that having delivered both I worked for and had articles published in both during my time as a ‘stringer’ for a local press agency. Back in the mid to late Eighties newspaper circulation figures were still astonishingly high.

In 1987 the News of the World was selling an average of 5,360,000 copies a week while the Sunday Mirror was selling almost three million.

The Sun was selling almost four million copies daily and the Daily Telegraph 1.15 million copies.

The circulation of all these titles, and all regional newspapers has plummeted dramatically over the last 20 years as technology has advanced and the way in which people access information has changed – prompting many observers to predict the death of newspapers.

Far fewer people take a newspaper to work and far more work at a computer or have a phone which gives them instant access to all the news, sport and features that they want.

However, in the week that politicians carved a highly unsatisfactory deal between themselves and anti-Press activists, I’d like to think there’s life in the old dogs yet.

Blogs and the broadcast media are all well and good but, in the final analysis: No-one does in-depth like newspapers; No-one chronicles history like newspapers; No organisations do investigations like newspapers. No other media organisations have the resources to do what newspapers like The Sentinel do here in North Staffordshire.

That’s our USP and that’s why, in my opinion, even in this age of ever-changing technology newspapers still have a vital role to play.

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

Just time for one last tour then school’s out… forever

The old building at Holden Lane High which is due to be demolished in January 2014.

The old buildings at Holden Lane High which are due to be demolished in January 2014.

There is a framed picture in head teacher John Patino’s office. It is an aerial photograph which I’m guessing, from the look of the vehicles, was taken around 1983 when yours truly started at Holden Lane High School.

It shows the mobile classrooms which had been built on an area previously home to cricket nets to accommodate for the double-intake that year.

This included 11-year-old, destined-to-be GCSE guinea-pigs.

My lot.

One of those mobiles, top right, became my ‘home’, or form room, for five years.

If you look closely you can just make out the speck of a lad on a bicycle – presumably riding home.

I wondered briefly if I knew him. Maybe he was in my year. Perhaps we’re still in touch on Facebook.

Schools are special places, you see. You spend so long there and your actions are so routine that they become ingrained in your memory.

As I sat there listening to John’s vision of the future for my old school I couldn’t help but reminisce.

I couldn’t help but think about teachers whose big personalities or quirky traits left such an impression on young me.

Even now, 25 years after leaving, I can still hear Mr Ball barking orders down the corridors and giving out lines and detention to ne’er do wells.

I can still hear my form tutor Mr Jones enforcing discipline with a sergeant major’s humour and the threat of the ruler and the cane.

I can still recall the dread of P.E. That feeling in the pit of my stomach from knowing that fat, asthmatic yours truly couldn’t run about without getting out of breath.

Rubbish at football. Always last at cross-country.

That’s just the way it was.

I can still remember music teacher Mr Baddeley rolling his eyes at me as I failed the recorder test.

I can still recall being smitten from day one when I first spotted a girl in the top class.

John bought me back to down to earth with a bump: From September, he explained, Holden Lane High in Sneyd Green will cease to exist.

It will be replaced by the brand new £11 million Excel Academy which is currently under construction.

In January the buildings of my old school will no longer be used and then the bulldozers will move in.

Much as it tugs at my heart strings, there are sound reasons for this.

A couple of years ago Holden Lane went in to special measures after a damning Ofsted inspection.

The number of pupils has fallen from 1,300 or so in its hey-day to just 800 or so. This desperately needs to change.

The buildings I refer to with such fondness are, to put it mildly, well past their best. This isn’t something a lick of paint or a refurbishment can mask because five decades and literally tens of thousands of pupils have taken their toll on the old girl.

Yes, what I didn’t realise was that Holden Lane High this year celebrates its 50th anniversary and will just about reach that milestone before it’s demolition time.

In order to reverse falling pupil numbers and exorcise the ghost of that Ofsted report a new academy will rise from the ashes – funded by the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.

It will be an academy the pupils deserve with state-of-the-art facilities and one which, John and the governors hope, will tempt families to again look favourably on a school that has fallen from grace in recent years.

There will be a new uniform with a red rather than a blue tie. Yes, it’s all-change at Holden Lane – sorry, the Excel Academy – and it’s nothing more than present and future generations deserve.

John took me on a tour of the old building and I made him laugh by remembering where all my fifth year classrooms were across three floors.

The corridors that once were so daunting seemed woefully small, the stairwells antiquated and the windows, well, rather draughty.

Happily, however, not much had changed in a quarter of a century since 16-year-old me left to do his A-levels at Sixth Form College, Fenton.

There’ll be one hell of a reunion before they knock the place down, I’ll make sure of that.

I may even take a brick as a keepsake.

I’ll certainly want to take one final tour round the school before that happens – perhaps accompanied this time by some old friends from class 5/1. You know who you are.

It’ll be mint. Ace. Be there or be square.

Inside the old building at Holden Lane High which is due to be demolished in January 2014.

Inside the old buildings at Holden Lane High which are due to be demolished in January 2014.

Ray of sunshine has been on the buses for 44 years…

Thirty years ago if you wanted to get around the Six Towns then most people hopped on the tried and trusted buses mainly operated by Potteries Motor Traction (PMT).

In the early Eighties, there were nowhere near as many cars on the road and public transport was the lifeblood of the local economy.

Buses ferrying workers to major employers such as Shelton Bar, Wedgwood, Royal Doulton and the pits were crammed from 7am.

Hanley bus station – that huge, dirty, decaying carbuncle which is set for demolition – was a hive of activity as the main terminus for the Potteries.

My nan wouldn’t buy her bloomer loaves from anywhere else other than the bakery in the underpass where other businesses such as a dry cleaners, chemist and bookies were thriving.

This was a place Ray Newton knew very well.

In August of 1980 he passed his driving test not in a little car like the rest of us – but behind the wheel of a PMT bus.

Ray had begun his career on the buses on May 6, 1968, when – as a 21-year-old – he had swapped his job as a stores clerk for a firm in Newcastle for the better paid job of a conductor PMT operating out of its Clough Street depot.

Ray, aged 64, of Bentilee, said: “I started on a basic wage of £13 nine shillings – which was a big jump for me. And we could work overtime to earn some more.

“It was a great job and I really enjoyed it. There was wonderful camaraderie on the buses and the drivers became good mates – a big part of your life. As well as collecting the fairs, the conductor was responsible for ensuring the buses stuck to the timetable and arrived on time. It was an important job.

“Back then people were more friendly, polite and courteous. Lads would give up their seats for a lady if the bus was full and the drivers and conductors were treated with respect by customers.”

Ray’s working life came to a crossroads in August 1980 as conductors were being phased out in favour of single-operative vehicles.

He opted to re-train as a driver and during the interview we worked out that he must have ferried yours truly to Sixth Form College, Fenton, and home again to Sneyd Green in the late Eighties.

Long before that, however, Ray had to pass his driving test.

He said: “It was terrifying, to be honest. My knees were knocking the first time I sat behind the wheel of a bus. I only had a provisional licence at the time and so I passed my test on a bus which I suppose is quite unusual.

“By the following year (1981) there were no conductors on PMT buses and the drivers were doing it all and so I had to learn to take the fares as well as getting my head around the mechanics of driving a big vehicle.”

Ray has no doubt why the number of people using the buses across North Staffordshire has fallen in recent years.

He said: “It’s the local economy. We just don’t have the companies and workplaces we had back then. Workers would fill our buses.

“It was standing room only at certain times of the day. They just aren’t there anymore.”

And the biggest change he has seen over the years?

Ray said: “Definitely the switch from a manual gearbox to an automatic. That was a really big deal for all of the drivers and totally changed the job.”

Of course, you can’t work on the buses with the public for forty-odd years and not have a few stories.

Ray has seen it all – including one elderly passenger he picked up near Cobridge Traffic Lights expiring in his seat.

But one story which still tickles Ray is from his time as a conductor in the seventies.

He laughed: “Our bus came to a stop in Highfield Road, Blurton, and I told one of our passengers – a blind man – I would get off and help him cross the road. Just as we got to the other side I heard the ‘ding-ding’ of the bell on the bus and off she went. The driver drove off without me.

“Some comedian had obviously seen what I was doing and pretended to be me, rung the bell, and left me stranded. To be fair, the driver did come back for me. Eventually.”

On May 5, Ray will finish his shift at First Bus, hand in his keys at the depot in Adderley Green, and head off to a well-deserved retirement – just one day shy of 44 years on the buses.

He’s had a long and distinguished career and admits he has enjoyed it.

So how will he fill his retirement?

Ray said: “I love making things. Doll’s house furniture and the like. That’ll keep me busy.”

With seven grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, three great grandchildren (and another on the way) he won’t be short of takers for those hand-made toys.

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

Exciting, exhausting… and I wouldn’t change a thing about my days as a cub reporter

We bought an iMac at the weekend after our computer died. Literally. Other PCs are, of course, available but I have to say it’s a great piece of kit. Stylish, powerful and – most important of all – a brand that is intrinsically-linked to my days as a cub reporter in the Mother Town some 20-odd years ago.

The purchase got me thinking about those crazy early days of my career as a journalist.

While studying for my A-levels at Sixth Form College in Fenton I got a Saturday job working for the Smith Davis Press Agency in Tunstall – shortly before they moved to Burslem.

I was 17 and had applied for a full-time job I wasn’t eligible for just to get a bit of work experience.

The directors – two ex-Sentinel men called Peter Davis and Dave Smith – took pity on me and had me in at the weekends.

I made tea, fetched and carried and got to go to Port Vale and Stoke City games with writers who, unlike me, could string a sentence together.

Most importantly of all I was taught the basics of journalese – in other words, how to write news, sports and features stories.

I thought I could write. I was wrong. I could cobble together history and English Literature essays and the odd bit of (bad) creative fiction but that didn’t mean I could write in the real world.

At Smith Davis I learned how to construct a story and to avoid repetition.

I learned about the who, what, where, how, why and when questions. I learned about drop intros and the need to check your facts with more than one source.

Those lessons in the basics, from a couple of veteran newsmen, were backed up by rollickings from the news editors from national newspapers who would shout very loud and turn the air blue if there was a single error in the you copy you had filed down the ‘wire’.

Let’s just say anyone who has had me as a news editor really doesn’t know they’re born. Suffice to say I learned quickly. It was a case of having to. It really was sink or swim. It didn’t matter that I was part-time at first and it certainly didn’t matter how old I was.

I had it drummed into me that you were only as good as your last story.

I did OK. Well enough, in fact, to be offered an £80 a week contract when I left college – which led me to turn down offers from three universities and enter the world of work at 18.
No-one tells you what to expect when you walk into a newsroom.

You have an idea in your head based on television and films but the reality is, in fact, a world away.

It’s seldom glamorous, often laborious, and certainly does not involve sitting in a pub all day.

Indeed, you’re more likely to spend the day with a telephone attached to your ear – like yours truly in the picture above. Back in 1989, the industry was very different to the modern day media world.

The internet was in its infancy and wasn’t yet on our radar. There was no email, no mobile telephones and no 24-hour TV and radio news.

Agency reporters – or stringers as we were known – really were (and still are) the dog soldiers of journalism. I worked Monday to Saturday and was on call 24/7 and carried a beeper – just like a hospital doctor – which would wake me up at all hours of the day and night.

I ran with the national ‘pack’, did regular work for Central TV, Granada TV and Signal Radio, and cut my teeth on Vale and Stoke match reports and the occasional exclusive for nationals – ranging from The Times to the Today newspaper and even the Daily Sport.

I was fingerprinted in a murder inquiry, tailed back to the office by special branch, went undercover at General Election time (can’t tell you), was threatened with a shotgun, met and photographed royals – including Princess Di, went clubbing with Vale players (those were the days) – and broke a couple of major national stories from which I’ve still got the clippings.

Looking back, I recall it was exhausting, exciting and I wouldn’t change a thing. I realise now that those five years were the best possible training a hack could ever receive.

Then one day we upgraded to new computers – funky new Apple Macs – and my colleague Andy Jackson started talking about something called the internet and electronic picture transfer which he said would hit our industry ‘like a train’.

He was right. Andy often was. Suddenly the landscape changed and newspapers were under threat from digital communications.

Some people will tell you that the print media is doomed. They’re wrong.

Take it from someone who’s had newsprint on his hands for two decades or more.

People like having something tangible in their hands. Something they can pass around and show their missus or their mates – something they can cut out from or keep.

There’s something reassuringly familiar about the product I am privileged to help create – my home town newspaper – which is what convinces me there will always be a need, a demand for its vital, grassroots kind of local journalism.

It’s been a long time since I’ve run with the pack and in recent years my profession has taken something of a pounding. What’s more, the technology involved and the demands and challenges we face are greater than ever.

But I still believe in the ethos of the job which I picked up in those early days: That our role is to inform, to educate and to entertain and that journalism is a cornerstone of our democracy.

I certainly wouldn’t still be doing it, if I didn’t. And I wouldn’t be doing it at all if it wasn’t for those boys at the agency in Boslem.
This one’s for you, gents.

This article is dedicated to some wonderful colleagues whom I have had the pleasure of working with and learning from over the years – especially the late John Hollinshead (Smith Davis photographer), the late Jeff Henderson (sub-editor with the Chester Evening Leader) and the late, great John Abberley of The Sentinel.

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

The totally bodacious language of my youth


Yours truly was never the coolest kid on the block. Overweight, asthmatic boys rarely are – particularly those who aren’t wearing hip clothing or the right trainers.
However, the way in which you spoke to your mates back in the Eighties was at least a way of gaining a modicum of integrity and gave you a sense of place and belonging.
These days, according to my 16-year-old nephew, the words ‘gay’ and ‘sick’ mean entirely different things to the younger generation.
Don’t ask me what.
As is still the case, in my youth, the evolution of language was very often American-influenced and driven by two things: a) TV and movies or b) advancements in technology.
My A to Z list of slang certainly isn’t definitive (for one thing, I’ve omitted the swear words) but it helped me to survive high school and A-Levels.
What’s more, I am delighted to say that some of the words and phrases I picked up in the playground at Holden Lane High or in the common room at Sixth Form College are still in use today…
*Ace: Excellent. Something which is very cool or good.
*Airhead: An idiot. A moron. A scatter-brain. Personally, I prefer ‘space cadet’.
*Awesome: Well, duh.
*Bad: This is an example of us children of the Eighties being contrary. It actually means something which is excellent or, erm, awesome.
*Barf: To be sick.
*Bodacious: A geek’s way of saying that a girl or woman is beautiful. Usually prefixed by the word ‘totally’. I don’t think I ever actually said it but I had a mate who used the word and Keanu Reeves certainly did in the hit movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
*Bogus: The opposite of excellent. Unbelievable. Not good. I refer you once again to Bill and Ted.
*Cheesy: Corny. Uncool. In poor taste. Still perfectly valid in 2011.
*Chill: To hang out with your mates. To relax. Apparently, today they say ‘chillax’ or ‘chillin’ but I’m still claiming this word for my 80s dictionary.
*Dude: A bloke. A mate. Not necessarily one wearing a Stetson or packing a Colt .45.
*Dweeb: Someone who isn’t in with the ‘in-crowd’. A geek. A nerd. Basically, me.
*Gross: Something so unpleasant it makes you feel sick. Although you rarely were.
*Hacker: A computer genius. Back in my day there was only one – a fictional character from the movie War Games. Nowadays they are 10 a penny and one of them is probably downloading all your personal information from Facebook as you read this.
*Head rush: A big thrill. Like going on the Corkscrew at Alton Towers.
*Mint: Another way of saying something is ‘ace’. A personal favourite of mine which deserves to be brought back.
*Networking: A horrible word, still in common parlance today, which used to mean meeting well-connected people at parties. Nowadays it means being false at nauseating business dos. (See also Yuppie)
*Sucks: A way to express disapproval of someone or something. For example, ‘He sucks’ or ‘that sucks’. Still occasionally heard today among 35 to 45-year-olds who ought to know better.
*Veg: Another way of saying you are relaxing or taking it easy. For example ‘I’m just vegging’. What I did when mum thought I was upstairs revising for my English Literature A-Level exam.
*Wicked: Fantastic. The equivalent of ‘ace’ or ‘mint’. Popularised even more in the UK by comedian Lenny Henry through his character DJ Delbert Wilkins.
*Yuppie: A young, upwardly mobile professional person. A derogatory term generally used to describe suit-wearing high-flyers with mobile telephones the size of house bricks. Someone once called me a Yuppie **** when my on-call work mobile went off in Heath’s in Hanley. I’ve never been so embarrassed in all my life.