Middle-age approaches – and I’m taking it seriously… sort of

2012 is a very important year. Well, it is for me, anyway.
This has nothing to do with the London Olympics or even the fact that I have tickets to see The Stone Roses in concert.
No, 2012 is the year I officially become middle-aged.
Some would argue, of course, that this begins when you hit 30.
However, we all know that the big Four-O is the age everyone really dreads and I’m just 68 days away. (Hard to believe, I know).
Yes, I was born in 1972 – a year of momentous events such as Britain finally joining the E.E.C… and the airing of the first episode of Emmerdale Farm.
It’s hard to work out which has since proved the more entertaining soap opera, isn’t it?
One thing’s for sure – there’s nothing like a looming milestone to make you reflect on what has gone before.
In the last decade I have experienced endless sleeplessness and the indescribable pleasure of watching my daughters be born and grow into brilliant little people with whom I can now have proper conversations.
In the last 10 years I have also done things I never thought I’d do – such as visit relatives in New Zealand, try my hand at public speaking, start an internet blog, appear in a pantomime, beat cancer (touch wood) and, crucially, meet Bon Jovi’s guitarist Richie Sambora and The Fonz.
Through my job I’ve also crossed paths with some amazing people in the last decade – people like the Treetops Hospice kids and cancer drug campaigner Dot Griffiths.
My thirties have been very painful for me, at times – not least because the fortunes of my beloved Port Vale have taken such an awful nose-dive.
During the last 10 years, many of the people I looked up to and actually helped to shape who I am have also passed on – leaving genuine voids.
Remarkable people like my old Boys’ Brigade captain Roy Harrison, my Sentinel colleague John Abberley and my nan Ethel.
Suddenly I’m the one people are looking to for words of wisdom or leaning on and, frankly, it’s a sobering thought. As most people are fighting the urge to break two-day old New Year’s resolutions I am trying to crystal ball-gaze into my next 10 years.
Oh yes, I’m taking 40 seriously, alright. Even so, as of March 12 don’t expect me to suddenly start acting my age.
I may wear slippers and I may be on the cusp of middle-age but I’ve still got all my own teeth and (most of) my hair to let down.
There’s certainly no danger of me suddenly liking gardening or starting to watch BBC period dramas.
I won’t be getting a tattoo or anything because I did that when I hit 30. (Chinese symbols – right upper arm, in case you wondered).
However, I will be marking my 40th year with my first trip to the States and having a party with everyone I’ve ever met. More or less.
If you don’t get an invite, don’t worry – just assume yours got lost in the post.
Mine’s a bottle of Newcastle Brown. Cheers.

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Will yours truly be any good in panto? Judge for yourself…

Potteries stage star Jonathan Wilkes at the press launch for the Dick Whittington pantomime.

Potteries stage star Jonathan Wilkes at the press launch for the Dick Whittington pantomime.

Once the word got out, amid the hysterics from my colleagues, the first question I was asked was: “Do you have to share a sweaty costume with Robbie’s dad?”

The second question was: “Do you have to sing?”

Mercifully, the answer to both appears to be no – but yes I will be appearing in this year’s Christmas pantomime at Hanley’s Regent Theatre.

When I broke the news to The Sentinel’s Editor-in-Chief, he said it was a marvellous idea. He has, rather predictably, referred to me as ‘Buttons’, ever since.

The gaffer’s personal assistant laughed so hard at the thought of it I feared she had done herself an injury.

But that’s kind of the reaction you’re hoping for, I guess, if you are prepared to dress up in medieval garb and tights for a bit of slapstick festive comedy.

Working in a newsroom for 20 years makes you fairly thick-skinned anyway.

There’s what you might term a ‘robust’ atmosphere – i.e. everyone takes the Mickey out of everyone else – and there’s very little room for shrinking violets.

The panto role came about when Jonny Wilkes rang me to ask how I felt about taking over from Pete Conway and playing his character in the second half of the run.

To be honest, it was a no-brainer – once I’d got the necessary permissions from my family and employer and convinced myself I wasn’t going to let anyone down.

After all, if it’s good enough for The Fonz (AKA American actor Henry Winkler who is appearing in panto in Liverpool), then it’s good enough for me.

Let’s face it, it’s a fantastic opportunity to experience what’s it’s like to be on stage in front of thousands of people for a couple of weeks with the likes of Wilkesy and the legendary Sheila Ferguson.

I’ll also get to see what really goes on behind the scenes (before, of course, dutifully reporting any gossip back to Sentinel readers).

In addition, this unexpected opportunity gives me the chance to work with Su-Annagib – winner of Stoke’s Top Talent 2009.

I was a judge again this year and, while the other Top Talent judges all bring theatrical expertise to the panel, I’m there very much as a representative of the audience.

Next year, however, I’ll be able to draw upon my own memories of Su’s panto journey – which will hopefully be her first step on the road to a career in musical theatre.

And it is not as though I am without some pedigree in the performing arts…

In 1981 I was the court chamberlain in a play at Holden Lane First and Middle School in Sneyd Green. I was nine.

Wearing a large cloak and strange hat, I carried a metal-tipped staff and banged it down hard on the stage three times.

What’s more, I can even remember my lines. I bellowed: “His majesty, the King!” Followed by: “Her majesty, the Queen!”

That was it.

I suspect I’ll have a few more words to say as Alderman FitzSentinel in The Regent’s production of Dick Whittington.

The draft script was 85 pages long and my character appears on at least half of them, so this is no walk in the park.

In fact, I’ve already had the ‘forgetting my lines on stage’ dream.

“Oh no you haven’t.” Oh yes, I honestly have.

Will I be any good? You’ll have to judge that for yourself.

However, I’m acutely aware that a lot of people pay good money to enjoy this Christmas tradition that I am privileged to be a part of and so I will give it my all.

There is, of course, a precedent for an amateur in this type of role at The Regent. Signal Radio’s Andy Goulding had this gig for a few years and I reckon anything a DJ can do a local newspaper hack can do just as well… if not better.

My daughters (aged three and five) weren’t too sure about it all when I told them dad would be on stage.

(They want to sit with me, you see, and share my pic ‘n’ mix).

But they soon warmed to the idea of me wearing a funny costume and making everyone laugh. At least, that’s the plan.

Recently, I spoke to my colleague John Abberley before he wrote very eloquently and powerfully about his battle with cancer. It was something I could identify with.

John reminded me that life is short – and so I’m seizing the moment.

Roll on December 23…