Army trials highlight the best of our youth

Officer candidates put through their paces at AOSB.

Officer candidates put through their paces at AOSB.

‘Are you sure, red one? Think carefully, red one.’ The Group Leader’s unflinching gaze bore into the nervous-looking young man stood in front of an audience of six of his peers and three high-ranking Army officers who looked on impassively while scribbling on large, white noteboards.

The other candidates sat in mute sympathy in a semi-circle with their backs to me, clad in all-in-one green jump suits – distinguishable only by the numbers on their red bibs.

You could have heard a pin drop in the briefing room as the lad shuffled uncomfortably, looked to the ceiling for inspiration and then replied: ‘1500 hours, sir?’, more in hope than anything.

‘You’re making it up, red one,’ replied the emotionless young Rifles officer from behind his desk. ‘Does anyone else know the answer? How about you, red three?’

And so it went on for two hours as each member of ‘red group’ was put under the spotlight during the planning exercise element of their three-day assessment at the Army Officer Selection Board (AOSB) at Westbury in Wiltshire.

You may have heard of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst – the British Army’s initial training centre for officers. Well, to get to Sandhurst you have to graduate, for want of a better phrase, from AOSB.

In order to be selected for officer training, a candidate – male or female – has to prove themselves mentally and physically able to cope with the rigours of one of the toughest jobs in the world.

There is no hiding place for candidates at Westbury: It isn’t just a matter of how academically gifted you are; It isn’t just a matter of how fit you are; It certainly doesn’t matter if you have a relative who was or is a serving officer. There are no ‘jobs for the boys’. Or girls, for that matter.

At Westbury all young men and women are equal. It matters not whether you attended a state or private school or whether you have a plummy accent or grew up on a rough northern council estate. AOSB is a genuine leveller.

Referred to only by the colour of their bib and a randomly-assigned number, over several days candidates are put through a complex series of assessments designed to expose any weaknesses and character flaws.

I was shown a picture of His Royal Highness Prince Harry, taken during his time at AOSB. “He was Blue 13,” said one of the officers with clear pride. “He was treated no differently to anyone else. The truth is, first and foremost, Harry’s a very good soldier.”

If he hadn’t of been, HRH simply wouldn’t have made it through Westbury. As one Lieutenant Colonel told me: “I’ve just returned from Afghan, so I’m fairly ‘current’. There’s nothing like an operational tour to reinforce the fact that we can’t afford to have weak leaders for our soldiers because they could get people killed.”

Amen.

It is a fascinating and, at times, emotionally draining experience to watch these young people give their all to join Sandhurst’s elite.

You can’t help but feel for them. Indeed, at times it’s human nature for a civilian observer like me to even root for them – if only to alleviate the awful, awkward silence as they grapple with a complex equation or struggle desperately on an outdoor obstacle. Bear in mind the candidates receive no affirmation. They are given no positive or negative feedback during the process.

They have no idea how they are being scored on those ubiquitous white boards the assessors carry around.

During their time at AOSB the candidates live together, eat together and endure together a series of tests which will, ultimately, result in almost half of them being rejected – or ‘not selected’ in kinder phraseology. They can apply for selection once more, but AOSB operates a strict ‘two strikes and you’re out’ policy – and it’s worth saying that 20 per cent more candidates pass at the second attempt.

Set in the beautiful grounds of an impressive country house, Westbury immediately sets a tone which is aspirational.

Candidates are not competing against each other. Instead they are competing against the minimum standard expected of an Army officer.

That could be, for example, completing X number of obstacles on the individual assault course in three minutes. Or it could be how they score when briefing their peers on a command task. Or it could be displaying a degree of empathy or the integrity expected of someone who may one day lead troops into a fire-fight or represent his or her country in a battle for hearts and minds.

At every point during the three-day process the candidates are observed by a number of officers who are themselves being monitored by an assessor whose job it is to ensure that standards are maintained across the board and that each candidate is given the same opportunity and undergoes the same level of scrutiny as their peers.

The officers who will ultimately make the decision on who is selected (and who isn’t) do not compare notes during the assessment. They focus solely on their part of the process. Some have limited knowledge of a candidate’s background and academic prowess – others do not even know a candidate’s name throughout the testing.

On Friday morning the officers come together as a ‘board’ to discuss each young person in depth and score them according to a remarkably scientific yet flexible grading system.

As someone who takes great interest in the military and is exceptionally proud of this newspaper’s long links with the Armed Forces and our local units, what was so reassuring about my visit to Westbury was that so much time and resource was devoted to each individual. The system is fair and robust. Nothing is left to chance when choosing the officers to lead our boys (and girls) into battle.

What’s more, it doesn’t matter which part of the country you’re from, what school you attended or what your parents do for a living. It’s what’s inside that counts.

The bottom line is: Anyone can earn a place at Sandhurst – if they’re made of the right stuff.

What was also life-affirming is that by the end of the week even those candidates who were patently struggling by all AOSB measures had been accepted into their ‘team’ and were receiving the same sort of help, support and encouragement from their peers that one would expect from a platoon commander: The kind of support they can expect from the Army ‘family’.

If you’re wondering what happened to ‘red one’, he passed. Bright as a button, extremely likeable and with good leadership potential he has been identified as having the raw potential for being a fine officer one day.

He received his congratulatory letter this week and will be at Sandhurst in a few months.

All the young people I saw were the best of their generation. Exposed to the stress of thorough interviews, tough physical assessments, academic trials and mental aptitude tests they were pushed to their limits without complaint.

I came away with nothing but admiration for both those who were selected for Sandhurst and those who weren’t but who, during their time at Westbury, learned an awful lot about themselves in what is, effectively, an intensive three-day job interview.

It underlined for me the importance of looking for the potential in all young people and the dangers of judging any book by its cover.

For more information about applying to become an Army officer, visit: http://www.army.mod.uk/join

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Could you join the army of hospice volunteers?

Yours truly in the kitchen at the Dougie Mac Hospice.

Yours truly in the kitchen at the Dougie Mac Hospice.

If you are of an age, like me, and you’re born and bred in North Staffordshire, the chances are you will know someone who has received care at the Douglas Macmillan Hospice in Blurton during the last 40 years.

That’s how long Dougie Mac, as we call it, has been caring for local people.

Hopefully, no longer to does anyone view the place as ‘somewhere people with cancer go to die’ – as a member of my family once referred to it.

Dougie Mac is, and always was, far more than a hospice which provides end-of-life care.

If you ever have cause to visit you’ll find a bright, airy place which has more of a community feel than somewhere caring for sick patients.

I suppose that’s part of the magic. The first-class facilities, the modern decor, the beautifully-maintained gardens and the wonderful meals.

It’s actually a lovely place to be.

But what makes Dougie Mac truly special is the people who work there and the hundreds of people who give up their time as volunteers.

It costs more than £10 million each year to keep the hospice running – or £22,000 a day, if you prefer – much of this raised through donations, shop purchases and legacies from the people of North Staffordshire.

The fact is that sum would be a hell of a lot higher were it not for the army of volunteers who supplement the hospice’s paid-for staff.

Either that or the hospice’s income would be lower and it would simply be unable to offer the huge range of services it currently provides.

Some volunteers are students, many are retired people, others simply have a few hours a week to spare and want to give something back to their community.

Roles are many and varied – depending on whether someone wants to be based at the hospice, working with patients or out in the community helping with events or fund-raising.

Wherever you go in the hospice you’ll find volunteers.They answer the phones, they look after the gardens, they help maintain the buildings and they interact with the most important people – the patients and their relatives.

When the Prime Minister talks about the ‘Big Society’, people scoff. The truth is it’s been in action at Dougie Mac for decades.

Earlier this week I, along with BBC Radio Stoke’s John Acres, Stuart George and Charlotte Foster, and the Hanley Economic Building Society’s chief executive David Webster, spent some time at the hospice as volunteers.

I found myself wearing a green throwaway apron (much to the amusement of colleagues back at The Sentinel newsroom) and working in the busy kitchen which, I discovered, operates a rolling 10-week menu which makes your mouth water.

Once I’d proved I could polish 40-off glasses for a do the following day, chef Stephen Pickerin (CORR), from Hanley, let me loose preparing two huge trays of braised steak for patients and staff.

Mum would have been proud of me.

I have to say it was quite a therapeutic experience and a lovely atmosphere within which to work – helped no end by the banter with Steve, a long-suffering Vale fan like myself.

I chatted to another volunteer, Keith, (a Stoke fan) who told me how he’d begun working at the hospice after retiring when he found himself wondering ‘what he was supposed to do now’.

Keith began as a volunteer in the hospice garden before neck and back pain had forced him inside where he now works as a kitchen assistant.

It’s quite clear that the volunteers are extremely well thought of by staff and are viewed as a vital part of the team.

As chef Steve said: “We really couldn’t cope without them.”

But it was something he said later that stuck with me as I drove away from the hospice.

Steve commented: “We get lovely compliments from the patients and relatives about the meals. The best thing is when you hear someone who is ill say: ‘I couldn’t face my food until I came here’. That’s really special.”

It’s volunteers like Keith, of course, who help Steve and the team in the kitchen achieve such incredible results and genuinely improve the quality of life for patients and their relatives.
Right now, Dougie Mac is desperate for more volunteers for all kinds of jobs 24/7.

If you think you could help out for a few hours a week, or more, in a patient-facing role, a fund-raising or income generation position or a hospice-based role, then call the Douglas Macmillan Hospice voluntary services team on 344332 or email workforce services@dmhospice.org.uk

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

We’ll never see the like of our D-Day heroes again…

The Sentinel's D-Day 70th anniversary souvenir.

The Sentinel’s D-Day 70th anniversary souvenir.

We’ve all seen the grainy, black and white images. Most of us will have watched the Pathé news reels and limited film footage.

Many will have enjoyed, time and again, the classic war movie The Longest Day, Spielberg’s masterpiece Saving Private Ryan or the excellent Band of Brothers TV series.

A lucky few, like yours truly may have visited northern France and stood on the beaches, seen the remains of the Mulberry Harbours, touched a landing craft or a glider and seen the scars of that great conflict across Normandy.

But I’d venture to say that it’s only when you digest personal stories of the Normandy Landings or read news reports from the time that you get a genuine sense of what it was like for both those involved in D-Day – and, of course, the millions waiting anxiously for news back home.

There was no TV, no social media.

Millions huddled around radios or scoured newspapers such as The Sentinel for more information as the landings became public knowledge.

It is no exaggeration to say that much of the world held its breath on June 6, 1944, as the greatest seaborne invasion in history was executed.

Here in Britain, just a short stretch of water separated us from Hitler’s ‘Fortress Europe’ and people knew details of the landings announced 70 years ago today in Parliament by the then Prime Minister Winston Churchill represented a calculated gamble.

It had been made possible by years of planning and subterfuge as well as the combined efforts of the Russian armies in the East and the almost forgotten Allied armies slogging away in the Mediterranean who had greatly diluted the fighting strength of the Germans.

Success was still, however, by no means guaranteed.

Indeed, The Sentinel’s leader column of that fateful day ended with the words: ‘So, in quiet confidence, in the conviction of the righteousness of our cause and with determination to endure, we place ourselves in the hands of good Providence who has supported us all the day long of these troublous years’.

For several years Britain had stood alone against the might of Nazi Germany – Hitler’s impressive armies cutting a bloody swathe across the continent and staring hungrily across the English Channel.

First came the heroic retreat from Dunkirk. Then followed the Battle of Britain in which the Spitfire designed by our very own Reginald Mitchell, of Butt Lane, played a pivotal role.

Thanks to the bravery and skill of a small number of pilots and their ground crew, along with the indefatigable Royal Navy, Hitler was forced to abandon his planned conquest of our country – just as Napoleon had more than a century before. The people of these islands had put up with The Blitz and several years of rationing.

The country itself had been transformed into a lean society, fit to survive the travails of a war which impacted on everything from the food people ate, to the jobs they did, to the clothes they wore and even the time they went to bed.

(For the record, Black-Out time on June 6, 1944, here in Stoke-on-Trent was 11.17pm to 4.57, as you’ll see on your souvenir Sentinel front page in today’s special supplement).

It is almost impossible for us today, equipped as we are with technology linking us to people around the world, to conceive of what life was like for our ancestors during those dark days of the early 1940s.

The nation was united by a total war the likes of which we will never see again.

Ours is a throw-away society. Few of us make-do and mend. Most can’t darn a pair of socks. Many can’t cook. The thought of the Government telling us what we can and can’t do is a complete anathema to the social media generation.

Loose lips sank ships back in 1944. These days it seems many people can’t go to the toilet without telling people about it on Facebook.

There are a dwindling number of veterans, most of whom are in their nineties, and – indeed – people over the age of 75 who can recall the momentous events 70 years ago today.

Twelve months ago I suggested we set about tracking down our remaining D-Day veterans for the supplement you will find in the middle of today’s newspaper.

As well as telling their stories in print, I was keen to capture these ageing warriors on film and you can now watch them recall what took place by clicking on to our website.

They’re ordinary blokes from our neck of the woods who, in their prime, took part in a truly extraordinary crusade.

They are not boastful but their evocative words are imbued with an endearing honesty which is lacking in today’s politically-correct world.

My colleagues and I have been in genuine awe of them while putting together today’s 70th anniversary souvenir.

We are extremely grateful to them for giving us their time and sharing with us and our readers their memories of a remarkable moment in human history.

They are indeed the best of us. Thoroughly deserving of the tag of ‘the greatest generation’ having fought so valiantly to preserve the freedoms we enjoy in 2014.

Today we salute Bert, Albert, Ken, Herbert, Eric, Robert and all those who sailed, flew and marched with them on D-Day.

God bless them all.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

It’s time we made ‘trolling’ socially unacceptable

Internet abuse is rife.

Internet abuse is rife.

I suspect like me, many people love and loathe the internet in equal measure.

Perhaps it’s an over-simplification but I would suggest that if you went to school in the days before the worldwide web then you realise that a) books (real ones, with paper) are good and b) there really is more to life than having a mobile phone surgically attached to your hand.

Don’t get me wrong: The internet has its uses. It’s a wonderful tool for learning (so long as you’re savvy enough to wade through the dross for reliable sources). It’s also great for shopping.

But, of course, the best thing about the web is that it brings people together. It instantly connects us with friends and loved ones around the country and all over the world.

For example, yours truly can chat online, face-to-face with my gamer friends in the States or via social media with my cousin Steven in New Zealand.

I’ll be sitting at work here in Hanley early in the morning and suddenly a message will pop up on Facebook from a little town called Feilding in the Manawatu region of the North Island where Steve is just about to hit the hay. This will never cease to amaze me. Bear in mind I’m still in awe of touch-screen technology.

But for all the advantages of the internet, there are many down-sides – not least the way in which it, and social media in particular, perpetuate bullying and abuse.

I was heartened to hear this week that people who abuse their victims on social media face prosecution for the first time in a shake-up of domestic violence rules.

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Alison Saunders announced that criminal prosecutors have been given new guidance to modernise the way they investigate abuse.

She said some teenagers may not consider themselves victims if they are being targeted on sites such as Facebook and Twitter – as opposed to being physically abused.

This new guidance means online abuse will now be taken into account in domestic violence cases.

The problem is that these kinds of incidents are just the tip of the iceberg.

There have been numerous documented cases of teenagers committing suicide after being bullied online; Of celebrities and high-profile individuals being stalked or harassed; Of organisations being unfairly targeted by individuals with an axe to grind.

It’s just so easy, isn’t it? This technological marvel which is seen as a vital lifeline in countries where people live in fear of oppressive regimes is a double-edged sword.

Anyone, anywhere can log on to the internet and create a platform to spout their (very often not so nice) views about other people.

Anyone with a social media account will see this abuse daily. Anyone who logs on to forums – such as the hugely popular football club fan sites – is exposed to it. Anyone who reads The Sentinel online and looks at some of the comments posted beneath stories will know what I’m talking about.

Many of the worst offenders hide behind pseudonyms and often have several of them. They like having the last word – believing this means they have somehow made their point or won the argument.

Ironically, I suspect very few of the abusers – because that’s what they are – would have the courage to say such things to the faces of their victims. Otherwise presumably they wouldn’t hide their identities.

The internet tends to embolden morons and give such people an over-inflated sense of their own importance.

I thought I had left the playground bullies behind when I finished school 26 years ago but it seems many of them have re-emerged via keyboards.

Forgive me if I sound like a representative of the Thought Police but it is hugely worrying to me that this sort of abuse is commonplace.

There’s a world of difference in my mind to free speech enabling robust, healthy debate and the insidious persecution of individuals because someone has an axe to grind with them or just because they can.

To my mind, swearing at someone on the internet or calling them ‘scum’ or a ‘liar’ or worse should be as socially-unacceptable as drink-driving.

I’ve blocked about 80 people from my Twitter feed in the last five years – the vast majority of whom claimed to be Port Vale supporters. Most of them began abusing me when the club’s chairman fell out with The Sentinel last November (ignoring the fact that this newspaper and yours truly did a bit to help the Vale in recent years).

Such abuse is water off a duck’s back to me these days but not everyone can shrug it off. We should remember that sticks and stones may break bones but words can also hurt people.

Sure, you can ‘block’ someone from your Twitter account or ‘unfriend’ them on Facebook. You can avoid forums or report abuse. But why should you have to?

Internet forums and social media are the verbal equivalent of the Wild West.

Given that children now have access to tablets and mobile telephones from a very early age, I think it’s vital that parents and teachers advise them how to behave online.

It’s one thing to install restrictions on devices to block certain websites or to protect your child from predators through education, but I think it is equally important to equip youngsters to deal with online abuse which can’t be filtered out – and to ensure they don’t actually dish it out themselves.

My view is: If you can’t say something politely then don’t say anything.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Please help us to honour Our Heroes of 2014

Jonny Wilkes and Rachel Shenton with previous Child of Courage winner Corey Stephens-Goodall.

Jonny Wilkes and Rachel Shenton with previous Child of Courage winner Corey Stephens-Goodall.

It was back in early 2006 when I sat down with the then Editor of The Sentinel and we talked about creating a community awards campaign.

We kicked around some ideas for categories, thought about how the awards ceremony would work and finally came up with a name.

Nine years on and Our Heroes is firmly established as this newspaper’s flagship annual community event.

On September 25 an array of TV, stage and sporting stars and a host of civic dignitaries will gather on the red carpet to pay tribute to a remarkable group of individuals highlighted through our news pages.

Ask celebrities such as Jonny Wilkes, Nick Hancock, Rachel Shenton, Gordon Banks OBE and Olympic gold medallist Imran Sherwani and they will tell you that the Our Heroes Awards do is an incredibly humbling and grounding experience which makes all those in attendance feel extremely proud of our patch.

Every day now until July 31 you can read inspirational and humbling human interest stories in The Sentinel as we shine a light on each award nominee.

They range from children of courage and bright young things to charity fund-raisers, volunteers and carers, good neighbours and community groups. They include school stars and heroes of the NHS as well as emergency services and Armed Forces personnel who go beyond the call of duty.

Since 2006 we have published more than 1,000 Our Heroes nominations and more than 2,000 people have attended the gala awards dinner.

Previous award recipients have included foster carers, charity fund-raisers, paramedics, policemen and women, firefighters, soldiers, aspiring performers, doctors, nurses, receptionists, teachers, school caretakers and residents’ associations.

Winners have included cancer drug campaigners, the Women Fighting for Herceptin; courageous youngsters including meningitis sufferer Ellie-Mae Mellor and Caudwell Children ambassador Tilly Griffiths; ‘tin can man’ John Leese MBE who raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for Dougie Mac; and even the Staffordshire Regiment (now 3Mercian).

The local media is often criticised for focusing on the negative in society and fixating on bad news.

Our Heroes rather disproves that notion because it gets under the skin of the daily acts of kindness, bravery and selflessness shown by so many people in North Staffordshire and South Cheshire.

It’s not a campaign which will sell us thousands of extra newspapers but the goodwill and pride generated by highlighting all these amazing individuals is priceless.

The Our Heroes Awards is exactly what a local newspaper should be doing – a genuine antidote to all the hardship and misery, all the stories about deaths, crime, accidents, deprivation and job losses.

Each tale is inherently positive and highlights an unsung hero, heroine or group who perhaps otherwise would receive no recognition for their extraordinary lives.

And therein, of course, lies the problem for my colleagues and I which is that those nominated for an Our Heroes Award don’t believe what they do – day-in, day-out – is unusual.

It’s our job to convince them otherwise and to show them how special they really are.

In order to do that, however, we need your help. If you know someone, or a group, who deserves recognition then please just take a moment to pick up the telephone or email one of the reporters tasked with looking after a particular category.

Please help us to honour those who enrich the lives of others. Tell us who Our Heroes for 2014 really are.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

City council should forget PR gurus: A decent reputation will come by doing a good job.

The city council's headquarters in Stoke.

The city council’s headquarters in Stoke.

Sometimes I despair, I really do. The fact that Stoke-on-Trent City Council felt it necessary to commission a reputational survey in late 2012 speaks volumes about the paranoia gripping the Civic Centre.

Does anyone really believe giving a PR firm run by another local authority ‘darn sarf’ £25,000 to telephone people across the Potteries represents a sensible use of taxpayers’ money?

I’d love to know who’s idea this was. Was it prompted by a senior officer, fresh in post, trying to make his or her mark?

Was it done at the behest of councillors fixating on the odd negative headline?

Or was it suggested by a highly-paid consultant – perhaps one of the Westco brigade (yes, we still pay oodles of cash for that sort of thing).

Is it any wonder that many people have little faith in the authority when it sanctions the frittering away of taxpayers’ cash on nonsense like this?

Let’s examine the ground-breaking findings of this document which is presumably titled: ‘Stating the bleedin’ obvious’.

Yes the survey produced such telling insights as ‘the perception that the council provides good value for money, at 30 per cent, is 26 points below the national average.’

Presumably this score wasn’t helped when respondents were told how much the daft survey was costing.

My favourite paragraph, however, reads: ‘The impact of reading The Sentinel is strong. Residents who have read it are more likely to form a negative judgement of the council. This is likely in part to be the newspaper reinforcing the views of local people.’

Goodness me. Heaven forbid a local newspaper reflects the views of local people. Whatever next.

Conversely, the report found that people reading the council’s own glossy newsletter – Our City – were more likely to view the authority positively. How about that?

So the newsletter which the council pays for and fills with its own propaganda gives a more positive impression of the local authority.

Could that perhaps be because it is hugely biased and not in any way balanced?

I do wonder when the penny will finally drop for senior officers and councillors that they just can’t ‘win ’em all’.

I’ve been a journalist long enough to remember the council’s two-strong press office of the early nineties.

Now the authority has legions of communications staff and – during my 16 years at The Sentinel – has gone through half a dozen PR gurus, each with their own flawed philosophy.

One kept trying to slap injunctions on this newspaper to prevent us from publishing stories the administration at the time didn’t like.

He didn’t last long.

Then, on his arrival, another PR expert famously summoned The Sentinel’s entire senior editorial team to the Civic Centre for a dressing down.

His opening gambit was to tell our previous Editor that his newspaper was way down the pecking order behind Sky TV, ITN and all the national newspapers (because, of course, they’re here a lot).

We all walked out of the meeting and needless to say that bloke didn’t last long either.

About 10 years ago the city council audited The Sentinel over several months and found that around 74 per cent of council-related stories were positive or neutral – thus exploding the myth that this newspaper only peddles bad news.

I dare say very little has changed as we’re not in the business of turning down positive news stories as and when we are presented with them.

Thus the suggestion that the council now aims for a two-to-one ratio of positive to negative stories is nonsense because this is already happening.

The fact is this newspaper will never shy away from challenging local organisations – including the council.

If the authority has a poor reputation I would suggest there are several reasons why this is the case.

Huge PR gaffs in recent years (deciding to let TV cameras in to film the documentary The Year The Town Hall Shrank was one) don’t help. Just thinking about the millions of people who watched that makes me cringe.

The camels no-show in Hanley last Christmas was yet another daft, embarrassing failure.

I could go on as there have been many.

Then there’s the trust issue. The Dimensions splash pool saga was hugely damaging to the council’s reputation – irrespective of who was involved.

As is the fact that the ludicrously-named City Sentral shopping complex still doesn’t exist despite all the hype.

You see, it’s no use blaming the developer in this situation. If you nail your colours to a mast then there’s no point trying to disassociate yourself with the ship when it flounders.

I also think that there is a perception that the leadership at the council simply doesn’t listen to ordinary people – adopting instead a ‘we know best’ approach to everything from cost-cutting to promotion of the city.

I would suggest a little humility and the occasional holding up of hands and admitting mistakes would go a long way in terms of establishing trust and credibility.

Finally, there’s no doubt in my mind that many people think the council often gets its priorities wrong.

For example, it spent £800,000 on bringing a cycle race (watched by three men and a dog on ITV4) to Stoke-on-Trent.

It is again about to spend a minimum £250,000 on a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show which none of us will ever see – the tangible benefits of which are, to date, zero.
For what it’s worth, here’s my PR advice (and it’s free):

*Stop worrying about things you can’t change and stop sulking over occasional negative headlines or readers’ letters in The Sentinel. People don’t tend to put pen to paper if they’re ‘satisfied’;

*Accept that you’re in the business of cutting services, thanks to central Government, and this inevitably makes the council unpopular. Yes, it’s unfair, but that’s the way it is;

*Listen more closely to taxpayers and the things they care about. Show a little empathy when you’re cutting services rather than hiding behind economics;

*Focus on all the positive things which are happening across the city (and there are many) and start valuing the terrific staff you employ;

*Stop seeing the local media as the enemy or something which can be neutered or controlled. It can’t be and won’t be.

You see, it’s not rocket science, this PR lark – despite what highly-paid consultants might try to tell you.

It’s just about knowing how and when to roll with the punches because, frankly, some things aren’t worth going to war over.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Why Stoke-on-Trent’s first literary festival should be write up your street…

A Waterside Primary pupil during a creative writing event at Emma Bridgewater.

A Waterside Primary pupil during a creative writing event at Emma Bridgewater.

A cultural wilderness. That’s how one rather unkind soul described Stoke-on-Trent when posting a comment on The Sentinel’s website and mocking plans for the city’s first literary festival announced this week.

Of course, the internet is a strange place where people are far more likely to be disparaging of new initiatives than be welcoming or to accentuate the positives.

I suppose it always was easier to knock than to praise.

They say there’s a book in all of us. Personally I just wish there were a few more lying around in homes across the Potteries – instead of mobile phones and games consoles – and that more parents locally took more of an interest in helping to open their children’s eyes to the joys of reading.

Then again, if the parents themselves struggle with words and left school with a limited grasp of the English language then the idea of picking up a book or writing a story or poem with their children may seem like an alien concept.

Talk to many primary school teachers and they will say that they can spot within the first few weeks the children in their new intake who will do well in class and they are the ones who are properly supported at home.

They are the children who are read to at night before bed and who, in turn, read to their parents. They are the children who receive help with their homework, eat a decent breakfast before school and whose packed lunch doesn’t simply consist of chocolate, crisps and a sugary drink.

The sad fact is that more than 40 per cent of the city’s three-year-olds start school with literacy levels below the national standard because their parents/guardians couldn’t be bothered – or haven’t been able – to give them enough help and support.

Among these you’ll find parents who use the television as a babysitting service and bribe toddlers with biscuits and crisps just for some peace and quiet. You’ll also find mums and dads simply struggling to cope with being, well, mums and dads.

Because of the start two-fifths of children in the city are given, it is perhaps no great surprise that results for seven-year-olds show Stoke-on-Trent is at the bottom of league tables in England for reading, writing and maths.

These are depressing statistics which drill down to the heart of why many people locally fail to aspire to further and higher education and are unable to fulfil their wider potential.

You can get by without some subjects and certain knowledge taught in schools but, in terms of basic life skills, being able to read and write to a decent standard is fundamental.

The irony that Stoke-on-Trent’s first literary festival, entitled Hot Air, was announced during the same week that The Sentinel published a story revealing 300 odd Staffordshire University students had been caught cheating by plagiarising other people’s work was not lost on me.

When at high school and Sixth Form College, Fenton, I’d walk a couple of miles from my home in Sneyd Green to the reference department at Hanley Library in order to fish out whichever books I needed for homework, essays or exams. My generation used a fountain pen from the age of 11 onwards in order that we could improve the standard of our ‘joined-up’ writing.

If I made an error on a six or seven page A4 essay for my A-Level English Literature teacher, Mr Adshead, out came the Tipp-Ex. Better that gunky mess on one line than having to re-write the lot from scratch, eh?

These days students rarely use a pen and don’t even have to get out of bed to do their homework. They can Google (other search engines are available) whatever topic they require and find reams of information – often written by previous students – which they can steal bits of, recycle, and then present as their own work.

This is one of the reasons why I would argue the age of copy and paste has done very little to improve literacy standards.

It goes without saying the internet is a wonderful tool which provides countless benefits but for every advantage it gives us as a society there’s usually a downside.

In the case of literacy standards, the internet and indeed the ‘text speak’ which has become prevalent through the use of mobile devices is killing the Queen’s English.

Some experts will tell you that language is always evolving and you shouldn’t get too uptight about the use of numbers where letters should be or the general malaise over literacy standards which pervades our everyday lives.

Then there are Luddites like me who believe it’s just plain wrong for councils to run Uth (youth) centres and drop apostrophes from road signs because some people don’t know how to use them.

We have a problem with literacy standards here in Stoke-on-Trent and so the idea of staging a festival aimed at encouraging reading and writing makes absolute sense.

It also, with the attendance of stellar names like best-selling authors Joanna Trollope and Dr David Starkey (as well as our own rising star Mel Sherratt), promises to be a lot of fun.

A literary festival isn’t in any way a silver bullet for the problem of poor literacy standards locally but if it encourages people to engage with libraries, meet authors and handle books or perhaps pick up a pen or approach a keyboard in order to write something, then it can be regarded as a success.

If The Sentinel’s Too Write! competition for authors of all ages inspires hundreds of children and adults to try their hand at storytelling then it too can be deemed to have done its job.

Anyway, I’ll have to go. It’s World Book Day on March 6 and my two have decided to both go in to school dressed as George Kirrin from the Famous Five. I kid you not.

Do you know hard it is to find a decent satchel and a children’s outfit from the 1950s?

Still, better this than them going to school dressed as a character from the latest Disney movie that will have been forgotten next year.

Thank goodness for Enid Blyton, I say. It’s ginger beer all round in our house. Long live proper books with all that old-fashioned punctuation lark.

*The Stoke-on-Trent Literary Festival takes place at the Emma Bridgewater factory in Hanley on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, June 20, 21 and 22. Ticket information will be released on March 31.
For details on the Too Write! writing competition email: toowrite@thesentinel.co.uk

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Friday