A warm welcome and fond memories of my first trip to States

It was with a mixture of fear and trepidation that I boarded American Airlines flight 55 from Manchester to Chicago. I had never travelled abroad on my own before and I had never been to America.

I passed the eight-hour flight chatting to Ollie, a second-year medical student at Keele University who told me he was visiting his girlfriend in Tennessee.

Tennessee? How things have changed. The furthest away any girlfriend of mine had ever lived was Tunstall.

Stepping off the plane at Chicago O’Hare was a daunting experience.

I had just over an hour to collect my luggage and catch a connecting flight to Indianapolis.

Of course, I hadn’t realised that O’Hare is the fourth busiest airport in the world and handles more than 66 million passengers each year.

The sheer size of it was what hit me – something which would be a recurring theme during my time in the States.

As I arrived at immigration a stern-looking bloke who was the spit of Poncherello out of CHiPs! (how are you on your Eighties TV trivia?) asked me whether my visit to the U.S. was for business or pleasure.

“Pleasure,” I replied.

“And what’s your pleasure?” he asked, raising a quizzical eyebrow.

“Playing Dungeons & Dragons and Call of Cthulhu,” I replied, with utter sincerity.

“Oh,” said Poncherello.

Nothing quite ends a conversation like telling someone you’re attending a games convention.

It was sod’s law that my plane to Indy would be delayed but nothing could diminish my enthusiasm.

As I waited by the departure gate, soaking in the sights and sounds, a woman sat next to me, leaned over and said: “Excuse me. Would you like a hamburger?”

As chat-up lines go, it was a new one on me.

“I don’t know why but they gave me two,” she added – motioning inside a McDonald’s paper bag.

Well it would have been rude to refuse and for the next hour and a half I chatted to Pam – a 59-year-old psychologist.

She was so friendly and so interested in everything from the royal family and the Titanic to the Olympics that I actually enjoyed being delayed.

By the time we boarded the plane we had swapped business cards and she had invited me and my family to her farm in Nebraska where she and her husband breed horses.

That has certainly never happened to me while waiting for a PMT bus up Hanley.

Pam sort of set the tone, really. Almost everyone I met – with the notable exception of Poncherello (who, to be fair, is paid to be miserable) – was incredibly friendly. People of the south of England, please take note…

Take, for example, Herschel – my 70-year-old taxi driver.

He brought me up to speed on the trials and tribulations of the Indianapolis Colts American Football team and gave me the heads-up on their new quarterback.

This was to come in handy the next day when I toured the impressive Lucas Oil Stadium – the 63,000 seater home of the Colts which comes complete with a retractable roof and artificial turf.

I learned that the Colts had only won two games last year and their fans had endured a torrid time.

As a Vale fan I could empathise and I adopted the Colts there and then.

That is where any similarities between the Hoosier state’s finest and the Valiants ended, however.

In light of their terrible season, the Colts were given the first NFL ‘draft’ pick this year – allowing them to choose from the cream of the crop of young players coming out of colleges and universities.

As a result, they picked up Andrew Luck – the best young quarter back in the country – for nowt, on account of how bad they were last season.

It’s the equivalent of the worst team in the Premier League being given first dibs on the best teenage footballer in England – irrespective of how much money Manchester City or Chelsea wave in his direction. Can you imagine?

Having ticked off a top-flight football stadium, a visit to a genuine diner was next on my list.

I finally settled for Johnny Rockets and enjoyed chilli beef sandwiches and a strawberry milkshake at the bar while throwing money into my own personal five cent jukebox.

Eat your heart out, Fonzie.

It was while walking around Indy that I realised that everything in the U.S. is BIG – from the blocks and the skyscrapers to the vehicles.

I was told that Indianapolis is a relatively modest, mid-western U.S. city, so Lord only knows what the really big ones are like.

Then there are the people.

We think we have an obesity problem over here but I can tell you it is nothing compared to the epidemic America is facing.

I was genuinely gobsmacked at the sheer girth of some of the folks waddling down the street and how many of the people were grossly overweight. It made me think long and hard about portion-sizes and the kinds of food I shovel down.

Not that I had much time to eat.

I had booked myself in for four solid days at Gen Con – the world’s largest gaming convention – showcasing tabletop games, board games, card and computer games.

Yours truly and 40,000-plus other geeks met authors, game-designers and artists, play-tested new games and took part in competitions.

I actually won the blue riband event – the Cthulhu Masters tournament – a horror roleplaying game based on the writings of American author H.P. Lovecraft.

It was a special moment and the perfect end to my first Gen Con Indy. I was taking home a trophy which had never before left the U.S.

Yours truly being presented with the Cthulhu Masters brain case trophy at Gen Con 2012.

Yours truly being presented with the Cthulhu Masters brain case trophy at Gen Con 2012.

When I arrived at customs at Indianapolis airport I wondered how I would explain the large, heavy rubber-plastic brain I was carrying in my hand luggage to the nice men with guns.

Sure enough, when my backpack went through the scanner one of them said: “Sir, I’m gonna have to ask you to step this way. You have something organic in your luggage. Can you tell me what it is?”

“It’s my trophy for winning the Cthulhu Masters tournament at Gen Con,” I replied, nervously.

The customs man gingerly removed the brain case from my rucksack. “Joe, come look at this!” he shouted, beckoning his buddy over.

He then turned to me and exclaimed: “Dude, that is awesome!”

“I know,” I said, with a very relieved smile.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Jack Ashley: A truly great Parliamentarian who continues to inspire us all

I don’t have much time for politicians, if truth be told. I can’t be doing with the double-speak served up by so many of them and their simple inability to answer a direct question.

Indeed, I blame much of the public apathy towards politics in general on the mistrust so many feel towards those who seek public office.

The days of rotten boroughs may be long gone, but politics remains an inherently grimy business ruled by self-interest.

In recent years the ‘cash-for-questions’, ‘cash for honours’ and MPs’ expenses scandals have done little to enhance the reputation of political parties in the UK or those elected to serve.

That said, very occasionally individuals come along who seem to transcend party politics and go some way towards restoring one’s faith in the system.

Jack Ashley, or Lord Ashley of Stoke as he became, was just such a man.

Two years ago I had the privilege of welcoming Lord Ashley on to the stage at the King’s Hall as part of Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s Citizen Of The Century celebrations.

Jack, who died on Saturday, was 87 at the time, frail and in a wheelchair but determined to be part of an historic occasion where we marked the centenary of the federation of the Six Towns.

Unfortunately, fate conspired against us that night and the great charity champion and campaigner for the rights of the disabled was left stranded in the clunky old lift for a couple of minutes.

It ground to a halt as we attempted to bring Jack on stage to receive his civic honour.

It could have been a disaster. However, such was the calibre of the man that he laughed off the gremlins and received his award with sublime grace.

What’s more, it was at that moment that I realised just how the people of the Potteries had taken this bloke from Widnes to their hearts.

There was no way anyone was going to let a technical hitch spoil the moment.

Indeed, such was the warmth felt towards one of the great Parliamentarians from the 400-plus audience, that it took just a few additional rounds of applause and Jack was on stage with me.

The word ‘inspirational’ is greatly over-used these days but it is certainly appropriate in the case of Jack Ashley.

His life in public service is remarkable – not because of its longevity but because of what he accomplished during his time as an MP and in the House of Lords.

When an elder statesman such as Lord Ashley passes on we have come to expect tributes for their peers.

However, when David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Milliband and Gordon Brown – to name but a few – spoke of the admiration for our Jack there is no doubt they meant it.

Lord Ashley of Stoke was a pioneer, you see. A man who, quite literally opened doors for millions of people.

Having won the Stoke-on-Trent South Parliamentary seat in 1966 he could quite easily have thrown in the towel two years later when he lost his hearing.

However, as this country’s first deaf MP, he learned to lip-read and was held in such high regard – even by political foes such as Prime Minister Ted Heath – that they turned towards him during Commons debates so he could get a clear view of their mouths.

Because of Jack Ashley, many people realised that a disability didn’t have to be a barrier.

Because of his sheer force of will others, like former Home Secretary David Blunkett, forged a career in politics in spite of a disability.

Jack Ashley was arguably the greatest champion disabled people in the UK have ever had.

He was a man driven not by self-interest but by the needs of others and someone who placed fairness at the heart of his own personal agenda.

During 26 years as a member of Parliament he campaigned tirelessly for society’s second class citizens – the under-represented and the victims of everything from thalidomide to the arthritis drug Opren.

Jack Ashley was someone who changed attitudes for the better and we should be grateful that a man elected first and foremost to serve the people of Stoke-on-Trent did that and so much more.

Forget statues to the man in charge of the Titanic. How about a permanent memorial to a man whose legacy is supremely positive for us all?

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

We must be more proud of our stunningly-rich heritage

Until this week I thought I was reasonably well versed in the history of the Potteries.

Then I met the Reverend Robert Mountford, founder of City Vision Ministries in Burslem and a passionate local historian.

He’s a bit like TV favourite Simon Schama… having taken the drug ‘speed’.

In 25 minutes Robert raced through his presentation on the history of what we now call ‘the Potteries’ from the time of the Celts to 2009.

The truth is, he could have talked for hours. And hours. Such is the fascinating story of how North Staffordshire became the unique, diverse and ultimately flawed conurbation it is today.

Simple things stood out for me. For example – do you know where the name Stoke-on-Trent originates and what it means?

I have to confess, I didn’t.

Well, the first centre of Christian preaching and worship in the area (as early as the 7th Century AD) was situated in the valley at the place where the infant River Trent met the even smaller Fowlea Brook.

Stoke Minster now stands on this site. The name given to this ancient place of meeting and worship was ‘Stoke-upon-Trent’.

The name ‘Trent’ was originally Celtic and meant ‘the trespasser’ or ‘the flooding river’. ‘Stoke’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘stoc’, which meant in the first instance ‘a place’, but carried the usual, secondary meanings of ‘a religious place, a holy place, a church’, and ‘a dependent settlement’.

Thus the name Stoke-on-Trent could actually be translated as ‘the holy place upon the flooding river’.

I don’t know about you, but I quite like the sound of that. And the fact that the city’s roots can be traced back more than 1,400 years.

Of course, North Staffordshire’s history goes back much further than that.

Chesterton was a Roman fortress which archaeologists estimate was probably occupied from the late 1st to early 2nd Century AD.

Which means we have almost 2,000 years of history to talk about.

So why don’t we? Why are we so poor at trumpeting our rich past?

Is it because we are so often told that we shouldn’t keep harping on about the past?

Is it because critics blame our current social and economic difficulties on our inability to embrace change?

‘Why call yourselves the Potteries’, they say, ‘when there is so little of that industry left to be proud of’?

We may be resistant to change, but – conversely – there is certainly also something in the DNA of the average potter which makes him or her reluctant to crow about the area’s history and achievements.

Why? We should be shouting it from the rooftops.

Why isn’t every local school teaching Roman history through the eyes of the legionnaries based at Chesterton during the Flavian period?

Why aren’t all our children taught about the monks of Hulton Abbey?

Why isn’t the most important period in North Staffordshire’s history a bigger part of the curriculum in local schools? Aren’t Josiah Wedgwood, his mate James Brindley and the roots of the Methodist Church (which have direct links to trade unionism in this country) worth talking up?

What about the stories of the tens of thousands of local people who lived and died around the pits and pots on which the city built its worldwide reputation?

What about Burslem’s Second World War Victoria Cross winner Lance-Sergeant Jack Baskeyfield, and Butt Lane’s Reginald Mitchell whose Spitfire turned the tide of the Battle of Britain?

Shouldn’t they be lauded in our classrooms? I think so.

I had a truly brilliant history teacher at Holden Lane High, to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude. (That’s you, Geoff Ball).

Thus, this isn’t a criticism of the teaching profession. It’s more a plea for us, as a city, to strike the right balance between history and progress.

I suspect more tourists would visit us if we simply made more of our heritage.

“Come to see our factory shops”, we should say. “But don’t miss out on our interactive history trail.

“Learn about the Celts and Romans who lived here, sample the ruins of our Cistercian monastery, walk in the footsteps of the great pioneers of the Industrial Revolution, visit the birthplaces of the captain of the Titanic, an Arnhem hero, and the man whose aircraft defied the Luftwaffe.

“Oh, and don’t forget to pop in for a drink at Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor’s pub, drive past Robbie Williams’s old house and have your picture taken alongside Sir Stan’s statue. Have a nice trip!”

Welcome to North Staffordshire. (Not just that place on the way to Alton Towers).

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday