Saving our Spitfire is the least we can do

There can’t be many blokes my age who didn’t have an Airfix model aeroplane hanging from their bedroom ceiling at some point during their childhood.

My guess is that, of those who did, most will have chosen a Spitfire over a Tornado or a Harrier jump jet – along with the obligatory Messerschmit ME 109.

Transforming those fragile bits of grey plastic into something vaguely resembling the fighter plane which saw off the Luftwaffe and turned the tide of the Battle of Britain was actually something of a challenge.

I recall I accidentally glued the cockpit hood on before realising I had forgotten to put the tiny pilot in his seat. A schoolboy error.

My painting wasn’t great, neither. It still looked pretty good hanging from the lightshade on a piece of black cotton, though.

After all, it was a Spitfire. Sleek lines, the curvature of those wings – one of the most iconic and important pieces of engineering the world has ever seen.

Perhaps not the one in my bedroom, like, but you take my point.

How proud I am – Indeed, how proud we should all be – to say that the man who designed this work of genius hailed from our neck of the woods.

Not only that, but our city is lucky enough to actually own one of Reginald Mitchell’s stunning creations.

As a youngster I remember visiting the ‘greenhouse’ which housed our Spitfire outside the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

In an age of simulators, jaw-dropping movie CGI, hand-held consoles and video games which are so life-like you have to pinch yourself, it is perhaps hard to explain to children and young people how an old aircraft can be impressive and inspirational.

This is worrying when you consider that there are millions of people in this country who have no link with anyone who lived through or fought in the Second World War.

When I was a kid we were still watching all those epic war movies made in the Sixties and Seventies.

Our grandfathers had fought against the Nazis. It all seemed relatively recent history and therefore still relevant.

Ask my mum and she’ll tell you how many hours I spent drawing pictures of battlefield scenes involving Tiger tanks and Lancaster bombers or playing on the back room carpet and in the garden with little toy soldiers who were my ‘Tommies’ and ‘Jerries’.

Present most children today with a pack of plastic soldiers and they will look at you as if you’ve gone daft.

The fact is it’s now almost 70 years since VE Day and the great generation who can remember those momentous times, and to whom we owe so much, are dying off.

Not long from now World War II, its commanders, battles and weaponry will be the stuff of dusty museums and the preserve of a minority of people like me who are fascinated by military history.

They will feel no more relevant to people in 30 years’ time than the Battle of Waterloo, the Iron Duke and the Baker rifle do to most people today.

Thankfully, we have an opportunity to ensure that here in Stoke-on-Trent, our Spitfire, along with its creator, are never forgotten and that the significance of their role in the fight against Hitler’s tyranny is properly explained to future generations.

Sadly, our plane – the Mk XVI Spitfire RW388 now housed at the Potteries Museum – is in need of a little TLC (about £50,000 worth to be precise) to prevent the old girl from rusting.

The Friends of The Museum have launched a major fund-raising drive to bring this amazing exhibit to life through an interactive display.

I wholeheartedly applaud this endeavour as I’ve felt for some time that our Spitfire is, at present, somewhat hidden away at the museum.

Indeed, when I visited the venue recently I talked with museum bosses about their plans to enhance one of their three unique attractions.

I even suggested they recreate the cockpit as part of the exhibition. Bugger Health and Safety concerns with the actual plane. I want to know what it was like to sit in a Spitfire.

During these austere times the city council was never going to throw £50,000 at conserving one museum exhibit.

Not to worry, I’m confident that we – the people of North Staffordshire – can come to the aid of our Spitfire in its hour of need.

I’ve made a donation to the appeal and I would urge everyone to support this very worthy cause.

If we all chuck in a couple of quid we’ll have the old girl scramble-ready before you know it.

I would suggest it’s the very least she, and Reginald Mitchell deserve, from their native city.

*To make a donation, visit: http://www.uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/spitfire or call 01782 232502.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

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Let’s celebrate darts maestros and all our local heroes

Hands up who is any good at darts? Yes, I thought as much. About half a dozen of us.
There’s a good reason for this: It’s actually REALLY difficult. Getting that tiny piece of tungsten to land where you are aiming it at on a consistent basis is a dark art that very few can master.
But it seems that, statistically, you have a better chance than most if you have an ST postcode.
You see, there was a time when Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor was considered a freak. (He knows I mean that in the nicest possible way).
But now that his protégé Adrian Lewis has become World Champion for a second time people are starting to question whether there is something in the water in our neck of the woods.
It’s got to the point where they may as well rename the PDC Ladbrokes world championship the Stoke-on-Trent Darts Cup.
Yes, I know that Lewis hails from Cross Heath, which is in Newcastle, but – like most people in the Ancient And Loyal Borough – I bet he still shops up Hanley.
The point is that our city (or the wider North Staffordshire conurbation – if you’re going to be pedantic) now has a unique selling point that doesn’t involve crockery or sinking a big boat.
We are the world capital of darts. Arrows central.
Let me ask you this: In what other sport does one city dominate so utterly that its players consistently contest competition finals? I can’t think of one.
Of course, there are those who will assert that darts is not a sport but a pub game as it lacks athletic prowess.
You certainly never see anyone rolling around on the floor feigning injury, abusing the referee or making racist comments against a portly Dutchman – if that’s what they mean.
I would also suggest that Sky television’s viewing figures for darts knock this argument into a cocked hat.
More importantly, the likes of Lewis, the indefatigable Taylor and this year’s nearly-man Andy Hamilton, from Dresden, are putting the Potteries well and truly on the map.
It’s the kind of publicity money simply can’t buy. The kind of publicity that even a Vale fan like me has to admit Stoke City’s time in the Premier League has given us.
So the question is: Why aren’t we doing more to capitalise on the spectacular success of our darts players?
Why, as my friend suggested, don’t we stage a Stoke-on-Trent versus Rest Of The World match?
We should be making the most of our sporting superstars while they are at their zenith.
But in true Stokie style, we aren’t.
Unable to see beyond our emotional link with our industrial heritage we seem incapable of grasping obvious opportunities for promotion, profile and tourism.
Let me give you some examples.
Arguably the biggest solo music artist on the planet at present is from Stoke-on-Trent yet we have nowhere for his fans to visit. There is no Robbie Williams trail. No museum. No nowt.
The man who created the fighter plane which saved this country from the Nazis and helped to turn the tide of World War Two grew up in Butt Lane.
Not that anyone would know because – apart from the odd street name and an apology of a display tucked away in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery – we’ve done very little to honour Spitfire designer Reginald Mitchell.
Then there are our darts players. OK, so darts may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you have to admit that it takes some skill and a great deal of dedication to become THAT good at a sport played by millions.
The best players in the world come from North Staffordshire. They are the darts equivalents of Sachin Tendulkar or Pele and they are on our doorstep.
It’s high time we started shouting about them and made a fuss of our other big names and so, to this end, I have a suggestion.
Why don’t we turn the Ceramica building – that mothballed eyesore in the centre of Burslem – into a museum of local heroes?
I dare say tourists are far more interested in looking at superstar memorabilia and finding out about the people I have mentioned here than they ever were in decorating cups and plates.

Pay our brave soldiers the respect they deserve

It is a sad fact that the veterans of World War II won’t be with us for much longer to mark cataclysmic events such as the D-Day Landings.

This weekend’s incredibly poignant commemorations of the invasion which spelt the beginning of the end for the Nazi war machine involved old soldiers who are now in their mid to late eighties.

It is 65 years since they joined 160,000 allied troops in the largest ever, single day amphibious assault and, one by one, the last of that great generation are making their final salutes.

When you read their memories of that momentous time in history it is incredibly humbling.

None of them consider themselves heroes. They just “had a job to do”, as one Fenton veteran put it last week.

This statement seems patently ridiculous to most of us and is one which, perhaps, only servicemen and women can truly understand.

Suffice to say that it is because of such individuals that people like myself are able to sit around pontificating the rights and wrongs of major world events such as the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We may not always believe that the actions of our Armed Forces are justified.

However, the truth is that most of us have family or friends who have, at some point, risked their lives for Queen (or King) and country.

Take my own family, for instance. The bloke on the end of the bottom row on the picture above is my great grandfather, William Tansey. Or should I say, private William Tansey, of B Company, 1st Battalion, the North Staffs Regiment.

He died forty odd years before I was born.

However, his First World War medals – the 1914-18 ‘Mons Star’, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal – came into my possession when my nan died a few years ago.

They, and the picture of him with his comrades, taken before they shipped out to France, are among my most treasured possessions.

I never knew William Tansey but I have very fond recollections of another ex-serviceman in my family.

My mum’s brother, David Colclough, who lived in Cobridge all his life, was – to borrow a quaint phrase – one of the nicest men ever to put on a pair of shoes.

To me, he was just uncle Dave – the man who made me bacon and potato pie, let me watch The Lone Ranger on Saturday mornings while my mum was out shopping (back when Burslem had shops and an indoor market) and taught me to recite all the ranks in the British Army off by heart.

He never spoke of his war service but I know his glass eye was the result of a shrapnel wound and that he was held captive in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

Uncle Dave died in 1994 but my grandfather’s brother – my great uncle Dennis Tideswell – is still going strong.

Dennis, who lives in Bucknall, is a veteran of the Malayan Emergency, when he fought in the jungle with the Worcestershire Regiment, and he often speaks with great fondness of his old pals in the forces.

He has an infectious enthusiasm which he channels into organising reunions for ‘the lads’, as he calls them, and is involved in organising the annual veterans’ celebrations in the city.

Dennis is a true gentleman and, like my great-grandfather and my uncle Dave, I am extremely proud of him.

As you read this, many of our servicemen and women continue to risk their lives in the heat of the Middle East.

It is in recognition of these brave men and women, as well as all those before them who have fought for us in various wars and conflicts around the globe, that the Armed Forces Day parades will take place across the country later this month.

So, on June 27, let us pay them the respect they deserve and show them just how grateful we are.

Moreover, when you next visit Morrison’s supermarket at Festival Park, rather than being solely focused on your shopping list, make a point of clocking the roundabout and say a little prayer of thanks for our own Victoria Cross winner, Lance-Sergeant Jack Baskeyfield, whose bravery at Arnhem is immortalised with that impressive statue.

And, when you next see a soldier, smile at him or her or, better still, buy them a drink.

They are special people for special circumstances and, irrespective of the passing of time, this is something we must never forget.