Pendle Chronicles: Get real!
I came to Pendle, Lancashire on the day that Lord Young (Prime Minister David Cameron's enterprise adviser) resigned after he famously (or infamously) said that most British people have "never had it so good".
I went there on a new assignment as the BBC World Service Writer in Residence, to see how the budget cuts - introduced by the British coalition government - affect ordinary people deep in the countryside.
Driving through the misty fog of the Pendle hills and the early evening darkness, I remembered that I'm not the first in this role. My great predecessor George Orwell wrote a book called The Road to Wigan Pier which investigate the social conditions in economically-depressed Northern England before World War II.
One of his observations in his book, which I read before going to Pendle, stuck in my mind: "It is a kind of duty to see and smell such places now and again, especially smell them, lest you should forget that they exist; though perhaps it is better not to stay there too long".
No, I wasn't coming for a long stay, just for so called "reccy", to gather some initial impressions and to apply the mental map I have of the place to the reality (I have read about Pendle, including its historically-famous witches and its traditional cotton industry).
When I stopped at the local pub at the outskirts of Colne, the radio in the car was still discussing whether we never had it so good or so bad.
When I got to the bar and was ordering my cup of tea, my fellow drinkers were discussing the same thing. Words such as "ridiculous" and "get real" were flying around without any agitation or sting. What was interesting was that the pub wasn't overcrowded at all, as one would expect on Friday night.
The next day I saw many more people at the local museum's cafeteria in Barrowford, where a hot meal costs something between £4 and £5. As some of the elderly customers said to me this was quite cheap. I hadn't seen many children around at all - but there was a family with two kids, who came to dine in the cafe for the same reasonl.
As if confirming the thoughts running through my head, my hostess from Colne's Bed and Breakfast said later that her 21-year-old son had decided to move to the big city, "like many young people do these days".
Farming didn't work for their family, she said. They used to milk cows, but not any more. They just rent their fields to other farmers. "You have to juggle in order to survive and keep your eggs in different baskets. We do Bed and Breakfast, look after other's cattle. Our daughter is a hairdresser, but the biggest bulk of money comes from our storage facilities: we keep people's vintage cars, household stuff, anything really..." And she added: "Since the North is about food, food and once again food, we do lots of food..."
Here I remembered once again George Orwell, who said: "A human being is primarily a bag for putting food into". I asked her what had become the question of the day: "Have we never had it so good or so bad?" to which she replied: "Come on, get real! We are just getting on with it!"
Driving back to London after my short reccy and thinking about plans for my Pendle Chronicles, my thoughts drifted to Orwell's metaphor from his Wigan book: "Coming back is worse than going, not only because you are already tired out but because the journey back to the shaft is slightly uphill".
That was true for me too; the plans I felt overwhelmed by all that I had still yet to see. However Orwell suggests some consolation: "At least I could go among these people, see what their lives were like and feel myself temporarily part of their world. Once I had been among them and accepted by them... and" - this is what I felt: I was aware even then that it was irrational - "part of my guilt would drop from me".