You've never had it so good
We're getting reacquainted with the real world (Lancashire) after a period away.
Twenty years in fact.
It's a land much changed.
When we left we migrated to rural Shropshire to live in a house. Then we built a boat, sold the house and lived on a marina in the middle of a field (North Shropshire is basically one big field). We trundled around the canals of the UK for a couple of years then bought an old barge and lived in a succession of places we’d never previously heard of on the continent.
Trundling around in a boat we'd get there eventually. Travelling on the roads back home we seem to get nowhere fast.
This isn't a rant because things have moved on and it is what it is. It's a first impression of how things appear to a bloke who left in his prime and returned with dicky hips. It may come over as rather negative but grumbling is a prerogative of the (late) middle-aged who can't keep up with the horrors of modern life.
We've come back to live in Littleborough where many golden nuggets are to be found. The nuggets are often a bit damp because in the foothills of the Pennines it rains a bit. To paraphrase Dudley Doolittle, a local comedian, 'Littleborough is a great place to live, it would be wonderful if it had a roof.'
Our new world is one where increasingly aggressive motorists drive a tsunami of financed cars on clogged, crumbling highways. In places cobbles poke through decomposed tarmac. The cobbles below solid as rock.
In a perverse situation motorways have become far more dangerous now they’ve added the prefix ‘smart’. They are less a means of getting from here to there than a revenue raiser – there are as many speed cameras as cats-eyes. Motorways have morphed into smart motorways where matrix signs tell us to be careful because Daddy's having a tea-break or there is an incident thirty miles ahead. This incident probably alerts us to the fact that traffic is actually moving so we’d batter wake up. Then you've got those chevron things painted on the road. If we kept two between ourselves and the car in front we'd actually end up going backwards. The main point is that if you leave the requisite gap it's squeezed into by another vehicle, often a 40-tonner from Latvia.
Of course there are alternative modes of transport. We could take the train. 'Sprinters' they imaginatively call them – but don't expect too much when the leaves are falling. They are so infrequent that when one eventually arrives it's so packed that you can only sit down if you're pregnant or dead – if you can figure out the fare structure. It's not over cheap either. You're probably better off hiring a helicopter and buying a property at your proposed destination than to booking a special saver from Oldham to Exeter - unless you want to travel in 2027 at 4.00 A.M.
Of course there's the omnibus alternative but you'll probably get stuck in a jam. Here you can witness from your lofty perch the frustrations of parents driving their SUVs two hundred yards to school. There are bus lanes of course but these are clogged by taxis, delivery drivers and cyclists. Not everywhere has space for bus lanes. Our roads were designed for horse and carts so the only way to create bus lanes would be to make the whole of northern England a one-way system.
Another 'modern innovation' is the tram network, installed at no little expense. These are not the characterful, clattering beasts of yesteryear, the likes of which trundled up and down the prom at Blackpool with their flashing umbilicals, no these are evil-looking worms that run on tracks where roads used to be. Locally they have proved a low-speed, moderate-cost means of leaving Rochdale to go and shop somewhere else because the main shopping areas of Rochdale look like East Berlin after a particularly determined bombing raid.
It's becoming a world of techno-socialism where jobs for machines are guaranteed, where people's unemployment benefit is paid for by parking fines. Budget pressures mean that the only people who can maintain their standard of living are local councillors who vote themselves inflation-busting pay hikes for the privilege of making the lives of ordinary mortals considerably more miserable. Of course in our democracy we can always vote them out but what will happen when it becomes a technocracy. Here A.I. humanoids will take over and develop person-crushing algorithms rendering the human heart and fresh air redundant. We'll be able to phone our fully-automated local authority complaints department. This will doubtless take days as we press this, press that and are told electronically that our call is irrelevant and we can always use the internet to complain about their web site that doesn't work.
Through our plastic front door arrives a blizzard of leaflets advertising grants for solar power in a land where the sun don't shine. Water however, a commodity that reliably arrives by the reservoir-full, gets increasingly expensive. When I were a lad we used to shower with a friend or lob a brick in the cistern, now every time we flush the bog a shareholder puts another few quid away for their Florida trip (if they'll let you in).
I can't sit in in my garden without the fear of having my flip-flops pinched while having a nap because local 'hoodlums' are left to maraud unmolested while our pair of local constables, who have to patrol three hundred thousand square miles of northern England on foot, are bogged down with paperwork.
My wife and I arranged to meet daughter and grandchildren (3 and 10 months) at the local library that is no longer a library. Currently called Touchstones it is a museum, art gallery, local studies centre and café and has had good write-ups. We wanted to give the three-year-old a taste of his heritage and I wanted a baked potato. Sadly it is not the most accessible place. Because our daughter was encumbered with prams and nappies and needed a relatively local parking spot, the visit was cancelled because she couldn't find one – except for half a dozen empty disabled bays right outside. Instead we went to a local hotel 'of some age' that resembled Hermon Munster's house, and had a quick coffee in the residents lounge.
My wife and I actually did visit subsequently and I have to say it is (largely) impressive. We had to walk some distance to get to it, but it was worth the effort. The cafe was being patronised by mainly retired folks out for a tasty lunch and a lady (who could have been a council employee, so prosperous did she look) tapping away importantly on a lap top probably scheming ways to fleece more money from local tax-payers. The grub was good, as was the museum of local history which reminds us that this area (industrial Lancashire) used to be at the very heart of the world's wealth – although it can be argued with the benefit of slave-like employment practices. Nevertheless we used to produce textile by the multi-tonne in monstrous factories. The factories are gone and we now produce, er, far less. Of, er, anything.
The art gallery was less to our taste however – and we had to struggle up a rather smart, stone staircase to get to it. In fact, in our opinion and to use a local expression, it was 'a waste of space'. One room, the approximate size of a gymnasium, housed perhaps a dozen foot-square paintings daubed by a lady artist of modest talent. The pictures were spread so sparingly round the walls that we needed one of the aforementioned omnibuses to join the dots. I realize that exhibitions are put together by arty types for the benefit of arty types but suspect that normal human beings find the whole thing rather minimalist. This is Lancashire after all where a guinea, a quarter ounce of West African gold, is expected for a pound.
As a footnote, my wife worked at the art gallery (when there actually was a library in Rochdale library) when she was tasked to hang a display 'created' by a London artist. The concoction was made up of twenty four medical X-rays that were to be hung in a sequential grid. They didn't make up a full body – nothing so sensible, no they were just a random assortment of parts of the body, some broken. They were all numbered, so what could go wrong. My wife duly risked life and limb up and down a set of steps and displayed the masterpiece; only to be told when the artist arrived that she'd hung it all upside down. Who the hell would have noticed is anyone's guess, but my wife's career as art gallery operative came to a grinding halt a short time later. The tragedy is that there is a cellar full of real paintings, some really accomplished stuff apparently, so one has to question the decision to exhibit a dozen mediocre tiddlers of dubious provenance or a selection of fractured feet.
The point of this is that our rather nice library is no longer in the rather nice library building. Intrigued, I search the internet for Rochdale library. It tells me that it's on Smith Street and I don't know where that is. A photograph shows it to be one module within a much larger collection modern glass/concrete cubes. This is far more aesthetically pleasing than the wonderful, intricate stone-built original original. I clicked on the 'Rochdale Library website' link and ........... 'Server Error. 404 – File or Directory Not Found'. If I had a couple of months to spare I suppose I could phone the local authority customer services department, but I haven't, so I won't.
The lost library illustrates life today. Things have been changed, seemingly at random, in an effort to make life more streamlined – but it hasn't. What it's done is confuse dinosaurs like me who like it simple. It also keeps council luvvies employed. If they've got a Library Misappropriation Officer they can report to their line manager (part way up the council pyramid ensconced in Nefertiti House) that all is well and that no trace of the library will ever be found.
On a positive note (‘at last’ do I hear?) the centre of town actually looks very impressive after recent renovations. The River Roch that used to flow beneath the esplanade has been uncovered so as you visit the bank you can see a wonderful assortment of plastic bags and discarded underwear drift past. About a third of the town Hall car park is now 'pedestrianised' and they've put up a lovely statue to Gracie Fields. Proud of her we are too, though she did bugger off when funds allowed. Sadly, at least whenever I visit, there are so few people about it looks like there's been an anthrax alert.
Anyone returning to the area, like me, after a sabbatical and unaware of 'municipal manipulations', who happens to be looking for a swim will find instead a German supermarket. I have fond memories of being leered at by a lecherous old git who masqueraded as a life guard in the old swimming pool. The building’s interior looked like a 19th century lunatic asylum with floor to ceiling off-white tiles and institutional lighting. There was an overpowering smell of disinfectant and freezing winds whistled through bleak passages. But apart from the dodgy life-guard it was somehow all rather comforting and local folks who'd just done a few lengths in their wool-knit swim-suits could get a slice of buttered toast and a beaker of Horlicks in the caff. They were the days when I would get the bus from Littleborough, solo, aged ten, with little fear of being trafficked.
I need to close for now. A ream of leaflets has just dropped onto the door mat and I need to decide which new bathroom suite not to buy.