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What happened to the equal society?

Friday 14 May 2010

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who had a love-hate relationship with London for almost 30 years before finally heading North, reflects on the vast differences in outlook today between the metropolitans and their country cousins

MANY years ago, a pompous Londoner told me why he despised Northern folk. “It’s because they accept lower standards,” he opined with all the solemn weight of his profession: he was a commercial traveller.

The really pathetic impact of this churlish remark was the fact that it was made in a pub which stands in the shadows of York Minster, where the ghosts of Roman legionnaires are said to wander and where, just across the road, Guy Fawkes was born.

A fair crack for country folk?

But even that is overshadowed, in this man’s ignorance, by the mere fact that he lived in Wembley, a suburb of dreary red-brick or mock-Tudor so similar that even locals sometimes walk into the wrong street my mistake. I know: I had a distant maiden aunt who lived there.

This incident by the Minster came to mind again this week in another wonderful pub, this time in the Yorkshire Dales (funny how many of my most interesting/irritating/illuminating conversations take place in pubs) when in came a group of London men on a week’s jolly celebrating one of their number’s retirement.

They were a decent enough bunch, technicians or perhaps highway workers of some kind, particularly knowledgeable about real ale (not a normal London characteristic) and where highly impressed with Freddie Trueman ale, a new brew from the Skipton-based Copper Dragon brewery.

But they did seem a tad on the young side for a retirement party so when I asked just how old the main man was, he looked a bit sheepish and admitted: 53! Stunned, I rather rudely blurted out: “In that case, you must have been in the public sector” and he nodded enthusiastically.

He never told me what he did in London but he explained – perhaps “boasted” is a better word – that his job had been moved across the capital and he could no longer commute there in reasonable time. So last October, they gave him “gardening leave” for six months and then let him slip into retirement with a good pension.

Now he did not tell me, of course, just how good that pension was but in the past few months he has spent a month in Thailand, this week here in the Dales, and he is off to Singapore in a couple of weeks time. Not a bad life if you can get it.

By this time, the atmosphere in the pub had taken a definite dip. To say that there was a chill in the air was to ignore the ice crystals growing in the beer. To us poor locals, the simple country cousins of so many Victorian novels, this man and his mates might have been beings from another world.

So utopia does exist after all – in London on the government pay roll!

Retirement at 53? Trips to the exotic Far East? A pension after a life in which no-one ever gets sacked and is allowed six months in the garden because he was making the place look untidy with no work to do? So utopia does exist after all – in London on the government pay roll!

This conversation took place as our capital city was a seething mass of intrigue, mendacity and double cross as an unelected Prime Minister tried to hang onto power despite the fact that the majority of the country had handed him the biggest political beating the Labour Party has suffered at a general election since the 1930s.

There was something like 150 MPs retiring, all on even better pensions than our visitor, plus up to £60,000 “resettlement” allowance, not to mention the fortunes they will make selling the second homes they bought and furnished with money fiddled from the taxpayer.

Yet in the hills all around the Dales, there are hundreds of farmers, quarry workers and part-timers in the tourism industry who feel themselves lucky to have a job at all, even a roof over their heads in these days of soaring property prices often forced into the stratosphere by retirees with more big pensions.

In a week when a new Prime Minister stood outside 10 Downing Street and promised to work for the whole population, I hope that there is someone, somewhere, who can tell him just how hard life for poor country folk, without shops, post offices, buses, pubs and even schools.

“Dave” Cameron is a total metropolitan, as far as I can tell, and there is no doubt that he will have to dish out some very strong medicine indeed to cure the ills bestowed upon us by the most unpopular Prime Minister in living memory. But let’s hope he remembers that there is life outside the M25 and after 13 years of neglect, country folk now deserve a fair crack of the whip.

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