It was Friday evening and I was shortly to catch one of the old corridor trains back to Yorkshire. But as I stirred, something on the TV in the corner caught my eye. It was the title sequence for Emmerdale Farm.
It was an odd juxtaposition: the sweeping landscape of the Dales squashed between Eric Clapton’s guitars and the garish pop art that decorated this debauched corner of central London. But I knew which I preferred.
I didn’t actually live in the Dales. Nor have I ever.
But they were on my doorstep, and that was enough.
I was not the first person to have had to make that kind of choice. Billy Liar had been there, done that, nearly 20 years before. But it’s a decision that future generations may not have to face. For, if our new way of life has demonstrated anything in recent times, it is that having the best of both worlds is now a real possibility.
A few months ago, anyone who tried to pursue a career in the city from a desk at home was considered a pariah in certain parts of the workplace; now it is the ‘new normal’.
This is potentially good news for the rural economy, as the Centre for Towns research group pointed out this week. Communities that have struggled for years to attract young families might suddenly be able to market themselves as “remote working destinations” – honeypots for upwardly mobile professionals.
It’s nowhere more true than in the Dales, where only last year local leaders were talking of an existential crisis that threatened the future of villages with ageing populations and no affordable homes for anyone to take their place.
For generations it has been the dream of many young parents to bring up their children in such surroundings without having to sacrifice their careers. Now that the genie is out of the bottle, they might actually manage it.
It’s a mystery that we didn’t realise sooner that home working was possible – and indeed preferable – for so many. If we could outsource telephone call centres to India, surely Ingleton should not have been too big a stretch. It was never a technical hurdle; just a cultural one.
But there are two sides to every coin, and on the reverse of this one are the developers who have put up gleaming blocks of offices in Leeds and other city centres, on the “build it and they will come” principle. They may now be regretting not having signed up the necessary tenants in advance; they might not come after all, and those towers may be shiny white elephants.
There is also the worry, as the TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp has pointed out, that if a job can be done from home it can be done from abroad, where wages are lower – a fact that will not escape recruiters for whom the world is suddenly their oyster.
The consequences of all this are profound. The next generation of office workers may never know their colleagues, except as faces on a computer screen. Their personal skills may suffer for this but they will compensate by seeking entertainment and a social life close to where they live, to the benefit of their local economies.
So is the office dead? It depends what kind of office you worked in. It would be hard to replicate the atmosphere of a stockbroker’s trading floor from a desk tucked under the stairs. And the prospect of bank clerks taking the money home with them might not wash with the Financial Conduct Authority. But for those in call centres and the like, the joy of office life had been swept away long ago on a tide of mass migration to modern, sterile blocks like those new ones in Leeds.
They are air conditioned yet airless; corporate battery farms where staff are clocked in and out of their lunch and toilet breaks like machines. Where’s the joy in that? Who wouldn’t want to swap it for a view of the Dales from the study window?
That was pretty much what I thought back in the 1970s when those Emmerdale Farm titles shimmered like an oasis in the Hard Rock Cafe. London, or even Leeds, is no match for that.
As to what I was doing there that Friday evening I can’t say – but so it is with all the best rock and roll stories: if you can remember them, you weren’t really there.
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