It would be fair to say that our nearest town is not a feast for the eyes. A few misguided tourists do find their way here but, after a fruitless search for historical attractions or picturesque scenes, they generally end up drifting round the shopping centre like everyone else.
It is not a prosperous area; figures show a depressingly low per capita income and a significant number of people on benefits - not surprising when part of the town has achieved national notoriety as 'Chav Central'. That aspect is mirrored in the abundance of pound shops and a prominently-placed pawnbrokers.
And yet a stroll round the town provides an interesting counterpoint. In just two short streets, you can count six hairdressers - of the unisex trendy and expensive kind - as well as a tanning salon, two tattoo parlours, four nail bars and, as of this week, a fish pedicure shop.
Few of these establishments cater for the shy and retiring; the emphasis in on treatments in the shop window under the public gaze - perhaps part of the attraction is being seen to have your roots/nails/feet done, making it the ultimate in conspicuous consumption.
After all, none of these things comes cheap - and there's the puzzle. In a town where, we are told, belts have been tightened to wasp-like proportions, where do these customers come from? For customers there are in abundance, smirking out from their shop window vantage points with their hair in foil or their feet in a fishtank.
There is only one conclusion; that the official figures don't even begin to tell the story. That, far removed from the headlines, a black economy is thriving and expanding so fast that businesses like these can open up in prime locations in the current economic climate and be sure of a steady income via the hip pockets of the locals.
The scale of it is a classic 'known unknown' - we are aware it's out there, but the size of it is a complete mystery and there's no way to deal with it; like the giant squid of legend, the monster lurks in the depths of society, extending its tentacles in every direction - unknowable, unquantifiable and potentially dangerous.
1 hour ago