“Failing…everything I’ve done, I’ve done by failing” interview with Mayor of Pendle
by Karen Shaw
“THERE’S A SAYING,” SAYS NEIL, “ONLY IN THE DARKEST PLACES CAN YOU SEE THE BRIGHTEST LIGHT’ AND THAT’S TRUE."
Born and bred in Colne, Lancashire, bullied as a child and ridiculed over his cleft lip and palate, Neil Butterworth had a miserable upbringing. At the age of 17 he joined the army to escape his turbulent home life. Little did he know that after signing up, the cruel taunts and gruelling orders were to continue, intended to break the young squaddie, it made him more determined than ever. “The bullying had the opposite effect to the one they wanted,” he recalls, “it made me more determined to succeed,” and succeed he certainly did…
Known as the First Citizen of Pendle, the Mayor of Pendle Neil Butterworth has his own private secretary and gets chauffeured around in a big, posh car while wearing a big, posh gold chain – a world away from his day job, a job he describes in his own words as “driving his wagon covered in muck!
“People see me suited and booted, if I’m wearing a chain, I’m representing Pendle so I have to be smart, and I am, but then when I go to my day job, I’m covered in muck. I don’t wash my clothes; I throw them away – I can’t put my Tarmac smothered clothes in the wash as it would ruin the washing machine so I’m constantly in charity shops buying cheap clothes to wear to work.”
“I was never a political person, I just wanted to be in a position to help people.”
It was over 16 years ago that Neil was voted in as a Conservative councillor for the Horsfield area of Colne, Lancashire. Now the Conservative councillor for Boulsworth and Foulridge he remembers his first ever election…
“In the evening I visited all the local pubs offering lifts to the voting station. I drove people in my car, waited and drove them back. In total I took 14 people from the various pubs. I took Labour and Lib Dems to vote because everyone should vote and why should I say, ‘I’m not taking you’? I won by 14 votes!” he laughs. “I was never a political person, I just wanted to be in a position to help people. I need to know the ‘ins and outs’, but my focus is always on the people first.”
“It has been challenging, people think because you’re the mayor that you have more power, which isn’t the case. I get up to 40 emails a day from people wanting help – ‘Can you sort my doctor out?’ ‘Will you move my bins?’ ‘Can you get me a house?’
Neil goes on to tell me about the time he got a phone call at quarter to six on a Sunday morning. “When I answered I realised it was an elderly lady,” says Neil. “‘Hello is that the Mayor?’ ‘Yes’, I replied. ‘Is it time to go to church yet?’ she asked. I looked at the phone, it was dark and I was in bed. I said, ‘I’ve had a word with God, he says we’re okay to lay in until 9.30am, but I’m going back to sleep!’ ‘Oh, thank you mayor, I thought I’d missed it!’”
Having a sense of humour is most certainly a requirement for the role of mayor, but so is raising much needed funds for local charities, so, when Neil’s not busy answering people’s concerns he’s also on a mission to raise vital funds for his three chosen charities.
One of the charities selected to benefit from fundraising are Blood Bikes – a rapid response team of volunteers who provide a medical transport service for the NHS. “They work on shifts, buy their own bikes, petrol, uniform and insurance,” says Neil. “Every time I see one of them, I run over and put 20 pound in their pocket towards their petrol.
“My mayoress, Victoria Fletcher, chose to support Pendle Domestic Violence Initiative because of the recent Covid situation the increase in domestic violence has rocketed. Another cause very close to Neil’s heart is to raise enough funds to provide two children’s defibrillators. “They’re expensive but so vitally important and we’ll be donating them to local children’s organisations. Hopefully, they’ll never need to use them.
“I’m still a town councillor, a borough councillor, Pendle Armed Forces Champion,” he pauses briefly for air, “and visit seven care homes and 27 people outside of care homes, as well as helping to organise Colne’s annual gala,” he grins.
In 1977, at the tender age of 17 Neil joined the army, it was on his fourth attempt he was accepted after being turned down three times previously. Born with a cleft lip and palate, as a child he undertook numerous operations, but still had a severe speech impediment in his teens which, according to the army, made him ‘unsuitable’. At each interview he would struggle with his speech and be turned away.
They made it clear I wasn’t wanted because of the way I was
However, Neil’s signature steely determination came through when he was eventually accepted. “Luckily for me they didn’t have computers in them days, so I was able to keep on applying!” he chuckles. “My dad died when I was ten, and growing up I had a hard life – I was bullied and didn’t fight back. I ran away from home and became homeless. In an attempt to escape his turbulent childhood Neil decided he’d join the army…
His late father, George had served with the Gurkhas in Malaysia. “Dad was a corporal and I was determined to follow his lead and go one step better – which I did when I was made sergeant.”
After 15 years of loyal service, Neil says brutal bullying during his basic training made him strong enough to encounter the dangers of fighting the IRA in Northern Ireland. As a socially shy teenager Neil became a target for bullies during his basic training. “They made it clear I wasn’t wanted because of the way I was,” says Neil.
“I would be told to keep running long after everyone else had been ordered to stop. My first year in the army was atrocious. I didn’t really socialise. I was badly bullied – but it made me physically and mentally stronger.”
When I came out of the army, I could shoot a gun but I couldn’t wire a plug.
In 2012 Neil, a former sergeant in the Royal Pioneer Corps was honoured with a medal for his ‘exemplary’ service in danger spots throughout the world after completing three tours of Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles. In his time there he spent a total of seven months in hospital recovering from injuries to the head, neck and ribs.
In the GOC’s (General Officer Commanding) commendation to Neil, the report says: ‘His confident, outward going nature together with his unfailing sense of humour has ensured a considerable affinity with the many VIPs he has protected. He has maintained his cheerful enthusiasm through his tour and has undoubtedly been the subject of more violence and abuse than encountered by most other soldiers on tour in Belfast. Throughout his long tour in Northern Ireland Lance Corporal Butterworth has displayed a consistently high standard of performance and a devotion to duty well above that normally required of a man of his rank and experience.’
Neil left the army in 1990 and struggled to adapt to life on ‘Civvie Street’. “When I came out of the army, I could shoot a gun but I couldn’t wire a plug. I had no idea what to do, when I got my water bill, I thought water was free! When I was in army, I didn’t worry – I just went to bed, got up, did my work and went to sleep. As a Pendle Armed Forces Champion, I’m giving people the help that I never had. Neil makes it his mission to reach out to veterans young and old. “I was ignorant to everything and nobody helped me,” he sighs.
On a recent and rare day off I caught Neil rummaging in the boot of his car, stuffing in cartons of milk, crates of eggs, slabs of bacon, frozen hash browns and a stack of black pudding. Not what you find most mayors doing early on a Saturday morning, but Neil isn’t like most mayors. His morning manoeuvre was to provide breakfast for veterans at Bancroft House, Burnley, a place established in 2018 by Healthier Heroes, a charity that aims to rehome, rehabilitate and reconnect veterans and their families. “If you look back at what the veterans have done, they put their life on the line, when they come home, they can feel lost and bewildered.”
Neil’s life has been peppered with challenges and misfortune, but none as devastating as the tragic loss of his beloved fiancée Tina Brennan. The pair got engaged in 2016 on the Mediteranean island of Sicily and were looking forward to a happy future together when in September 2017 they received the shock diagnosis that Tina had grade 4 cancer, sadly Tina passed in the following October of that year, aged 51.
“The biggest challenge has been not having Tina,” says Neil, “I wanted to do it for her and I knew I could help people. Victoria, my mayoress has been amazing. She’s been brilliant. I owe her a lot.”
A few months after Tina’s death Neil found himself contemplating suicide sitting on a bridge in tears. It was then that he reached out and rang a friend for help. “There’s a saying,” says Neil, “Only in the darkest places can you see the brightest light’ and that’s true. I now know more about mental health. Before if anyone tried to take their life I would have said they were selfish. I talked all the wrong talk.”
Picking up the pieces of his life, Neil reflects on his darkest moment explaining that the biggest killer of any military personnel around the world is down to one word – pride. “It’s a silly word,” says Neil. “As soon as you join the army you’re taught pride in your uniform, pride in your hygiene, pride in your regiment, pride in the army and it’s grilled into you so when you come out, you can’t pick the phone up to ask for help because of pride. Everyone has a little bit of pride but in the military it’s in your bones.”
So, what advice would Neil give to anyone who is struggling with their mental health?
“If you feel like that, put your pride away. Put it to one side and make a phone call, pick someone you trust.“
Neil has the ability to see the need in people, has the heart to reach out to them, and the strength to raise them up… but what will he do in May when he’s no longer mayor?
“I’ll be doing exactly what I’m doing now, but without a chain. I deal with any challenges head on, I never say no. If I want praise, I’ll get it when I’m in heaven.”