MT DIARY: Navigating the North has never been straightforward

I know about the delights of Finnish cooking and how to spend a long weekend in Albania, says Sir Howard Davies. But I can't, for the life of me, find a place to eat in Bury on a Friday night.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 04 Feb 2014

Attentive readers of this Diary in 2013 learnt a lot of valuable information that should improve their travelling experiences. They were told how to have a good time in Vilnius on Friday night and Minsk on Sunday afternoon, heard about the delights of Finnish cooking, and the medication to take afterwards. Everything needed to make a success of a long weekend in southern Albania was clearly set out. By December I had become a little anxious about how I would be able to match this cornucopia of delights in 2014. Would my travelling schedule be anything like as exciting? Could I find as many obscure locations to describe?

I need not have worried. An illness in the family took me back on several visits to Lancashire, which I left in the early 1970s. I now know all there is to know about the curiosities of the Greater Manchester Metrolink Sunday schedules, from Eccles to Bury, and East Didsbury to Rochdale, via Oldham Mumps. I can hop on and off trams at Shudehill with ease.

What I cannot do, however, is suggest a place to eat in Bury town centre at 10.15 on a Friday night. There are a dozen late-night bars, all policed by intimidating bouncers who look as though they spent too long packing down in the Rochdale Hornets scrum without a headguard, but nowhere at all to find a square meal if you rule doner kebabs out of account. Finland is a culinary paradise by comparison.

It is odd, in a way, as the locals do not look underfed. In London, the obesity epidemic, which affects the whole country, indeed the western world, is not so evident. The Tube is full of hungry-looking people scurrying to the City to spend 10 lonely hours in front of a screen, fixing interest rates or uselessly churning your and my investment portfolios. In other places, public transport is more heavily used by the heavy.

Hospitals are also observatories of the obese. The visitors and day patients congregated around the doors for a smoke were walking tributes to the high sugar content of processed foods. The deep-fried Mars bar doesn't often travel that far south, I'm told, and after independence we will be able to quarantine it in Scotland. But there must be functional equivalents on sale somewhere nearby.

Back in the Deep South I also found myself in hospital, for a minor op on a hand (no flowers, please, donations to the Haymarket Press Journalists' Benevolent Fund). The surgeon was English, the anaesthetist Indian, her assistant Chinese. All the nurses were of Caribbean origin, while the porter was a British Muslim (I don't demand a believer's certificate of the guy who pushes my gurney, but the name Mohammed is a bit of a giveaway). The receptionist, of course, was a pretty Pole. I felt right at home.

As I came round, Keith Vaz, the chair of the home affairs select committee, was on the TV, preparing a 'warm' welcome for Romanians and Bulgarians at Stansted.

For a week or so after the op, I had to wear a nasty-looking rigid plastic sheath on my hand, with a sharp front edge. As it happens, it came in handy on another trip up north. Not because I got into an altercation with the natives - I do still speak the language after all - but the Virgin service threw up an unexpected hazard.

On the last train to Euston one night, I found a nearly empty compartment. I spread myself out on a table for four with my laptop, mobile and a set of exciting presentations on central banking for the course I teach. I was then interrupted by a smartly dressed man with an eastern European accent, who walked up the train putting a piece of paper in front of each passenger with 'Looking for Work - Please Help' on it.

I took the same interest in this approach as everyone else. The thought did cross my mind that it was odd to pay £40 for a ticket and then try to blag more than that from fellow passengers, but my discussion of forward guidance was so riveting that I quickly moved on. So did the train, and we arrived on time in Euston, where I found that my iPhone had been extracted from its case. I had been royally suckered by the 'paper on the table' trick.

I had barely glanced at the villain in question, but a helpful chap opposite said he would certainly recognise him, and that he had gone off towards the back of the train (we were in the front). We jumped off quickly in search of help. But there was no sign of Keith Vaz. There's never an MP to hand when you need one.

We did, however, identify the putative thief. Armed with the confidence of a positive identification, I decided on a direct approach. Actually, I didn't decide anything, but a red mist descended and I accosted a man rather larger and younger than myself. 'My good man,' I said, 'I do believe you may have mistakenly picked up my telephonic device.' At least that was the gist of my message, delivered in the vernacular with little expectation of a positive response.

I had reckoned without the impact of my hard plastic sheath, which hovered menacingly in front of his face. 'I no steal it,' he said nervously, but unzipped a pocket in his puffa jacket and took out my iPhone 5 and handed it back. The Virgin guard had fetched up by this time and fancied getting him arrested, but the British Transport Police were nowhere in evidence, so he was able to leg it off into the night.

No one so much as looked at my mobile in Minsk - it's much less dangerous going there than travelling to Manchester, it turns out. And the Minchyani are thinner.

Howard Davies is the chairman of the Airports Commission. Follow him on Twitter at: @howardjdavies.

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