Howard Davies: The MT Diary

Howard Davies sees the lighter side of the Olympic getaway, travels to Thailand and America, and faces a two-week exile in Newfoundland.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 30 Aug 2012

Like most Londoners, I found that my closest email pal this summer was Transport for London's marketing and communications director, Vernon Everitt. He regularly warned us not to use the Tube, or the streets, under pain of death. As it happens, Vernon was my excellent press officer at the FSA. He is an ex-Bank of England man with a great sense of humour, so it didn't surprise me to receive a message telling me that there were two places I should avoid in August: (i) where I live, and (ii) where I work.

This particular communication may have been a spoof, but the general drift of Vernon's messages was that the less he saw of me in his town, the better. I knew from bitter past experience that if Vernon tells you to do, or not to do, something, he is usually right. So I set sail for distant lands, where the Games could be expected to be low on the agenda.

Thailand was my first port of call. They have some fearsome women weightlifters, but otherwise Olympic sport interests them less than the results of Liverpool reserves. For a couple of days in Bangkok, at a conference on the future of global capital markets (grim, in a word), all was well. I had dinner with Thai friends, who were more concerned about the state of the Coalition than the G4S security contract. The main sport we discussed was the decibel contest between the two critters in their garden: one the spitting image of the bird from those old Guinness ads, the other a feisty Jack Russell. Every time the bird squawked, the dog yapped. 'Everything toucan do, I can do better' was his message.

But down in Hua Hin, to which we decamped for the weekend, things began to deteriorate. At a market on the Myanmar border, buying fake pearls for my wife (they fooled her, luckily), I was asked about my views on the opening ceremony. Cue for a rapid departure.

To New York, where if it isn't happening in Manhattan, it isn't happening at all. A couple of days on Wall Street can convince you that the rest of the world doesn't exist. I spent the weekend in the Hamptons on Long Island, where New Yorkers of a certain type head off to in August, and force themselves to talk about something other than the pricing of IPOs.

Though I know the obsessive Masters of the Universe quite well, I thought a steamy August weekend would be relaxing. Not a bit of it. Mine hostess got me up at 7am to go to a SoulCycle class in a nearby barn. For those of you who are happily unfamiliar with this form of torture, you should know that SoulCycle, or Spinning, is the new new thing for women and men of a certain age. The deal is that you cycle frenetically on the spot for 45 minutes, encouraged by a manic instructor on a podium, who exhorts you to turn up the resistance gauge and to climb the equivalent of the Mont Ventoux before breakfast.

In the Hamptons, it is not a minority pursuit. All human life is there, from investment bankers through hedge fund and private equity types, all the way to corporate lawyers and management consultants. One day it will be an Olympic sport.

My next destination on this enforced two-week exile was Newfoundland. Canada is the most underperforming major country in Olympic terms, and Newfies have a severe obesity problem, suggesting that exercise comes below eating moose sausage and cod tongues as a national pastime, so it seemed like a safe bolt-hole. For a few days, that was true, and I drank Quidi Vidi Pale Ale without being troubled with questions about how the Games were proceeding, and whether it was true that London was empty. But then the probing began. Why was I out of London at this exciting time? I tried to explain that Vernon Everitt - he who must be obeyed - had told me to quit town, but his name means little in St John's. So off I went.

Saint Pierre and Miquelon are a couple of islands that time forgot. Just off the southern coast of Newfoundland, they were fought over by the English and French for most of the 18th century, finally being ceded to France after the Napoleonic wars. Now there are 5,000 inhabitants with EU passports, who speak excellent French (unlike the Quebecois) and use the euro.

It's a strange place. The islands are home to large concentrations of kittiwakes, guillemots, grey seal and boulangeries. Canadians starved of decent croissants stock up there with patisserie and cheap red wine. Al Capone ran a slightly more systematic rum-running operation on the islands in the Prohibition years: the St Pierrais seem quite proud of him.

But even there, one was not safe. At L'Atelier Gourmand, a respectable French restaurant worthy of half a Michelin star, the patron quizzed us about why we were not on Horse Guards Parade watching the beach volleyball.

When the last interesting thing that happened in your town took place in 1816 it is not an unreasonable question, I suppose.

As a last resort we took a boat to the Ile des Marins, an offshore island of an offshore island of an offshore island. Here, we were safe from difficult questions. There are several picturesque painted houses, but no residents. At last we were at peace. We were making no unreasonable demands on the Central Line, so Vernon could be proud of us, and we were not de-gilding the gingerbread by confessing that we were enforced exiles. It was a long way to go to achieve this happy outcome, but we managed it.

The bill for this odyssey is on its way to TFL.

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