I quite like that Channel 4 show The Secret Millionaire (Tuesdays, 9pm), in which a self-made Richie goes undercover among the unfortunate Dicks, his aim being to disburse himself of some of his well-gotten gains on worthy causes. It never fails to bring a tear to their eye when they discover - surprise, surprise - that while they've been frenziedly shinning up the pole, people back down in the shithole have gone on living lives just as emotionally nuanced and morally engaged as their own - and probably more so. The other evening, a recruitment consultant was sent to Middlesbrough to get shot of a hundred grand and, at one point, he went and got a bag of chips for a quid. "I don't think I've been in a chip shop for 20 years," he said.
I was shocked. Perhaps it's some kind of twisted, de haut en bas thing, but I'm barely ever out of a chip shop. I suppose if your objective in life is to get rich, then chip shops, kebab bars and cheapo Indian and Chinese takeaways are what you're trying to escape, while what you aspire to is wall-to-wall potatoes dauphinoise. Still, there has to be a happy medium. If only I could find it. Instead, I seem to ping-pong about - one day, I'm trying not to up-chuck as I eye up the shellfish bar at Scott's (of Mayfair); the next, I'm in Motherwell, Lanarkshire, observing this emetic preparation: a man takes a naan bread, covers it with a generous handful of chips, sprinkles grated cheese on top of this, then chilli sauce on top of that, then pops the whole thing in an electric pizza oven for a couple of minutes before rolling it into a sandwich that the menu - confusingly - describes as a "hoagie".
It's confusing, because this is a term that originated in the US to describe a variant of the submarine sandwich and, now, it's being applied by second-generation Scots Bengalis to this . . . this weirdness. I've been coming to Motherwell for longer than Jack "Labour Lordy" McConnell was its MSP; I saw the new "millennium" cladding go up on the huge council blocks along the Shields Road and I've seen it crack and spall and begin to fall off - and all that time, the Indian Chef has been cranking out these hoagies.
The takeaway incorporates a small grocery shop - fags, Irn-Bru, milk - and occupies one half of a single-storey building that used to be a garage; the other half is a Chinese takeaway. Fearful symmetry. The garage went out of business in the late 1960s and my wife, who grew up in the town, remembers playing in the abandoned office with a friend, the two of them going through files and pretending they were detectives searching for Bible John, the notorious serial killer then active in Glasgow.
At night, I often walk through the woods alongside the Clyde, then angle up towards the Shields Road and, if I'm feeling peckish, I'll buy a samosa at the Indian Chef and eat it as I tromp back to my mother-in-law's.
Back in 2007, Jack McConnell memorably described Motherwell town centre as a "pigsty", a curious turn of phrase for its serving MSP, especially given that both the Westminster and the Holyrood seats, as well as the district council, were, are and presumably always will be held by Labour. But he had a point: parts of Motherwell and adjoining Wishaw are surpassing unlovely.
The other evening, moved by the upcoming Scots parliamentary elections and the Labour placards along the Shields Road, I thought: why not become a secret gastro-millionaire and bring a little haute cuisine to the pays-bas of North Lanarkshire? Spying a couple - he bare-chested and sporting a bloodied nose, she with bare legs, one of them badly gashed - I relieved them of their bottles of Buckie (Buckfast Tonic Wine, the tipple made by Benedictine monks in Devon but favoured by local alcoholics) and replaced them with bottles of Gevrey-Chambertin. "You'll have to get used to it, if Alex 'Farmed' Salmond gets in," I cried gaily over my shoulder. "Youse alright, big man!" came in my wake.
Outside the Indian Chef, I relieved a hefty claimant of his hoagie and replaced it with a blini, rolled around some Almas caviar.
“A kilo of that would cost you a year's incapacity benefit," I jollily informed him, before heading on my way, teary-eyed at the thought of my generosity. After all, there's the big society favoured by Cameron, and there's the morbidly obese society presided over by Scots Labour. I, for
one, sometimes have difficulty telling them apart. l
Next week: Madness of Crowds