Tag Archives: Britain

The Sandwich Whisperer of Victoria Street

Photo by Eric Hossinger (CC BY 2.0)

Sandwiches are a booming, multi-billion-pound industry in the UK. In The Guardian, Sam Knight’s history of the modern British sandwich follows its transformation from a soggy excuse of a meal into a signature product of late-capitalist discipline. What made the story irresistible for me, though, are the people we meet along the way — from the Wembley factory workers stacking chicken on 33 sandwiches per minute to Julian Metcalfe, the tireless founder of Pret A Manger.

Soaring above them all, though, is Frank Boltman. A veteran filled-croissant innovator, his business never grew to the scale of the Prets of the world, but each of his multiple appearances in the piece comes full of compact, delicious morsels of sandwich wisdom.

“My idea of relaxation is to write down five new sandwiches,” he said when we met recently at his latest baby, a vaguely hipsterish place called Trade, on the Essex Road in north London. The quest of the sandwich inventor is a mostly pitiless one. The industry has its own 80:20 rule: 80% of sales come from 20% of the flavours. These are often referred to as “the core” – the egg mayonnaise, the BLT, the chicken salad – and they are as familiar as our own blood. Pret’s best-selling sandwiches (the top three are all baguettes: chicken caesar and bacon, tuna and cucumber, cheddar and pickle) have not changed for seven years. M&S’s prawn mayo has been its No 1 for 36.

Undaunted by this, Boltman starts out by choosing the bread, and the ingredients from those he is already using on his menu. The art of the sandwich designer is to think inwards, to find variations within a known and delineated realm. “It is a question of using tenacity, knowledge, know-how, flair,” said Boltman. People in the industry talk about seminal new combinations – Pret’s crayfish and rocket; M&S’s Wensleydale and carrot chutney – like Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night Dream, or Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. The story comes alive again. Someone finds a new move in chess.

It is possible to be a showman. Boltman talked about a chicken and broccoli bun he made in the 80s. “Granary seeded roll as a vehicle,” he said. “Unbelievable.” While we were talking, the kitchen made me Boltman’s interpretation of the Reuben, which he sells for £8.50. I hadn’t eaten that morning, and the pastrami, which had been cured for a week, lay deep. The taste of caraway seeds in the rye bread lingered in the roof of my mouth. “Did the secret sauce come through?” he asked.

Boltman has been round the block a few times. He had a McDonald’s franchise for a while. He observed that, even as sandwiches function as an accelerant of our harried, grinding lives, they also offer a moment of precious, private escape. “People want to eat,” he said, leaning close. “They want comfort. They want solace. I’ve had a shit morning. I’ve fallen out with my boss. I’ve had a fucking horrible journey in. A poxy lettuce-and-whatever concoction in a plastic bowl is not going to do it for me. I want a cup of tea, a chocolate biscuit and I actually want to cry. I am going out for a fucking sandwich.”

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The Unknowable Diana, 20 Years On: A Reading List

(Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images)

There are two events that can define a separation of generations: Where were you when Princess Diana got married? Where were you when she died?

I was a tiny toddler sitting on my young mom’s lap for the first, an awkward 17-year-old for the second. San Diego’s Starlight Musical Theatre was in the middle of a production of Singin’ in the Rain and my job was to get costumes onto cast members before they hurtled out onstage.

Somehow I learned she was dead during the performance, in the time before widespread cell phones or internet. News spread fast, through the usual backstage channels, in whispers and passed notes. The busy dressing rooms were oddly quiet. People danced off stage and started crying in the wings. Downstairs, near the costume shop, they used the pay phone to find out details from friends.

The world seemed stunned, half silent. But why? Why did we spend the next few days glued to the television and the radio? Why did we leave flowers and sing songs and feel personally affected by a woman few knew and even fewer ever understood? Who was this bashful princess, anyway? This reading list contains a few answers—but 20 years after her death, the enigmatic Diana is harder to grasp than ever.

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The Swan (Mascot) that Would Not Be Tamed

Photo by Swanseajack4life (CC BY-SA 3.0)

At Howler Magazine, Jeff Maysh tells the story of Cyril the Swan, the misbehaving mascot of Welsh football club Swansea City. It’s a story about the fading, post-industrial city that embraced the swan’s antics as a symbol of local identity. But it’s also the story of club groundskeeper Eddie Donne, the man inside the costume, and the making (and unmaking) of ultra-local heroes. In a particularly surreal scene, Maysh recounts a disciplinary hearing between league officials and the mascot — who appeared in full swan regalia.

Neil McClure hired Britain’s most famous sports attorney, Maurice Watkins, to defend Cyril. In 1995, Watkins had represented Manchester United star Eric Cantona after he kung fu kicked a spectator. He wanted Cyril kept away from the hearing because, Watkins told me via e-mail, he was “unpredictable to say the least.” This, he said, almost caused Lewis to “have apoplexy as the interest in the case had already generated huge sales of Cyril memorabilia, and [Lewis] had just commissioned the purchase of thousands of Cyril statuettes.” Donne avoided the TV crews and fans out front by sneaking in a back door and carrying Cyril in a bag. When Donne poked Cyril’s head out of a window, the mob went wild and began chanting, “Save our swan!”

Welsh FA chairman Alun Evans and two officials were sitting behind a long table in a barren conference room when they called for the defendant.

“They wanted to see what my vision was like,” Donne says. Cyril kicked the doors open and staggered inside. “I was falling over on purpose,” he says. “There was a plate of biscuits, so I pecked them, knocked the plate over.” As the biscuits went flying, the FA officials looked on in disbelief.
When Lewis explained that Cyril was a mute swan, the chairman instructed him to act as a translator.

“Ask Cyril, Mike, can he see a football at his feet when he is wearing his costume?” said Evans.

The swan shook his head: no.

“Ask Cyril, Mike, did he intentionally kick the ball in the direction of a Millwall player?”

Again, the answer was no.

“Mr. Watkins,” the chairman barked, turning to the lawyer, “were you aware that Cyril patted an official on the head shortly after Swansea had scored their third goal … after encroachment on the field of play?”

“Yes, Mr. Chairman,” Watkins said. “Cyril thought that he had seen a coin thrown at the linesman and went over to console him.”

Brilliant, Maurice, brilliant, Lewis recalls thinking.

Cyril was dismissed from the room. As he was leaving, Donne saw referee Steve Dunn sitting in a chair in the corridor.

“I dipped my beak in his coffee,” he says.

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God Save the Queen: Seven Stories about Elizabeth II

Image via NASA (public domain).

A couple of months ago I had a strange epiphany: the only thing currently keeping the world barely intact is a British nonagenarian who likes corgis.

The second half of the 20th century, the era in which we (kind of) still live, is in the process of vanishing, from Fidel Castro and the Voting Rights Act to Carrie Fisher and non-apocalyptic weather. Yet against all odds, the Queen — until not that long ago, the most boring member of a dysfunctional dynasty — has emerged as the embodiment of good sense and decency, an unflappable, gray-haired titan. Her very perseverance (she’s currently the world’s longest-serving head of state) proves: we’re not doomed. Yet.

Monarchies are ridiculous at best, vicious and blood-thirsty at worst. But after a year in which so many unthinkable things had come to pass, I find myself doing something previously unimaginable: rooting for Elizabeth II. She’s a mentsch. She survived 12 US presidents (chances of surviving #13: not amazing, but who knows? Windsors seem to hate dying). She’s found the precise balance between being real and unreal, flesh-and-blood and emblem. Here are a few great reads on the Queen.

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All Comedy Will Be Canceled: How the BBC Prepares for the Eventual Death of the Queen

No one lives forever, not even monarchs. In a recent piece for Business Insider UK, Rob Price explored the slightly morbid topic but deeply fascinating topic of what will happen in Britain when 88-year-old Queen Elizabeth II’s reign comes to an end. The Queen has been on the throne for over six decades, during which time 12 different Prime Ministers have served Britain (as well as 12 US Presidents). Price posits that her eventual death will be the most disruptive event in Britain in the last 70 years, affecting all aspects of British life. In the excerpt below, he discusses how this will play out on the BBC:

Assuming the Queen’s passing was expected, the news will spread at first via the main TV channels. All BBC channels will stop their programming and show the BBC1 feed for the announcement. The other independent channels won’t be obligated to interrupt their regular programming. But they almost certainly will.

At the BBC, anchors actively practice for the eventuality of the Monarch’s passing so they won’t be caught unaware on their shifts. The BBC’s Peter Sissons was heavily criticised for wearing a red tie to announce the Queen Mother’s passing (as seen above), and the BBC now keeps black ties and suits at the ready at all times. Presenters also run drills in which they’re required to make sudden “spoof” announcements that are never broadcast.

The last death of a Monarch was in 1952, and the BBC stopped all comedy for a set period of mourning after the announcement was made. The Daily Mail reports that the BBC plans to do the same again today, cancelling all comedy until after the funeral.

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