Tag Archives: United Kingdom

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 Grim Reaper of Pubs

Ben Birchall/PA Wire

The family had learned to be bullish about the passing of their pub from one lofty brand to another. It never much affected their lives at drip-tray height. In the eyes of their regular customers, the Murphys were the Golden Lion. Their hands were on the taps of Guinness and Guinness Extra Cold, they signed the orders on boxes of Tayto crisps. The Murphys brushed down the pool table before evening league matches and heard the grumbles of anyone who had lost a pound or more in the flashing Dream Machine. They had hosted parties for weddings, christenings, communions. One regular, his photograph kept afterwards on a shelf above the till, had been served a last pint by Mary Murphy before dying on the pavement outside; his wake took place back indoors.

The Golden Lion is a local landmark, a towering red-brick building with a double-peaked roof and a high, pronged chimney. Seen from a distance along Royal College Street, the building looks a little like one of those Chinese cat dolls that wave. Closer, the exterior reveals fancy adornment, carved stone, colourful glazed ceramics, Dutch gables – showy work done when the Golden Lion was pulled down and rebuilt at the end of the 19th century. Its owner back then was a Victorian businessman named Will Hetherington. He put an advertisement in the parish newspaper at the time to boast of his expensive refurbishment, inviting locals to make use of the Lion’s “comfort and convenience”. In a century of successive ownership, the Golden Lion remained always a locals’ pub, used for the most part by those who lived and worked within a few hundred metres of the front door.

Under the Murphys’ stewardship, carpets, curtains, and horsey wallpaper were removed over time, leaving a clean, pale-walled interior with bare wooden floors. The family brought in a jukebox, a dartboard, later a pair of flatscreen TVs, mounted at either end of the saloon and kept tuned, as a rule, to sport, quiz shows, or (on weekend evenings) talent contests. Benches outside were taken up, even in winter, by smokers. In the men’s loo a passing Arsenal fan had felt-tipped a crude club badge above the sink and Dave Murphy, an Arsenal fan himself, had not yet ordered it to be washed away. John Murphy, after decades in charge, had retired for health reasons, and Dave was now responsible for the Golden Lion’s overall management. Though he no longer lived above the pub, Mary did. She still served behind the bar every afternoon and evening.

During their meeting with the Admiral rep, the family were told the Golden Lion had been sold on once more. Not to another pubco, but to a private individual. Dave Murphy remembered the Admiral rep being sympathetic and, speaking candidly, she told them that the man who now owned the Golden Lion “was notorious for shutting pubs down”. After the meeting, Dave Murphy rang around some friends in the business. He read out the name he’d scribbled on a piece of paper: Antony Stark.

Had anyone heard of him?

“I was told, this was it,” Murphy remembered. “The Grim Reaper. That if he knocked on the door of your pub, well … it meant the end.”

Tom Lamont’s exhaustive 2015 deep-dive on the death of pub culture in England for The Guardian is worth re-reading, considering the role a bar plays within a community — as watering hole, a place to meet up, or merely where you go to enjoy a book on a summer afternoon — as you raise a pint of Guinness, Smithwick’s, or Bulmers.

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England’s Fears and Shifting Identity

Photo from mazz_5 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

He tells a story about an A&E waiting room in Kent after his son fell over and hit his head on a shower railing. “The only English accents were mine, my dad’s and my other half’s. Everybody else was from abroad. My dad looked at it as if I’m 15 down in the queue for an institution I built and my parents worked towards. We built this.” I point out that the NHS might have been more affected by austerity than immigration, and anyway, immigrants have brought more money into the country in the form of tax – just look it up. “Aha, yes, they may well do, bruv – so am I going to base my entire idea on what the ONS says? This is the insanity of it: the right blame everything on immigrants and the left blame everything on the Tories.”

Four pints in and we’re not convincing each other, so we head to the pie and mash shop for some stodge. “Rarely do good things happen when people have been drinking, but what’s worse?” says Dan. “People have a drink, or all the pubs go.” Such considerations are part of the reason identity is such an important political subject today. People see change, and it’s often for the worse. In Grays, the local theatre is set to close. In recent years, the ground of Grays Athletic Football Club, which stood for over 100 years and was a point of local pride, was bulldozed to make way for flats.

In the English magazine Somesuch Stories, journalist Tim Burrows travels from London to the English countryside to talk with regular folks about the changing UK, race, immigration and the reasons behind Brexit.

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A look at WBUK, an organization created in the United Kingdom to provide support for whistleblowers who often lose their jobs, families, reputations and mental health witnessing illicit activity and going public:

Beyond them sit about two dozen people whose lives, like those of Foxley and Gardiner, have been transformed because they refused to look the other way. They have come together to create a network to offer advice, legal counsel and psychological care to future whistleblowers, as well as campaign for their shared cause. The anger, hurt and frustration of their debate makes evident that WBUK also serves as a support mechanism for its participants.

Ian Foxley compared the very first meeting of the group, in March 2011, to ‘the site of a plane crash where the survivors were just getting to grips with their own injuries and those of their fellow passengers’. But today, the room is more like the ward of a hospital, full of ‘doctors and patients’, as Foxley puts it. Which side you belong to is determined by how far you have progressed along the arc of the life of a whistleblower.

“The Whistleblowers Club.” — Carola Hoyos, Financial Times

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