Ham and tomato? Cheese and pickle? Pork and asparagus? It's a nightmare, isn't it? It's lunchtime, the minutes are ticking away and you've only got a few precious moments to get in there, choose the sandwich that really suits your needs, then get out again. It's a well known fact that buying your lunchtime sandwich is the third most stressful thing you can do, after moving house and sleeping with a bishop. Especially if you do all three on the same day.
Well, it is if you choose to believe The National Sandwich Hotline. They claim that they deal with up to four thousand calls a day from desperate customers who simply cannot make their mind up when it comes to lunch. And the number of people using the service is steadily rising as coffee shops, delicatessens and supermarkets offer more and more choice.
So what does the National Sandwich Hotline actually do? Well, it offers personal lunchtime help in the shape of professional sandwich advisors like Chris Martin. Chris travels the length and breadth of the country, meeting clients and helping them to make that difficult choice. We were fortunate enough to spend the some time with him as he did his rounds, and he was eager to point out that it's his job to offer advice, not make decisions.
"One thing we don't do is make up people's minds for them," he told us. "We are here to give advice and support, but in the end the choice is always up to the individual. Hopefully, if we've done our job properly, then the customer will make the right decision, but I'd be lying if I said that mistakes don't happen. Last year an office worker in Sidcup was advised by one of our staff to purchase a salmon and cucumber bap. It turns out that she didn't like it at all, and would have much preferred something involving cheese. Well, as you can imagine, it put our man in a bit of a tight spot. The fast response team had to be called in, the area was sealed off and the office worker was brought under control with a cheese board and some salted crackers. Our man was quite disheartened. He'd misread the signs, given the wrong advice and because of his error a young woman's lunchtime had been spoilt. But hey, it happens. After all, we're only human."
We get the distinct impression that Chris himself would never have made a mistake like that. He has a reputation as one of the most respected sandwich advisors in the country, and his services are sought by the great and the good. At present we are sitting in a Ford Focus, speeding up the M1 towards York where Chris has an appointment with a senior partner in a busy firm of solicitors. The back seat is heaving with stacks of Tupperware boxes, each containing prospective lunch samples and sandwich swatches. The fusion of smells - onions, cucumbers, mayonnaises and freshly baked breads - is heavenly. It makes us wonder if being a sandwich advisor is really as difficult as we've been led to believe. Surely it's just a question of waving all these goodies under the nose of the client and seeing which one takes his fancy? Chris, however, greets this suggestion with a curious mixture of horror and disdain.
"Good grief, no!" he cries, throwing us a brief look of distress as he pulls out to overtake a Mazda. "It's a science," he insists. "And, at the same time, its an art form," he adds. "No, no, it's more than that - it's a whole philosophy of life. Listen, if somebody says that they quite fancy a ham and pickle baguette, then you can't just say, well, go out and get yourself a ham and pickle baguette. The world just doesn't work like that. You have to examine why they want a ham and pickle baguette - what emotional imperative lies behind the urge for a ham and pickle baguette? What deep, psychological need would this ham and pickle baguette fulfil? What does the ham symbolise, and what conflicting element does the pickle represent? And then, when you have completely deconstructed the client's desire for a ham and pickle baguette; when you can finally determine with complete clarity the inner workings of his psyche, and the importance of the ham and pickle baguette therein - then, and only then, will you find yourself in a position to recommend an egg and cress sandwich. You see?"
No. We don't see. But we're too intimidated to say anything about it. This Chris Martin seems to know what he's talking about, even if nobody else does. We sit in silence for a while. Chris accelerates past a truck carrying carpet tiles, then slips in behind a National Express coach as we approach the turn off for York. Finally, it's Chris who breaks the silence.
"We do have forms, of course," he says, and there is something in his voice that suggests we ought to be impressed by this. We pretend to be impressed by this, and he is encouraged to continue.
"Oh yes, I don't want to give the impression that we offer advice purely according to our own instincts or preferences. It's important, you see, that we remain detached and impartial throughout the whole process. So we have forms."
He indicates a buff folder containing a wad of forms lying on the back seat, and invites us to take a look.
"They're blank, of course," he explains apologetically. "I can't show you a completed one - client confidentiality and all that. But you can see the kind of information that we have to collect before we even begin to talk about the various lunch possibilities. The first section is all to do with flavour preferences - likes and dislikes, that sort of thing. Whether they are adventurous in their lunchtime habits, and so on. You might like to fill it out yourselves for fun."Sandwich Chart
We look over the form with interest, but decide to pass on his kind offer of 'fun'.
"The next bit," he continues as we swing around a roundabout far too quickly, "is concerned with nutritional requirements. This, of course, has to take account of any other meals that may have been eaten during the course of the day. We don't advise that our clients ingest anything without first consulting us, but occasionally it does happen."
We nod in what we understand to be a serious manner. The form, meanwhile, had by now been fashioned into a fetching hat.
"The final section highlights any health issues," Chris tells us. "Allergies, heart problems, cholesterol levels - we need to know about any medical problems for, um, medical reasons. So, having collected all this information, we can then begin to build up the customer's personal sandwich profile. This is where the real skill is involved, for everyone's individual sandwich profile is as unique as their fingerprint or retina pattern... Aha, this is it!"
We've arrived at the offices of his client. Unfortunately, we are not allowed to sit in on the consultation itself, so Chris leaves us standing in the car park and says he'll come back for us later. We're disappointed, but not too disappointed. To be honest, the whole operation seems a bit suspect. We're convinced that Chris is convinced that what he provides is an important and worthwhile service, but we can't help thinking that The National Sandwich Hotline is merely taking advantage of people too weak-minded to make their own decisions. In the interests of balance - and since we had nothing better to do - we decided to drop in on Professor Charles Yellowhammer, to hear his opinion on the matter.
When he's not acting as advisor to the European Space Agency, Professor Yellowhammer is the senior lecturer in advanced mathematics at Cambridge. He won the Nobel Prize in 1964 for his pioneering theories on using the passage of high-amplitude waves to measure the curvature of space-time, and has since gone on to make a number of astounding discoveries in the field of non-Euclidean geometry as applied to real world physics. He has an IQ of 220, is widely regarded as one of the leading pioneers of his generation, and is someone who, we felt, would not be stumped when it came to deciding what he wanted for lunch. He happened to be in York to chair a discussion on the possible dangers and repercussions of harnessing zero point energy, but very kindly took time out to speak to us.
The question we asked him was this: if you had to choose between egg and cress, ham salad or cheese and onion, which one would you plump for? The Professor betrayed a flicker of surprise, then frowned, deep in thought. He was clearly treating the problem very seriously, and was silent for a moment as he stroked his chin in contemplation. Finally he seemed to reach a conclusion, drew a sharp intake of breath and announced that he'd probably just go out and get a burger instead.
That, you see, is what an education can do for you.
By the time we met up with Chris Martin again, it was already late in the afternoon - way past lunchtime, in fact. We gathered that his meeting had not gone at all well. His client had not responded positively to suggestions of chicken with a vinaigrette dressing, and apparently there had been a contretemps regarding a radish. Chris had left him seriously considering tomatoes, but otherwise it seemed that very little had been resolved. We drove back in a sullen silence, and Chris very kindly dropped us off at home - not our home, his, but we figured that the walk would do us good and help us work up an appetite.
On reflection, we had seen very little to convince us that what The National Sandwich Hotline was doing was a good thing. There was a time when people who were too dumb to decide what to have for lunch would have died of malnutrition. Natural selection, you see. But now, because of the National Sandwich Hotline, their numbers will swell. There will come a point when our shops and supermarkets will be overrun with these morons - hopelessly milling around with their mouths open, picking up stuff and putting it back, holding up queues and getting in everybody's way. This, we felt, was not something that ought to be encouraged.
As we tramped home we decided that we would stop off at a little sandwich shop we know and get a bite to eat. We didn't know exactly what we wanted, but we figured that we'd work it out when we got there.
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