The invention of the chilled packaged sandwich, an accessory of modern British life which is so influential, so multifarious and so close to hand that you are probably eating one right now, took place exactly 37 years ago. Like many things to do with the sandwich, this might seem, at first glance, to be improbable. But it is true. In the spring of 1980, Marks & Spencer, the nation’s most powerful department store, began selling packaged sandwiches out on the shop floor. Nothing terribly fancy. Salmon and cucumber. Egg and cress. Triangles of white bread in plastic cartons, in the food aisles, along with everything else. Prices started at 43p.
Looking upon the nation’s £8bn-a-year sandwich industrial complex in 2017, it seems inconceivable that this had not been tried before, but it hadn’t. Britain in 1980 was a land of formica counters, fluorescent lighting and lunches under gravy. Sandwiches were thrown together from leftovers at home, constructed in front of you in a smoky cafe, or something sad and curled beneath the glass in a British Rail canteen. When I spoke recently to Andrew Mackenzie, who used to run the food department at M&S’s Edinburgh store – one of the first five branches to stock the new, smart, ready-made sandwiches – he struggled to convey the lost novelty of it all. “You’ve got to bear in mind,” he said. “It didn’t exist, the idea.”
If anything, it seemed outlandish. Who would pay for something they could just as easily make at home? “We all thought at the time it was a bit ridiculous,” said Mackenzie. But following orders from head office, he turned a stockroom into a mini production line, with stainless steel surfaces and an early buttering machine. The first M&S sandwiches were made by shop staff in improvised kitchens and canteens. Prawns defrosted on trays overnight, and a team of five came in before dawn to start work on the day’s order.
And, oh, they sold. They sold so fast that the sandwich experiment spread from five stores to 25, and then 105. Soon, Mackenzie was hiring more sandwich makers in Edinburgh. In the Croydon branch, a crew of seven was making a hundred sandwiches an hour. The first official M&S sandwich was salmon and tomato, but in truth it was a free-for-all. They sold so fast that staff made them out of whatever was lying around. In Cambridge, they made pilchard sandwiches, and people wanted those, too.
The living landscape all around us is just a thin veneer atop the vast, little-understood bulk of the Earth’s interior. A widespread misconception about the deep subsurface is that this realm consists of a continuous mass of uniform compressed solid rock. Few are aware that this mass of rock is heavily fractured, and water runs in many of these fractures and faults, down to depths of many kilometres. The deep Earth supports an entire biosphere, largely cut off from the surface world, and is still only beginning to be explored and understood.
There were no annotations for the “I am the Walrus” lyrics, but it soon dawned on me that Lennon had playfully built in his own kind of side notes, embedding links between the song and other works. The bit about flying like Lucy in the sky linked back to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” obviously enough. (Quick, pull out the Sgt. Pepper’s LP!) Later, delving into the White Album, I found “Glass Onion” linking back to “I Am the Walrus”—among other Beatles songs—with that lovely bit of misdirection, The walrus was Paul.
When he’s out in the art world, Gopnik, instead of relaying self-burnishing anecdotes, listens and reacts. His argument for modern art is reliably elegant. Betting against it “is always a fool’s errand”, he writes, “not because all new art is good, but because somewhere in it lies – like it or not, believe it or not – the psychic image of its time”. Away from his descriptions of success and the material of his home life, Gopnik’s strengths re-emerge. He is investigative again, tracing this psychic image of his own time, his own New York, always certain of his findings.
Trade-policy wonks are gluttons for punishment. In good times, their pet topic is dismissed as dull. In bad, they find trade being faulted for everything. As Donald Trump blames America’s economic woes on terrible trade deals, one geek is fighting back. In “Clashing over Commerce”, Douglas Irwin of Dartmouth College tells the history of American trade policy, showing that trade is neither dull nor deserving of the attacks on it.