IAN, I AM FREQUENTLY ALMOST NEVER ASKED, when was the last time you bought some food or drink from a buffet car or trolley service?
The answer is I can’t honestly remember. I have a long-term aversion to buying refreshments on a train, not because they aren’t any good, but because I’m unable to shake off the belief that they’re too dear.
I can’t quite ever bring myself to shell out for a packet of crisps that might be double the price of the ones on sale in my local newsagents or in the shop just round the corner from the station.
I know: I’m hopeless.
It’s an entirely irrational attitude, because I’ll often end up buying something from a shop on a station concourse that is probably almost as expensive. It’s totally hypocritical, as I will gladly accept refreshments that anybody else buys me on my behalf. I also lap up all the free food and drink that’s on offer during the rare times I travel first class.
One of the last times I did indulge could well have been when I first took the train from Loughborough to London by myself. This would have been in the early 1990s, when the very notion of buying some on-board nourishment was still, for me, impossibly exciting. I almost certainly went for a small bottle of orange juice and a chicken sandwich.
This would have been soon after Sir Clement Freud was enlisted by the InterCity division of British Rail to quite literally spruce up their sandwich range.
Freud’s bestseller was the Ultimate Egg: chive butter and lemon with gourmet egg mayonnaise on one side and sliced egg on the other.
Sadly there’s not much evidence of this delicious concoction, nor his other creations including poached salmon and dill with mustard mayonnaise and Chinese leaves on oatmeal bread, or corned beef with red tomato chutney, in this photo:
You can’t help but suspect that whoever arranged this photo opportunity decreed that the official last “British Rail sandwich” ought to look as tatty as possible in order to make its successor automatically seem superior. Indeed, this picture conforms to every possible punchline that propped up many a comedian’s act during the previous decade:
“Napoleon’s army marched on its stomach, so they say.
Well, it was that or a British Rail sandwich.”
“My love life is about as lively as a British Rail sandwich.”
“Yes, my mother-in-law can still curl her lips –
just like the edges of a British Rail sandwich.”
“What’s the difference between a British Rail sandwich and an IRA bomb?
You don’t get a telephoned warning before the sandwich goes off.”
Freud later recalled: “I did a deal that everyone who worked in the sandwich factory would get two first class tickets each year. You’d think they would order their own sandwiches to see what they were like. Not a bit of it! They said: Mr Freud, we make the sandwiches, we don’t eat them.”
Just like everything to do with British Rail, the sandwiches were never as bad as popular culture or posterity would have you believe. Nor were the gags. I miss both of them.
I also miss this, though I can’t say I ever actually tried one: