Mark Steel: all my son wanted was a bacon sandwich
I had many joyful moments over Christmas, but I can't imagine they'd be of any interest to you whatsoever, so here's the most miserable one.
Needing a couple of bits of shopping, I drove into one of those huge complexes of franchised rectangles known as a "retail park". "It's exactly like the one in Purley Way," said my son, and he could just as legitimately have said: "It's exactly like the ones in Sao Paolo and the Solomon Islands."
These places represent the utter destruction of imagination. If you asked one of the people who design these places to look at the stars on a crisp clear night, they'd say: "Wouldn't it be amazing if one day mankind could visit the constellation of Orion. Then we could build a Next, PC World, HMV, Nando's, JJB Sports, Majestic Wine Warehouse, Vue cinema with a pick 'n' mix sweet section, and a Dixons in which the 19-year-old staff in bright red shirts are in such a trance they tell passing astronauts, 'Sorry mate, I've never heard of a plug'."
So I tried to leave as quickly as possible but my son wanted a sandwich, and there was one of these franchise sandwich-bars that you get in every high street. You join a queue, and shuffle along until you face four men with latex gloves who are all rapidly buttering, and firing off questions with such efficiency that their training must involve running across moors while a sergeant calls, "Cheese and bacon crusty bake," and they all sing back "With fruit juice or Yoghurt Shake?"
"Bacon sandwich," said my son, but about the "d" of "sandwich", the latex man called back "Which bread?" "Er, brown," he said. But before the "r" of "brown" the sandwich man said, "Maltedcrustyryegrain."
"Eh, sorry, what?" I asked, and by now I felt the pressure of all four latex men plus the queue behind me urging, "Hurry up you idiot", as if I was one of these old people who stands at a station ticket office during rush hour and asks for the times of the next 11 trains to Chester.
"Maltedcrustyryegrain," he repeated, even quicker. "Eh, malted," we stuttered. Then came an avalanche of quickfire questions involving cheese, mayonnaise, butter, and crispiness requirement, until I expected him to continue: "Served with left hand or right hand? Square napkin or rhombus? Added spit or no spit? Chewed by a dog? I said, do you want it chewed by a dog?"
I tried to keep answering the questions but in the end your brain can't keep up and for a moment I thought I should say: "A consonant, a vowel and another consonant please Carol." But after each completed question, the speed at which the next one flew back increased, until it was like the last five minutes of University Challenge. Eventually I was worried that after a question about salad dressing he'd ask frenetically: "The compound lithium nitrate was discovered in 1837 by which prominent Austrian chemist? Come on I'll have to hurry you, come on, hurry hurry, quickly."
The last people to get cross with in this situation is the poor latex people, because as they shuffle you through this system, you become aware you're an object on a modern assembly line. Just as the factory worker applying a bolt to a car panel all day loses sight of the finished product, and sees only the object of a monotonous task, the human queues in these places must appear as a series of items to be dealt with and dispatched. If you stopped for a chat you'd be as much of a nuisance as a custard pie on an assembly line stopping to ask, "How was your Christmas?"
My daughter asked for a "Kid's pack", which provoked more questions, leading to the poor man shouting what sounded like "Cookyercrisps" several times right at me. "I'm sorry, I don't understand what you're asking me," I said in panic, feeling like Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man when the mad dentist keeps asking, "Is it safe?" So he turned to his colleague and said "I think this one must be Greek."
"Kid's Pack," he said, exasperated, "Comes with Cookie or Crisps." My daughter was outside so I said: "I don't know. You decide." "I can't decide for your child," he shouted, so I said: "Cookie," and he said: "Which one?" so I said: "Whichever one is the third one along," and he said: "We've only got two."
There are, apparently, thousands of these sandwich bars around the world, in dozens of countries. Right now someone in Uruguay will be sweating as they're asked "Cookyercrisps," in front of an impatient queue, flustered by the illusion of choice. And it was the Left, we were always told, that wanted to make everything the same.
So the sandwiches were handed over and my one was so plastic and processed and charmless that after one bite I threw it in the bin. Because the one question they forget to ask is "Edible or inedible sir?"