A little under a year ago I wrote in this place about an encounter I’d had with Barry Sheerman MP and a Virgin Trains snack box on a train travelling from Manchester to London. At the time, what most bothered me about the snack box was its weird appearance: the cardboard printed with photo-real wickerwork so as to give the impression it was a sturdy hamper full of wholesome victuals ideal for a leisurely picnic lunch, rather than the flimsy packet of salty and sugary titbits Richard Branson was “giving” me for my real-life meal.
I swore at the end of my column that I would keep the hideous snack box for ever to remind me never to eat such toxic pap, but when I was tidying up my office the other day and came upon it looking just as vile – with its fake leather luggage tags that read, respectively, “Virgin Trains” and “Follow a Different Train of Thought” – I did indeed follow a different train of thought: “I happen to be going up to Manchester in a couple of days. Why don’t I take the snack box with me and, when I get there, eat it?”
Yes, yes, I know – eating the contents of a Virgin Trains snack box at my age looks like giving in to a dreadful taedium vitae, but I liked the idea of negating the entire Sheerman/Branson/snack box cluster-fuck by performing this odd little ritual; perhaps, I unreasoned, if I eat it mindfully enough I’ll succeed in flipping us all into a parallel universe where Richard Branson doesn’t exist, and where the business empire that occupies the same niches as his is branded “Promiscuous”.
OK, this is a live-action exercise – I have the snack box in front of me as I look down on the Shudehill transport interchange in central Manchester, and I’m now going to fiddle with its “leather” handles and open the damn thing.
Inside are the following:
1. One 330ml bottle of Wenlock spring water, “bottled at source for Virgin Trains”.
2. One 20-gram bag of Ten Acre “hand cooked crisps”.
3. One Squash Stix – a sachet of orange concentrate to be mixed, I assume, with 200ml of the Wenlock Edge.
4. One 22-gram bag of Cathedral City Baked Bites (mini biscuits baked with “real Cheddar”).
5. One 20-gram bag of yoghurt and raisin mix by the Dormen.
6. And finally, one 22-gram bag of Cadbury Mini Fingers (“For the Good Times, Wherever!”).
OK, I confess: even as I was typing this list, I managed to chomp my way through the crisps and I now feel nauseous. Not that the crisps are especially revolting – it’s just that the little screed on the back of the Ten Acre bag makes distinctly queasy reading:
“Maybe you’re sitting on a train right now looking at the back of this packet, or maybe you’re relaxing on the sofa enjoying a good read . . .”
Really? Surely, if I were enjoying a good read it could only be these actual words I was reading – a reflexivity as bewildering as the whole snack box exercise itself.
Ah, well, better press on with the next course. I, for one, have never understood the thinking behind crackers infused with cheese during the baking process. Isn’t the whole point of having crackers wedded to cheese to perform the ceremony yourself, just as you marry horses to carts and eggs to bacon?
Besides, I’ve never tasted a “cheesy” cracker that was any good at all, and these Baked Bites are no exception: glazed little pucks of yuckiness I regret saving, and certainly cannot savour. I shall have to rid myself of the aftertaste with a swig of the Stix.
Yech! The Styx might well be more refreshing and even less lethal-tasting. A E Housman maintained that “On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble”; and now that I’ve got this Wenlock Edge inside me, my belly feels like a big bowl of wrong.
I’ll press on to the dessert course and hope that out of sweetness will come forth the strength necessary to complete this gruelling trial. The yoghurt and raisin mix from the Dormen consists of raisins cowled with some sort of dairy goo. They aren’t particularly offensive; indeed, arguably the Dormen is being a responsible victualler in this age of obesity by handing out only 20 grams of these powerfully moreish sweetmeats at a time. I’ve been known to eat kilos of the bloody things when I’m at the cinema, which leaves me feeling sullied and my fingers tacky.
An appropriate condition, you might say, in which to tackle the Cadbury’s Mini Fingers. The claim “For the Good Times, Wherever!” suggests that a brace of these niblets would make a suitable final meal for an inmate on death row about to be wrongfully executed.
I don’t know whether Cadbury’s is using more substandard chocolate and cocoa mass than the Dormen, but the Fingers are the first thing from the snack box that has both looked and tasted not quite right. Nor does the “Brain Teaser Time”, a set of simple puzzles printed on the inside of the snack box, appeal to me.
Overall, the entire experience was at once desultory and . . . fascinating. Although I’m now suffering from dyspepsia and lassitude, most of the snacks were as fresh as the day they were manufactured – rather like Richard Branson.
Next week: On Location
This article appears in the 02 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis