A veteran of bogus non-prizes, I was surprised to find myself capable of being suckered by a winning new approach

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The Weasel household rarely counts itself among the winners in games of chance. Never a drop from the Pools. Not a lot from the Lottery. We emerge cashless from casinos, boracic from beetle drives. So it is all the more surprising that we are increasingly inundated with prizes.

In the past month, we've been "specially awarded" a personal stereo by a French mail order clothing supplier; we've "already won" a colour television from a credit card company; we've been "exclusively allocated" a berth on a seven-day Caribbean cruise. A sucker for the dolce vita, Mrs W was tempted by a week on the waves. The catch, hidden away in small print amid the swirling curlicues of the "prize certificate", was less than subtle - a straight payment of several hundred pounds (air fare excluded).

The technique of the surprise prize, pioneered by Reader's Digest, was used in a particularly ruthless fashion by time-share entrepreneurs. In order to receive your "award" you had to attend a relentlessly aggressive sales pitch in a rented room, usually near Leicester Square. One of the great comic moments of modern times occurred when Sir Edward Heath, MP, PC, turned up at one of these meetings demanding his prize. No, he said, he didn't want to hear about a luxury condominium in the Algarve or a tasteful high-rise development on the Costa Blanca; he wanted his state-of-the-art music centre. The silver-tongued hucksters kept up their spiel. The Father of the House, rarely prone to compromise, insisted on the promised prezzy. In the end, both parties emerged empty-handed.

A veteran of bogus non-prizes, therefore, I was surprised to find myself capable of being suckered by a winning new approach. It came from one Henry Gee, LBIPP, MPA, LPG, of Henry Gee International Photography, Bromley. "Congratulations!" it shrieked, in the time-honoured fashion of these communications. "I am thrilled that you have been chosen to represent my studio in the 1996 Kodak Annual Awards... You have everything to gain and absolutely nothing to lose!"

How did they come to choose us? Presumably, Mr Gee's keen-eyed agents have spent months combing the streets of south London for suitably photogenic subjects. Curiously, the Weasel family, though distinctive enough in appearance, exudes little in the way of the unnatural cheerfulness which most lensmen aim to capture. Angst, ennui, accidie - we radiate all of these in abundance. Buoyant joviality - no. I can only assume that Mr Gee's portraiture ("created with care by an expert") explores the darker side of the human condition: more Diane Arbus than Lord Snowdon, more Don McCullin than Norman Parkinson.

My sympathies go to Master Morris Michener, aged three, the Suffolk toddler who suffered such distress at a Leeds theatre during an overheated staging of Peter Pan that his parents, Mark and Amanda, are now claiming compensation from the producers for "stress and trauma".

I cannot, hand on heart, extend my sympathy to Morris's family, who seem not entirely free of blame for his horrible time. "It was only when we got to our seats," confessed the kid's grandmother, "that we found a note saying the play wasn't suitable for under-sevens." Then, rather than remove the palpitating infant, his parents apparently let him cower in his father's arms for 45 minutes.

I cannot criticise, however, for exactly the same thing happened to me last weekend. On a trip to Hampshire, I took the weaslets for an afternoon's worth of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the depths of Nether Wallop. It was a perfectly good show, once you'd come to terms with the usual amateur-dramatic nightmares (frantic mugging, winsome child stars, daughters of the local gentry standing around forgetting to act) but the junior weaslet, aged four, just couldn't hack it. When the Wicked Queen appeared, dressed in black, all spindly and mad-eyed and angular, he turned into a gibbering wreck. "Can we go back?" he asked, with a worrying tremor of the vocal cords. Soon it turned into a wail of "I want to go home!", followed by "i don't like her!", fortissimo.

What do you do? Do you make for the aisle with the weeping neurotic or grimly sit it out, explaining the principles of Aristotelian catharsis into his uncomprehending ear?

As it turned out, I didn't have to do either. Emboldened by a Power Rangers lollipop, the weaslet suddenly changed tone. "That man's forgotten what he's suposed to say, Daddy," he announced, "and the lady with the book's saying it for him." He mused for a minute, then decided, "Snow White's got a big bottom." Half the front row looked round crossly. On stage, the seven dwarfs were wanly attempting to sing. "You see that boy in the yellow?" said the relentless weaslet, "He's pathetic."

That's toddlers for you. If you're lucky, they work out for themselves one of the key rules of human society: If you feel yourself becoming a victim, become a critic instead...

Mrs Weasel has been chewing over the topic of sandwiches for the past week. It all stems from a wheeze she came up with a decade or so ago. She decided she was going to open an upmarket sandwich bar, and would deliver them to local offices. I was discouraging. "Doesn't stand an earthly," I scoffed. "People like going out for lunch too much."

Let's fast-forward ten years. Last week, it emerged that the British spend pounds 5.2 million every day on ready-made sandwiches. Apparently, we tuck into 1.3 billion annually. The market has grown by 75 per cent over the past five years, largely because the lunch hour has contracted. Judging by the gimlet looks I've been receiving ever since Mrs W read the report, she is musing on the possibility of making a big pile of weasel sandwiches.

But few who grew up in the Britain of the Fifties could have anticipated this revolution. Back then, the sandwich offered very little in the way of either taste or nutrition. Its filling - usually a paper-thin sliver of cheese or a translucent slice of watery ham - imparted no more than a palimpsest of flavour to the spongy white stuff in which it was enshrouded.

We knew things didn't have to be this way because of The Dick Van Dyke Show, whose wise-cracking characters were constantly sending out for pastrami- on-rye and BLTs. But it took a trip to the US to realise such things actually existed. My first sight of a club sandwich came as a revelation. Its myriad strata had to be pinioned with a cocktail stick to prevent geological faulting. The bread was no more than vestigial decoration, mere brackets to the cornucopia within.

Though the overstuffed American variety never really caught on over here, sandwiches began to gain in reputation. One in four of all ready-made sandwiches are said to have an "exotic" filling. A recent book on the subject suggests squid and Italian sausage, braised leeks with anchovy, and herb omelette, as entr'actes between the slices.

Perhaps the most tempting speciality is an item from New Orleans known as the Po'Boy. This is a bread-roll stuffed with a dozen or so deep-fried oysters. Considering the extortionate cost of these crustacea, you might feel the title to be something of a misnomer, but in fact it comes from pourboire. The sandwich was considered to be so irresistibly delicious that Louisiana gents would traditionally buy one on the way home after a night on the tiles in order to placate the missis. Hence its other nickname, the Peacemaker. I wonder if it would work on Mrs W

Comments