It’s such a relief to read a supreme court story that isn’t about the grim and steady march of fascism, but then the Irish supreme court has more important things to worry about than constitutions. The judges have had a sandwich from Subway and concluded that the bread isn’t bread. No, wait, there were scientists involved. They analysed the sugar content of Subway’s rolls and found it to be five times the qualifying level for bread, which means it’s not a staple food. Which means it’s not exempt from VAT as Subway had been claiming. It is nobody’s job to rule on whether this, in fact, makes it cake.
I could have told the court about the sugar without any science, from the heady, sweet smell that emanates from the stores (contrast it, if you will, with the delicious wafts from Greggs, which mainly smell of sausage). Even if my nose didn’t work, I would have known because the kids are obsessed with Subway, and whenever children conceive a passion for anything unusual – Subway, sweet chilli sauce, katsu curry from a chain – it’s always because it contains a ton of sugar, it has headline sugar and small-print sugar, sugar crammed into every crevice, sometimes defeating the laws of physics to contain more sugar than actual product.
I once got my 13-year-old a foot-long Subway chicken and bacon ranch melt with all kinds of bespoke gunk in it that, I later worked out, contained more than 1,300 calories. It’s an awesome amount of energy. It wasn’t even his dinner; it was a snack. I don’t blame him, I don’t even blame Subway. I blame myself, but on the other hand, it was fascinating to watch, like a python swallowing a sheep. I believe I said at the time that it was like being on safari, and he said: “If you mean you staring at me while I look at my phone, then, yes, exactly like that.”
What I want to say is that this is what late capitalism looks like when it has reached the end of its rope: corporations giving us so much of what we want that our sandwiches are made of cake, and eating a 12in cake packed with meat will render us unwell and economically unproductive, and then we’ll take to the streets shouting: “We just can’t afford any more cake!”, and the classic politician of the neoliberal death spiral, some modern-day Marie Antoinette (it’s probably Priti Patel), will hear our cries and say: “Let them eat bread,” and after that there will be a revolution.
But I remember the last time someone tried to use Subway to make a quasi-political point, and that time I was on the side of the sandwich chain. Two years ago, in his book Skin in the Game, the pop philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb was making the case that the least flexible minority in society always come to dominate the most flexible majority – put a vegan in a family, and, sooner or later, the whole family will have stopped eating meat. Put some Muslims in a neighbourhood, he ran on, and eventually everyone will be eating halal meat. To illustrate, he used the fact that one in 10 UK branches of Subway “carry halal-only meat (meaning no pork), in spite of the high costs of losing the business of ham eaters (like myself)”.
Something about the framing annoyed me: the querulous self-centredness, the crossing the road to pick a fight, the hierarchy of rights: my right to fill my face with ham is more important than your faith, and above all of these rights is, or should be, profit. It all felt a little bit Brexit. So just to be pedantic, I looked up where the halal Subways were, and all 200 or so were situated in north-east London, Birmingham, and a few other places where the main Subway footfall wanting a halal sandwich was not a tiny minority at all.
All that painstaking research (two minutes on Google) was really motivated by the deeper sense that, whenever anyone takes a pop at a high street vendor of baked goods, in their quest to explain what is wrong with society, there is almost always a dicey subtext. People blaming McDonald’s for obesity are really bemoaning the underclass and their poor choices. Those complaining about vegan sausage rolls in Greggs (yes, I love Greggs – live with it) are really talking about snowflake millennials. Anyone upset by the fact that there’s a halal Subway in a London borough they live an ocean away from is bugged that another religion exists.
So I will not be sticking it to Subway and its sugar-loaf mountain. If we are really serious that kids shouldn’t eat a week’s worth of crap in a single foot of sandwich, all we need is to start teaching the crisis of late capitalism in schools. Oh no, wait … That now contravenes regulations in the UK. Yeah, you were so engrossed in the cake-sandwich you missed the grim and steady march of fascism.