The first time I ever stepped foot in a Pret-a-Manger was in London in 2015. I was 14, and it was my first time ever visiting the capital city. Every street corner seemed to have a Pret, filled with harried men in silver suits and immaculate women answering phone calls, grabbing a smoked salmon baguette and a latte as they dashed about being important professionals. It was alien to me. My mother, brother, and I walked into Pret to see what all the fuss was about, as, while there were two shops in Newcastle, we’d never been inside one. Faced with an endless sea of upmarket sandwiches and overpriced pastries, we quickly exited. Pret was no place for us, a Northern family on a tight budget, on our first trip in years that wasn’t to the infinitely more familiar Lake District.
This same feeling of apprehension dawned on me again when word started to spread that Pret was doing a subscription model of five coffees a day, free for your first month. It sounded like a phenomenal deal, and I am always willing to utilise the “generosity” of corporations in order to acquire free goods. After all, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, so I might as well exploit it to my advantage of five strong iced oat vanilla lattes per day. And so, the big Pret on Cornmarket Street became witness to the first time I had stepped into the chain since that fateful day in London.
When I told my friends at home that I was measuring my daily step count by my trips to Pret, I was met with ridicule; I was becoming too Southern, forgetting my roots, and, most strikingly of all, committing an act of Toryism akin to becoming a card-carrying member of the Conservatives. Of course, this seems like a somewhat dramatic reaction to what, in reality, is a foray into a different coffee chain. Why then, every time I stood in the November cold waiting for a coffee, did I feel like a class traitor?
Take, first of all, the distribution of Pret stores in England. The total number of Prets between Wetherby services and the Scottish border at Berwick upon Tweed – a distance of 149 miles – is equivalent to the number of Prets within a 0.4 mile walk in Oxford alone. London has 257 branches, and the notable commuter towns in the South East and Home Counties are all served by their own Prets. Pret is a phenomenon of the South East, of the busy white-collar worker who wants nothing more than the convenient nip-in-and-out model that the chain operates on. No wonder, then, that an area which already had the highest unemployment in the country even before the first case of COVID-19 had been detected, and is still reliant on manufacturing rather than office work, doesn’t appeal to Pret. The vast industrial estates surrounding my town don’t want to pay £8 for a sandwich, a drink, and a packet of crisps – it’s simply unsustainable when the average North East salary in 2019 was around £4000 lower than the national average annual wage. The appeal of a Greggs or a Costa meal deal, running at the £3-4 mark, is simply more realistic in financial terms for the area.
Even the name reeks of bourgeoisie. French was the language of the nobility in England following the Norman conquest, and has long been associated with high society and the elite. After all of these years, it is still true that there is a gulf between the South and the North relating to language – it was found in 2017 that only 43% of North-Eastern students in England took a language GCSE, compared to 65% of inner-London pupils. Multitudes of factors will play into this: proximity to the continent, school funding, and post-16 prospects are but three. Combined, then, with the generally pro-Brexit sentiment of the North-East, it makes sense that an outwardly French-presenting company has little love in the region, no matter how British it truly is at heart.
Of course, to say that foreign names are instantly rejected by the staunchly anti-French North-East would be to be a gross oversimplification of the situation. The Pret on Northumberland Street, the premier shopping street in Newcastle, isn’t totally neglected, although the business did end up failing to have enough momentum to sustain two shops in the city. Its presence, though, does feel somewhat like a poor attempt by the South at pandering to the North, which us Northerners know to be a constant in the state of affairs beyond just sandwich chains, more like the foundational fabric of the weave of the region. Going to Pret in the South is natural for those who are native to it, but for those like me, who always saw Pret as an unwelcomingly posh intrusion into an environment that has long reeked of economic instability, it’s almost an uneasy acquiescence to the culture of the South.
To submit to Pret feels to me like an implicit rejection of Northern identity. It’s the same feeling as when I once caught myself saying “latte” with a long “aah” and pronouncing the two Ts, instead of the Geordie way of a short “a” and a glottal stop. The experience of coming to the South, and especially to Oxford, as a Northerner always causes a sort of regional identity crisis, which is so entwined with class. Returning home, it’s not “you sound Southern” – it’s always “you sound posh”. Class and region are placed under a magnifying glass in an environment as traditionally elitist and Southern-oriented as Oxford, and it is a struggle to be able to maintain an identity which falls outside of this. Pret a Manger encapsulates the North-South divide from a class, cultural, and cost perspective, neatly packaged, much like its sandwiches, into a palatable form. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be renewing my subscription next term out of convenience, but it’ll be with the same uneasy feeling I have every time I lose my glottal stop, or spend more than £3 on a pint.