For years, I’ve had an idea for a “Wimpy book”. Obsessed with the retro burger chain as a teenager, I would rate and rank every branch via crucial, exacting and childish criteria like “greasiness of chef”, “busy-ness of restaurant” (the emptier the better) and “proximity to my house”. From what I remember, the Penzance branch fared a lot worse in the latter category than the New Malden branch, particularly as I lived in New Malden at the time.
Both the New Malden and Penzance Wimpys are now gone. One is now a mediocre Korean / Japanese restaurant, the other a Dominos pizza. When I returned to the idea of visiting every Wimpy in the country in my late twenties, with a slightly more sophisticated rating system and state-of-Britain narrative behind it, it felt imperative to get the thing done quickly, before they all disappeared.
I’m now 40, and there are 66 Wimpys left. Wimpy is fading from the national consciousness, even as a nostalgic cliche.
Both the burger chain and my idea to write about it seem to have been heading into obscurity together.
I should probably explain a little bit about what Wimpy is, in case it hasn’t had the same impact on you as it had on me.
Wimpy is a bastardisation of American diner culture. It came to us via Lyon’s tea shops, a venerable cafe chain with locations all over Britain by the 1930s. A Lyon’s Corner House was the sort of place P.G. Wodehouse would send one of Bertie Wooster’s hapless friends to fall in love with a waitress, with hilarious consequences.
By the 1950s, Lyons needed something a bit less staid to pull in the young folk, who were emerging from the grey swamp of postwar austerity with strange modern haircuts and a love for American music and amphetamines.
And so the Wimpy Bar was born. Obtaining a license to use the brand in the UK from a Chicago-based chain, J Lyons and Co opened the first Wimpy within one of London’s Corner Houses – specifically the one on Coventry Street pictured above. At its peak, Wimpy was flipping [burgers] everywhere.
In the late eighties, when I started visiting regularly, Wimpy was a franchise in decline. An American burger upstart with a terrifying clown mascot had been making inroads, making Wimpy’s own disturbingly eyeless beefeater seem behind the times, despite starring in his own video game.
Then the Burger King came in and bought up a bunch of Wimpy’s prime, city centre, counter service locations. I remember this vividly, as a kid in my class at school was the son of a Burger King big [royale with] cheese, and I hated him for it. This nameless dad was going around converting all of Nottingham’s profitable Wimpy outlets into non-Wimpys.
Andreas, if you’re out there: I have still not forgiven him for this. Or you, for not stopping him. I don’t care that you’re probably now a middle-aged accountant living in Cheshire. This isn’t over.
The remaining Wimpy Bars were the more traditional, table service ones; these were the kind that you would find in dull suburbs, concrete and windswept shopping arcades, and fading seaside resorts.
I loved them. For me, they were the height of class and sophistication, partly because they were the only restaurant I ate in that had table service until my eighteenth birthday (Pizza Express). My family were fussy, uncomplicated eaters, with a working class English/Irish palette. What I’m trying to say is, we ate a lot of chips. Garlic was, and is, still treated with suspicion and fear, a weird bulbous interloper from a strange and smelly land.
Wimpy was more than the Quarter Pounder with Cheese, and the surly service, and the knives and forks. My local branch, particularly when I moved back to London as a strange and introverted sixteen year old, was a sanctuary. Too young for pubs and too old for amusement arcades. It was a place where I learned to overhear, to people-watch, and to write about the things around and inside me.
This was before the dreary democratisation of chain coffee shops. The Wimpy was the only place I could go and be alone and be myself, and not be bothered, provided I had enough shrapnel in my pocket to afford a cup of tea or some chips. The place was never busy, my table was never required for anyone else. To someone who had moved around a lot, it was home.
As I got older and more middle class, in my culinary aspirations if not my social and economic capital, my relationship with Wimpy became more complicated. I worked for the Guardian and didn’t fit in: not posh enough. I went to the pub with my Dad’s painter and decorator mates and didn’t fit in: not cockney banter enough.
Did I belong in Wimpy either? What, now, did I have in common with the people on the other tables? My visits were fading into ritual, and I was a man who went to communion even though I no longer believed in God.
My obsession with Wimpy – always tinged with irony, though quite how much I could never be sure – was at an end. All the branches I had a nostalgic connection with had shut down. The one in Nottingham’s Broadmarsh Centre was the last to go, even though the owner had been assured they’d be able to move downstairs while the redevelopment was completed. He told me this, with cheery confidence, on my last visit.
The last incarnation of my hitherto non-existent Wimpy book was dreamed up around cycling and Brexit. As the number of Wimpys dropped below a hundred, I began to notice that they tended to survive in clusters: the Essex cluster, the Surrey cluster. Perhaps I could cycle to every remaining Wimpy, talk to the people I find.
As Wimpy increasingly embraced the flag and “proudly British” language in its endearingly half hearted corporate communications, perhaps there was something in this. Wimpys seemed to be surviving in predominantly Leave-voting areas. Maybe I could visit them all before we left the EU.
I got hold of Wimpy’s PR, and explained my idea to her while realising mid-conversation that explaining my idea to her was a terrible idea. Wimpy themselves no longer did anything in-house: she managed the social media presences and the press requests alongside a bunch of other intellectual properties.
What I wanted to know is did Wimpy have an archive, maybe a bunch of materials I could have a look through. I wasn’t imagining a museum of Wimpy, in a proud neo-classical building by a river, but I thought they might at least have a Mr Wimpy suit. They didn’t, but: “if you do end up obtaining one, can you let us know?”
Unfortunately Wimpy had changed hands far too many times for there to be a Benderumptious* Smithsonian. All this (very friendly and professional) PR could do was tell me some pro-Wimpy facts I already knew, or promise to put me in touch with some of their poster-boy franchise owners. Who would, of course, be nice, but would not tell me anything interesting.
The air in my Wimpy tires deflated again. Time passed. I climbed quite a lot of trees, and gave offensive names to video game characters. Some kind of pandemic happened.
Then I crashed my bike.
I lost two thirds of a front tooth, some confidence, and my beautiful red Dawes Galaxy Tourer. The latter was pronounced a “write off” by my taciturn local bike shop owner the following morning, as he handed me a leaflet for a solicitor specialising in bike crashes. He could value it for me, for the insurance. But he couldn’t fix it.
Although, he said, his manner warming slightly, he did have an old Dawes frame he could maybe give me. He bought it for himself, as a project, and his eyes glazed over as he imagined the glory days when his shop wasn’t forever full of infuriating customers.
The past few weeks without a bike have been tough. My already difficult relationship with motor traffic has moved from fraught to frantic, as every revved engine or beeped horn or mounted pavement reminded me of the crash. I’ve long since been heading down the road towards a middle age of writing furious letters to the local council, but I’m now that guy who taps on your window if you’re idling outside a primary school.**
I needed to get back on a bike, that miraculous 19th century avatar of freedom, good health, and women getting ideas above their station. For as we all know, the roads were not built for cars.
I bid for a new, old tourer on eBay, which, in case you’re reading this from a far-future socialist utopia, is an auction site where middle aged men make a few quid by selling the things in their garage.
My middle aged man was a builder. Work had taken its toll on his back, so he didn’t have any further use for his gorgeous, blue, Surly Long-Haul Trucker. Only problem was: he lived in Portsmouth, a place you never go on purpose.
On the train on the way down, I excitedly WhatsApped my group of male university friends (and my main connection with the normcore middle class suburban lifestyle I both envy and fear), to tell them I had found a replacement bike and was heading off to pick it up. And that I might kill some time by taking the ferry over to the
1950s Isle of Wight.
One friend, Nathan, had an alternative suggestion:
I had some wheels. I had a starting Wimpy. It was, finally, time to embark on my Wimpy journey.
Wimpy #1: Southsea
GREASINESS OF CHEF: 8/10
BUSY-NESS OF RESTAURANT: 8/10
PROXIMITY TO MY HOUSE: 5/10
Dominated by past and present associations with the Royal Navy, Portsmouth is the kind of place where even the plastic pirates on the crazy golf courses fly union jacks.
England has the “Churchill Zone”, that subtopian area around London where the taxi drivers live and all businesses seem to be named after the old problematic cigar muncher. Portsmouth has Nelson, and incessant reminders of glorious Victory in pubs and cafes and plumbing vans. This feels incongruous for a town that has a tired, defeated air, thanks to forty years of neoliberalism, austerity and – whisper it, I wouldn’t – Brexit.
As a kid, I was obsessed with warships, and my Irish grandfather was a retired British Rail worker with a free go-anywhere pass.*** So he’d often take me to Portsmouth Harbour on the slam-door train from Clapham Junction. On arrival I would peer down at the sea through the wooden boards of the pier-like terminus, amazed. And then it would be time to go and look at some fucking boats.
Thirty-odd years later, the journey was just as exciting as I remembered: the viaduct that takes you up and through the city, and the feeling that the train was taking you as far as it absolutely could take you, with ferries waiting to help you cross the Solent and beyond.
Crashing me back to earth, the first thing I saw when I got off the train was a poster advertising Morrissey’s new album. As augurs go, the racist Mancunian crooner-in-exile was as welcome as birds flying backwards into a propeller. I performed a quick anti-Morrissey rite and headed out of the station.
To the north, the Historic Dockyard, where the childhood, pro-military version of me would go every summer for “Navy Days” with my family. Navy Days was an open weekend of patriotic propaganda, where excited kids got to clamber all over modern destroyers and aircraft carriers, and to watch Harrier jump jets performing gravity-defying tricks. This was only a few years after the Falklands war, when the navy still had plenty of ships and a recent victory to be triumphant about.
To the south, Gunwharf Quays. Car-choked and impossible to circumnavigate, this is a soulless mall of the usual outlets, topped off with a naff sail-shaped tower which gives the area all the charm of a slightly more twee Dubai. While Portsmouth’s past was trade and war, its present is the usual pivot to leisure, shopping, and what is euphemistically known as property development.
From here I passed into Portsmouth point, the fortified mouth of Portsmouth Harbour. Spice Island, as it was once known, was once a place synonymous with boozing, sex workers and men waking up hungover to find they had been press ganged into Nelson’s navy.
As I walked through, on a hot summer’s afternoon, two chubby children were throwing themselves off the old battlements into the Solent, ignoring the posters warning them they would probably be killed. They shouted abusive words of encouragement to their hesitating friends, then swam back round to the pebble beach as ferries and small boats sailed on by, thrillingly close.
I expect some of you are now impatiently wanting to know when we’re going to get to the Wimpy, like The Simpsons’ Millhouse and Itchy & Scratchy’s fireworks factory. I don’t blame you. Look at it:
It is close. Passing along the seafront past more fortifications and danger-seeking children, I soon arrived at Southsea and Clarence Pier, home to fairground rides, amusement arcades, patriotic pirate golf, theme pubs, and the Wimpy of a postwar planner’s dreams.
To add to the atmosphere of retro-future, this Wimpy is right next to a Hoverport. This is a grand title for the hut and pebble slipway that mark England’s last commercial hovercraft service, but Hoverport it is, like a miniature village version of the huge concrete hangars that once housed the car-carrying cross-channel hoverbeasts in Ramsgate and Boulogne-sur-mer.
The Hoverport and the Wimpy are separated by a little jetty, from which sixty-somethings video the craft‘s arrival on their smartphones. Where is the hovercraft in the English imagination? Is it a last gasp of pre-Thatcher engineering ingenuity, like Concorde or the Advanced Passenger train? To me it belongs in a Supermarionation world of Gerry Anderson hydraulics and unnecessary automation, not to day trippers losing their hats whenever the fans are cranked up for the short trip across the Solent.
Enough postwar melancholy. Time for a Wimpy.
Social distancing had come to my favourite burger restaurant. My old local Wimpy, in New Malden, was not Covid-ready. The seats and tables were all moulded and welded to the floor; a trip to the bathroom was a tight, thrilling affair, past the chip fryers and the guy you suspected of squeezing himself into the Mr Wimpy costume for your sixth birthday party.
Back in present day Southsea, the seats were free agents, and so were sensibly scattered around and about. Ordering was a simple process of writing down your phone number, home address, national insurance number, blood type, favourite colour, and what burger you wanted onto a Wimpy branded form. You then took this to the cashier, a friendly young man who checked you were ok with your “coke” actually being a Pepsi, and apologised that your drink would not be covered by the government’s “eating out” subsidy.
Hang on. The what now? But it was true. The Man, in this case represented by the current Tory administration, were paying for 50% of my meal, in an attempt to lure me out so do some consumerism and get the economy moving again.****
My food arrived… on a plastic tray. This was a shock to the system. Where was the cutlery? The knife and fork? The fizzy drink in the enormous glass, slightly cloudy from its many trips through the dishwasher?
I then remembered the Bowling Alley Wimpy subset. Those Wimpies that popped up in out of town retail and entertainment parks, where you ate off plastic to a banging disco, arcade machine beeping and ten pin clatter soundtrack. Places we snootily considered not to be true Wimpies. This one, located above an amusement park, was clearly part of that disappearing world.
I tucked into my chips. They were cold, and tasted of disappointment, like splashing out all your pocket money for a video game you swiftly realise is rubbish.
But no one goes to Wimpy for the chips. It’s all about the Quarter Pounder with Cheese, and the alchemy between burger, bun, and special sauce. I bit in, with my cyborg post-crash tooth.
It was perfect.
We’re in a world where people increasingly crave the same experience wherever we go. We plump for Starbucks over the unfamiliarity of a local cafe; we shop via Amazon and complain that our high street is boarded up. And when I say we, I mean: you. You do that.
But I understand this need for the uniform and the familiar. Wimpy is my little unit of comfort. And this Southsea burger, tasting of hundreds of burgers I’d had before, in 1980s Beeston, 1990s New Malden, or 2000s Whitechapel, was exactly what I needed.
Quality of meal: 6/10
Friendliness of staff: 8/10
Value of meal: 10/10
* The Wimpy Sausage-In-A-Bun burger was once known as the Bender. The kids’ value meal equivalent was called the Benderumptious Bendy Bender meal. Both of these have since been renamed, for obvious reasons.
** I am not a member of the in-group that is blind to cars, vans and lorries. I wish I didn’t notice these smelly, ugly vehicles everywhere, these vehicles taking up ever more space as they uglify streets, poison the air and maim children. But I do see them, and their drivers on their phones, tailgating, left hooking, idling, pavement parking, speeding, failing to indicate, and occasionally driving into hedges.
***When they were younger, he and my Grandma would take train trips to Italy – for free, due to the solidarity of European rail unions – and stay with similarly Catholic Italian rail humans. My grandma still talks about it as an idyllic time, and I marvel at an age of comprehensive and affordable rail travel.