Wimpy #3: Streatham

Author’s note: This Wimpy trip took place before London entered into a Tier 2 lockdown.

London goes beyond any boundary or convention.It contains every wish or word ever spoken, every action or gesture ever made, every harsh or noble statement ever expressed. It is illimitable. It is Infinite London.

Peter Ackroyd, London: a biography

London. Home of the cockney.

The narrator of Dangermouse

I have lived most of my life in London, but never felt like a Londoner.

There are a few reasons for this.

One: my formative years were spent in Nottingham. I was there from 7 until 15: a crucial, but shrinking percentage of my life, like the Great Red Spot on Jupiter.

Two: I was born in Kingston Upon Thames, an outer borough of London that has lingering and wrong-headed pretentions of being in Surrey. It is a place of its own, and London felt like a far-off, separate thing.

Three: impermanence. The longest I’ve stayed in any one place in London is five years. And, as is in common with all my living situations, I was renting.

Renting, at least in England, means more than simply being ripped off.

It means feeling like a second class citizen, as our society and culture are now so centred around the fading dream of home ownership. It means having no rights. It means knowing you could be moved on at any time.

It means understanding that the longer you live somewhere desirable, the less likely you’ll be able to afford to live in that place long term. And, unlike in more civilised countries with regulated long term rents, at all times, like you don’t *really* belong in an area. You’re just passing through.

The place I’ve lived longest in London is Streatham. No rapacious landlord here: I was a lodger for a kind friend, paying cheap rent and sharing a maisonette behind a pub just off the A23.

Struggling as I was with depression and basic life maintenance, I don’t think I was an easy person to live with. But I’ll always be grateful for my time there, sharing the love and the peculiarities of my friend and her extremely odd cat, Swinton.

Swinton.

The house, and its neighbours, were once part of of an infamously enormous beer garden. And the association with boozing lingered: our car park was a popular one for street drinkers. Brandy and coke out of plastic glasses; cans of lager off the bonnet of an Audi. Impromptu parties with car stereos blasting out into the night.

Streatham just means town on the road, and boy, is it ever. Its defining feature – the longest high street in Europe – is now its witch’s curse, as the West End of south London (Theatres! Bowling Alleys! Dancehalls!) was slowly choked by an eternal traffic jam.

Chuka Umunna, Streatham’s former Labour MP and co-founder of Change UK, the new centrist party which now dominates the British political landscape.

There were good things about it. I loved:

– The common. It hosted kite days, dog shows, and views of Croydon. Every time we had a meteor shower, I would wander up to a clearing, lie on my back, and stare into infinity. I was rewarded with streaks of light at the periphery of my vision.

My favourite tree on the common. I sat in it a lot.

– The Hideaway jazz club, where local legend David McAlmont would host his yearly Bowie, George Michael, and Prince tribute nights. David, striding on stage holding a single candle, dressed magnificently, singing like an angel.

– The Railway pub, with its excellent quiz and stand up comedy nights. A community space that gets everything right, from its local beers (they’ve got ‘em) to its sensible approach to dogs (they’re for ‘em).

And – yes, I got there eventually – the Wimpy. Overseen by long-standing owner Kemal, as featured in Vice magazine, the Wimpy was the most democratic space in town, where people of all ages and backgrounds came together for a bit of peace and some fried potato products.

In my mid twenties, I went there on Wednesday afternoons before daytime all-you-could-bowl sessions [1] with my friend Alastair.

In my mid-thirties, you would find me there on Saturday lunchtimes, hungover, writing letters to no one in particular.

My Wimpy Companion

My +1 for Streatham was writer, cartoonist, and fellow bubble pipe enthusiast James Turner.

James and I first met in 2003, via a blogging site called 20six.

My blog was about New Malden.

This is what the internet used to look like. I am the one with the bubble pipe.

It was a semi-ironic pretence that my drab suburban existence was important, and that this nondescript suburb was the centre of the universe. I never conceived of it having readers outside of our cliquey, incestuous little blogging community.

In these days before the rise of the social media giants and walled gardens like Facebook and Instagram, the internet was a distinctly less corporate affair. The rise of an upstart new search engine – a bit like Ask Jeeves, but actually useful – meant one was suddenly exposed to lots of potential new readers.

A blog entry from 2004, when Ealing still had a Wimpy and I was willing to be sacrilegious.

Within a few months, the blog was the top google search result for the town, and I was being recognised in pubs and receiving creepy messages telling me which train I took to work in the morning.

These were naive internet times, and I was a legend in my own postcode.

James was a fellow New Maldenite, and he was curious as to who this guy was pretending to be his home town. We bravely met up IRL, at Woodies, New Malden’s only good pub, and bonded over our love of Wimpy and social awkwardness.

James went on to create the much-loved webcomic Beaver and Steve. At one point, these characters worked at a suspiciously familiar-looking fast food restaurant…

Nice hats, Beaver and Steve.

Streatham Wimpy

Big Beef.

Childish Wimpy Rankings

GREASINESS OF CHEF: 6/10

BUSY-NESS OF RESTAURANT: 5/10

PROXIMITY TO MY HOUSE: 9/10

It is lunchtime, and the Wimpy is moderately busy. My preferred two window tables are already occupied, so we head further in, near the counter. As a sign of the times, there is an enormous, plastic, Wimpy branded hand sanitiser stand dominating the room.

If you have four hands, you can sanitise two of them at a time.

While we study the menu, I remind James that he once made me a home-made Wimpy plate as a birthday gift.

“I went through a plate making phase”, he admits, as I covet the excellent Wimpy baseball cap worn by the servi. One day one shall be mine, as will a Mr Wimpy suit – the holy grail of all serious Wimpy memorabilia collectors.

“There’s probably one rotting in a shed somewhere”.

As James weighs up whether to get what he would have ordered as a child, or what he would like, right now, as a fully grown adult, I daydream turning up for a Bender in a partially decomposed Mr Wimpy costume, and imagine the nonplussed reaction of the waitress.

“Sitcom idea: someone running a 50 year old Wimpy franchise with a museum in the back,” James suggests. The dream – to be boss of Wimpy’s answer to the pork pie museum in Melton Mowbray, which is a few information boards in a pork pie shop. Well worth a visit if you like a slice of regionally specific history with your pie.

As our food arrives – quarter pounders with cheese and chips – I put James to work describing Streatham Wimpy’s ambience and decor.

“Original built-in seating. A bit more modern than the New Malden one, which admittedly I didn’t visit long before its close. Maybe it feels a bit like a hotel or an airport in the early nineties.”

“Or a motorway service station?”

“Motorway services were an absolute highlight of my childhood. These were magical oases, where you’d stop off, probably get something bought for you… that never happens.

“If anyone told me what adulthood would be like, I wouldn’t have expected ‘the same, but no one takes me to motorway services any more’”.

Childhood haunts Wimpys like Banquo’s ghost eating a full English. This explains the company’s heavy use of nostalgia in its marketing, and why our conversation turns frequently to the past. My own early years are pretty hazy, while James remembers the exact moment he decided to no longer cry.

“I went to a Wimpy birthday at the big Kingston branch ones,” says James.  “They had a big tapestry of the Wimpy mascot on the wall.”

I couldn’t remember this.

“Were there other wimpy characters that he interacted with Mr Wimpy? A Wimpy Hamburgler? I thought he acted alone”.

“You’re asking a lot. I think it was just him, in a pastoral situation, possibly with children…”

I’m not sure you could get away with that these days. Even Captain Birdeye’s private island can’t escape the fishy finger of post-Epstein suspicion.

Our meal is coming to an end, and so I ask James for his verdict. He is not complimentary, so I’ll spare all of our sensitivities and ignore his hateful words. Me? I thought it was pretty good, as Wimpys go.

Deciding against a Brown Derby or Knickerbocker Glory, and lunch time [2] running out, we end up circling back around to the New Malden blog, our own personal origin story.

I confess to James that the persona never felt quite right. After all, I lived in Nottingham for a big chunk of time. I always thought of myself as a semi-fraud.

“That’s how I’ve always thought of you.” 

Thanks, JT.

That’s right, I eat my burgers with a knife and fork, because I am very sophisticated.

Grown-up Wimpy Rankings

FRIENDLINESS OF STAFF: 8/10

QUALITY OF MEAL: 7/10

VALUE OF MEAL: 7/10

Postscript

Due to various reasons too personal to go into here, it’s taken me a while to write this Wimpy up, and the new lockdown means I can’t visit any further Wimpys until early December at the earliest. Please bear with me, and why not patronise your local Wimpy with takeaway and delivery orders in the meantime?

Also, my living situation is up in the air, which is both useful for visiting geographically diverse Wimpys while also making a mockery of the “proximity to my house” rating.

For example: I visited the Streatham one when I was dog sitting just down the road in Tooting. I am now in Kent. So to avoid confusion, that rating now officially refers to the distance from New Malden. As, perhaps, in my heart, it always did.

Footnotes

[1] £5.99 for unlimited bowling, 12-6 weekday afternoons. We’d frequently be the only people bowling, and old ladies sheltering from the cold would sit in the plastic moulded seats of neighbouring lanes and pretend to watch our games. The building is now luxury flats, but it lay abandoned for some time, leading to some excellent “abandoned London” style photography from this internet denizen.

[2] “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.” So wrote Douglas Adams, but that was the 1980s. Lunch was very different in the 1980s.

Published by jamesofwalsh

My past blogs haunt the internet like ghost ships on a digital sea.

2 thoughts on “Wimpy #3: Streatham

  1. I especially love that picture caption, …Change UK, the new centrist party which now dominates the British political landscape.

    Overall this writing is exactly what blog writing should be. Except that Douglas Adams should always be referenced in the body and not merely in the footnotes: I think that may be a law. It ought to be law, if not.

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