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Wimpy #2: Sittingbourne

The Wimpy roundel outside Sittingbourne Wimpy.

I don’t think it makes no diffrents where you start the telling of a thing. You never know where it begun realy. No moren you know where you begun your oan self.

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban.

Don’t let the sadness of Sittingbourne infect your soul.

Faversham resident, Adam Boult.

Time for that difficult second Wimpy review. I know what you’re expecting. Bender Stratocasters. A Wimpy journey actually soundtracked by Journey. A lot of cheeseburgers about fame.

And on that note, you’re probably wondering why I’ve started a Wimpy review with a quote from a post-apocalyptic Kentish novel. The quote from Adam, sure. Everyone loves Adam, and this seems like good advice. But what’s with the Riddley Walker stuff?

After getting this long-delayed project off the ground, like a zeppelin filled with flammable chips, I received many, many kind offers from humans offering to accompany me to a Wimpy near them. Dingle, Huddersfield and Dorking. Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook.

I wasn’t sure what to make of this, beyond the standard human reaction of being thankful. Other people? In a Wimpy? With me? With my reputation? I had assumed I’d be continuing to develop this voice of the melancholy solo traveller, peering over his bun at a world he barely understands. Not, as one friend excitedly put it, “the Wimpy version of comedians in cars with coffee”.

While trying to figure out what comedians, cars and coffee were, I made my way to Kent by train, to see Ruth and have one last sea swim of the summer.

You don’t know Ruth yet, but she’s a super sophisticated literary translator with lots of letters before and after her name and lots of words inside her head. She’s got a cat called Gary. Like I said – super sophisticated. How could anyone with a cat called Gary possibly be seen dead in a Wimpy?

Just in case I had somehow misjudged her, I consulted the Wimpy Finder, which is a tool on their website, not some mystical divining rod. It said Sittingbourne was Ruth’s closest branch.

Nice.

On arrival directly into Gary’s bungalow, which his gracefully shares with Ruth, her husband, and a second cat, I found an OS map open on the kitchen table.

A fragment of an OS map.

It took me a few gulps of tea to realise the significance of this, but then it hit me. Sittingbourne.

Because the thing is… you never know where it began, really. No more than you know where you began your own self.

Horny Boy

Riddley Walker is set in a dystopian version of east Kent, seen through the eyes of a 12 year old man (responsibility starts early when you’re fighting off packs of mutant dogs). The reader gradually understands there was a nuclear catastrophe in the distant past, setting the surviving humanity back to an Iron Age civilisation of mud, fear and scattered settlements.

There are no Wimpys, but Subway is still clinging on.

Riddley’s dialect, baffling at first, eventually works its way into your soul. And there’s humour there too, particularly in the degraded local place names. As the author explains: “Horny Boy is Herne Bay; Widders bel is Whistable; Father’s Ham is Faversham; Bernt Arse is Ashford; Fork Stoan is Folkestone; Do It Over is Dover.”

This Kent is built on half remembered things. Punch and Judy are the closest things to Gods; a fragment of a tale from Canterbury cathedral serves as a written testament.

It is a vivid landscape of rain, darkness, and violence. I first read the novel while walking the North Downs, that ridge of chalk which works its way through Riddley’s world on an ancient journey to Dover. Clearly, and unfairly, it influenced my view of this bit of Kent as the end of the world.

Today, it feels a long way from home, but for other reasons. Now, the associations are vigilantes hunting for migrants on dawn beaches, dangerous men channelling primal resentments as a distraction from a more complicated truth, and the prosaic spectre of lorries queuing all the way along the ancient road back to London.

There are good people in Kent too, so let’s think about nice things for a bit.

Ruth lives in Herne Bay, or Horny Boy if you prefer the Riddley Walker version. As you should.

Until 2017, Ruth’s nearest Wimpy would have been on the isle of Thanet, in Margate. This branch is gone, though not due to nuclear bombs forever ago. Instead, we must simply blame the town’s most famous fan of fried food, Pete Doherty, for eating elsewhere.

Margate Wimpy, shortly after its closure.

Back in present day Horny Boy, we swim to a soundtrack of revving jet skis and distant explosions.

The latter, Ruth explains, is Shoeburyness, where the Ministry of Defence test ordinance, and the shockwaves make their way across the Thames estuary to rattle her windows. “There’s a website that tells you how explode-y it’s going to be”.

High tide at Horny Boy.

I met Ruth in 1998. She was a quiet, quizzical woman on my corridor in my undergraduate hall of residence.

Twenty two years later, she’s a quiet, quizzical woman who chooses her words with professional care. I gabble mine into the silences she leaves.

A book translated by Ruth. You should buy it, it’s very good.

“Can you get a beer in a Wimpy?” Ruth asks post swim, as we prepare for our cycle. Maybe?*

Let’s go.

Widder’s bel

Our route to Sittingbourne takes us along the coast to Whitstable, the posh ying to Herne Bay’s yang, and we get stuck in the traffic gridlock that frequently envelops this otherwise pretty little Oyster town.

I ask Ruth what she’s working on. It involves Nazis. Being a German to English translator, it often involves Nazis.

I’m in awe of translators. It’s not just the rare skill of honouring an author’s voice in an entirely different language. It’s also the way I suspect translators put more than a little bit of themselves into these books. If I were a famous novelist, I would insist my translators be buried with me. Just in case. Although I’m not sure how this would work on a practical level.

We’re following national cycle route one, which goes all the way to John O’Groats if you pedal for long enough. Like a lot of Britain’s cycle routes, the planners assume you’re travelling in a hovercraft rather than on a bike, and send you across muddy fields, gravel tracks, cans of aviation-quality kerosene, and shared pavements.

National Cycle Route 1.

Father’s Ham

In Faversham (Father’s Ham), the route twists and meanders through suburban streets and past gangs ofa van beeps and tailgates me for unclear reasons. I slow, and twist around. The driver is pointing furiously to the pavement, where he thinks me and my bike should be. I shrug. The van close passes me, and I catch a vivid snapshot of a man and woman screaming at me to get off the road, their faces both contorted in hate and incomprehension.

I smile back at them.

A much nicer country road following the railway line takes us the rest of the way to Sittingbourne. A high speed train trundles past us on its non-high-speed line, a glorious symbol of Brexit Britain. I wave to it as it gently overtakes, and nearly cycle into a hedge.

A white van thwarts my attempt at a bucolic scene

The local issue of the day ‘round these parts is the Cleve Hill Solar Park. The local nature reserve, home to several baddass species of wading bird and rare marshland, is to be covered in many huge solar panels. Cycling past dystopian signs in the sunshine, I found the issue absurd. Campaigning against a solar park! In a climate emergency! This is peak NIMBY absurdism!

Having read up on the issue, I think the locals have a point. I rescind my exclamation marks, and wish for Graveney Marshes to be rewilded and for the solar panels to find a more suitable home.

Hahaha stupid nimbys… oh shit, they have a point.

Sittingbourne

The transition from rural lanes to dusty out-of-town industrial estates was abrupt and sudden. This, then, was Sittingbourne. Ruth had described her familiarity with the place as “more having been through than been to”; but that experience has historical precedent.

Back when “a mail journey from London in winter was an achievement to congratulate an adventurous traveller upon” – cheers, Dickens – Sittingbourne was a convenient rest stop for those heading to and from Dover or Canterbury on the ancient Watling Street. Now, people just thunder past on the A2, and no one is congratulated about anything.

The High Street.

Sittingbourne has seen better days. An industrial town ringed by bad roads and industrial estates, it’s a place you fear for in an era of Covid and Brexit, unless the enterprising locals can figure out a way to profit off the thousands of lorries expected to queue through Kent in the event of No Deal, Kent passport or no Kent passport.

The Wimpy

The seat in the window, please.

Ruth and I make our way up the old high street to the Wimpy, which was standing proud and, crucially, open. The traffic and the off-road meandering has lead us to arrive much later than anticipated.

Imagine if this post ended with the Wimpy being shut? I’d be chased down the internet equivalent of Watling Street with pitchforks and fiery torches, and rightly so.

Childish Wimpy Rankings

GREASINESS OF CHEF: 3/10

BUSY-NESS OF RESTAURANT: 9/10

PROXIMITY TO MY HOUSE: 6/10

Unlike the Southsea branch, with its plastic trays and unusual amusement arcade location, this is a classic Wimpy.**

I love a booth, me. And also a quote from a 1980s advertising campaign.

Plates. Cutlery. A soundtrack of jangly pop. A reassuring lack of fellow customers.***

One long, thin room for dining, with the kitchen and service area along the side, so you can watch your burgers being flipped and admire the chef’s hat. Table service.

Unfortunately the chef is wearing a trendy flat cap, not a paper hat with “Wimpy” written on it, but there are no ratings categories specifically dealing with staff headwear, so we’ll let that slide for now.

The soundtrack is jangly 1960s pop, the waitress is cheery and welcoming. The restaurant seems to stretch on back forever.

“There’s actually a fake wall,” I explain to Ruth as we sit down. “You adjust one of the pictures of burgers and the whole wall and floor flip around, revealing a space for secret sex parties where you take turns to dress up as Mr Wimpy.”

“I see”.

I order a halfpounder with cheese and chips; Ruth plumps for a spicy beanburger on its own. A burger without chips is like a motorcycle sidecar without a dog wearing goggles: completely pointless. I let this insult slide and ask her about her own experience of Wimpy as a kid.

“There were never any in Cornwall.”

“Citation needed,” I say, thinking of the one in Penzance I used to visit.

“Definitely not Truro or Newquay. We didn’t really eat out anyway.”

Ruth’s first Wimpy wasn’t until she visited the Clapham branch “a bit” when she moved to London in the early noughties. I wonder if I’ve chosen a non-believer for my first accompanied visit.

“I love the idea of a Wimpy, I’ve just not been in many”, she explains. Ah, the platonic ideal of a Wimpy. The Wimpy-like nature of a Wimpy as independent from its physical Wimpy form. This explains why the ghosts of former Wimpys still smell of special sauce.

Our food arrives.

A Wimpy Halfpounder with Chips and a Spicy Beanburger.

Ruth’s review is a masterpiece of economy: “it’s not bad”.

We agree her spicy beanburger lacks structural integrity, but she likes that it comes a brown bap. “Burger buns are really sweet now, like Brioche, or the white bread that collapses into nothing”. She’s happy. And it’s nice to have a fellow reviewer not underwhby the sepia glow of crippling nostalgia.

We discuss the mysterious ingredients of Wimpy’s special sauce, and compare regional chip topping etiquette.

Wimpy’s current branding doth swad itself verily in the flag

“In Herne Bay we have “Shakey Shakey”, which is a special mix of paprika, salt and… something else.”

My chips could do with some Shakey Shakey. Much like in the Southsea branch, they’re a bit rubbish. But the burger is excellent: hefty, substantial, and not overburdened with sauce special or otherwise.

Time to visit the facilities. “Do you have a bathroom,” I ask the passing waitress.

“What?”

“A toilet.”

“Oh. I thought you were asking if we have a back room.”

I think of that wall flipping around, and say nothing incriminating.

Tempting.

Grown-up Wimpy Rankings

FRIENDLINESS OF STAFF: 9/10

QUALITY OF MEAL: 8/10

VALUE OF MEAL: 8/10

Postscript

We finish our visit to Sittingbourne by visiting the independent real ale pub just up the road, the excellent Donna’s Ale House. Outside, there is a cabal of men, sitting at various tables outside, expressing their opinions into the unseasonably warm September evening. Below are a selection of their opinions.

On local traffic:

“You see those mums in those massive 4×4 tin cans? They’re enormous! And their kids are enormous an all!” 

On international affairs: 

“I’m allowed to be racist****, but the Chinese don’t fuck about.”

On me and Ruth being at a neighbouring table:

“These two are just trying to have a nice time, not to hear our bollocks”.

It was time to depart, myself for London, Ruth back to Horny Boy, with its Shakey Shakey and its rumours of Sandi Toksvig.

Thank you, Sittingbourne. You gave us what we needed, and nothing more.

Footnotes

* The answer being: depends on the branch. I still haven’t forgotten the amazement when Twickenham Wimpy started serving bottles of cheap lager. The Twickenham branch has since closed.

** Or, if you prefer, a Wimpy Classic. See what I did there?

**** As explained in my opening chapter, the teenage me resented busy Wimpys, not due to a desire to see it fail but because packed restaurants stressed me out. This explains both the counter-intuitive rating (9/10 = practically deserted) and my failure to understand basic economics.

**** His logic being that he was himself half Chinese. I do not support or endorse his opinion or those of any Sittingbourne drinkers

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A Wimpy Journey

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.

Until today.

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.

A Lyons Corner House, Coventry Street, London

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.

He earned those burger shaped medals through horrifying violence

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.

What next? “Plan to visit the 66 remaining Wimpys”

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:

Other brain-meltingly addictive messsging apps are available.

I had some wheels. I had a starting Wimpy. It was, finally, time to embark on my Wimpy journey.

Wimpy #1: Southsea

Southsea Wimpy, with the amusement arcade below.

Childish Rankings

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.

British warships old and new, from the pigeon-shit smeared window of Portsmouth Harbour station.

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.

The car ferry to the Isle of Wight, with the Spinnaker tower looming horribly in the background.

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.

The Solent Flyer prepares to send a few more kiss-me-quick hats flying

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.

Grown-up Rankings

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.

Next Level Sketch: October show at Hoopla Impro, The Miller

We did it. We actually returned to a stage and put on a show!

Vic and Jess party like it’s 1959.

As I’ve written about before, I’m a producer for Next Level Sketch, a sketch comedy collective founded in late 2019, with a mind to do regular sketch comedy nights, as a) we enjoy writing and performing them and b) we felt like there was a dearth of sketch comedy spaces in London, and we wanted to provide a new one. We’d seen so many excellent sketch and comedy acts on bills alongside stand-up comedians, which is fine as far as it goes, but the rhythms of sketch are very different. We wanted a little place of our own.

Our first two shows were sellouts. The set-up was simple: the first half was our gang, with fresh new sketches from our collective of writers and performers. There was then an interval during which we encouraged people to drink and talk to each other. Then, we’d have a headliner, who would provide their own excellent sketch and character comedy stylings.

And to be honest, writing the above feels a bit like a transmission from another world, because as we all know, 2020 turned out not to be the best year to start a new live sketch comedy night.

Fast forward eight months, and Next Level Sketch has been a source of perpetual joy during a really challenging year, thanks to our regular Zoom meetings and outpourings of WhatsApp nonsense.

Our gang agreed to put together a sketch comedy podcast, and the quality of the writing and performance has been staggering. It’s worth reminding ourselves that we’ve never tried to do anything like this before, and the end result is a beautiful and strange little show, with its own cast of returning quirks, personalities and themes, but with entirely new sketches and ideas in every single episode. We are really proud of it and you should have a listen.

But we had really missed live performance. And with Hoopla Impro working their collective butts off to make live performance a Covid-Secure and socially distanced possibility upstairs at The Miller, we decided to put together a show for October, even though at the back of my minds we knew there was the possibility of another lockdown coming along and stopping it from going ahead.*

We limited our onstage cast to six humans, and loved the cabaret style, households-only table set-up that awaited us at The Miller. Capacity had been reduced from 70 to a mere 16 for the shows: we were curious to see what that would mean in terms of atmosphere and CPM (chuckles per minute).

A socially distanced comedy venue.

And we needn’t have worried. Both audiences* were wonderful, warm and appreciative, as we put on sketches involving spooky ghost stories, incompetent submarine captains, and energetic boxercise coaches having on-stage emotional breakdowns.

Thanks so much to all the lovely humans who wrote, offered amazing sketch feedback, directed, and performed at our show on Tuesday. This year has been so difficult, but it’s been such a joy getting to know you all and reading and listening to all those strange and mysterious things that you have dredged up from the bottom of your minds.

Below are some more photos from the show.

“You know what the worst thing is? He’s not even real”.
Boxercise with Melissa
“It’s so much easier for you. You’re a woman”.
“It was the skeletons of 12,000 kids who had died from poverty”.
“The targets are Turkey, Chile, Brussels, roast potatoes…”

*And a day after writing this, rumours of a November lockdown began to fly around, like plastic bands in the wind in 1990s movies about late capitalist ennui

Goodbye to the Elephant

The redevelopment of Elephant & Castle is a miserable story of greed, exploitation and corruption, extensively documented by Southwark Notes over the years.

The Heygate estate is now the miserable Elephant Park, and now the shopping centre itself is coming to its end. It is to be demolished and replaced by a shiny new development.

Rest assured this unique community space, with its accompanying market, will be fully incorporated into the building due to replace it.

There’ll be a bingo hall for the old folk, a bowling alley for the young, and the affordable rents will be maintained so independent traders won’t be moved on to somewhere else, or forced to give up their businesses entirely.

Masses of social housing will be built as part of the new scheme. Locals will still be able to come for a cheap bite to eat, some hair accessories, or a gossip.

Old ladies will continue to be allowed to sit around in plastic chairs chatting about this and that. The spirit of the space, crucial in a rapidly gentrifying city, will be cherished, supported and maintained.

Nah, only kidding.

I wasn’t able to make it down for Thursday’s farewell protest, well covered by the Guardian’s Damian Gayle, but cycled down at the weekend to have one last strong Latin American coffee and say my own goodbyes to Europe’s first indoor shopping centre and one of south London’s last substantial working class hubs.

Jenny’s Burgers was cheap and popular. I would guess it was once a Wimpy.
This Colombian cafe-bar definitely was not serving Watney’s.
The new development will not have a bowling alley.
Open soon. Closed.
Will Daddy-o’s Nigerian cooking be found at the new shopping centre?
La Bodeguita.
Nowt more exciting than taking an escalator up to the bingo.
Time for one last coffee.
Will there be anywhere as cheap and hearty as Sundial in the new development?
Forever hairdressing.
Goodbye.

Socially Distanced Soho

Remember when lockdown ended and everyone was horrified by the images of crowds drinking in Old Compton Street?

The government and client journalist communities have moved on to blaming foreigners and specifically Muslims for the ongoing pandemic. Meanwhile Soho’s independent and less independent businesses have been grappling with how to continue to exist.

The death of Soho has been announced many many times, but the Denmark Street catastrophe, the recent redevelopment at the southern end of Berwick Street and the gradual encroachment of the chain restaurants have all been taking their toll.

But with social distancing has come something that would have already have been in place for years if we were any other European city: pedestrianisation, and the reclaiming of the roads for restaurant tables, chairs, and people.

Old Compton Street is the hub of this apparently temporary car banning. You can still drive through Soho, but it’s much trickier now. And if you’re a cyclist it’s more confusing than ever, as indicated by the delivery riders trying to snake their way through. But if you’re walking, or wanting to drink or chat outside, the situation has decidedly improved.

Finchley Herons and Municipal Dreams

Back up the northern line towards High Barnet, for a meeting with a friend who had high hopes for a long walk, but wasn’t able to sleep last night. And so we changed the plan according to our collective capabilities; we had a long sit in her garden, with the noise of kids at summer camp floating over the stream and heron that defend and define the boundary of her residential block.

Before our scheduled period of hanging out, I arrived early and wandered up to the high road for needless coffee. The speeding and pavement mounting of the local traffic left me on high alert; after my recent, still-vivid collision, I might need a break from being around cars. No easy task when you live in London, on a main road.

Traffic weighing on my mind, I took the sudden decision to veer off the road and explore an interesting modernist block for a short while.

My knowledge of architecture isn’t that good, but I would date this as late seventies: the last gasp of postwar social housing. I appreciated the street in the sky, the gardens, the pseudo-buttresses at the back, and the occasional unexpected detail.

There was thought and care put into this design, with residents protected and given space and light away from the main road. A gently impressive, but not overbearing suburban fortress to live in.

On the other hand, some of those windows are tiny and, I am told, the basement flats aren’t much fun to inhabit.

After doing a tiny bit of snooping around, I headed off to Dollis Brook, found a space by the water, took a photo, put my bloody phone down, and finally sat and enjoyed my book.

The moon, the park and the stars

I have a new habit. It is to walk to the park in the late evening, in an attempt to tire myself out enough to sleep. Also, I discovered they are not locking the gates until late if at all, and I do love an amble around a late night park. My senses are heightened; there is a very tame, very suburban sense of danger. Also: what if they locked the gates while I was in there? I would be caged until morning. Or I could climb over the very low fence and walk home. One of the two. But the fence has spikes on it! I could impale myself! Like I said, suburban dangers.*

Tonight, alas, I was thwarted. Two men wearing high vis jackets, those modern uniforms of authority, were locking up the gates. It was exactly midnight, and they were shouting their way through the task like they were auditioning to be bin men. So instead of going inside, I had to walk along the side of the park, sandwiched between idling cars with reclined seats and that tauntingly low spiky iron fence.

Forced onto the main road opposite the William Morris Gallery, I noticed this rather pleasingly retro sport outfitters for the first time. I hope it still exists, as I could do with a billiards table.

I encircled the park via side roads, and passed this temple. The combination of the generic social club architecture and the magnificent Ganesh festooning the entrance like some mighty frieze made me smile.

Last night, I saw a bright moon, and stars, from the relative darkness of the unlit park. Tonight this treat was not available to me, but I at least experienced interesting buildings, steamed up Audis, and that familiar rhythm of my feet on endless pavements past all those houses I will never see inside.

* As I get older, i get increasingly worried about my devil-may-care bath exit strategy. There is the potential for disaster everywhere.

Writing Sketches

This year is more than half over but it also feels like it’s barely begun. A fairly obvious observation, with lockdown and Covid-19 messing with all of out routines and perceptions of time.

I quite like to boil down all of my frustrations into a flippant sentence, which is why I’ve been telling people that I picked a bad year to pivot to pet sitting and sketch comedy promotion.

Unfortunately, it’s true.

But! Next Level Sketch, the sketch comedy collective started by myself and one of those friends who make me actually get out of bed and do things, has been a constant source of joy over the past few weird months.

We haven’t been able to perform on stage, and like the rest of the grassroots comedy / arts / music / civilisation community, we don’t quite know when people are going to want to pack into a sweaty room above or below a pub again.

In the meantime, we’ve been putting a podcast together. A podcast full of funny sketches, weird jingles, and stupid fake adverts. We’ve just released the fifth episode, so we’re one away from having the magic number that makes a BBC style series. I will email the episodes to the corporation and see when they fancy putting them on air.

I can never work out how public this blog of mine is, or if people read it, or even if I want people to read it. But I’m writing my post to remind me of a good creative project, through which I’ve learned a lot and met many excellent people, and I’m sure I’ll look back on it with pride and fondness when I stumble upon this post from wherever I am in five years’ time.

 

We can rebuild him. We have the technology

I have four main fears: guns, cars, my teeth being smashed out, and getting electrocuted by stepping on the live rail of a suburban railway.

Unless you’re particularly unlucky, you are unlikely to face all those fears at the same time. I managed two together at the weekend, when a driver smashed out my tooth with his car – a delicate, precision manoeuvre requiring a lot of incompetence.

Thankfully, as I fell back from his windscreen, I neither was shot nor stumbled onto any train tracks, setting me back in my ongoing audition for a remake of the Naked Gun.

They say it’s good to face your fears, but I would prefer my fears remain in Dunstable where they belong, while I carry on with my life. 

The crash meant I had to visit the dentist, a place which lives in my second, slightly lower tier of existential horrors, alongside flying, wasps, and being found out.

My dentist was a wonderful, funny and no-nonsense lady. She told me stories of people walking out from the surgery with those temporary bibs and 3D glasses they give you nowadays still attached. I do like the 3D glasses; I feel like I’m about to see an underwhelming Pixar sequel, not have a complete stranger hack away at my mouth.

Dentists now have so much PPE they look like extras in a pandemic thriller – which, thinking about it, they kind of are. Mine said the conditions had been gruelling, with 30 degree temperatures and no air conditioning allowed until recently. 

Having to dress up like you’re about to dissect the Roswell aliens just because some lad wants a filling must add another element of stress to what I can see is already quite a stressful job. 

I say this just as an observation, not in a Trumpian, the virus is a scam cooked up by China, 5G operating companies and Hillary Clinton kind of way.

Half way through the procedure the dental nurse passed me a hand mirror to check out my new look. I was extremely tempted to start laughing hysterically and smash it against the table of implements, but I think the first Batman movie came out before she was born.

The tooth didn’t look quite right, so the dentist made me scroll through my photostream, past socialist memes, millions of cats and representations of furious geese, until I found a picture where I was showing my fangs. This took longer than expected; I am deadpan in photographs, and I haven’t had much to smile about lately.

Grin located, we had a bit more of a chat of how I’d like it to look, and then it was back to the 3D glasses and the moulding, and the eyes closed thinking of England.

After the procedure, I had an X-Ray and was given an explanation of what is likely to happen from here. The good news is that the root is still alive, and teeth do heal. The bad news is the binding of the first falsie is always the best, so if I accidentally bite this one out then any following ones probably won’t last as long. So no toffee bars sellotaped to the Beano for me, then, ever again.

So who knows, it might be years before I have to think about my tooth again. Unless it turns out the dentist has put a tracking device in it, as part of the lizard conspiracy against non-trackable teeth. But even if she did, I’ll let her off. She was nice.

Hello trees! Hello clouds!

There are so many moments that make up a day and so many that we forget. I’ve forgotten entire years, carelessly. I don’t want to do that any more. Think of me as a land-based salvage expert, and memories as floating and clearly abandoned vessels. I want to claim as many of these as possible, as they are enriching and make me who I am today: a man who has not gleaned that the international rules of the sea do not apply on dry land.

I was recently in an accident in which I could easily have died. A driver pulled out against the direction of traffic; my face and the car’s windscreen had an argument about which one of us had the right of way. I lost half a tooth, the windscreen was shattered. I was in the right according to the Highway Code, but that wouldn’t have been much solace if this was my last philosophical debate on earth.

I’m glad to be alive, but not in a running down the road, I will-never-waste-another-moment sort of way. Not immediately, in any case: I was too busy being taken to hospital.

I’ve already wasted plenty of time since the accident. I’ve scrolled through pointless culture wars on social media. I’ve dulled my traumatised brain with many hours of online board games against endearingly named strangers like MrEd69 or Please_Lose_To_Me17.

But I am trying to cherish more, and to cherish you have to remember. I only have one way of remembering, which is to write things down.

Sometimes I turn things into stories – into handy linear narratives where everything makes sense and everything is neatly tidied away. But sometimes that’s impossible, and one just has to write some unsatisfying paragraphs, with no structure or satisfying ending.

I’m not really sure how many of us get a satisfying ending anyway.

But what I really wanted to talk about was trees, and clouds. And herons. And awkward handymen depositing rubble by a stream, friends remote and immediate, and that guy in the phone repair shop who charged me too much but smiled while I complimented him on the card on his desk from his daughter. It suggested he was often asleep; perhaps because of the long hours working in the phone shop.

I also wanted to mention Fairuz, the Lebanese chanteuse, singing about her friend from childhood, with whom she wrote words on the wind, before the civil war came. And Japanese food, and really stupid and bawdy jokes. And calls with fellow beloved humans, and interactions with furious cats. And, and, and…

There is so much in a day, and I want to do more to bring at least some elements of each day with me into the future.

Because I am grateful that there will be more trees, and clouds, and words with which to remember them.