Empire of the bun

If the historian Oswald Spengler were alive today, Wimpy is the kind of fast-food joint he'd be eating in. Actually, given how cheap it is - and assuming yet more Möbius strips are torn in the space/time continuum - Giambattista Vico and Philip Toynbee might well join him for a Bender, fries and a foaming beaker of Coke. For Wimpy embodies the history of fast food conceived of with the circularity of a burger bun, rather than the linear progress of a machine-cut chip.

Wimpy's origins seem lost in the mists of time but, by the early Fifties, there were 12 of them in the US; then stodgy old Lyons got wind of the newfangled burger phenomenon and bought the Wimpy name. The first UK branch was implanted in its Coventry Street Corner House in the West End of London - and the rest, as Spengler might say, is history.

But history of a Spenglerian kind, for while by the early Seventies there were over 1,000 Wimpy Bars and restaurants in as many as
23 countries, then came the barbarians, swishing their savage golden arches. In response, Wimpy mutated through various takeovers, ceding a province here, losing a satrap there, until, in 1990, the remaining 200-odd counter-service restaurants (the "bars" having long since been lost) were sold off to a management consortium.

Lunch is for Wimpys

I'd like to say that the past 20 years have brought a resurgence of Wimpy, a revival of the ancient virtues that made it the only British burger joint of the imperial age. Sadly, this isn't the case - true, Wimpys hang on, doling out counter service in Roadchef service centres and mega-bowling alleys (whatever they might be), but the restaurants are reduced to a mere rump, a Flavius Stilicho, exerting pitiful authority from some gastronomic Ravenna.

Yet still they soldier on! Since 2008, the restaurants have been retro-branded in their original red-and-white livery and the menu has been expanded. I took Family Self along to the Wimpy in Clapham Junction for a meal and I have to say
it was a most deliciously nostalgic experience. For anyone over 45, the Wimpy Bar is synonymous with the burger. Back in that fabled time, a Wimpy burger had a distinctly beef burger-ish taste - quite different from the modern meat patty; and came also with a particular relish, ready-smeared.
My wife, who, like some latter-day Petrarch, takes pleasure in chronicling the battles of yore, reminded me that when this relish was swapped in favour of a mayonnaise-based gloop in the mid-Seventies, it caused great unrest among the proles. I couldn't consciously recall being in a Wimpy since the Eighties, so whatever mutations the chain had been through passed me by: here
I was, sitting once again at a melamine table, being served by an adolescent reassuringly mailed with retro-acne. I opted for a newfangled jalapeño burger, Mrs Self for a quarter-pounder. One of the boy-spawn essayed - at my urging - a Bender; the other had a chicken burger of uncompromising asperity: no salad, no sauce, just white bread and white chicken unnaturally compressed.

Let's be frankfurter

Although I couldn't quite face one myself, I was keen to find out what the Bender was like. It's one of the queer involutions of history that, back in the heyday of the Wimpy Bar, "bender" was the derogatory epithet most employed by adolescent boys to refer to homosexuals. I'm not sure when the Bender entered the Wimpy menu, but its presence there is a testimony to how we now live in a more tolerant and inclusive society.
I think. Anyway, the Bender is quite simply a frankfurter bent and crenulated so that it resembles a porky laurel wreath that can
be inserted between buns. My boy had a bite and pronounced it "exactly like a hotdog".

My jalapeño quarter-pounder was pretty feisty for the high street - not the bland madeleine I'd been hoping for: a sweet taste that would transport me back to a less tolerant but more innocent age, an era of Fair Isle tank tops, platform soles, a functioning mining industry and Butskellism. No, no, however much I yearned for a circular history, it was not to be found in the compass of a burger bun. Outside, the traffic groaned while overhead the blue sky yawned devoid of contrails - all aeroplanes were grounded; soon we would be running out of Ethiopian sugar snap peas. Truly, this was the real decline of the west, a cataclysm from which even Wimpy could not escape.

Next week: Madness of Crowds writers/will_self

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.