Wimpy Bars were fantastic. Supposedly they still exist but you hardly see them anymore. When I was a kid, by comparison, you only saw them and hardly ever a McDonalds. Quite often when I was growing up my dad would take me up to London (we lived half an hour’s train ride from Waterloo), sometimes to visit museums, parks, exhibitions or the cinema but often simply to walk around the city, and invariably we would end up in a Wimpy at some point for a cup of tea. Usually I would want tea and my dad a hot chocolate; he was rather particular about his tea, I think, and although I never knew him to drink hot chocolate at any other time, he would order it at places like Wimpy because it was “the only thing they can’t screw up”. I didn’t know what he meant; the tea tasted OK to me. Wimpy Bars were like modern burger bars with one massive difference: you sat down and a waitress came and took your order and brought it to you. This happens so rarely in cafes now that whenever I’m in one I instinctively go up to the counter to place my order, expecting it to be self-service like we’ve become used to, and when they say “Take a seat, I’ll bring it over” I instantly fall in love with the place. Anyway, in my recollection the Wimpy waitress (not being sexist here, it was invariably a woman) would then bring the tea and hot chocolate over and give me the hot chocolate and my dad the tea, the logical assumption. My dad would then chuckle and say it was the other way round. I have a particularly happy memory of this happening when we were sitting in the Wimpy outside Waterloo station one Sunday afternoon after one of our wanders, watching the traffic. I’m pretty sure the tables (and possibly also the chairs) were fixed to the floor, and the table tops were covered in a hard-wearing vinyl of a small check pattern. We would talk about everything, although I can’t remember any of the conversations now. I especially liked the squeezy ketchup bottles which I think were embossed with a Wimpy motif.
Mr Wimpy was the mascot of the burger chain. Dressed like a London beefeater, his eyes were hidden under his hat and his mouth was mostly hidden under his ruff, only his gigantic nose showing. Looking him up now on Wikipedia reminds me he was drafted into service as a video game character in the 1980s, but I don’t remember this happening and frankly don’t approve of it. I also don’t remember the particular campaign featured on the badge, or any such campaigns really, but it seems a sensible one and no doubt popular with kids (I had lots of pets and was a member of the RSPCA). Of course, Mr Wimpy could have been really kind to animals by not serving them up in his cafes, but… burgers. Yum.
Quite how I came into possession of this badge I’m not sure, but I think it must have been one that my gran gave me. My gran was a widow and lived alone in a council bedsit a few miles from us in Richmond, southwest London, and for a while she had a job as a cleaner at the halls of residence of what she called the “American college“. Sometimes when I saw her she would give me things she’d perhaps been given by the students or, more likely, they’d left behind and would otherwise have gone into the rubbish. One gift I remember was the “pyramids” poster from inside the original Dark Side of the Moon album, which I thus saw many years before I actually heard the record. I may be wrong about the way “Ahlan” fits into this picture; I didn’t know then what it meant or represented, and Google now turns up a mass of results, evidently because “ahlan” translates as a common welcome/greeting in Arabic and hence it’s popular as a business or service name. Given the plane motif however I’m going to assume the Ahlan of the badge is this personal concierge service at Dubai International Airport. The student connection therefore seems unlikely on the face of it, but the students at the “American college”, housed in a magnificent building which I don’t recall ever seeing in years of living in the area, were probably not hard up for a few bob, and some would have come from the UAE and other exotic international destinations.
Hmm, Ryde: it’s in the Isle of Wight, isn’t it? I had to think about that for a second. My geography’s rubbish anyway but what threw me was why I might have a badge for just a bit of a small island and not instead the whole island. I do remember at least one visit to the Isle of Wight as a child, the ferry crossing over the Solent, some mini-golf, some beaches, and buying a jar of multi-coloured sand to bring home. It’s a very nice place, as I recall – not for nothing was it namechecked in the Beatles’ When I’m Sixty-Four as a place to rent a cottage in. The only other thing that puts the Isle of Wight on the map for me is that three-quarters of top 80s band Level 42 were from there. Whatever happened to them and their whacky slap-bassmeister Mark King? I caught up with them as part of researching this blog post. (Don’t worry, I didn’t.) The Isle of Wight is also famous of course for the festivals, which featured three of my favourite people, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.
The Isle of Wight seems to me a very “English” place. Its official tourist website describes it as “England in a nutshell”, the I Love Ryde website has a video of morris dancers, the island’s MP varies between Conservative and Liberal Democrat (i.e. no difference) and its main local newspaper is the Isle of Wight County Press, which Wikipedia tells us quaintly “costs 75p. It discusses local issues and is published each Friday, or the previous working day if the Friday is a public holiday.” The article compares the island in size to Rutland, which is not to be confused with Rutland Weekend Television.
But back to Ryde. Again, why a badge just for Ryde? Do each of the island’s towns compete with each other? Are you only considered a proper visitor if you have the full collection of badges from all the other parts? Ryde is the island’s largest and most populous town, and I guess the ferry probably docked there, and not having a car we wouldn’t have strayed much further on our visit than the town of our arrival. The coat of arms is intriguing but I can’t seem to find much about it: this charming enthusiast’s site has a larger version (at the very bottom 0f the page) although labels it the “Medina coat of arms”, further Googling of which reveals completely different designs. I like the little sea monster at the top though, like a sort of horse mermaid; a merhorse, if you will. The yellow stars on the blue background also echo the European flag, and I like the idea that that might annoy some of the little-Englanders who run the place.
UPDATE: My excellent friend and sauce expert Ali writes: “Also in Ryde there is a Donald McGill ‘saucy postcard’ museum, which is fantastic and well worth £3.50″. That site also has an absolutely charming and exquisitely-worded section about whether the museum is suitable for children (it is, of course, but given the sort of horrors that children are often exposed to these days it’s lovely of them to even think about putting that on).
Today’s badge took a few moments to register. I permitted myself a knowing laugh when I saw it, as at one point in my life I tried pretty hard to be a writer. I had a few poems published here and there in my early twenties, and also wrote a couple of novels, one of which I self-published and is still available. I like to say I didn’t give up writing, but rather it gave me up; I didn’t make a conscious decision to stop, I just found I was doing more and more web development, which gives me a similar sense of satisfaction. So to think that at one time as a child I might’ve worn this badge or been given it because I showed writerly promise gives me mixed feelings.
Having said all that, on second glance this badge isn’t actually about creative writing, but writing nicely. I had fantastic handwriting as a kid, if I say so myself. As the badge suggests, I used a Sheaffer fountain pen, with lovely blue ink cartridges and an italic nib. It’s interesting looking at the Sheaffer website now and finding it’s an American company, as for some reason I’d assumed it was European. I didn’t study calligraphy properly, I just developed my own style. The badge advertises the No Nonsense range, which rings a vague bell… ah! The very cockles of my heart are warmed to find a website with the wonderful name of PenHero.com which has some information about Sheaffer’s No Nonsense pens, complete with photos. Mine was black with gold edging. I actually just rummaged for the original, as my recent house move has left me still half-surrounded by boxes of stuff from my past – no luck so far, but what I have found is an example of my handwriting from when I was about 12:
Not bad huh? This is what it’s like now (this is from some notes written quickly in a journal, but even so):
Handwriting is thus merely one of a number of things I did better as a kid than I do as a grown-up. Of course, it’s a skill you don’t need so much these days, but even so, maybe I should wear the badge and re-learn how to write more brightly, and with less nonsense. I might even start a handwritten blog… once I find my fountain pen, that is.
So this is the second in my series of “badge of the day”. I’m staying true to my word so far of picking a random badge from my old collection and saying a few things about it. The key word here is random – you have been warned! Not all badges will be as interesting as others, but I’ll try to make them interesting if I can…
So – random badge. *feels around in box of badges trying not to prick fingers* Aw, a panda. I can’t remember any particular trip to the Natural History Museum as a kid when I might have bought this, but it’s an interesting choice. It’s not actually an image I would associate with the museum. The image everyone associates with it is the gigantic dinosaur skeleton in the main hall. I guess this is ironic in the sense that that is of course natural history, but it’s also not celebrating something which is alive and walking around at the moment, which is just as important. So I’d like to think that I chose this badge because it does that. Or I may just have thought the panda was cuddly. [See below for an update to this]
I visited the museum any number of times during my childhood. We lived in Surrey, about half an hour’s train ride from Waterloo, and many Sundays were spent going up to town for a wander around. My favourite places for walking were the South Bank (still is) and South Kensington, home to all the main museums. Whether I was most fascinated by the Natural History Museum or the Science Museum around the corner is a tough call. Often we’d go to both. The Natural History Museum though definitely takes the prize for best building of the two. It’s one of the most exquisite buildings in existence, like a cathedral, except it celebrates real things, life and nature and evolution, instead of something imaginary as cathedrals normally do. I can’t seem to find any decent images of the building on the web that aren’t copyright-protected, so click here to Google some up or here to see lots on Flickr. There’s also a fascinating section on the NHM website about the history of the building and its architecture.
This badge though might also have been collected during a school trip. I remember one visit when I was about 10, and a guy outside selling rosette badges from a tray around his neck with photos of different pop stars. I bought an Adam and the Ants rosette and a friend bought a Madness one. Sadly said rosette isn’t included in the badge collection, but they were probably knock-offs anyway. The only other thing I remember about that visit to the museum is using a computer for a quiz. There was a small screen built into a display unit and three or four buttons for answering multiple-choice questions. Some of the possible answers were obviously wrong, and my friends and I found that if you deliberately pressed the wrong answer enough times the computer got annoyed and realised you were doing it on purpose. It gave a warning of something like “If you press that button again, the quiz will restart and your score will be deleted.” So of course we pressed it to see if it would make good on its threat. It did.
UPDATE 20/6/13: My excellent friend and panda expert Jules has since pointed out that the image is most likely of Chi Chi, a much-loved giant panda and resident of London Zoo from 1958 whose remains were exhibited in the Natural History Museum after her death in 1972. I don’t particularly remember seeing Chi Chi at the museum, although I’m wondering now if the badge was obtained on a forgotten, much earlier visit occasioned by said exhibitionary taxidermy.
This is the first in what promises to be a regular series of short blog posts about my badge collection. This isn’t quite as geeky as it sounds: it’s not a huge collection and I don’t actively collect them anymore, but recently I moved house and dug out of the loft a sizeable quantity of personal stuff I’d hoarded saved, some of it going back to my childhood in the 70s and 80s, and this box of badges was among the memorabilia. They were mostly given to me by benevolent grown-ups, or I got them for free when visiting some show or exhibition, or I bought them from the gift shop on a school trip. I think they might be fun to write about because they’re of a certain period. Even the sizes of them are interesting: most are larger than badges you’d see in gift shops now (probably as much to do with production costs as fashion), one or two are ridiculously huge (the 70s being a time when bigger was always better) and some are button badges of the 80s variety you bought to line your jacket lapel to let people know the bands you liked. A lot of them are rusty and although I’ve been desperate to show them to my own children, I instinctively warn them away from the sharp pins, notwithstanding the fact that it was perfectly normal to be trusted with sharp objects during my own childhood.
But anyway. I’m aiming to pick a random badge from the box each day and post a bit about it, starting with the one above. The Fonz was everyone’s favourite character from the 70s US TV sitcom Happy Days which I watched religiously as a little kid (the only other show I remember being as devoted to in the 70s was Batman). The show revolved around the trivial shenanigans of a group of Milwaukee adolescents in the 50s and 60s. It was filmed before a live studio audience, and every time “Fonzie” walked on the audience cheered. He didn’t have to do anything to get this reception except simply show up. My recollection is that he was a minor character who stole the show in every episode; you had to sit through what seemed like hours of silliness just for five minutes of brilliance. It seems to me that Fonzie has persisted into popular culture despite Happy Days being one of the few 70s cultural icons that haven’t been shamelessly revived and exploited, with Samuel L. Jackson famously referring to him in a particularly tense scene in Pulp Fiction.
(The above video is interesting because it includes not just the Samuel L. Jackson scene but also appends some scenes from the original Happy Days featuring the Fonz which are a tad politically incorrect now, even if they are probably a pretty accurate reflection of the era.)
Of course as a grown-up you realise Fonzie was something of a pastiche and a caricature but at the time he did genuinely seem the epitome of cool, with his gestures (the swagger, the thumbs-up, combing his hair), his leather jacket, his minimalist vocabulary (“Hey”, “Cool it”, “Sit on it” – the latter I never fully understood), his confidence, and his good looks. I remember a defining episode in my own primary school life when the whole class was grounded because someone wrote something on the blackboard: I can’t remember exactly what it was – it wasn’t a swear, but enough to enrage the psychologically sadistic PE teacher, and when the room dissolved into chaos the idea struck me that I could dissolve the tension by yelling “Cool it!” It worked in that moment. But in general, as a nervous, utterly uncool child, Fonzie set me an example which I have never since managed to follow; in fact I blame him for setting the standard hopelessly high.