Friday, 22 June 2012


It’s been called the most exciting place to eat in London ever. Sabina Legge hunkers down at Southbank’s most daring new eatery.
Less than two years ago, Michael Sykes had it all; after apprenticing under some of the world’s greatest chefs, he’d taken them on and, it seemed, beaten them at their own game. His own Sykes@ in the Bentley-driving part of E1 hung its two Michelin stars proudly over its Thamesside terrace; it was easier to fast-track the Honours List than it was to get a Saturday evening table. 
But under the creativity that gave us lamb’s tongue meringues and iced dandelion cassoulet, Sykes’ mind was becoming like one of his own oxtail souffles; a just-brittle outside guarding a whipped centre unable to hold its own shape. After an infamous night during which he attempted to drown AA Gill in a sous-vide waterbath, Sykes disappeared, most of us thought forever, another casualty of the punishing pressure facing those who cook at the very sharpest of sharp ends, ends far sharper than even the sharpest of Japanese Kyocera ceramic boning knives. 
When word emerged that Sykes was not only cooking again, but had re-invented the entire concept of dining, we couldn’t help but both stifle a yawn - after all, how many times have we been fed that particular PR line? - and feel our curiosity being stimulated. A visit seemed not only desirable but somehow our duty. 
No booking? Check. No tablecloths? Check? So far, so tapas bar. But Sykes has taken the stripped-back standard so much further; there’s no tables, no chairs. Open kitchens are so last year - Sykes does all his cooking over a fire that sends yellow flame and bright amber sparks from the oil drum it burns in, out into the London night. This is the most basic of restaurants, so denuded of frippery that it doesn’t actually have a building; all of the cooking and eating takes place in the most intimate space, tucked alongside the river’s edge under Waterloo Bridge. 
The wait for a table isn’t the usual ‘drink at the bar until we feel like letting you sit down’ so common these days; there’s a real element of theatre as other diners, dressed in clothes so outre they make Westwood look like East Ham, bicker over aperitifs - delivered in shared bottles, passed around among those who sit around the great man’s brazier, faces tinged saffron by the firelight. Facial hair seems de riguer, as does a form of communal language that bypasses the need for consonants, and sometimes for anything resembling words, altogether. 
Waiters are also bypassed, as are plates and other non-essentials such as cutlery; the food is ‘served’ into a dish the size and shape of an upturned dustbin lid, and it’s pretty much every man for himself, tearing off hunks of peasant-style roast meats fragrant with the exotic woods burning in that huge unfathomable pit of fire. Behind the scenes Sykes himself is breaking up what look like enormous frames of wood, some of them marked with unknowable foreign markings and designs. 
What is this meat we’re sharing with the others? Sykes remains silent, grunting only as he hauls another slab of it onto the flames - I believe I caught a glimpse of something resembling a rabbit, my companion swears he heard some form of yowling noise as fresh supplies were brought in - by other diners, who then joined the passionate throng waiting for the fire to do its magic. 
There’s also a very set menu of accompaniments; a salad of fresh leaves, unidentified but with the petrichor scent of fresh grass, and I’m sure the heady clout of wild garlic shoots came through somewhere. 
Finally, as though recognising us from the old days, Sykes himself approached us, offering a private view of his worn but still very serviceable chef’s knives. Not wanting to distract him from his new venture, we demurred and set off to find a taxi. As we ambled out into the brighter but more sterile lights of the RFH and Victoria, we could hear approaching sirens and the unmistakable blue lights of a fire engine. Obviously Sykes’ cooking appeals not only to the dedicated gourmet but also to the honest working man in uniform. 
Sykes, under Waterloo Bridge. Dinner Tues - Sat, presumably. Prices negotiable. BYOB, but be prepared to share. Children/pets welcome, but keep hold of them.

Friday, 8 June 2012

How To Spend A Wet Afternoon

Quick trip up into the attic the other day; stumbled across a box that I didn’t recognise. Usually I can tell more or less what I’ve stashed in what box, sometimes I’m helped out in that regard by a big felt-tipped ‘PLATES’ or ‘PHOTOS’ or ‘OLD CRAP’. This time the box was just a box, sealed with tape that had got fragile and unsticky, so it was easy to flip the flaps and take a butchers inside. 
Now then: it took me a minute or two to place these; old comics, probably from the mid-1970s (definitely from then; cover dates reveal all), printed on cheap newsprint, glued spines rather than stapled, pretty much A4 in size, limited colour palette if any. The tell-tale signs of a comic published by AJ Wellbrother & Co, the Rotherham-based publisher who made most of their income in rather bland magazines for the more genteel lady, and who went out of business in the early 1980s. 
I’d love to have scans of the covers and perhaps the interiors, but there’s an IT failure being dealt with at present and I’m already excited enough about the find that it’s been the devil’s own job not to get this post up before now. But although there are, sadly, no pictures, I hope that the couple of days I’ve spent going through the box will aid me in composing a word-picture that will bring the visuals flooding back to all those who will recall these comics.
The majority of the books are copies of Pinnacle, a boy’s weekly that first appeared on April 14th 1973. I have about six month’s worth of these, and I’m not sure if the comic ran for any longer, or was amalgamated into another title (something that caused any reader to dread seeing the words ‘Great news inside, Chums!’ on any cover, sounding as they did the death-knell for that title as it was absorbed into another), or was just abandoned altogether to clear production space for one of Wellbrother’s more popular comedy titles like Wacky or Giggler
The front cover of the first issue of Pinnacle features a rather stern man in a polo-necked sweater, aiming a gun at the reader, his image overlaid with a gun-sight. This picture is on the right of the page, with the left side taken up with the words ‘NEW! IT’S NUMBER ONE! OF A GREAT WEEKLY FOR BOYS! FREE GIFT!’ and a representation of what looks like a kazoo made of cardboard. 
The pages are, unsurprisingly, yellowed and rather friable with age; having turned a few of them, though, I’ve noted the following features...
The chap on the cover seems to be Major Peter Secrett, the lead character in the first strip, Secrett’s Army. This begins with Secrett leading a platoon of men into some form of anti-terrorist activity, as they burst into a secluded farmhouse and fire, seemingly indiscriminately, at the occupants. These include a farmer’s wife in a pinafore, and a black cat. Given the era, I can only assume the victims are to be seen as analogous to IRA activists, some form of pre-Thatcher ‘enemy within’. 
By the end of the initial four page episode, Secrett has been court-martialled out of the Army on a trumped-up charge brought by his own commanding officer, General Malthouse, and linked with the farmhouse slaughter, and is wandering the streets alone. He is approached by a shady figure in a long macintosh, who turns out to be - surprise! - Malthouse, who tells Secrett his country needs him...
The next installment shows Secrett being told by Malthouse that the court-martial was purely a device to free Secrett from the shackles of army procedure, so that he can take over a clandestine group of ex-servicemen like himself, who have also been forcibly ejected from their roles, and forge them into a finely-honed fighting unit who can - to quote Malthouse - ‘take down the enemies of our land before they can even begin to put their heinous schemes into play!’ Answerable only to Malthouse himself, who in turn is solely responsible to ‘one far more important to this country than ourselves’, this will be the secret army known as Secrett’s Army.  It’s quite possible that more thought went into the title than into the plot. 
Battleaxe Bertha in is the next (ahem) berth; this two-page comedy strip with comedy violence also has a military setting  - I presume this milieu makes it easier to get young male readers interested in older female characters - and concerns a large, bad-tempered army cook and her continuing war of attrition with the lazy, work-shy privates under her command. Extra depth is added when an external threat - the possibility that Bertha may be cashiered after food poisoning strikes the camp - brings her and her men together to find the real culprit. This on-again, off-again loyalty/insurrection theme brings a fresh dimension to the scenes of Lanky, Smudge and Bazza (the three most prominent in the command) being assaulted with tea-urn and soup-ladle by an irate Bertha after yet another pile of spuds has failed to be peeled. 
Sealboy, the next story, stands out among the adventure strips by dint of its quite beautiful artwork. It’s uncredited, as was usual at the time, and I cannot find any concealed signature anywhere in the first six or seven episodes. It looks very European, so I’m guessing it’s by Jose Cazuela de AtĂșn or one of the Spanish studio artists. Sealboy concerns an un-named orphan who, while on a day-trip organised by his orphanage,  falls un-noticed into the sea and is rescued by seals. The friendly pinnipeds teach him how to swim, eat fish, open crabshells by banging them on rocks, etc. He then uses these skills to combat sea-based crime. Why the orphanage never mounted a search-and-rescue operation, or how Sealboy escaped an early death from exposure, is not revealed. 
I’d have expected another comedy strip to follow Sealboy, given the serious/humorous alternation of themes, but instead there’s the hybrid of Wilkie and his Waxworks.  Wilkie Wilkinson owns or manages (it’s never specified, in that strange way that germane situations never are in British comics. They just are. And we accept them as such) a wax museum in the quiet town of Mulsberry. It’s all very Cotswold-y, very English Heritage, the kind of place you’d expect a Sunday evening BBC1 comedy to be filmed in. Whenever there’s any kind of difficulty in the town - somebody’s double-parked in the high street, or the choir’s bus has broken down on the way to the County Harvest Festival and there’ll be no choral accompaniment to the proceedings - Wilkie gathers together his waxworks and they solve the problem. Some of the waxworks are of famous figures from history and can use their experience to assist in resolving the difficulties, but most are just generic wax figures. Which raises the questions: does nobody ever wonder what Winston Churchill is doing in a bucolic British town, several years after his state funeral? Does nobody ever wonder what manner of scientific or occult wonder has brought about these ambulatory waxworks? Or is the entire narrative just a part of a massive schizoid hallucination on the part of Wilkie, who should by all accounts be in a straightjacket? 

Luckily, we then have the straightforward Skirmish!  An unusual strip only in that it recounts actual tales from actual wars through history. Set one week in the Battle of Thermopylae, the next in Vietnam, Skirmish! can at times be quite violent and may not be historically accurate, given that in the Thermopylae episode (issue 4) both Persian and Spartan forces seem to possess firearms. 
Timmy Tornado is the final comedy strip; it’s about a boy who runs really fast. You’ve seen it before, just as you’ve seen many different variations of rich boy/poor boy. Nothing special. 
And lastly, in these first half-a-dozen issues at least, comes Tramp-Steamer Thompson - not, as I first thought, someone who cleans vagrants with jets of super-heated water, but something slightly more unsettling to our modern eyes. Walter Thompson captains a tramp steamer (or ‘knackered-looking old boat’) in undetermined waters, accompanied by a boy in his early teens - possibly younger - with whom there is no specifically defined familial relationship. Is Donnie Walter’s son? Nephew? Grandson? Where are the boy’s mother or parents? Are the two related at all, or is Donnie some form of possession of Walter’s, or a bought slave? We are never told, and the authorities with whom the two frequently interact - generally after exposing a gang of smugglers, or finding a submarine filled with burglars - seem blithely unconcerned. Why Tramp-Steamer Thompson (and Donnie) never meet Sealboy, given the crossover in their aquatic-based crime-fighting, is never satisfactorily explained. Maybe they live in different shipping areas. 
There’s more to these issues of Pinnacle; a letter from the editor, then some letters to the editor, some letters the editor left laying around, some readers’ jokes, a few advertisements (one for a ready-made stamp collection, one for a long-discontinued ice lolly - the Choccy Smasher Ice Bomb by Lyons Maid). I don’t doubt that the stories I’ve outlined above were, in time, replaced by others, but the few crumbling copies in this box only cover the first couple of months in Pinnacle’s existence. 
Strangely, I can find no reference to Pinnacle, nor to any other publications by AJ Wellbrother & Co, anywhere I search. I’m almost certain they published Mother’s Helper and Glisten (for curious little girls), but these all seem to have vanished, forever forgotten. If, by any odd quirk of fate, you or anybody you may know have any information about them, please let me know. I shall be eternally in your debt, and shall, in your honour, play a tune on a kazoo made of cardboard.