by Rick Steigelman
Looking for ways to leave momma off the pub trail.
At the risk of sounding like a scamp of a child, ungrateful towards the one whose generosity has provided him his first glimpse of London, England, part of my plan going into the trip was to ditch Mom as often as was possible and for periods of time as long as I could get away with. The subway (which Mom prefers to travel from one site to the next, while I make the trek by foot), is developing as one such vehicle of this noble aspiration. Visiting an old buddy, I hope, will work as another.
There is in England a native Brit named Russ, with whom I’d worked in a restaurant a few years earlier, while he was slumming it over in the States. He had since returned to his homeland and lived in the coastal town of Brighton, from where he commuted to his job in London.
I had gotten in touch with him prior to my visit and we found ourselves in complete agreement that my wish for an authentic ‘English experience’ would best be served by our getting together for a pub crawl. It simply must be done, in the name of cross-cultural understanding.
Upon returning to the hotel from a visit to Westminster Abbey on the second day of our trip, I make contact with Russ. We’ll meet that evening in the hotel lobby at ‘half-six’, which, translated, means six-thirty.
The old boy looks the same. He tells me I’ve lost weight. I suggest that we remedy this deformity by adding a few pints to my frame. He says he knows just the place.
With great anticipation, the two of us head out the door, joking like old times. It doesn’t take me long to fall into my old habit of teasing Russ about his pronunciation of certain words of the English language. It takes him even less time to remind me that I am now the foreigner and, as such, am now the one off-key. It’s a right solid point. I shut the hell up.
Our livers are not long idle, for in no time at all we are turning into a curving little alleyway that, though seemingly non-threatening, has me instinctively placing one hand over top my wallet as I cast about for any sign of Oliver or that little bastard, Jack Dawkins. This lane, rather than being a shortcut, is, in fact, our destination. There it stands at the bend in the road, Bradley’s Spanish Bar, Hanway Street.
My English friend sheepishly informs me that he comes to this favorite haunt of his for the German beer. I’ve come to London, England to go to a Spanish Bar and drink German beer? My understanding was that the Armada and the Luftwaffe had both been repelled. But, what the hell, if this is Russ’ definition of an authentic English experience, I’m going to have to trust him on it. It is his home turf, after all.
We take our German beer in the ultra-cozy downstairs portion of the bar. If Goering is capable of mustering one last air raid, this looks to be as good a place as any to wait it out.
With that threat seemingly well past, we eventually emerge and cross over Oxford Street into Soho. Long a fashionably hip district, I fancy myself a natural fit. We weave our path towards Frith Street and the Dog and Duck. They say that George Orwell used to drink here. The author of Animal Farm drinking at the Dog and Duck? A coincidental connection perhaps, but, on the other hand, if this place did, in fact, serve as the inspiration for such literary genius, I cannot help but wonder whether there might be something in the pints they serve here. I think I’d better look into it.
It is a small corner bar and, on this evening, jammed with patrons. We take our pints out onto the sidewalk, where we join many a reveling passerby in the pleasure of a delightfully cool spring evening. The Dog and Duck proves another good call by Russ. My friend certainly knows his pubs.
Unfortunately, our voyage into the London night life must come to an end much earlier than either of us would like. It turns out that Russ has a house-sitting obligation. He proposes that we simply finish our ‘crawl’ the next evening and he extends to me an invitation to join him and some friends “to watch the dogs run” in Southwark. He tops it off with the suggestion that I spend the night at his place down in Brighton.
The appeal is obvious. My availability, less so. Mom wasn’t particularly thrilled with my going off on my own this evening. To follow it up with an overnighter seems like a bit of a prayer. I will have to proceed delicately. I explain the situation to Russ and tell him that I’ll call him the next day with the results of my begging.
Amazingly enough, Mom doesn’t much go for the idea. She opens up the spigot of maternal guilt and sticks my head underneath for a good soaking. I am able to surface just long enough to recognize my cause as desperate.
I fish out my ace in the hole. I sell my soul. Despite my refusal, in response to my mother’s earlier supplication, to ever set a single foot inside Harrods Department Store, I would now be passing through their front door with both feet. My role, as clearly delineated to me, would be to serve as the bearer of the inevitable purchases to be made at Harrodsand God knows where else.
With a deal in hand, I call Russ with, what is on balance, ‘the good news.’
I repay Russ for his kindness in having me along with his chums that night by inviting him up to the hotel room to meet Mom. My guess is that he’ll never forgive me for it, but I don’t dare ask. You see, Mom proves as deft at turning her spigot upon a complete stranger as she is in directing it towards her son. It is a show of Mom’s egalitarian bent.
Russ and I cannot leave soon enough. First, however, we must make a dash to a nearby store to pick up some beer for Mom, which she intends to drink in her hotel room. I had recommended instead that she spend her evening taking in the local atmosphere round the corner at the Museum Tavern, which sits across the street from the British Museum. With Mom’s being a bit of a Lefty, I thought that the Karl Marx association would appeal to her.
My sales pitch, though, had been rebuffed. My suspicion is that portraying the martyr is much more easily accomplished by sitting in ones hotel room with only the BBC for a companion than it is by actually going out and enjoying oneself.
The beer delivered, Russ and I hit the road. Fast. Or at least as fast as his little yellow, French-made automobile can carry us. Probably not much bigger than the dogs we are rushing down to see, I find my concern for our safety not terribly alleviated by Russ’ maneuvering this miniature along the frenetic streets of London like someone who’s already worked through his first few pints of the day. On the other hand, perhaps this approach is the key to mastering the London traffic. With barely enough room to do so, I keep my fingers crossed.
The coziness of the ride is enhanced when we stop off and pick up Russ’ friends. Speaking cockney rather than English, these two chaps’ commanding of the conversation has the unintentional effect of excluding me. I guess that I’ll be saving my voice for cheering on the dogs.
We are across the river in Southwark, which, consistent with British tradition, is pronounced differently than it is spelled. How did these people ever invent a language? How they arrive at ‘S-u-t-h-i-c-k’ from Southwark, only Dr. Johnson knows.
We knock off a quick pint at Copperfield’s before heading over to Catford Stadium.
Russ and I can only stay for three races, as we have other obligations to meet, namely the catching of ‘last call’ down in Brighton. With such an abbreviated stay, we gamble fast and hard. I recklessly throw down a pound apiece on three miserable losers called Pink Gal, Slough Joe (a savvier bettor probably would’ve read something into the name here and cast his quid elsewhere) and Kate’s Law (not to be confused with Kate Rulesbecause obviously she didn’t, unless doing so from the back of the pack).
To those who consider cruel and inhumane the sending of dogs around a track in futile pursuit of a fake bunny, I can only say that watching them squander my money proves hardly a picnic for me, either. I am already conjuring up better uses for these mutts.
Russ and I leave his friends with best wishes for the reversal of their own dismal fortunes. They probably do not understand a word I say.
Our first matter of business upon leaving the two of them is food. Though I am not a big fan of fish, I sign on to Russ’ suggestion that we pick up two orders of fish and chips to consume on our drive south. It certainly sounds like an English thing to do. It is an act of consent that I will dearly regret the following morning.
With food in hand, we scamper back to the car. I’ve quickly fallen into the practice of waiting for Russ to let me in on what should be the passenger’s side of the automobile. Oddly, my rising blood-alcohol content has done little to lessen my confusion over the design flaw that, in vehicle after vehicle in this country, has placed the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car. Until a recall can be brought into effect, and the mistake corrected, I am resigned to the likelihood of finding myself, time and again, redirected round to the left side of the automobile to occupy the driver’s seat without the steering wheel. Russ, bless his heart, is patient with me.
We then stop by a beer store to pick up some Newcastle Brown Ale with which to help the fish ply the grease downstream. Russ runs in to make the purchase. I stay in the car so as not to complicate the seating arrangement.
I am not sure how the laws in England read concerning the issue of drinking and driving, but I suspect that we may be violating them. Technically, of course, I am not the one driving, despite being seated on the left side of the front seat. It is a circumstance that I’ll gladly point out to any arresting officer.
We arrive in Brighton at ten-thirty (’half-ten’ for those of you with the steering wheel located on the wrong side of your car), a mere half-hour before the absurdly early English closing time of eleven o’clock. How in the world they expect a person to drink responsibly when, by official decree, ones drinking must be conducted at an accelerated pace is beyond me. We certainly haven’t been having much success in tapping the breaks.
So, we hustle on down to The Battle of Trafalgar, where we are privileged to witness Round Two of this famous confrontation in the form of a couple of locals squaring off over some issue or other. It results in only a minor skirmish, however, and hardly threatens Lord Nelson’s place in the history books.
My hunch is that these two fellows might’ve experienced a difference of opinion regarding the propriety of the pub’s serving Budweiser on draft. If so, I fall squarely into the corner of the combatant who opposed it. The bland American giant muscling its way into a spot along the beer lines that could’ve, and probably should’ve, been reserved for any one of the many top-notch homegrown brews is damn near enough to make a fella wish that the Crown had quashed the rebellious colonies into submission, and had hanged wholesale the likes of Washington, Jefferson and Adams. Patrick Henry may have his damn libertyas for me, give me an iron fistful of ridiculously high tariffs served up with a well-crafted ale anytime.
“Time, gentlemen, please” is our cue to pick up more beer at the store and head back to Russ’ apartment. Here, we meet up with his girlfriend, Angela, who, like Russ, is a photographer and who, like just about anyone trying to make their way in that field, is a waitperson. She is just getting home from work.
Though a native of Maine, USA, Angela, after several years of living over here, now speaks as funny as Russ does (except, of course, that we are in England, where they don’t think they sound funny at all). Angela explains to me the photography project on which she is presently working, depicting the cruelty of the fabled English fox hunt. I do not share with her my feelings regarding the dogs of Catford Stadium.
Russ sneaks over and pops into the tape player a cassette that he had recorded on the sly one night back in Ann Arbor when we went to see a Zydeco band play at a local nightclub. Between the music and the old photo album pulled down from a shelf, how good it is to drift back to our days together in Ann Arbor.
The reunion takes a decidedly less pleasant twist the next morning, as the fish from the previous evening finish their voyage with something of a flourish. It is a rough train ride back to London. Fortunately, the only other people to occupy my train car are a young couple who are far more interested in each other than they are in the possibility that the Irish Republican Army may’ve had a hand in packing the overnight bag I leave unattended on the seat behind them during my lengthy relocation to the restroom facilities.
Suffice it to say, my first choice of ‘things to do’ upon my return to London would be to go to the hotel and sleep off my condition. I find my second and third choices running along those same lines. Expecting no sympathy from Mom, however, I shall be keeping this dream to myself.
She meets me at the station and leads me over to the train that will be taking us out to Windsor Castle. I am only thankful that this train ride goes more smoothly than the last. A result, I suspect, of having nothing left to give.
Rick Steigelman was born and raised in Muskegon, Michigan moving to Ann Arbor to attend The University of Michigan, before descending into a life of bartending. In addition to publishing the novel The Hope of Timothy Bean (Briarwood Publications), he has placed works of creative nonfiction in Superstition Review, Prick of the Spindle, Hackwriters and Cosmoetica. Steigelman won the Men’s Travel Silver for “Ditching Mom” in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.