Wonder and Mystery in a Great English Pub

The bar at the Basketweavers Arms in Brighton.


There’s something almost magical about a really good pub.
When I say “really good”, I don’t mean the ones with fancy cuisine (top rated in the latest pub food guides) or a vast range of beer, wine and spirits. “Crap pubs” my younger sister Nancy calls many of those places. Trying too hard.

As with so many rewarding and deeply English customs, the key to a really good pub is tradition.
And that’s a very difficult one to unpack.

Unlike fine French, Italian and Chinese cuisine or the fabled American burger, the great British pub isn’t an easy thing to export nor replicate.
Something about it is organic, or as we Americans like to say, authentic. If you have a favorite pub it’s “your local.” Regulars have a sense of ownership that has little to do with the money they spend.


A really good pub works because of “the punters” – the personalities who inhabit the place each evening. They know the customs and rituals. They supply the hum of laughter, conversation, even argument. Perfection it is not.
A really good pub works because of the beer. A perfectly pulled pint is a thing of beauty. Neither ice cold (perish the thought!) nor room temperature warm, the ideal pint of beer goes down smoothly: the perfect balance between fizzy and flat.


Half way down. A glass of Fullers London Pride.

And here’s the thing. I don’t really like beer anywhere else than in a cozy British pub. The mix of chatter at the tables nearby and a good humored, but not too friendly bartender makes the suds go down easy.


It’s all about balance. So easy to get that one wrong.
My sister Lucy knows. She was a publican for a decade. Being the landlady of a village pub in Somerset was “bloody hard work.” On her feet from morning ’til night. The place was open every day of the year. The routine included an exhausting mix of joy, laughter, friendship and even a certain amount of status. But it often came with physical pain. Challenging too. Managing the menus and bar staff was no easy feat. Not to mention the finances.
Because of a decades-long decline in custom, being a publican is often a struggle. Many public houses have shut down.

In the past English pubs were home away from home. When the telly was black-and-white and your indoor heating was iffy at best, the pub was a warm, welcome retreat.
Today, with inexpensive wall-to-wall carpeting, large Samsung flat screen TVs, wifi, Netflix and yes – adequate heating – many modest English houses and flats have been transformed. Vast numbers of folk don’t go out much as their parents, uncles and aunties did.
Successful pubs are increasingly rare. But when you find one, dropping into an English local is a real treat. A place where you’d be missing out if you didn’t go in for “a quick one”.



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How Do We Fix It As We Leap Over a Cliff?


I’m in London – capital of “we have no idea what’s going to happen next.” 

This much is certain: Never in recent decades have Britain’s intelligentsia and political elite been in such a fog – baffled by Brexit and troubled by Trump.   I can’t remember a time when so many op-Ed writers end their articles with the limp observation that “only time will tell.”

It’s almost as if you can hear an audible shuffling of papers and clearing of throats, as the great and the good struggle to explain how great events might unfold in 2017. Most of them – us really – were so wrong about remaining in the European Union or the inevitability of Hillary. We have no idea exactly what is coming next.

It’s well past time for a little humility.

Speaking in Liverpool this week, Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, admitted that many ordinary people had been screwed by the rise of globalism.  “The combination of open markets and technology means that … a globalized world amplifies the rewards of the superstar and the lucky,” said Carney. “Now may be the time of the famous or fortunate but what of the frustrated and the frightened?”

What indeed?  The usually bold and confident Governor didn’t seem to have much of an answer. 

How much damage will the Brexit vote do to the U.K. economy? It seems that the economic forecasts change almost weekly. 

After dire predictions during the summer of a great slowdown, promoted by uncertainty over the implications of the Brexit referendum, Britain should finish the year as the fastest growing economy of the G7 economies – according to a survey by Scotiabank. The Bank of England recently upgraded its outlook for the near future.

What will Donald Trump do to the environment and America’s standing in the world?  The omens are not good, but it’s hard to know if America will be the laughing stock when so many other countries are facing a similar challenge.

The voters smashed the china and there is very little agreement – here or back home in the U.S – on how it’s going to be put back together again. As “The Thunderer” (aka The Times of London) said in a recent editorial, it is not business as usual.  

To be continued.

How Do We Fix It? After We Smashed the China

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Viewing art helps me take a fresh look at the world.

Painters do it all the time.  They deconstruct the objects, landscapes and people they see – putting them back together again on canvas. Reimagining the world. What a brave and profound thing to do.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we would do the same thing with the way we think about politics and culture? Question our identity or tribe. Take a fresh look at the views of those we hang out with.

After the dramatic results of the Trump election, Brexit in the U.K. and now this week the vote in Italy, it’s time for the chattering class to go back to the drawing board – especially those of us who were surprised or deeply troubled by the electoral eruptions of 2016.

Voters smashed the china. We have to find new ways to put it back together again.

That’s the starting point for “How Do We Fix It?” – our podcast about ideas and solutions. Jim Meigs and I are political independents, who listen to many different opinions – especially guests who are able to come up with creative, undogmatic fixes for the problems they’ve considered.

We have a lot of fun doing our show. Playing in the sandbox of ideas.

This playful abstract painting (above) illustrates the point. It was completed in the 1920’s after artist Stuart Davis spent a whole year focusing on three objects on a table – an electric fan, an egg beater and a rubber glove.

He observed them solely on the basis of color, plain and their spacial relationships (at least that’s what I’m told by curators who studied his work!)

These objects became flat plains of color. He mixed things up, creating a fantasy space. This painting – now part of an extraordinary retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington – is the result.

“I see the artist as a cool spectator,” said Davis in 1957. A “reporter in an area of hot events.”

Isn’t it time for us adults to create our own fantasy space? See the world from different points of view? Right now, at the end of this crazy year is a great time to try.