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”.

Going Grumpy: Why The New York Times Is Wrong About the British Election, and Maybe U.S. Politics As Well.


A headline in The New York Times

“The suicide of Britain,” proclaims an apocalyptic and, (as the Brits would say) bloody silly headline on Ross Douthat’s op-ed column.
Arriving back in New York after a very pleasant and refreshing visit to England, I’m surprised by the response to last week’s U.K. election in my gloomy, grumpy edition of The New York Times.
C’mon guys. Lighten up a little.  It could have been a lot worse.

Conservative leader David Cameron’s surprising win gives Britain a better chance of stability than the outright muddle that was suggested by pre-election opinion polls.  Thank goodness the pundits and data experts were  wrong.  The nation could have faced weeks of confusing bargaining over how to stitch together a shaky coalition.

Reading The Times over the past few days, you get the impression that the crushing defeat of the socialist Labor party leader Ed Miliband means that Britain is going to the dogs.
In his panicky “suicide of Britain” column, Douthat is wrong to suggest that “the United Kingdom as we know it is on the ropes.”  A little over-the-top, Ross!
The “little Englander” UKIP actually won fewer votes than many had expected.  This anti-modernist protest movement will be represented by a solitary M.P.  Douthat’s foreboding claim that “the deep winners were the forces of nationalism,” is an exaggeration.
Yes, the Scottish Nationalists did score a stunning victory, winning 56 of the 59 seats they contested.  But thanks to Cameron’s success in England (where the great majority of British people live), the SNP simply doesn’t have the votes in the 635 member Parliament to demand another at-bat for independence.  
Last year, the cause of Scottish separatism suffered a clear defeat. Cameron has ruled out another referendum in the next five years.
Last week’s SNP election sweep was more about states’ rights than an overwhelming demand to break from the U.K.  The system of government is highly centralized, and ruled from London.  Scots, quite understandably, want more power over their own taxes and spending.  The demand for federalism will not inevitably lead to a weaker United Kingdom.
The line outside a polling station in Berkshire. U.K. turnout was the highest in 18 years.

As for the European Union, Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum by the end of 2017 on U.K. membership could actually strengthen rather than weaken the European cause.
Both The Times’ editorial writers and the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel warned that the election result is “bad news for Europe.”
Maybe not.  Antipathy to rules and regs from Brussels is nothing new.  For decades, right-wing British conservatives have been deeply skeptical about being part of Europe.  In the 90’s they caused misery for the Tory government of John Major.  
Holding a referendum at a time when when well over 50% of Brits say they support staying in the E.U. could settle the matter for many years to come.
Britain is not alone in calling for a more decentralized Europe.  “We have potential supporters, even among countries that have been reluctant to be associated with the curmudgeonly British,” says the Mayor of London, and Conservative M.P., Boris Johnson. 
“I have every confidence that our negotiators… will be able to achieve a reform that is in the interests not just of Britain but of the whole of Europe.”
Johnson may turn out to be wrong, and “Brexit” (Britain saying no to the E.U.),  might be in the cards.  But both his argument, and the positive case for what happened last week in the election, is getting short shrift in The Times.
The result of this election is more evidence that the left in both the U.S. and the U.K. has misunderstood the message sent by voters.  Conservatives in both countries simply seem more cheerful than their opponents, regardless of the strength or weakness of their cause. 
By all means, The Times and others should champion the cause of minorities, low paid workers and the unemployed, who don’t get a fair shake from our system.  But don’t ignore the contributions of entrepreneurs and wealth creators, and the aspirations of middle class taxpayers to better themselves.
Many of us want to read about hope and progress, instead of merely being subjected to a steady diet of whining and foreboding.
Note: After writing this I noticed this from David Brooks (himself of The New York Times).  Good stuff here

Basil Fawlty Lives!

Blue Rooster on a plinth, Trafalgar Square, London

London –

OK this is it.  Final thoughts on my trip to England.

The blue rooster on the old grey rectangular plinth once reserved for a statue of a long-dead member of Britain’s ruling class near Nelson’s Column, is an example of how many here would like to think of themselves.  Fun, a little bit excentric, but very much in touch with their roots and proud traditions.

Cocky perhaps!

Irony, wit and a love for language are delightful ingredients of English conversation. In newspaper columns and on the BBC there is often a pleasing irreverence that is missing from our more earnest commentariat.

street performer in front of The National Gallery, London
Street performer in front of The National Gallery, London

From West End theater and the enormous London Eye, to street performers dressed in gold relaxing on invisible chairs in front of gasping crowds, there is much to amuse tourists.

All very fine as far as it goes.

But scratch beneath the jolly surface and you will often find service not with a smile, but through gritted teeth. The impossibly rude hotel manager Basil Fawlty still lurks somewhere in the English soul.

While this may sound strange coming from a guy lives in New York, many English people do have a problem with sincere good manners.

When New Yorkers say “thank you”, we usually mean it.  Not here. There’s often a shocking insincerity on display, especially from the comfortable classes.

One of many examples I witnessed in the past few days was in the foyer of a modern London office building.

“Oh, you are so extremely kind,” said a posh chap with an apparent straight face to the uniformed security guard, as he was allowed through metal turnstiles despite failing to present his corporate ID.

Did the man with tailored suit and silk tie mean what he said? Not a chance.

The owners of the country bed-and-breakfast where I stayed last weekend threw a late-night party for a bunch of loud friends right below my bedroom.  There was no hint of apology the next morning.

Cell-phone conversations on commuter trains are often long and loud here. And while that often happens on Metro-North, the English pride themselves in being proper and polite in a way that few Americans would claim to be.

Did any of these minor wrinkles spoil my trip? No way.

I still love it here. But a little more warmth and spontaneous kindness would not go amiss.

What’s your view of the English? I’d love to hear it.



Britain Sets a Royal Mail Example

Mells, England –

Today is the deadline for British investors to apply to buy shares in the Royal Mail, the world’s oldest postal service.

What a contrast to the sorry state of the US Postal Service, which is losing billions of dollars a year, and has been repeatedly bailed out by taxpayers.

The IPO here in Britain has been a hit.  The London Daily Telegraph’s front page headline declares that there has been a “Scramble to buy Royal Mail shares.”.

Following the lead of several other European governments in recent years, Britain is taking the postal service private, saying the system needs to modernize.

“It needs to be able to invest in its future,” says business minister Michael Fallon.  “Like any big business it needs to access the capital markets” so it can raise the money it needs.

Unlike the USPS  Britain’s Royal Mail makes a profit.  Recent innovations have included selling off large buildings and combining local post offices with other businesses in the same stores.


One clever and delightful example is here in the picturesque Somerset village of Mells. Volunteers run a shop and Post Office  that “combines the best of a traditional village store supplying everyday basics, a range of locally sourced fresh produce and specialities, gifts, stationery and an comprehensive range of postal and banking services.”

This lovely site serves as a gathering place for the community.  Something like it should be tried back home.

Post Office/ cafe/ newsstand and coffee shop near Kings Cross Station, London.
Post Office/ cafe/ newsstand and coffee shop near Kings Cross Station, London.

It’s past time for the US Congress to allow the Postal Service to be run as a business so that it can survive and prosper well into the 21st century.

Pope Francis: Truly Radical

London –

There ‘s nothing quite like travel to change my mind.

One of the joys of being over here in England is to read the British press (there are at least 9 daily national newspapers) and listen to the BBC.  The art of conversation is highly prized and a crucial part of a rich and very old tradition of rhetoric and dialog.

What’s striking is how many parallels there are between what Americans are talking tabout and what’s front and center in this green and pleasant land.

One example is the buzz about the new Pope. Although most Brits gave up on organized religion years ago there is great chatter about the new guy at the Vatican. Suddenly The Church is relevant again.


(photograph by Catholic Church England and Wales)

Catholics are going through a remarkable time of change, brought on by a man who was elevated to the papacy by one of the most conservative electorates of modern times: the College of Cardinals.

Without actually breaking yet with any  outdated Church doctrines, Pope Francis has utterly altered the conversation.  His latest splendid salvo came this week in the Italian town of Assisi, where his namesake, Saint Francis, lived in the 12th Century.

“The Roman Catholic church, from the lowliest priest to the pontiff himself, must strip itself of all vanity, arrogance and pride and humbly serve the poorest members of society,”  The Guardian reports.  What a switch from the pomp and certainty of the recent past.

“There is a danger that threatens everyone in the church, all of us. The danger of worldliness. It leads us to vanity, arrogance and pride,” the Pope said in the place where Saint Francis stripped naked, turned his back on his wealth and possessions, and vowed to serve the poor.

“He has also said that Catholic convents and monasteries that are empty should be opened up to house migrants and refugees,” said The Guardian.

This new Pope with his emphasis on personal humility and financial transparency at the Vatican appears to be setting the Church on the course of meaningful reform.

He is a radical in the best sense of the word.

Many years ago my own father, during one of our many arguments over politics and morality reminded me of what that word really means. The dictionary definition, often forgotten in today’s feverish debates, is “going to the root or origin: fundamental.” Thanks Dad.