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”.

Travel To a New Place: What I Learned About Life and Politics at the Alhambra 


A view of the Alhambra in Grenada, Spain.

Gazing up in wonder at the mighty AlhambraI knew that coming here, even for just a few days, was a good move as well as a excellent photo op.

Travel is food for the soul, and wandering through alleyways and ancient buildings in Spain’s Andalusia has been a wow! experience.
I’m far from alone in raving about the place.  In 1832 Washington Irving published his classic collection of essays and stories, “Tales of the Alhambra,” and called Grenada it “a most picturesque and beautiful city.”
A palace and battlement inside The Alhambra 

This great fortress built high over Grenada was an imposing castle. But inside its walls there was a small town, beautiful palaces and intimate spaces with intricate and beautiful mosaics: A place where the Islamic Moors of Spain ruled this region for nearly eight centuries.
Before they were finally thrown out of Europe in the momentous year of 1492, the Moors presided over a land that has been praised in recent years for its many accomplishments and relative tolerance – at least compared with the  brutal standards of the Middle Ages.  In Andalusia at this time the classics of antiquity were studied. Jewish scholars wrote in Arabic.  Physicians, astronomers, horticulturalists and thinkers from three great religions exchanged knowledge and inventions.
Both The Alhambra and The Mezquita in the ancient Andalusian city of Córdoba, are surviving examples of a great civilization.

Columns and arches in Great Mosque at the Mezquita in Córdoba, Spain.
“In Al-Andalus, for eight centuries, communities of Moslems, Jews, and Christians lived side by side or intermingled the one with the other,” writes Steven Nightingale in his fine new book, Grenada, which celebrates
this long overlooked culture.  “There was no precedent for so extended an experiment in the history of Europe, and it has not been equaled since, for daring, brilliance, or productivity.”
After a centuries-long war, the Moorish era came to an end with the surrender of the Alhambra, and victory of Spain’s Queen Isobella and King Ferdinand.
After the initial Christian triumph, what followed in the 16th and 17th centuries in Andalusia was a long and slow decline for the region, largely caused by religious zealotry and the overreach of the monarchy and Church.  The Spanish Inquisition was responsible for the systematic, brutal, and cynical expulsions of Spain’s Moslems and Jews.
A narrow street in Grenada’s Albayzin barrio.
The lesson that I think I learned in the tender, scented narrow old alleyways of Grenada is that the relatively open-minded cooperation of the convivencia proved to be of more lasting value than the bombast of later centuries in rigidly Catholic imperial Spain.

Today, in a time of deep political divisions and dogma from the left and right in the United States, as well as growing cynicism over business, political and civic leaders, reaching back and learning some lessons from history is worthwhile. 

Soaking up other cultures and looking at the world from different points of view are great ways to put yourself in a new place, removed from the little dramas and hassles of everyday life back home. 

The author soaks up some local vino, with The Alhambra in the background.
Photos by Richard Davies

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.