The Queen Mary II docked at Southampton, and I took the transfer to St. Pancras which is near where I was staying in Bloomsbury. The trip was long because London traffic is terrible; I do not drive in England. I had not been back for over a dozen years, though I used to go every summer. The thing that I particularly noticed was it seemed much more crowded than it did all those years ago, and it had seemed pretty crowded to me then. It may be for this reason housing is so very expensive. I suppose San Francisco comes close, but an efficiency apartment in London can cost over half a million pounds easily. Some of my friends have arrangements with Cambridge Colleges; others were smart enough to acquire rent-controlled flats or even bought outright. I was not so clever.
In any case, the pavements were crowded at St. Pancras; the black cab, not inexpensive for a distance I could have walked had I not had two largish cases and a briefcase, again seemed to pass far more people than I had remembered seeing in the old days. An old friend met me at my local pub for a drink the day I got in; it was overflowing in the small back garden and out onto the street in front. We could get a place inside; London had been pretty hot and nobody much wanted to be inside. My friend had beer; I had cider. The cost also had gone up – over ten pounds (about $12.70) for two pints.
I have never acquired much of a taste for British beer – or Irish, for that matter. Hard cider is my tipple at pubs, and I like it very much. I thought, quite wrongly, that I had managed to acquire a taste for bitter before I left the University; I was quite delusional. I do remember drinking “Dogbolter” at the old Firkin chain of pubs, which have alas! been take over by someone else. I think you can get kits to make “Dogbolter,” but it would not be the same. For that matter, my fondness may well be nostalgia rather than a real love of the beer. It was about as alcoholic as anything you can pump at a pub. The story of its name came from the brewer’s family. It seems that an uncle had made a strong batch of brew, and in stumbling home, the revelers fell into a ditch. Their crys of alarm set the dogs bolting, hence “Dogbolter.”
Speaking of Irish beer, a college mate of mine used to frequent working class pubs, I suppose as a matter of principle. I remember going into one decades ago, and my pal produced a pamphlet from Guinness that suggested mixing it with orange or grape. I still cannot quite believe Guinness suggested this, and certainly the barman was equally incredulous. He drew the Guinness, poured out the grape, saying “Here, mate. You do it. I can’t.”
I almost never go to bars in the States, but pubs are another matter. I like pubs. I have even been known to order Pimm’s Cup in one, though I suppose this would make me a marked man for all the beer-guzzlers to mock. I remember the friend I just met at my local took his eventual wife and me and my date to the Stewards’ Enclosure at Henley, which then had four bars: two general and two just for champagne and Pimm’s Cup. After a pint of Pimm’s, you are really quite oblivious to what the rowers are doing on the river. This was the famous occasion when my date refused to drive down in my friend’s Aston Martin, which seemed to show very poor judgment on her part, though not of course in men. After all, dying in an Aston Martin has a certain caché; it beats going out in a SUV.
Even in pubs, the Brits do a bit better with ice than they used to do. I can remember being handed a can of warm Coke off a British store shelf in winter. It was foul. Of course, we Americans do like our ice! There is a wholly inadequate little refrigerator in my room, which barely keeps a bottle of Harrogate sparkling water from being tepid. I suppose that this, too, is a bit of progress. It seems that a fondness for ice is a matter of how you were brought up. The British were brought up on room-temperature drinks. By the way, as I am sure you know, serving wine at room temperature does not mean like the heated rooms we Americans like; it means room temperature in a chateau in France, and not during the summer! The wine served at its warmest, vintage port, still should be served at no more 66 degrees Fahrenheit, and claret a little less. Burgundy can be even a bit cooler. This is why a good host who doesn’t have a cellar or a wine fridge pops even red wines briefly into the icebox
At any rate, I am back in my old haunts in London, though alas! not with all my friends of yesteryear. I miss them, but as Stephen Sondheim put it, “I’m Still Here.” As for the rest of it, everything is expensive, and while my temporary digs are cheap by London standards (under US$200 a night), they are not by mine! It is going to be interesting to see if I love London as much as I used to love her. Of course, if I do not, I will save a good deal of money by returning infrequently. At any rate, even if I do return, I will undoubtedly stay shorter periods and not voyage both ways en grand seigneur.