As pubs go, the Running Horse was unremarkable. You’ve seen its ilk all over London: the finger-smudged brass and tobacco-stained mahogany, the framed equestrian prints, the dowdy carpet redolent of spilled lager and pipe smoke. It was, purportedly, the oldest pub in Mayfair, opened in 1738. Our neighbors were likewise established: Grays antiques, Queen Victoria’s Rifles, and, around the corner, Claridge’s Hotel. In the late mornings when I arrived to open the place, an unlikely calm took hold of this corner of the city, just a block from the clamor of Oxford Street. I came to savor those quiet moments, before the room filled again with smoke and the barking of drink orders.
The pub’s clientele, hardly a trendy lot, was summed up by Reg, a diminutive, woolly-bearded Scotsman who looked like he’d be more comfortable perched on a toadstool. I never understood a single word he said—his accent was inscrutable and the words got lost in his beard—but he was patient with my bumbling and quick with a smile (I think he was smiling; it was impossible to see). As a bartender I was beyond hopeless, at least for the first few weeks. The regulars would order sloe gin fizzes just to watch me screw them up, even though no one ever wanted anything but beer. Eventually I learned to pull a decent pint, and after six months I wound up running the bar: a 20-year-old Yank who couldn’t legally drink in the States.
I moved to London in December 1990 and stayed for nine months. It was my first extended sojourn overseas, yet I’d never felt so at home in my life. London remains, to this day, my favorite city on earth—but specifically that London, in that time. “The past is a foreign country,” L. P. Hartley famously remarked, but a foreign country can likewise represent the past, forever fixed in the moment you encountered it. For me, England began—and in many ways ended—in 1991.
Try to remember the United Kingdom back then, across two decades that feel like a century. David Beckham had yet to score his first professional goal. The Arctic Monkeys were in nursery school. These were England’s in-between days—after Manchester but before Britpop; after Marco Pierre White but before Gordon and Jamie and Nigella; after Thatcher but long before Blair. It was the dawn of the Major administration, when Britain’s key was sounding quite minor. The swinging London of Mary Quant and Carnaby Street was a distant memory, as was the heyday of punk and new wave. The eyes of the world were now cast elsewhere: Berlin, Prague, Seattle. My memories of that time are neither rose-tinted nor sepia-toned but washed in a pale gray, correspondent to the slate-colored sky, the grimy façades of our road in Pimlico, the prime minister’s hair, and the national mood. The Gulf War was under way, and though the pound stood two-to-one against the dollar, Britain was mired in recession.
How convenient to be 20 and broke. I found a flat with six roommates for £45 a week. Went to plays for £2.50 (“youth concession”). Subsisted on £1 shawarmas, 70 pence samosas, and free pints at the pub. Factoring in student discounts and the laxity of bus fare collectors, my bartending wages proved just enough to sustain me. What free time I had was spent deep in research, puzzling over the mysteries of the British: their curious enthusiasms for “motorsport,” Lucozade, and Status Quo (33 hit albums in the United Kingdom since 1969, second only to the Rolling Stones). I honed an appreciation for English football and rugby (but not cricket; never could get cricket). I subscribed to Viz and The Guardian and learned to decipher most of the jokes. I pronounced it “speci-AL-ity”; called them courgettes and aubergines; said “cheers” in place of “thank you”; even acquired a trace of an accent. God, was I pretentious.
Anglophilia was not so fashionable then. Britannia wasn’t yet cool again, and it absolutely wasn’t fabulous. At times it felt downright parochial. You couldn’t get a drink after 11 p.m. or a decent cup of coffee at any hour. There were four channels of TV, and no one I knew owned a radio. Our coal-heated flat had no telephone line; we made do with the chunky pay phone in the stairwell, which never worked anyway. In almost every respect, London felt decades behind the United States. I loved it like a brother.