You know how this ends. Two years after I left, Britain would embark on its longest period of economic growth in modern history—a remarkable journey from the bleak and bleary doldrums to the era of Blair and Blur and bling. Few cities in history have transformed themselves so swiftly and completely as London did in the 1990’s. The movies alone were proof: compare the drab, monochrome London of Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet (1991) with the Technicolor London of Sliding Doors (1998) and Notting Hill (1999), shiny, happy valentines to a city abloom with primroses and money.
From back home I watched this happen with a mix of fascination and regret. Each time I returned for a visit, the less I seemed to know of London. Tabloid references sailed over my head. I walked aimlessly down streets I no longer recognized, past couture shops that used to be haberdashers, Vespa dealerships that used to be Safeways. Another year, another Norman Foster tower. I kept my head down, trying not to notice, but the footwear had also changed: from tar-black Doc Martens to flashy rainbow-colored trainers. By the mid-2000’s it might as well have been a different planet.
But nowhere was London’s transformation more shockingly revealed than at my old pub. For the better part of two decades, until earlier this year, I deliberately didn’t go back to the Running Horse, not wanting to disturb my recollections of it and, frankly, worried that it might have closed. A few months ago I finally mustered the will to return. What I found was not the workaday tavern of memory but a roomful of attractive people sipping Pinot Grigio.
It looked like Denmark in there, all brushed-chrome lamps and bentwood chairs. The ancient gas fireplace still flickered away in the corner, now dwarfed by the giant plasma screen above that was tuned to a fashion show in Dubai. The ornery old jukebox had been replaced by a stereo warbling out smoove Buddha Bar mixes. Gone, too, was the bleeping fruit machine (that delightful British euphemism for slots, which made gambling sound vaguely nutritious). Someone had finally removed the yellowing lace curtains that made the pub feel like Miss Havisham’s musty parlor. Now the room sparkled with late-afternoon sunlight and smelled not of stale smoke and drunk people but of hyacinths and espresso (courtesy of an Illy machine behind the bar). A chalkboard drinks menu touted caipirinhas, caipiroskas, and nine wines by the glass. Back in my day we served two varietals—“red” and “white”—that came in boxes. Nobody drank them.
When I walked in, the bartender was serving chanterelle risotto to a guy who looked like Chris Martin if Chris Martin worked in hedge funds. My first thought was that I was on the wrong block. Who were all these unsettlingly handsome rich people? Where was woolly-bearded Reg? Where was Christine, the irascible Irish cook with a mouth straight out of a McDonagh play, whose food was as bland as her language salty? Who the hell had put duck confit with bok choy on the menu, let alone pan-fried sardines with couscous and gremolata? Suddenly it struck me: my youth had been gastro-fied. Even the chips came with a ramekin of aioli. As if all that weren’t enough, on the wall beside the door I noticed the framed clipping: a rave review of the Running Horse from British GQ.
I ordered a half-pint of stout, lingered for 12 uncomfortable minutes, then got out of there right quick. The whole experience had messed with my head—like sneaking into an apartment you once rented and seeing what the new tenants have done with the place, with equal parts dismay (Aw, they got rid of the dumbwaiter!) and envy (Damn, why didn’t it look this good when we lived here?).
Then again, all of London feels like that to me now—like a black-and-white movie that’s been colorized, until the palette’s too bright and the picture too…perfect. The comfortably dreary London of the early 1990’s was a place where even the schlubbiest guy could somehow fit in, so long as he knew a few Britishisms and could talk a modicum of sport. For a kid from the colonies, the city was the consummate host, making him feel—against all expectations—entirely at home.