What happens when you return to a destination you once knew, only to find it unrecognizable?
Credit: Lisa Linder

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.

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.

Today’s London is far more interesting, I won’t deny that. Yet still I feel—is betrayed too strong a word? Because honestly, the way I see it, we were mates once. Best mates. We liked the same music, liked the same clothes, followed the same football clubs. We even talked alike. And inevitably, we drifted apart. When we did reconnect—once a year at most—it wasn’t the same. His quips and puns eluded me. He developed a ponderous regard for wine, expensive cars, and increasingly slim-fitting suits. Instead of our usual night at the pub he’d drag me out to champagne bars and Alan Yau restaurants. I persuaded myself it was just a phase. But phases bled into phases, changes compounded changes, until, finally, our estrangement was complete.

Good Lord, listen to me. I’ve become a bad novel: Aging crank revisits lost youth; cue strings, bittersweet regret. Forgive my maudlin self-indulgence. (If it’s any excuse, I just turned 40.) But really, what on earth did I expect? Only a child—a 20-year-old—could have wished London not to evolve, not to grow up.

Of course, this isn’t just about London, is it? It’s about the feeling any traveler has returning to a place he once knew as well as any: A city that seems to hold you in it, or some earlier incarnation of yourself. Going back, you become again that long-ago person, even while the city changes utterly around you. As it is I’ve spent most of my post-London life in New York, 5,000-odd days of it, such that I’ve scarcely noticed the incremental, wholesale transformation of Manhattan over the past 15 years. Yet an Englishman returning here after a decade away might feel the same about New York as I do about London: that it looks like an artist’s rendering; that “it’s all about money now”; that glamour has eclipsed grit, and something has been lost in the process; that the city no longer belongs to me, but to other, younger, wealthier, more exciting people.

“You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now,” Colson Whitehead wrote in The Colossus of New York. For me that holds true in both Manhattan and London: this bank will always be that vanished cinema, this Abercrombie & Fitch forever the record shop it replaced. A diner is never just a diner, a pub never merely a pub. A city becomes yours when you start remembering it as it was. But what happens when the city stops remembering you? What if it just moves on, like a flame you never quite got over? Long after we stop haunting the places we loved, the places we loved keep haunting us.

Peter Jon Lindberg is T+L's editor-at-large.