When friends ask me, “I’m going to England, what should I do?” my standard answer is “Go to pubs.” Most of the time they already know their itinerary and a guidebook will list the touristy sights to be seen better than I can. Going to a pub will enhance their experience because, in my experience anyway, it was the best place to meet interesting people.
One night I was in a pub and had just ordered a pint when I heard a voice next to me ask, “Are you American?” Some people advise responding to this question by pretending to be Canadian, but I found that most of the time anyone who asked was interested to meet an American and didn’t want to berate me about my country’s political and military policies, although sometimes when they learned I was from Nashville they’d have so much to say about Elvis I’d wish I’d said I was from Toronto, but that’s another story.
On this particular occasion I said “yes” and looked over at the guy who’d asked. He had a blonde mullet, going bald from the front, and was wearing the kind of tracksuit I associated with 1980’s-era Al Sharpton. In Britain they’re called “shell suits.”
“All you Americans are a bunch of wankers,” he said. As he tilted his pint glass back to drain the last golden drops from it I was tempted to say something like, “No, just the guys,” but he was glassy-eyed and had slurred a little.
“You Americans are all wankers,” he said again, then he turned to me and moved a little closer. I got a little bit of a buzz when he exhaled. “But you listen to me. I was in America the other day.” The other day? Did he just pop over there for a day trip? He’d leaned toward me menacingly and I thought I’d better hold my tongue. “Everybody was trying to sell me ice cream.” It was really hard not to laugh, but he was so serious I kept still. “But they took care of me. You know that? The Americans took care of me, and I want you to know I’ll take care of you. Anybody gives you trouble I’ll fix ‘em.”
“Steve, your cab’s here,” someone called from the door. Steve—that was who I’d been talking to—stood up. He was six feet tall but looked like he weighed about eighty pounds. I appreciated having a potential bodyguard who could be knocked over by a stiff breeze. As I turned back to finish my own pint I noticed the bartender was red-faced from laughing.
I’ve always been fascinated by Marx’s statement that history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce. There wasn’t anything tragic about meeting Steve, apart from the fact that the pub was in a remote town I’d been passing through and that I’d never go back to, but events in life sometimes have echoes. A few nights later I turned on Spitting Image. The episode ended with a song about the county of Essex, and there was Steve! Or at least bulkier versions of Steve wearing shell suits just like his. I laughed until I hurt.
One of the wonderful things about the internet is for years I’ve been able to tell the first part of the story but there was no way to convey the second part without actually having the Spitting Image video on hand. And here it is.