So this short video of how to behave in a British pub from 1943 has been making the rounds, because on the internet no history is ever lost, and it’s fun to watch because of how much has changed and also how much hasn’t changed. Or at least how much I hope hasn’t changed. Take a few minutes to watch it. I’ll be here when you get back.
Anyway it reminded me of a night I was in Britain and taking a train from Stratford-On-Avon to London, which is probably the second most-touristy train trip an American in Britain can take. The first is the trip from London to Stratford-On-Avon. I started talking to an older gentleman who, I now realize, was probably in his early teens in 1943, too young to enlist but old enough to know what was going on. I regret not asking him about that, but he had other things on his mind.
“Do you know why people don’t like American tourists?” he asked me.
Normally I chafe at those kinds of generalizations but I was a student and there to learn; he also clearly wasn’t talking about me, so I let it slide. I was letting him steer the conversation, as I usually did, because I liked talking to people on trains. On another trip, I forget where, I spent the entire ride talking to a guy just a few years older who told me if he’d taken a nap like he’d planned he’d be up all night so he was glad I kept him awake, and there was the young woman who told me what a wonderful city Leicester is, and I’m sure it is–it’s well off the tourist track, and it’s on my list of places to go should I go back. Back to the guy who knew why no one liked American tourists.
“They barge into pubs and they go right up to the bar without waiting their turn and yell, ‘I want this’ and ‘I want that’, making a nuisance of themselves.”
I’m not sure exactly how I responded, but I think it was some way of politely saying that not all Americans are like that and we have a term for the ones who are: “assholes”. And I’ve been plenty of bars in America where acting like that is a guaranteed way to get the bartender to add a little something extra to your drink, but that’s another story.
He agreed, and added that he might have passed by a lot of Americans without knowing it because they didn’t act like that, and he added that it was important to always say “please” and “thank you”. That was something I’d never thought about, but I became very conscious of always doing just that in any interaction. I never could get the hang of the casual British “ta”, so I stuck with “thank you”.
We chatted a bit more about pubs as a center of British life. In fact pubs were my other favorite place to meet and talk to people, and were one of the things I missed most when I came back to this side of the pond. A few years after my return a British couple in Nashville, also pining for pubs, opened one of their own and called it Sherlock’s, and I’m not kidding when I say stepping through the door was like crossing the Atlantic. Even the friendly vibe was the same, and most people who came in knew enough to wait their turn and ask for a pint of Guinness or a plate of fish and chips politely.
Sherlock’s, just a block from where I catch the bus these days, unfortunately closed when the couple who owned and managed it retired, but still, no matter where I am, I remember “please” and “thank you”. Some things will inevitably change, but I’ll keep what I can.