Tag Archives: England

Stories are Everything: A PJ Harvey-Inspired Reading List

I listened to PJ Harvey’s 2011 album Let England Shake obsessively while researching people who were sickened or died as a result of their work building nuclear weapons. The album is both simple folk storytelling, and a timeless work about war in the grand tradition of Goya or Hemingway; like the best writers, she turns discrete stories into a broader lens through which to view the world. The music helped me grapple with what each data point of suffering and sacrifice meant, the contradictions in our national remembrance of the cold war, and the forces still shaping that memory.
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The Grim Reaper of Pubs

The family had learned to be bullish about the passing of their pub from one lofty brand to another. It never much affected their lives at drip-tray height. In the eyes of their regular customers, the Murphys were the Golden Lion. Their hands were on the taps of Guinness and Guinness Extra Cold, they signed the orders on boxes of Tayto crisps. The Murphys brushed down the pool table before evening league matches and heard the grumbles of anyone who had lost a pound or more in the flashing Dream Machine. They had hosted parties for weddings, christenings, communions. One regular, his photograph kept afterwards on a shelf above the till, had been served a last pint by Mary Murphy before dying on the pavement outside; his wake took place back indoors.

The Golden Lion is a local landmark, a towering red-brick building with a double-peaked roof and a high, pronged chimney. Seen from a distance along Royal College Street, the building looks a little like one of those Chinese cat dolls that wave. Closer, the exterior reveals fancy adornment, carved stone, colourful glazed ceramics, Dutch gables – showy work done when the Golden Lion was pulled down and rebuilt at the end of the 19th century. Its owner back then was a Victorian businessman named Will Hetherington. He put an advertisement in the parish newspaper at the time to boast of his expensive refurbishment, inviting locals to make use of the Lion’s “comfort and convenience”. In a century of successive ownership, the Golden Lion remained always a locals’ pub, used for the most part by those who lived and worked within a few hundred metres of the front door.

Under the Murphys’ stewardship, carpets, curtains, and horsey wallpaper were removed over time, leaving a clean, pale-walled interior with bare wooden floors. The family brought in a jukebox, a dartboard, later a pair of flatscreen TVs, mounted at either end of the saloon and kept tuned, as a rule, to sport, quiz shows, or (on weekend evenings) talent contests. Benches outside were taken up, even in winter, by smokers. In the men’s loo a passing Arsenal fan had felt-tipped a crude club badge above the sink and Dave Murphy, an Arsenal fan himself, had not yet ordered it to be washed away. John Murphy, after decades in charge, had retired for health reasons, and Dave was now responsible for the Golden Lion’s overall management. Though he no longer lived above the pub, Mary did. She still served behind the bar every afternoon and evening.

During their meeting with the Admiral rep, the family were told the Golden Lion had been sold on once more. Not to another pubco, but to a private individual. Dave Murphy remembered the Admiral rep being sympathetic and, speaking candidly, she told them that the man who now owned the Golden Lion “was notorious for shutting pubs down”. After the meeting, Dave Murphy rang around some friends in the business. He read out the name he’d scribbled on a piece of paper: Antony Stark.

Had anyone heard of him?

“I was told, this was it,” Murphy remembered. “The Grim Reaper. That if he knocked on the door of your pub, well … it meant the end.”

Tom Lamont’s exhaustive 2015 deep-dive on the death of pub culture in England for The Guardian is worth re-reading, considering the role a bar plays within a community — as watering hole, a place to meet up, or merely where you go to enjoy a book on a summer afternoon — as you raise a pint of Guinness, Smithwick’s, or Bulmers.

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Happy and Unhappy Messes: On Working as a House Cleaner in London, England

I once burst into tears while doing the flat of an obsessive Italian shoe-hoarder. He had hardly any stuff except the basics — bed, fridge, cooker, telly — and hundreds of boxes of Italian designer shoes. The only “art” on the wall was a yellowing Polaroid of himself as a boy in Italy, smiling at the seaside. Tanned and shoeless, young and carefree. How did he go from that to this, working 70-plus hours a week to pay rent on his nice but pokey flat full of shoes? It might look like cleaning, but every job feels a bit Miss Marple-ish. I am looking for clues, though I’m never really sure what the crime is.

At The Independent, Michele Kirsch reflects on working as a cleaner in London, England, and the fascinating, unspoken social rules that keep the cleaner-cleanee relationship “shipshape and Bristol-fashion.”

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God Save the Queen: Seven Stories about Elizabeth II

A couple of months ago I had a strange epiphany: the only thing currently keeping the world barely intact is a British nonagenarian who likes corgis.

The second half of the 20th century, the era in which we (kind of) still live, is in the process of vanishing, from Fidel Castro and the Voting Rights Act to Carrie Fisher and non-apocalyptic weather. Yet against all odds, the Queen — until not that long ago, the most boring member of a dysfunctional dynasty — has emerged as the embodiment of good sense and decency, an unflappable, gray-haired titan. Her very perseverance (she’s currently the world’s longest-serving head of state) proves: we’re not doomed. Yet.

Monarchies are ridiculous at best, vicious and blood-thirsty at worst. But after a year in which so many unthinkable things had come to pass, I find myself doing something previously unimaginable: rooting for Elizabeth II. She’s a mentsch. She survived 12 US presidents (chances of surviving #13: not amazing, but who knows? Windsors seem to hate dying). She’s found the precise balance between being real and unreal, flesh-and-blood and emblem. Here are a few great reads on the Queen.

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Who Is the Man on the Moor?

In an immersive BBC News story that unfolds on screen like a true detective case, Jon Manel tells the tale of a man found dead in Saddleworth Moor, in Peak District National Park in Northern England, last December. A cyclist found him in a peculiar position, in clothing inappropriate for a walk, and with no belongings or forms of identification.

Six months later, after tracing his final route across England from London to Manchester with CCTV footage, and examining the few clues the man left behind — including a small container holding strychnine, a poison — detectives have been unable to identify him, or figure out why he traveled 200 miles to die on the moor.

Why did the man travel all the way to the moorland track where he was found? Why there? Why poison? Why strychnine?

Some count the area where the body was discovered as being part of Saddleworth Moor.

It is very popular, especially on a bright summer’s day. Not only walkers but cyclists and climbers come here, and sailors on Dovestone Reservoir.

But it is also a place associated with a number of deaths over the years.

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Slinging Sausage to English Motorists

On top of the regular flow of customers, motorway accidents would send streams of cars piling in: coaches full of school trips, families desperate to get home. A service station is not the type of place you’d expect to have regulars, but there were plenty at our Little Chef. The toast lady who came in at 10am every day and wanted two slices of brown toast, no butter. And the handsome coffee man who came in at 11am every weekday, occasionally on Sundays. He looked a little like Kevin Spacey. There was also the guy who would come in late at night, order half a bottle of wine with his dinner and spend ages filling out the Daily Mail crossword, but mostly he was perving on the staff. And he never left a tip. A transvestite would frequent about once a month. One time a young businessman left me his number on a napkin.

There were travellers who would order big breakfasts—washed down with coke in the morning and milk at night—and would use the communal showers. They often took full advantage of the cards we had on the tables that said customers didn’t have to pay if they weren’t satisfied with the food. There were people having affairs. This always puzzled me. Maybe they thought a service station was a safe bet? They would hold hands over the table.There were also those who would come in for their last meal. During my time two different women attempted to overdose at the Travelodge after eating at the Little Chef. Both were rescued just in time.

Laura Bradley writing in the English food journal The Gourmand about working at the British roadside restaurant chain Little Chef

 

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All Comedy Will Be Canceled: How the BBC Prepares for the Eventual Death of the Queen

No one lives forever, not even monarchs. In a recent piece for Business Insider UK, Rob Price explored the slightly morbid topic but deeply fascinating topic of what will happen in Britain when 88-year-old Queen Elizabeth II’s reign comes to an end. The Queen has been on the throne for over six decades, during which time 12 different Prime Ministers have served Britain (as well as 12 US Presidents). Price posits that her eventual death will be the most disruptive event in Britain in the last 70 years, affecting all aspects of British life. In the excerpt below, he discusses how this will play out on the BBC:

Assuming the Queen’s passing was expected, the news will spread at first via the main TV channels. All BBC channels will stop their programming and show the BBC1 feed for the announcement. The other independent channels won’t be obligated to interrupt their regular programming. But they almost certainly will.

At the BBC, anchors actively practice for the eventuality of the Monarch’s passing so they won’t be caught unaware on their shifts. The BBC’s Peter Sissons was heavily criticised for wearing a red tie to announce the Queen Mother’s passing (as seen above), and the BBC now keeps black ties and suits at the ready at all times. Presenters also run drills in which they’re required to make sudden “spoof” announcements that are never broadcast.

The last death of a Monarch was in 1952, and the BBC stopped all comedy for a set period of mourning after the announcement was made. The Daily Mail reports that the BBC plans to do the same again today, cancelling all comedy until after the funeral.

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