Saturday, June 14, 2014

Old King Lud, Chairman Mao, and Me

My First Weeks in London, from Run Like Blazes:

    Wednesday, September 10, 1976. 

    Imagine the calendar pages spinning backwards, as in a 1940s film noir. Your time machine deposits you in the corner of a pub in the heart of the City of London, within the larger urbs known as Greater London, that head office of an empire, that seedbed of a monarchy, that great blotch upon the pastures of England’s green and pleasant land, once and for long the world’s greatest city, and wide enough across to accommodate seven Edinburghs. Like the long dry summer just passing, the day is sunny and unseasonably warm. A haze veils the muggy exhalations of the metropolis.
    You know nothing of the weather outside, however, sitting as you are in the corner of the smoke-filled public lounge of the Old King Lud pub at the foot of Ludgate Hill in the lee of St. Paul’s. You’re having a pint or pints and a smoke or smokes after a morning’s job-hunting and feigning absorption in the newspaper so as to forestall conversation. Not that you’d had any interviews, or hunted any real jobs. You’d merely strolled up the Strand and Fleet Street and stopped in at the Cheshire Cheese for a pint then over to the Daily Telegraph and their bulletin board and on to the Mail, ascertaining thereby that they, too, had no vacancies—although they were hiring a delivery-van driver, and you were the proud possessor of a provisional U.K. driving license, so you’d made a note of the number and promptly lost it. Then, at the end of Fleet Street and Ludgate Hill, with St. Paul’s venerable bald dome hovering above, you’d decided it was time for lunch across the street at The Old King Lud, a big old London pub half-heartedly “tarted up” sometime in the ‘60s (which on this day, remember, are only six-and-a-bit years gone by) to the extent of acquiring a fruit machine, that touch of Las Vegas for the rabble; a kind of olive-drab vinyl on the banquettes; and a color telly perched overhead, at this very moment flashing images of a man wearing a loud tie and speaking directly to the camera: why, if it isn’t Richard Baker the music-loving anchorman, reading the News at One on ITN! The jukebox next to the door is throbbing to a pop hit by the Four Seasons or the Jackson Five, or the up-and-coming Elton John, but whatever the hit song is, you don’t know it, being then as now mostly indifferent to pop culture…mind you, looking around, few of your fellow-patrons would be likely to recognize the pop tune either, although most of them probably remember that day in September 1940 when St. Paul’s dome was enshrouded in the smoke of scalded, blitzed London.
    Before you is one of the pub’s fine ales, pumped from the wooden casks that line the walls. A pint of… Shepherd Neame? Old Peculier? Old Speckled Hen? One of ‘em anyway, and not the last to pass your lips on this tenth day of September in the year of our lord 1976, despite financial exiguities. Hello, hello! Images of red-flag-submerged Tiananmen Square in Peking (not yet Beijing) cross the TV’s small screen, observed by the one or two in the bar too drunk or solitary to be involved in conversation. They gape upward, and hear the news: The man indirectly responsible for the deaths of more people than anyone else in history, the world’s numero uno mass murderer and demigod to the unwashed bourgeois-left of Europe, Mao Tse-Tung, later Zedong (but forever Chairman, like the boss of G.M.), is dead. But you know the big news already, because on the table in front of you, spread out next to your half-empty (not half-full) pint mug and a crumpled bag of Walker’s salt-and-vinegar crisps and a half-depleted ten-packet (U.S.: “pack”) of Embassy Regals (red, the cheap ones), is that day’s copy of The Times, with the headline about Mao on its famously restrained front page....

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