The news is bleak from the 2012 London Olympic Pub Crawl. Team USA failed to get the gold. Team USA was out of the medals. In fact, Team USA failed to finish. We were like the relay team that drops the baton on the second leg or the marathoner who comes up lame on the second loop around St. Paul’s Cathedral.
We had expected better. Team USA emerged from late-night training sessions at the Lazy Dog bar in the St. Giles Hotel, one of the lodgings of the Track and Field News Olympic Tour, which had brought us all to the games. Practice began each evening after the Olympic track and field program. It consisted of rehashing the day’s competition and drinking Stella Artois. But the Lazy Dog, truth be told, is an antiseptic place whose only virtue was the short totter it required to the elevators and our waiting beds. It lacked the charm and character of London pubs of legend. The 2012 crawl was intended to supply that charm and character
We put together a team with tremendous experience. After we cut my brother Dennis for consistently drinking nothing stronger than lemonade, we had a trio with well over a century of beer consumption behind it. Besides myself, it included Kevin, an orthopedic surgeon from upstate New York, and Richard, a Scottish-born computer engineer who, in retirement, has joined the Peace Corps and is working in Ghana.
Our task: visit the eight pubs listed in Kevin’s London guidebook as the most historic drinking places in central London; have a pint in each; and do it all between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Saturday, August 11. We had to finish by 5 because that’s when we needed to descend into the Tottenham Court underground station for the ride to Olympic Park.
The rules may seem arbitrary. Why these eight pubs? Why three hours? But the Olympic pub crawler’s job is not to challenge the rules, any more than a marathoner’s job is to ask why the course goes out to the Tower of London rather than Paddington Station. At the Olympic track meet, the athlete must meet the challenge, not challenge the meet. Baron de Coubertin might have said that.
Our first stop was the Museum Tavern, which was known as The Dog and Duck until 1757, when the British Museum was built across the street. Like most historic London pubs, the Museum has baskets of pansies hanging from its eaves; inside, one finds dark wood, cushioned booth benches, and a profusion of beer taps. According to legend, Karl Marx used to slake his thirst at the Museum Tavern after spending his days in the museum's reading room, working on Das Kapital. In an evident historical irony, Riszard the barkeep comes from the Czech Republic and his assistant, Kamila, is from Poland, two countries that would doubtless have burned down the reading room had they known in the 1840s what Marx was up to. I had a pint of Czech Pilsner.
We talked, oddly enough, about literature. Richard, like a lot of his Peace Corps colleagues, finds that living as the lone American in a remote African village turns out to be a great opportunity to read. He's been reading Hemingway, among others.
Our pints were done before the conversation, which is one barometer of a good pub crawl. We set out for our second stop, The Queen's Larder.
And here we encountered difficulties. The crawling, it turns out, is the hard part of a London Olympic pub crawl. Not only did our London maps (or our sense of direction) prove less than adequate to find The Queen's Larder, which apparently was once a food storage place for Queen Charlotte. Asking directions was a bit ticklish as well. One mispronounced word and we were liable to be arrested for disrespecting Her Majesty.
We got lost. We passed the children's hospital on Great Ormond Street that is, in a nice British touch, the beneficiary of the royalties from the works of J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan. We passed it again. We asked directions. We looked on maps attached to lamp posts. Precious minutes slipped away. Finally, across a pretty London square, we saw the telltale pink of pansies hanging in baskets. There were tables outside, and at one of them, an extended English family was eating and taking in the summer air. I took a picture.
The Queen's Larder has at least one distinction, based on the unscientific observations of Team USA. It has a genuine English barmaid, whose name is Carolyn. The majority of the women serving beer in London these days, it seems, come from Eastern Europe. Carolyn had broad, tattooed shoulders, which was fortunate. London publicans, when they pull a pint, really have to pull, repeatedly. Carolyn did.
Our conversation stayed literary. Richard, evidently, had been waiting a long time to discuss the books he'd been reading in Ghana. I am a sucker for discussions about authors. We talked about Graham Greene. Richard told us he'd once entered a contest that required him (Richard, not Greene) to write a novel of 50,000 words in a month. I told him that Greene had never written more than 500 words a day. Kevin, who was in fact the only English major among us, began to look a bit bored.
We had to leave in the midst of pondering how Greene's wife and various lovers had felt about their portrayals in his fiction. I looked at my watch. It said 10:30 a.m. My immediate thought was, "We're making great time! Gold medal time!" Then I remembered that when I arrived in London I had decided it would be easier to add five hours every time I looked at my watch than to reset it without the help of a manual. It was 3:30 p.m. Half the allotted time was gone and we had completed only a quarter of the crawl. Things did not look good for Team USA.
Our next pub, The Lamb, was easier to find. But I also kept finding distractions. We encountered a street artist just before we got to the pub. She was actually creating art on the street. She had placed pieces of drawing paper in a long row on the sidewalk in front of a store. She was drawing something, apparently a depiction of something in the store, on each piece of paper. She said she was from Italy and she was in London working on a master's degree in "creative imagination."
It sounded like the sort of thing I should have majored in, but there wasn't enough time to ask if scholarships were available. We had to get into The Lamb and drink. And we did. But it was becomig apparent that our pace was not going to be sufficient to complete the course unless something changed dramatically. So we changed the rules. We decided to take a taxi to our next stop, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, off of Fleet Street. Not only did the taxi go much faster than my tiring legs could have done. The driver actually knew the way.
I wondered briefly why someone would name a pub after old cheese, but someone had, and a very long time ago. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is in an alley, and the sign outside says "Rebuilt 1667." That, apparently, is a reference to the London fire of that time, which presumably burned down an older version of the pub.
The earlier pub must have been in a cave, because the modern version of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese was about as small and cramped as a building can get. It was a warren of dark rooms connected by winding hallways and narrow staircases. The barkeep, named Kenny, pulled us our pints and told us that Charles Dickens used to drink at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, back in the day. That was when London's newspapers were all on Fleet Street and when Dickens was working as a journalist. Real estate on Fleet Street has gotten too expensive for newspapers these days, and Dickens has long since moved up the ladder from reporter to novelist. But Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is still going strong.
Which, by this time, I was not. I was feeling olde. Literary conversation was beyond me. Someone nearby observed that Kevin resembled John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate. "2004," Kevin responded. "The Olympics were in Athens that year."
I went downstairs to the loo. Dickens may have been a giant of literature. But he couldn't have been a physical giant if he was able to get up and down that staircase without repeatedly banging his head. It was designed when being 5'6" meant you were destined to play center for the Team GB basketball team.
Somewhere on that staircase, time expired. We had not just failed to win the 2012 Olympic Pub Crawl. We'd only completed half of it. Just as the track and field competition so often does, the crawl had established that experience is no subsitute for young legs and speed.
We took a cab back to the St. Giles. I thought about what Baron de Coubertin had said, or allegedly said. (More competent historians than I might tell you he didn't actually say this, or if he did he was quoting someone else. Nevertheless.) "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."
I'll drink to that.