Two Eagles Public House

Stone birds perch atop the Two Eagles House in South London. They have long curved necks like vultures, but presumably they are eagles. From way down at street level, it is hard to tell. And in any case, there are four of them.

Twenty-three years ago I lived and worked here, pulling blue-collar pints for room and board while working at another pub over in Piccadilly to earn travel money for a trip across the Continent. Not long after I left, the Two Eagles closed down and the building was sold for flats. I knew this, but I wanted to visit anyway. So last week I took the Bakerloo Line to its dungeon terminus at Elephant and Castle, and walked back toward my old home on 27 Austral Street.

Just one block shy, I worried that perhaps I was lost. That I might have misremembered the way to 27 Austral Street. So I stopped into a corner store to ask the clerk if he knew where the old Two Eagles was.  He was a young immigrant and had never even heard of a place called the Two Eagles. I continued to the end of the block and came upon the familiar building rising up in the late Sunday darkness. Complete with “Two Eagles House” in large lettering. The clerk will never know what he missed.

I stood outside the old building for a while, trying to photograph it in the dark. Trying not to attract undue attention from the neighbors. There was a light was on in my old bedroom on the top floor, but the building was mostly vacant, with flats still available. Hanging in a window next door, a bright poster celebrated Eid, the end of Ramadan. Not likely pub patrons, I thought.

One block onward I came to an open pub, but they didn’t have traditional English ales and the few people inside were far too young to remember the Two Eagles. So I moved on to the Three Stags, where the bartender allowed me one post-closing-bell pint of ale. It was a chance to sit and meditate about the Two Eagles and its long-gone patrons and my lost youth. Crap like that.

It occurred to me that this bartender with his two-foot dreadlocks was about the same age I had been when as a young college student, I  worked in the same neighborhood, pulling pints of bitter so that I could see Europe. Maybe he was doing the that too. Nostalgia. “I used to work in pub just around the corner there,” I offered. “The Two Eagles.” He stopped cleaning long enough to answer: “The two what?”

So the bartender at the Three Stags and the young people in the pub nearby and the clerk at the store a block from Austral Street and the neighbor celebrating Eid not ten steps from where a pubic house operated between 1809 and the early 1990s, they do not remember the Two Eagles.

But I do. And this is a little of what they missed:

The Proprietor, who confused me when offering me a job by calling himself Joanne. I later realized that he and his wife were Joe and Ann. He believed that it was bad luck for two people to be on the same flight of stairs at the same time, which in a four-story building will cause an occasional traffic jam.

The Proprietress, Ann, who lovingly created the sturdiest of English meals as my board for nearly four months without once changing the oil in the deep fryer. Her son suffered from cystic fibrosis. Her daughter taught me to watch a regular patron whose abdominal hernia grew visibly throughout each night of drinking.

Barry, the master cellarman, who told me matter-of-factly that dogs don’t trust black people: “It’s like they know something.” His assistant, who was my age, believed that the BBC was trying to cover up the truth about spontaneous combustion. Some people just erupt in flames.

The Friend of Ned, whose name I cannot remember, but who I do remember was especially cheap. He could not stand to see any of his money invested in a proper head of Guinness—that would be less alcohol in the glass. So for every pint poured for him, he would stare distrustfully and coach, “Just like that, lad. A little more. Just like that, right up to the top.” Until every hint of froth had spilled over the edge and he had a perfectly flat top for a perfectly flat Guinness.

Eddie, who Joe banned from the pub during my first week of work because he was an alcoholic. For three weeks after that, Eddie’s friends boycotted the Two Eagles until the proprietor relented. The Two Eagles needed business as much as Eddie needed his health. So Eddie and his friends returned, and all was well again. Eddie made me a cassette tape of his favorite American jazz so that I would better appreciate my own culture.

Jimmy, who in his 80s was completely tone deaf.  But he had once been a marvelous singer. Eddie and his friends waited until Jimmy had downed enough sherry to lose his better judgment, and then they would demand that he sing. Then Jimmy would stand up and howl, looking up toward the ceiling with eyes half closed, glass of sherry still in hand. During each performance, his so-called friends would laugh and slap their knees because the singing was so awful. But for those few minutes every night, the voice in Jimmy’s head was as beautiful as the music in his heart. And if he knew that his neighbors were laughing at him, he never let on.

Sidney and Aimée Bloxam outside the Two Eagles Pub, September 1919.

Sidney and Aimée Bloxam outside the Two Eagles Pub, September 1919.


Many thanks to Lawrence Pearse for sharing this photo of Aimée and Sidney Bloxam standing in front of the Two Eagles in 1919. Lawrence writes:

The couple are Sidney Bloxam (born 1898) and his French wife Aimée Bloxam (born 1900, maiden name Bertin); Sidney was serving at the time in the RAF as a Leading Aircraftsman. He was my mother’s uncle, and thus my grand uncle. The photo is dated to September 1919. Sidney and Aimée lived opposite the pub at 6 Austral Street with his parents and one of his sisters and her husband. You can see a picture of their house (now divided into nrs 6a and 6b) on Google Street View.
If you enlarge the photo on screen, you can see the name Austral Street above the pub. I would love to know what the main sign on the pub read. My guess is: [Two Eagle]s. Importer of the [finest wines/whiskies/ales?]. In the window there is an advert for what I take to be [Bu]chanan’s [malt whis]kies. There is a listing on the original publicans of the Two Eagles on line. The 1911 census shows Edward Phillips, a Somerset-born man, as the licenced victualler.

I have always been struck by the direction of their shadows, and their length, which seems to indicate that the photo was taken late on a very sunny day, as they are looking towards the north west. London would still have been on daylight saving time in September.

Best regards

Missourians Never Ever Malign Onondaga's Nearly Incomparable CavesMy son William does not believe in mnemonics, much in the same way that my wife does not believe in stoplights. They might be useful for other people, but mostly they are hindrances to be ignored. Although I am more of a believer in mnemonics, I do have a better appreciation of Will’s point of view now that I have been in the Ozarks. It started a couple of weeks ago when I was following a mother and child down into Missouri’s Onondaga Cave.

“Let me teach you something,” the mother began. “We’re going to see these really cool formations called stalactites that hang down from the top of the cave. You can remember the word for them because it has the letter T which looks like a stalactite with its long tail hanging down. And we’re also going to see formations that are like stalactites rising up from the floor. You can remember the word for them because it has the letter M which looks like two peaks sticking up. These are called stalacmites (sic). And I thought: You ignorant woman, you have a bad mnemonic. Stalactites have a C for ceiling. Stalagmites have a G for ground.

We were descending into a world of spectacular, eerie beauty. But now I was thinking mostly about how Plato was wrong about the Cave. And how appropriate it is that the spelling of mnemonic is so difficult to remember.

The Road to High Ridge

There is a deaf and homeless woman living on the outskirts of St. Louis, and she is trying to get to High Ridge. She lost touch with her childhood friends up north a long time ago. She is estranged from her alcoholic husband. She left her car by the side of the road when it broke down because she couldn’t afford repairs. But she is convinced that help is just 30 miles away, in the city of High Ridge.

She has been told that somewhere in a public library in High Ridge, there is a woman who can look up your relatives on a computer, print certified state documents for you, and reconnect you with a support network of friends from your past. If only you can reach her.

But it isn’t easy for a homeless woman to get to High Ridge from the outskirts of St. Louis. No public transportation goes there. It isn’t safe to walk. And cab fare one way is more than $60.

If you meet her, she will tell you her life story and ask for help–use of your computer, a ride to High Ridge, or money to help get her there. And in exchange she will give you Xeroxed sheets of sign language letters and vocabulary.

She compulsively wraps all kinds of things in tissue paper–maybe for decoration; maybe as protection. She pushes her worldly belongings around in a stolen shopping cart, overfilled with blankets, empty water bottles, toiletries, Butterfingers, and seemingly useless objects that she finds along the road. Even the homeless struggle with clutter.

And she fills notebook after notebook with information to help in her quest for High Ridge, including the names of people she has met trying to get there. Names of strangers from across St. Louis and Missouri and the United States. People like you and me. These strangers are willing to help a little, but afraid to help too much, believing that the car has long ago been towed away and sold for scrap, that the friends and relatives up north do not really want to be reconnected,  that the librarian with the magic computer does not exist. And the only thing standing between the homeless woman and a realization of these bitter truths is a stretch of 30 miles.

Valentine’s Day

A duffel bag of clothes, an old guitar, a section of obituaries torn from the Sunday Times. This is what it takes to say goodbye to my father.

In a way, the goodbye started more than 10 years ago when I found a bottle of St. John’s Wort in his medicine cabinet. For a man too hardy to believe in doctors, this was a startling admission of vulnerability. A label on the back of the bottle offered hopefully that the pills might prevent memory loss. The security of grasping at straws. He was a licensed architect who had memorized the values of trigonometric functions and carried an encyclopedic knowledge of building codes in his head. And now he owned a bottle of unproven medicine—something you could get without consulting a doctor or talking to your family. It was the first logical step in a quiet, private battle with dementia. I closed the medicine cabinet and let it remain private.

Dad was more than an architect. He was an accomplished athlete, a musician, an artist, a mechanic. He was the closest thing to a Renaissance Man I have ever known. And he was funny, which is the best skill of all at the dinner table. And most important, he was a good father.

So tonight, one more time, I will pull out the old guitar and play the same songs he used to sing to me when I was a child. And he will fall asleep to them as I used to fall asleep. And then I’ll pull out the torn sheet of obituaries—a page of love letters on this Valentine’s Day—and try to learn from them how you say goodbye to someone you love beyond words.

Department of Languishing

I dreamt the other night that I was in the passenger seat while my son was driving slowly into a parked car. No breaks, no deceleration. Just crunching, slow crunching. First we pushed through the bumper, then then trunk, and finally we began to push through the backseat. I wondered when he would stop. My mouth was agape, but the only sound coming out was snoring. This is the nightmare of a parent whose first child has just earned his first driver’s license.

On December 29, after months of practice drives, tedious traffic safety classes, and written tests about school zones and speed limits, our son William joined the millions of adults who have passed through one of American life’s major milestones: A day at the Department of Licensing.

Within fifteen minutes of arriving, he had already taken and passed his driving test. Now the only thing between him and a driver’s license was a handful of DOL employees. But armed with their clever weapons of bureaucracy, they were able to hold an entire room of people at bay for hours. Want to stand in line for a license? First you need to get a number. Want to get a number? First you need to stand in a different line. A line for a number for a line. And although they accept checks, they won’t accept debit cards. I scolded a clerk about this and was kindly shushed by my wife. Scolding, I had hoped, would be an amusing way to pass the time.

The wait turned out to be two-and-a-half hours. Fidgety people sat on hard plastic seats, staring at their smartphones. Staring at the floor. Staring at the number counter that never changed. I went outside for a while and read a journal by a British woman who rode a horse around India in the 1800s while her husband shot at the natives. My wife and I walked next door to the Mexican grocer where they sold candles in tall narrow glasses with pictures of saints and skeletons. They also sold pig’s feet and tripe, gallons of lard, and of course Mexican Coke.  I looked for a candle with the Patron Saint of Tedium. I ended up with a Coke.

William waited next door for his number to be called. And when it finally was called, he went up to the counter, had his photo taken, and walked away with a real Washington State driver’s license.

So now he does not need his parents. He can drive anywhere he wants, whenever he wants. Humptulips or Hackensack. He can choose a college and drive to it. He can drive across the border and disappear. He’s free.

The Department of Licensing is, I think, still too efficient. Someone needs to add a few more layers of bureaucracy. Whatever it takes to slow things down.

The Red Chicken

I tried to name our Rhode Island Red something clever. But the family wanted a more practical name, so she was just Red. A good enough name for a good enough chicken.

She did not come when you called her, but she came when dinner was served.  Not quite as obedient as the average dog, but ahead of some kids I know. She laid big eggs, and often. She blocked the exit from the henhouse when she slept, which caused a fair amount of squawking from some grumpy hens when it was time to get up. She didn’t care much about the pecking order, and was big enough to get away with it. And not least of all, she was a looker, sturdy and lustrous crimson.

With autumn molting and a dark winter solstice behind us, the other chickens are ready to get back into laying. Red was probably working on her first egg of the winter when she died this week. She will be missed, and the garden will not be quite as bright.

So with apologies to William Carlos Williams for a little rearranging, we will bid her farewell.

so much depends

a white wheel

glazed with rain

beside the red

Lanzhou Street Market, 1990

Street market in Lanzhou, China, 1990

Twenty years ago I lived as one of 30 Westerners in a city of 2.5 million Chinese people. That is .0012% of the population. So yes, we stood out. Every afternoon when I walked through the street market, I could hear people calling out, laowai, laowai! (foreigner, foreigner). It wasn’t a matter of being friendly or malicious. It was more like sneezing. They couldn’t help themselves.

Every day for a year, I walked down the same market street and heard the same people call out as I walked by.

  • Monday, shopping for vegetables: Laowai!
  • Tuesday, out to get chow mien: Laowai!
  • Wednesday, walking to Lanzhou University: Laowai!
  • Thursday, walking past the fly-infested butcher stall: Laowai!
  • Friday, in search of garlic: Laowai!
  • Saturday, checking out a giant clay pot: Laowai!
  • Sunday, ready for Uyghur barbecue: Laowai!

This kind of treatment drives a lot of laowai crazy, but it can also make you feel like a real celebrity. That was the case on a trip the 30 of us took to Famen Temple in neighboring Shaanxi Province. The town of Famen had been closed to foreigners in Communist China until the year we showed up. And we showed up in a big ostentatious tour bus.

Famen crowd

Parting of the crowd outside Famen Temple

Famen holds a relic purported to be the Buddha’s thumb. A little gray-white bone behind glass. On the afternoon we visited, the most magical thing in town was a handful of laowai who could simultaneously draw people together in huge waves and then part them like Moses at the Red Sea.

Twenty years later and back in the States. We are traveling down to Olympia on Thanksgiving in heavy traffic and there is an accident up ahead. Like every other car on the freeway, we creep slowly by looking for damage in the cars pulled off to the side. And then, right in the middle of the accident, we see two little people dressed in their Thanksgiving Day best. I imagine they had been looking forward to dinner with family and friends until an inattentive driver rear-ended their holiday plans and left them stranded. Standing by the side of a busy highway being interrogated by a police officer while countless strangers drive slowly by, staring and muttering instinctively. Laowai.

No Fishing at the Cemetery

left-leaner at Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, SCI spent some time last Sunday with the dead at Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery. Their tombstones leaned left and right, backward and forward. Some had fallen over completely and were broken in half, allowing grass to grow right up through the middle where caretakers dutifully mowed it for the next hundred years. Maybe the caretakers could have taken the time to set these markers straight again, but people come to Magnolia because of the way things tilt and crack and crumble.

The cemetery with its revolutionaries and Civil War veterans and myriad personal stories is a natural tourist destination, even if the caretakers don’t seem to know quite what to do with tourists. Arrows direct visitors down lanes marked No Trespassing. And there other restrictions not found in your typical graveyard. No Swimming. No Fishing.

But most people don’t come to the cemetery to swim with their ancestors. They come for the atmosphere and the history. There is a Confederate soldier who survived being wounded in battle only to succumb to typhoid. There are three separate crews of the C.S.S. Hunley–the submarine that only went down. And there are countless stories of the individuals who came to South Carolina from every part of the world and shaped it into what we know today.

It is easy, for a moment, to begin to feel that you are back in their world. But if you visit on a humid autumn day after a week of rain, there are also plenty of small striped mosquitoes that are only too willing to remind you that you are still flesh and blood.

Skink in a Trench

We received notice on our front door two weeks ago that there was a water leak on our property, and we had 30 days to get it fixed. Or else. The blue wheel on the water meter spun when it should have been stationary. Water oozed up through the driveway and rolled down the street. Money liquified.

So on Friday, we rented a 905-pound Barreto trench digger and bought 100 feet of new waterline. We tore through big rocks and small rocks and sand and soil. Three of us held the half-ton machine back as it tried to roll downhill into the neighbor’s yard. And sometime during the first two hours of digging, my son reached deep into the ground in front of the rumbling trencher and pulled out a beautiful, docile skink.

The skink is just like a bright green chameleon, except that is dull brown and it reacts to the changes around it by staying exactly the same color. It does have a somewhat famous defensive tactic of throwing off its tail and growing a new, blue tail. But this skink did not have time to drop its tail. The trencher yanked it up into our world, or the skink fell into the new trench in a panicked run. In any case, we had the skink for a good five minutes, docile and confused. And then we released it back into the terrifying, quaking world.

Something like ten days after we received our notice, we had the new trench dug and the new waterline hooked up. So our money is no longer rolling down the street. And as I write this post, the skink is out there somewhere above our new waterline. Hiding from the cats.

Here is what I learned:

  • The walk-behind trencher is like a Grecian monster, half John Deere tractor and half chainsaw. You can use it to dig a trench to Australia if you have enough time.
  • All the how-to videos for walk-behind trenchers on YouTube have been made by people who were renting one for the first time. These people have no idea of how to use a trencher, and they should not be filming themselves.
  • The skink has a name which sounds extremely unflattering. Perhaps if it learned to change colors, things would be different.

Trencher Warning

Horseshoes and Stars

William gets a leaner for two points

Two circles of orange lantern light on a backwoods road in Montana, with some 30 feet of utter darkness in between. We stand at one end helping to light a dull gray stake slanting up from the dirt and grass. Our partners take aim.

An arm goes swinging back once and then forward in a smooth arc, releasing a spinning red horseshoe. It might land next to the stake for a point, or even grab it for a ringer. Or it might just clock me in the shin. For an uncomfortable moment the horseshoe is hurtling invisibly toward us, trajectory unknown. By the time it emerges into our circle of light, it is too late to dodge out of the way. And that was the easy one. The next horseshoe is black.

Someone grumbles about the rules which we are not following. The stars wheel overhead past a narrow opening framed in tamarack and pine. And I am thinking about the grizzly watching us from a black forest; a giant who left her scat farther down this same road the day before. And there are cougars watching us because they are curious as well as hungry. And I am thinking about how this game must be even more difficult in the Shetland Islands, where it’s so terribly foggy and they have to make the best of it with those really tiny shoes.