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September 8, 2019

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London pub tour guides have the write stuff

A bartender asks tourist Gavin Smith whether he fancies a citrus pale ale or Kolsch-style lager at the Newman Arms — a London pub dating back to 1730.

The 47-year-old makes his choice, then walks to a spot where writer George Orwell reportedly drank his favorite ales.

Orwell based the “Proles” pub in his dystopian novel “1984” after the Newman Arms. He also featured it again in his novel “Keep the Aspidistra Flying.”

Sitting at the Orwell table, Smith closes his eyes and attempts to absorb any energy left behind by his favorite scribe.

“I want to take in all that I can,” Smith said.

As soon as Smith finishes his drink, he rejoins a playful and IPA-fueled tour unlocking similar stories linked to London locales where renowned novelists and poets drank and debated literature.

“The London Literary Pub Crawl,” a popular tour that takes tourists to the favorite hangouts of legendary writers, allows literature fans to stand at the site where “A Clockwork Orange” author Anthony Burgess and his wife watched a gang destroy the Duke of York pub, and stroll the same streets as Virginia Woolf while she battled her demons.

Participants will hear stories of how poet Dylan Thomas proposed to his wife at one pub and T.S. Elliot threw back some drinks in another.

They also have a chance to drink where a depressed Karl Marx grabbed a beer while in exile before getting started on his masterpiece in capitalism criticism, “Das Kapital.” Workers of the world ... have a pint.

Organized by English writers and actors, the three-hour tour takes attendees through London’s Fitzrovia district and ends in Westminster’s Soho area.

Sometimes actors dressed as Woolf or Charles Dickens lead attendees. Other times, participants get lucky and are escorted by Nick Hennegan — a gifted and funny writer who has crafted modern Shakespeare adaptations.

His most recent one reinterprets “Romeo and Juliet” using hip hop and families of dueling football clubs.

The writers launched the tour in 2012 to take advantage of the London Olympics, but the group failed to get it started in time. Still, Hennegan said once the organizers got the Literary Pub Crawl going, they immediately had sold-out tours.

“We don’t use a touring company or anything like that,” said Hennegan, who also hosts a London literary podcast “We’re just writers and actors with other day jobs.”

Using a tablet and his memory, Hennegan recently hosted a group that included Smith, myself and a dozen of others starting at The Wheatsheaf, a traditional pub once patronized by Orwell, Burgess and Thomas.

He began with an overview of the popular pubs while tourists listened and drank a Mediterranean beer called Estrella Damm or a Hop House 13, a double-hopped lager made with Irish barley.

From there, he took the group to the Samuel Smith Brewery-owned Fitzroy Tavern and eventually to The French House, a watering hole where French General Charles de Gaulle gave a passionate speech to exiles at a time when Nazi Germany occupied France.

True, sometimes the tour attracts those who just want to get plastered, Hennegan admitted.

“But that not what this is about,” he said. “To fully enjoy it, you have to listen to the stories. Then grab a pint.”

Similar literary pub crawls operate out of New York City, Dublin and Edinburgh.

Yet other locations with a deep literary past have none. For example, the southwest US state of New Mexico is blanketed with breweries and historical sites linked to important works of literature such as Rudolfo Anaya’s “Bless Me, Ultima” or John Nichols’ “The Milagro Beanfield War.”

But there are no companies that give tours in any of the state’s major cities and towns based on works of literature.

Back in London, almost all the writers discussed on the tour are white (although a Jimi Hendrix-connected site is visited). That will likely change in the future while the demographics of England continue to change as black writers like Diana Evans, Johny Pitts and Zadie Smith transform the canon of British literature.

The last pub visited on The London Literary Pub Crawl was Norman’s Coach and Horses — a 20th-century drinking den for journalists and later, the Beatles.

The singing and drinking reminded me of tales my uncle Ernest Eguia and grandfather Carlos Contreras described when they spoke of visiting London as US Army soldiers in World War II.

Ernest would write about visiting the pubs, drinking and eating fish and chips. He was forced to drop out of a high school during the Great Depression but loved to read. I sat inside wondering if he knew some of the pubs he visited were connected to famous writers.

“I went to see ‘Sweet and Low-Down’ with Benny Goodman. It was a swell show,” a 19-year-old Carlos wrote to his mother, referring to the 1944 film. “It brought back memories of that good old USA swing music.”

I mentioned that my uncle and grandfather visited a pub like this ahead of fighting in Germany. And, as if the piano player overheard, she began playing “We’ll Meet Again,” the 1939 British song made famous by singer Vera Lynn.

“Your grandfather would have known this song,” Fiona Wallace, from Birmingham, tells me. She’s right. Our family would have known the 1942 version performed by Peggy Lee and Goodman.

I imagine a flushed Ernest and Carlos singing the lyrics, “But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day,” in a pub of strangers. I know both were scared and far from home.

Hennegan hands me a pint. “Cheers,” he says.

In that Soho pub, I, too, stood far from home. But as a descendant of Ernest and Carlos, I now make my living with words, and today, words for me are also my home.

The Wheatsheaf:

25 Rathbone Pl, Fitzrovia, London W1T 1JB, UK

The Newman Arms:

23 Rathbone St, Fitzrovia, London W1T 1NG, UK

Fitzroy Tavern:

16 Charlotte St, Fitzrovia, London W1T 2LY, UK

The Coach & Horses Soho:

29 Greek St, Soho, London W1D 5DH, UK


Tickets: US$30


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