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What Happened When I Went to Talk About Brexit at British Pubs in NY

I am confused and nauseated by the result of the Brexit referendum and the wave of populist, xenophobic hysteria that accompanied it. I have no idea what to do about it. I am also quite drunk.

by David J. Wingrave
Jun 25 2016, 4:05pm

Photo by Sean Locke via Stocksy

It's around one in the afternoon on June 24, 2016, and Philip Kennedy is folded over the bar at GMT, a British pub on Bleecker Street, one block from NYU. The day before, our country voted to leave the European Union after 43 years of membership. The pound fell about 10 percent, sinking to its lowest value in 31 years. I am confused and nauseated by the result of the Brexit referendum and the wave of populist, xenophobic hysteria that accompanied it. I have no idea what to do about it. In preparation for interviewing the Brits of New York's expat watering holes, I have had more than two drinks. "Dutch courage" will presumably no longer be referred to as such by Her Majesty's citizens; perhaps we will rename it "British patriot's courage." I am quite drunk.

I cannot tell how old Philip Kennedy is, but if hair type were a prediction of voting preference, his straw-blonde puff would place him firmly in the camp of former London mayor Boris Johnson, the recently victorious leader of a buffoonish band of Brexiters.

Read more: Brits Living in the EU React to Brexit

"Are you a journalist?" asks Philip.

"No, not really," I reply, "but I'm writing this piece about Brexit—Brexit at the bars. Are you British? What do you think?"

Philip pauses.

"What is it that people who are grabbing at 'Great' Britain thinking?" he asks. "What does that mean? They're actually taking the great out of Britain."

"It's not very great at all, is it?"

"They've actually destroyed the UK."

"It's actually quite shit," I reply, and order another for myself.

"That's what they're proud of. The Union Jack. But they've destroyed it. So what's so clever about that?"

A fresh pint replaces my empty glass. Then, in a moment perfect for fiction, a personal-sized shepherd's pie appears in front of Philip, to remind us of everything warm and benevolent about merry olde England.

Philip picks up his fork, and then returns it to its dish without taking a bite. "How the fuck are they going to do it? This disengagement?" Philip gestures behind him. There's no one else in the bar.

As I'm leaving he calls to me. "I don't worry anymore," he says. "I don't worry. Let them get their hands dirty. Let them see what it takes."

The Americans I know are confused about Brexit in the same way that the Brits I know are confused about Donald Trump.

A 15-minute walk northwest, at Tea & Sympathy, a British café, Haley, who is from London and works in the performance industry, picks nervously at her lapel.

"When I was watching last night, I did get a bit like...I can't swear, can I?"

"Please!"

"Well I got a bit like, fu-u-uck, we're actually leaving! I had to go down the pub. I'm not worried, but if I was considering moving home, I would be really worried about it."

"But you're not considering moving home?"

"No," she says. "No. Not now, never."

Haley is charming and speaks quickly, brandishing a menu at me every few sentences. I don't want any tea.

Soon-to-be-former Prime Minister David Cameron toasting with Barack Obama. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

At The Winslow, a bar on 14th Street that Google Maps describes as a "British gastropub with lots of gin," the vibe is relaxed, and the first customers are approaching the weekend leisurely. I see multiple drinks with the same matte spritziness of the shandy I have ordered in order to slow my accelerating drunkenness.

"Are you British?" I blurt at the barmaid. I assume I'm basically sober until I notice the curl on her lip and notice that both my palms are on the bar.

"I'm not."

"I'm sorry."

"I'm not," she says again. "I'm Irish."

"I meant about being ru—"

I concede the point. Does she have an opinion on Brexit? She does not. But then she does.

"I have two friends from Northern Ireland who were living here," she says. (Northern Ireland is part of the UK.) They decided to move back a couple of weeks ago, and now," she shrugs, "they don't know what they're moving back to."

She departs to serve a man who has just sat down. He orders in the unmistakable twang of my utterly moronic home island. He wouldn't mind being interviewed, but he's waiting for someone to join him. I ask him if to sum up his feelings in one word.

I got a bit like, fu-u-uck, we're actually leaving! I had to go down the pub.

"Just disappointed, mate," he says, reaching for his Guinness. "Yeah, really disappointed, to be honest. I'm just chatting about it with all my friends back home—" he gestures to his phone, which will be his sole companion for the further 45 minutes I remain in the pub "—and they're all devastated. Apart from this one lad, who's having a bit of a gloat."

"What a twat," I say.

The man stares at me for a second.

"Yeah," he says. "Worried about the price of my flat back home."

He turns back to his phone.

The Americans I know are confused about Brexit in the same way that the Brits I know are confused about Donald Trump: They don't understand how it's even an option on the table, let alone one that people might willingly vote for. But that's the nature of a conversation that seems universal but is in fact insular. Your own opinion echoes back in the voices of all your friends and colleagues, which reinforces the logic of your own inarguable opinion. In the run up to the referendum, politicians, business leaders, and financiers were increasingly convinced the UK would vote to remain in the EU, presumably because all the politicians, business leaders, and financiers they knew were voting that way. All the Brits I had met in New York so far on this stupid depressing crawl are shocked that Leave carried the day, presumably because they are the kind of British people you can find in a bar in Lower Manhattan on a warm June evening.

Read more: Why Women Will Suffer if Britain Leaves the European Union

"Who's for Leave?" I call out toward the Winslow's newly occupied tables outside, as I'm walking to the subway.

"Leave!" a woman in a purple dress calls, throwing up her hands.

I trot over.

"You voted Leave?" I ask.

"What?" Now she looks confused.

"I'm writing an article about Brexit. You voted Leave?"

She laughs. "No, I just wanna leave this bar! We've been here two hours."

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

I take a 5 train up to the Cock & Bull on 45th Street, a hybrid midtown pub, half American sports venue, half attempt at English country rustic. On large flat screens, talking heads dissect the referendum alongside the news that Las Vegas will get an NHL expansion team. A nook to the side of the bar offers the traditional range of British snack notables: HP Sauce, Colman's mustard, Marmite. Above the liquor bottles hangs a "Keep Calm and Carry On" sign. When the news ticker announces that Angela Merkel "took the referendum result as a blow," the man sitting closest to me along the bar literally snorts and says, to himself, "No thanks."

I retreat to a standing table occupied by a red-faced man. This turns out to be a mistake.

"Are you British?" I ask.

"Yes," he replies, and he seems to take this as a sign to remove a black velvet pouch from his shirt pocket.

"I'm writing a piece about Brexit, and—"

"You're a journalist?"

"Yes," I reply, pint splashing.

"Wouldn't be interested," he says, almost snapping, and pours from the black pouch a scattering of Scrabble tiles. He maintains eye contact, and begins to rearrange the tiles into words: SPAIN, IN, SITTING, PETER.

"That's OK," I say, backing away.

"Wouldn't be interested," he repeats, his focus now on the words laid in front of him. WIT, CLOUD, SAME.

Denmark exports to the UK a lot. Very much pork.

I reverse into Teis, a Dane wearing a sensible backpack, who is flipping through a New York guidebook. His face is boyish and friendly. The result of the referendum, he says, was a shocker.

"Denmark is a small country," he says. "We do not have too much influence. But together, we have a very great influence. This will affect us all."

"How so?"

"For example, exports. Denmark exports to the UK a lot."

"I agree, I—"

"Very much pork," says Teis, shaking his head.

I like Teis so much. His open manner, his faith in the obvious advantages of the collective. His concern for vast quantities of now-destinationless pork. I am sad to say goodbye, but I'm also having trouble seeing.

At the door, I spy a man in a Union Jack T-shirt sitting opposite a woman in a linen top. Theresa and David are on holiday in New York from Devon, a rural, southwestern county in England.

"I have three sons, and I asked them—" says Theresa.

"We wanted to stay," grunts her husband, his eyes alighting on his empty pint glass.

Seventy-five percent of young people in Britain voted to remain.

Theresa moves her hand to her purse, from which she removes three $1 bills. "Haven't gotten used to the tipping yet," she says, smiling. Her husband gets off his stool. Theresa sighs. "I asked my sons, and they wanted to stay."