Pub taps. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
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Things are looking up: there’s a little cash in my pocket and it’s quiz night at the Uxbridge Arms

Heady pints, asteroid fights and the finest living example of the London landlady.

To the Uxbridge Arms for the quiz. It has been a quiet Sunday and, for the first time in what seems like weeks, I have felt a desire for human company on licensed premises rather than a period of self-medication while watching my Facebook friends have more amusing lives than me. (I have had, by my standards, a most pleasant weekend; as pleasant a weekend as one can have without the offspring in it.)

I also have, for what seems like the first time in ages, enough cash in my pocket to make an evening in the pub not a financial catastrophe. I am early but that’s fine, because I feel like a pint while reading the TLS, which I am pleased to note has a review of John Lydon’s latest autobiography in it and has a stirring picture of him goggling spikily at the camera from his first heyday. I have an enormous amount of time for the man, and when Kate Mossman interviewed him for this magazine I expressed outraged envy. Why couldn’t I have interviewed him?

As it is, although the pub is quiet and I have slapped my TLS down on the counter in a marked “I’m going to read this” fashion, I don’t get the chance to read it. For a start, there is Richard, on my left, to whom it is always a pleasure to chat, who must be said hello to; and there is Tom the Hat, on my right, about whom exactly the same may be said.

Then there is Linda. Long-term readers of this column may remember her. She is the guvnor of the Ux (not to be confused with the guvnor of my local; I wonder what’s happened to him?) and may be considered the finest living example of the London pub landlady; that is, in P G Wodehouse’s words, one upon whom it is unsafe to try any oompus-boompus. Grown men cower before her and when she says, “Jump!” they say, “How high, Linda?”

A smart-looking man in his fifties comes in and asks for a pint of cider. He specifies what kind of glass he’d like: not one of the new tall ones but the traditional cone-section glass. Poor man, I think to myself, and Linda duly tells him he is wrong, that the new glass keeps the head and bubbles lasting longer. “I don’t want the head or the . . .” he starts, but it is too late. There is no use protesting, for Linda Has Spoken.

There is also Debs, behind the bar, and she must also be said hello to – for she is not only surpassing fair but is also possessed of a gob and presence second only to Linda’s. You don’t want to get on the wrong side of her, either.

There is a new face behind the bar, too: a young woman called, I learn, Yoona. (If that’s how it’s spelled. It’s certainly pronounced like that.)

“Nick, tell Yoona about the pub quiz.”

I think for a few seconds.

“It’s where a bunch of horrible old men and some women come to shout at each other for an hour or so,” I say. “It’s an institution.” (Cue predictable widespread drollery based around the word “institution”.)

And they all trickle in as we get nearer to 6.30pm. Grumpy Ed; Mary (real name Michael, but he knows all about musicals, despite being heterosexual, and tonight he’s holding his locks in place with a scrunchy); Nickie (“Hello, Oona.” “It’s Yoona.” “I can’t say that. I’m calling you ‘Oona’.”); my old friend Toby . . .

How long, I had wondered earlier at the bar, had this institution been around?

At least 15 years, was the consensus. Norman, who is setting the quiz this week, by the way, is not horrible. But he is old: about 80. He won’t mind me saying that, for, in the picture round, one of the portraits – sepia-aged, which I tentatively identify as that of Evelyn Waugh – turns out to be of Norman himself. When he reveals this in the answers, he gets a round of applause. Which is just as well, because everyone had been getting very cross indeed about the difference between asteroids, meteors and meteorites and this was before anyone raised the issue of whether we actually know what caused the Tunguska event in the first place. (Malfunctioning warp core, I think.)

Toby and I, playing together, are one point in the lead at half-time. By the end of the quiz, though, we have slipped to a miserable third place. My money has run out and I am bloated by beer, but not enough to forget that I have squandered such scant intellectual capital as I may have had. “We shall not speak of this again,” I say to Toby, as I stagger out of the pub eventually, wondering if I’ll make it home without needing a pee.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Liam Fox as International Trade Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for International Trade.

Only Nixon, it is said, could have gone to China. Only a politician with the impeccable Commie-bashing credentials of the 37th President had the political capital necessary to strike a deal with the People’s Republic of China.

Theresa May’s great hope is that only Liam Fox, the newly-installed Secretary of State for International Trade, has the Euro-bashing credentials to break the news to the Brexiteers that a deal between a post-Leave United Kingdom and China might be somewhat harder to negotiate than Vote Leave suggested.

The biggest item on the agenda: striking a deal that allows Britain to stay in the single market. Elsewhere, Fox should use his political capital with the Conservative right to wait longer to sign deals than a Remainer would have to, to avoid the United Kingdom being caught in a series of bad deals. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.