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15 May 2024

Parrot’s pint lost

A salutary tale of petty officiousness and a pub-dwelling tropical bird.

By Nicholas Lezard

Ladies, gentlemen, non-binaries: gather round, and let me tell you a story about the British character.

It is a rare sunny day – the day after the local elections, as it happens – and I am in Kemptown, the funkiest part of Brighton, which is already pretty funky, for I have had my hair cut by the excellent Claudia at Eighty Eight Barbers, the best barber’s in Brighton, among stiff competition. I have also bought some excellent sausages from the Polskie Smaki and have arranged to meet my great friend Ben, who lives just up the road, for a pint.

Ben’s favourite pub in Kemptown is, for some reason, the Kings Arms, which has been around for ages but stopped decorating in about 1973, except for the introduction of massive televisions and an illuminated ring around the dartboard. Ben once told me a funny story about nearly getting into a fight with someone because he was also called Ben, and Ben (2) thought Ben (1) was taking the piss.

I try to steer him away from the Kings Arms. I point to the Marine Tavern, where I once had a very pleasant nightcap after dinner at Ben’s place.

“You ever been there?” I ask.

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“Yeah, yeah, it’s a nice little boozer, but the best one on St James’s Street is that one,” and he points to the Saint James Tavern.

I am naming and shaming.

Ben tells me of a late night he and his wife had there once, and how the pub boasts a splendid parrot.

“Of course, you’ve got to be careful with parrots,” he says. “Their beaks are like pliers. They can have your finger off if you’re not careful.”

I did not know this about parrots. Every British citizen knows one thing about birds: that a swan can break your arm with a blow of its wing; I now know two things about birds.

So we go inside, and lo, the only seats available are very near the cage, a construction about the size of a greenhouse, and on it is climbing a very majestic and very large parrot. It’s my round, because I owe Ben many a pint, and we take our drinks to our seats. I take a small sip, decide the beer is good, and listen while Ben tells me more about the parrot. At which point I notice a movement from the corner of my eye, turn, and see the parrot, who has ambled over to us, with its beak in my pint.

Imbued with a new-found respect for these birds, I do not try to shoo it away. I am fond of my fingers, and do not wish to lose any of them, even though the Royal Sussex Hospital is just down the road. Neither do I want to drink from a pint where the parrot’s beak has been. I do not want psittacosis, or bird flu, or whatever other lurgies can be transmitted by parrots. Instead, I do what any normal human being would do: I take out my phone and film it, with the intention of putting the footage on a social media platform later. The parrot has a nibble on a piece of yellow pepper placed as a snack for it, and I take my pint back to the bar.

“I’m sorry,” I say to the barman who served me, “but I’m afraid your parrot has been drinking from my pint. Could I have a replacement please?” (I say “barman”, but he looks barely old enough to shave. I say this for the purposes of identification, not insult.)

“OK, that’ll be £5.50,” he says. (Or whatever.)

“But he stuck his beak in my pint,” I say.

“You were encouraging it,” he says.

“I was not,” I say.

“You were taking pictures of it,” he says.

“Only after it started drinking my pint,” I say.

Ben comes over.

“I’ll have to text my manager to see if you can have a free pint,” says the barman. I cannot believe my ears.

“Come on,” says Ben. “He’s not hassling you for a free pint. He just doesn’t want to catch myxomatosis.”

“Psittacosis,” I say.

“Whatever.”

The barman serves some other people, ignoring me for a bit. This makes me fume but I keep my temper.

“Look,” I say when he turns back to me, “pour me the pint, and if your manager says I have to pay, I will. But think of the goodwill you’re throwing away.”

“ARK,” says the parrot, hanging upside down from its cage.

In the end, Bumfluff tells me I have to pay for the replacement pint. And I swear vengeance, and never to return to the Saint James Tavern.

And it occurs to me that this happened on the day after Boris Johnson was turned away by officials at a polling station for not having a photo ID. So there we have it: two examples of petty officiousness, one hugely popular throughout the land, the other making my blood boil. It’s a funny old country, isn’t it? So we go to the Kings Arms and have a good old moan about it.  

[See also: I have a gift for hangovers and doing an impression of a helicopter]

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This article appears in the 15 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Stink