As I write this, I am in England. London, to be exact, finishing up a conference for pastors and church leaders. It’s been a rich time, but it will be good to be back with my family and church this weekend.
I love England.
I love the history. I love the English accent. I love the cabs. I love the double-decker buses and red phone booths. I love the river Thames. I love the quaint little villages.
And lest there be any doubt, I love the pubs.
One of my favorites is tucked away down the street from the center of one of the more well-known cities in England - Oxford.
Often called the city of “dreaming spires,” Oxford is one of the more beautiful cities on the planet. Its medieval beginnings can still be felt when you walk down cobblestone walkways and through ancient colleges.
I have had the good fortune of being able to study there, and still do from time to time through various summer programmes. I enjoy any and every hour possible in its famed Bodleian library, particularly the Radcliffe and Sir Richard Humphrey’s library.
But most of all, I return to spend the afternoons writing in my favorite Oxford pub, The Eagle and Child (affectionately known by locals as “The Bird and the Baby”), largely because of who went there before me.
As a plaque on the wall reads,
“C.S. Lewis, his brother, W.H. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and other friends met every Tuesday morning, between the years 1939-1962 in the back room of this their favorite pub. These men, popularly known as the ‘Inklings,’ met here to drink beer and to discuss, among other things, the books they were writing.”
You will recognize the name of Tolkien as the author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. C.S. Lewis will, hopefully, also be known to you through the movie of his life titled Shadowlands, his seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia (also made into movies), as well as such works as The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity. Williams is lesser known to most in our day, but he was greatly respected by the others and was the author of numerous works of fiction.
Another frame on the wall contains a note, dated November 3, 1948, which Lewis and others wrote to the owner: “The undersigned, having just partaken of your ham, have drunk your health.” This was signed by, among others, Lewis, Tolkien, and Tolkien’s son Christopher.
And drink they did, adding to the lively conversation and the banter that did not let ego gain too much of a foothold, for as one landlady overheard Lewis say to Tolkien, “Oh no, not another bloody elf story to read?”
It reminds me how one day, as I sat at my favorite little table, and another stream of tourists entered – and left – I heard the manager muttering, “Bloody Christians.”
I was enough of a regular to feel comfortable asking him what he meant.
“Take a look at this,” he said, holding up a menu.
“They cost me two pounds each. Two pounds! I ordered hundreds of them, and now I only have ten because they keep getting nicked.” [I may need to explain - “nicked” means stolen.]
“You mean people are stealing them?” I asked incredulously.
“Yeah, the bloody Christians take the menus, while the bloody students take the spoons and ashtrays.”
Understanding the obvious need students have for utensils, I couldn’t help but ask, “Why the menus?”
“I don’t know, it’s what they can get their hands on, I suppose,” he answered. “It got so bad I started making copies of the menu that they could take – for free – but they still take the good ones.”
“I’m surprised they don’t try and take what’s on the walls, then,” I mused, looking at the pictures, plaque, and particularly the framed handwritten letter from Lewis, Tolkien, and others commemorating the day they had drunk to the barmaid’s health.
“Oh, those aren’t real,” he said, “just copies. They still get taken. I’d never put the real ones up.”
He paused a moment, and then said, “What gets me is that all these people who come in for Lewis are supposed to be Christians, right?”
Yes, I thought to myself, they are.
The irony is bitter; the manager of The Eagle and Child pub holds Christians and, one would surmise, Christianity itself, in disdain because of the behavior of the Christians who flock to pay homage to Lewis.
Christians who wouldn’t dare drink a pint, but would gladly steal.
As Lewis knew, loving Christ with your strength may have less to do with avoiding the beer, and more to do with leaving the menus.
James Emery White
For a fun read, investigate The Local: A History of the English Pub by Paul Jennings.
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