“Do you want to know a secret?” the man asks.
I look around the pub, slightly bemused by the question.
“Well, do you?” he insists. He glares at me as if his life depends on an immediate answer.
I put my smartphone down and smile vaguely in his direction.
He moves closer to me. “There are ghosts beneath us,” he says. “I mean real ghosts. At least two of them.”
“Really?” I say, casually. I take a sip of beer and again check to see if other customers are listening. But they seem engrossed in their own private conversations.
The man continues. “Yes, I know all about them, you see. They’ve been walking the cellars for over a hundred years. Such a sad story.”
He swills his beer and studies the foam slide down the side of his glass as if it’s some kind of living organism. Then he drains it quickly and burps.
“Fancy another pint, then?” he says, cheerily all of a sudden. “Go on, it will do you good.”
Seeing that it’s raining cats and dogs outside and the pub feels warm and cozy, I agree. Besides, I’ve got no immediate plans for the afternoon, having spent most of the morning at the National Tate Gallery around the corner, admiring the paintings of J.M.W. Turner. Perhaps my new friend might provide a welcome distraction from the breaking story of the day: the black cab protest against Uber, the American ridesharing service, which had brought most of central London’s transportation system to a standstill and which forced me to make the two-mile hike from my hotel to the Tate in the slashing rain. Standing there in the gallery, wet and miserable, I was able to appreciate once again how the paintings of Turner speak to a fundamental part of the British psyche. In a climate of seemingly endless dampness and grey skies, his bold experiments in light and color offer a timely reminder that the sun does occasionally make an appearance in these parts. I should know; I was British once. I grew up in the damp and drizzle. That was over 30 years ago, before I moved to the sunny climes of California and became an American.
The man takes both empty glasses to the bar and places his order. He is short and stocky, dressed in black cotton trousers and a bright blue V-neck sweater which contrasts with his chubby, red face. He seems to enjoy a joke with the bartender who, after pouring the drinks, offers a mock-salute as if he’s addressing Lord Horatio Nelson or the like.
He comes back to the table and burps again, without an apology. “Here we go! Two pints of London Pride. Cheers, mate!”
I clink glasses and reach for my phone.
“Are you married to that bloody thing?” he says, wagging his finger at my digital device.
“Sorry,” I say. “I was getting the latest news about the taxi strike.”
“Ay, yes. It’s a crying shame, ain’t it? A bloody mess, if you ask me. Still, I can’t say that I blame the cab drivers though. They’ve got a point to prove, haven’t they?”
“To be honest, I haven’t studied the issue that deeply,” I say. “I’m not totally sure why they’re on strike. All I know is that I had to walk here today from my hotel. It wasn’t much fun in the rain.”
“Can’t be helped, mate,” he shrugs. “You see, it’s all about the Knowledge,” he says in a hushed voice as if he’s sharing some kind of state secret.
I take a mouthful of beer and glance at the picture of a half-naked woman on the wall.
“Oh yes, and that’s Mata Hari,” he says approvingly. “Quite a looker, eh? The most beautiful spy of all time.” He studies her for a few seconds. “This place is crawling with them, you know.”
“What! Lookers, you mean?”
“No, you daft bugger. Spies. See that building over there?” He nods in the direction of the window and points to a grey structure on the far side of the River Thames that looks like it belongs to Legoland. “That’s where they work. The MI6 building. Home of British Intelligence. The agents come here often for lunch and a pint. You can tell who they are by the black ties, starched shirts, and single-breasted suits.”
“Not forgetting the George Smiley glasses and James Bond haircut,” I say.
“It’s no laughing matter, mate.” He gets closer to my face, lowering his voice. “Just be careful what you say around here, that’s all. You never know who’s listening, or who’s watching, for that matter.”
He looks around, burps, and smiles at the smartly-dressed couple at the next table who are clearly unsettled by my friend’s behavior. Then he resumes his normal voice.
“Anyhow, as I was saying, you’ve got to feel sorry for the London cabbies,” he says. “They work bloody hard to acquire the Knowledge. It can take them up to three years to memorize all the streets in central London, not to mention every single landmark over an area of about a hundred square miles. At the end of it all, they earn the famous Green Badge. It doesn’t come cheaply, that’s for sure.”
“Yes, that’s all very commendable,” I say. “But isn’t Uber supposed to make it easier and cheaper to hail a cab? You’re just one click away from instant door-to-door service. I still don’t understand why the taxi-drivers are so upset.”
“Oh, so you’re one of these high tech gurus, are you?”
“Well, not really,” I say defensively.
“Can’t get enough of your fancy devices, eh? Look, if you ask me, it’s a crying shame when an honorable trade is taken over by eggheads. Do you know the Knowledge goes back to the days of Oliver Cromwell?”
In truth, I didn’t come looking for an argument but I have to feel sympathy for the Silicon Valley company as I have spent the last three decades of my life in northern California, teaching at a state university close to San Francisco. I’m convinced that smart technology is the driving force behind innovation and a growing economy. After all, I’ve witnessed a radical transformation in my years as a teacher, from scratchy blackboards to a brave new world of unlimited information and knowledge. And I’ve tried to adapt my teaching practice to these new digital realities. At my university, the buzz phrase is “disruptive technology.” We’re told it’s a good thing and, by and large, I go along with this, even though I occasionally shudder at the phrase’s Orwellian undertones and pine for the good old days when depth of knowledge in your area of expertise counted for something important.
I gaze again at the picture of Mata Hari on the wall, as if seeking guidance, but I can’t seem to decipher her inscrutable smile.
Fortified by more beer, I feel ready to push my thoughts further. “Isn’t Uber just putting power into the hands of the customer?” I say. “After all, you’re not going to stop progress. The Luddites couldn’t prevent machines from taking over the jobs of textile workers.”
Again, he burps; this time, it feels purposefully malicious. “You know,” he growls, “they say that people with the Knowledge use parts of the brain that the average Joe doesn’t even know exists. Are you telling me that you want to see that kind of genius disappear forever?”
My phone rings to a familiar Beatles tune. I check the number. It’s an international call, from my wife. I’ve not spoken to her since arriving in England to attend a five-day conference on multiculturalism at London University. I grab the phone, bury it in my jacket pocket, and make a mental note to call her later.
“Sorry!” I smile sheepishly.
He shakes his head and mutters under his breath.
“By the way, my name is Mark,” I introduce myself.
“Pleased to meet you. You can call me Puggy.”
“Best not to ask why,” he says. “It’s a long story.”
“Anyway, you were saying about those ghosts?” I realize it’s time to move on to another topic.
“Harry and Frances, the ghosts I’m talking about, were convicts. They were kept downstairs beneath us, in a holding cell, while they were waiting to be shipped out to Australia, Botany Bay or some such place. The boat was moored on the river, just a hundred yards or so from here. Well, the day before their departure, they tried to escape but in their haste fell down a sink-shaft and died in each other’s arms, so the story goes. You have to realize, all of this happened back in Queen Victoria’s time so it’s become something of a lost secret by now. But I know they still walk the tunnels. In fact, I can feel their presence at this very moment.”
I try hard not to laugh. The story is far-fetched for sure, but at least it’s more entertaining than a heated discussion about the perils of disruptive technology.
“You don’t believe me, do you?” he asks.
“How do I know you’re not pulling a fast one on me?”
“It’s all part of the Knowledge, mate. You’ve either got it or not.”
At this point, I’m beginning to feel like I’m part of a practical joke, one with a predictable punch-line. I could go along for the ride and accept the man’s banter at face value or I could take things in a completely different direction.
“I tell you what,” I say brightly. “I’ll show you what modern knowledge looks like. I’m going to ask Siri a few questions about these ghosts.”
“Who’s Cindy, for heaven’s sake?”
“Siri. She’s my knowledge navigator. She knows everything.”
“She lives inside that little box of yours, does she? You’ve got to be kidding me, mate. I hope I never see the day when these things take over our lives, let alone try to imitate human beings.”
“Don’t worry,” I laugh. “I know when to draw the line between man and machine.”
“God help us all, that’s what I say. Go on then! Let’s see what your little Frankenstein can do.”
“All right, Siri. Here we go. I’m sitting in a pub called The Morpeth Arms, on the west bank of the River Thames. Can you find it?”
“Yes, Mark,” she answers dutifully. “It is located at 58 Millbank, opposite Riverside Walk Gardens, close to Vauxhall Bridge.”
“Very good, Siri. Now, there is a gentleman sitting beside me who goes by the name of Puggy. He claims there are ghosts under this pub. What do you know about that?”
“I can tell you that the Morpeth Arms is famous for its spies on account of its location directly opposite the MI6 building. Upstairs, there is a picture of Mata Hari, one of the most famous spies of the twentieth century.”
“Yes, I am sitting nearby. She looks tantalizing, I must say. But what about the ghosts?”
“On the issue of ghosts I am not permitted to speculate.”
“Siri, don’t you believe that ghosts exist?”
“There is no definitive answer to your question, Mark.”
“Does that mean you don’t know?”
“I know what I don’t know,” she says.
“That sounds like a rhetorical tautology, Siri.”
“Thank you for the compliment, Mark. You are most welcome.”
Puggy looks up at the ceiling. “What a load of codswallop,” he hisses. “Look, mate, I can tell you more about local history than your fancy digital friend. Take the Tate Gallery, for example.”
“The Tate? I love that museum. I have fond memories of taking day-trips there when I was a kid growing up in Somerset. I used to spend hours in the Turner collection. I was there this morning, as a matter of fact, remembering the good old days. ”
“Yes, but do you know what the place used to be?”
“Well, I assume it’s always been some kind of national museum. At least, that’s what I’ve been told.”
He grins and burps. “A prison for petty thieves and riffraff, that’s what it was,” he says matter-of-factly. “The prisoners were moved to the tunnels right under this pub and then to the river site just down from here where they would be loaded onto ships and transported to Australia. Hundreds of them. All ghosts now, of course, like Harry and Frances.”
“And how do you know this, Puggy?”
“I just do, mate.” Then he winks. “Go ahead and ask your friend, Sibyl, or whatever she’s called.”
“I suppose this is all part of the Knowledge,” I say, trying to contain my sarcasm. “OK. I’ll ask Siri.”
In a jiffy, she responds in her usual pitch-perfect tone: “The Tate Gallery stands on the site of Millbank prison which was opened in 1816 and closed in 1890. A buttress can be found at the head of the river from which until 1867 prisoners sentenced to transportation embarked on their journey to Australia.”
He looks at me, arms folded, with a broad smile on his face.
“Fair enough,” I say.
I realize it’s time for more drinks. I go to the bar for another round. The bartender pulls the pints and chuckles, “Having a nice chat with the Admiral, are you?”
“Yes, he’s quite a character, isn’t he? Seems to burp a lot. Why on earth is he called the Admiral? He told me his name was Puggy.”
“Ah, well, it’s to do with all those stories he like to tell about sailing the seven seas--Australia, the Far East, the South Pacific, all the far-flung corners of the Empire. He’ll bend your bloody ear about his adventures if you let him. Isn’t that what he’s been doing for the last hour or so with you?”
“No, thank God. But he did tell me about the ghosts downstairs,” I say. “What do you know about them?”
He stiffens. “Sorry, Sir. We prefer not to talk about that particular subject around here. It’s strictly off limits, if you know what I mean.”
That’s strange, I think to myself. Perhaps Puggy was speaking the truth when he said you have to be careful what you say in this pub. Clearly, there are still some secrets that are too sensitive to disclose—mainly to do with spies, ghosts, or even lunatics, it appears.
“Well, what does the Admiral do for a living?” I ask, changing the subject.
“No one knows. He just comes and goes as he pleases. We don’t even know where he lives. He just sits in that corner and babbles away. Usually, people leave him alone and don’t touch him with a barge-pole. You must have a soft spot.” He makes a gesture to his head. “He’s a bit of a nutcase,” he whispers. “Anyhow, enjoy the drinks and beware of the spies, especially Mata Hari.” Then he gives me a wink and a nod.
I pretend to share the joke but, in truth, I’m starting to feel annoyed by the fog of evasion that seems to circulate around here rather like the cigarette smoke that used to fill these pubs in my old student days.
I ferry the drinks back to our table. “The bartender claims you were quite a sailor,” I say.
He smirks. “I can tell you stories about the sea and the sky and your friend, Mr. Turner, until you’re blue in the face,” he says. “Do you have a favorite painting of his?”
“‘Sunrise with Sea Monsters,’” I say, perkily. “I’ve often wondered about the giant fish eye in the lower left corner. You don’t see it from a distance. But when you get close to the canvas, all of a sudden--there it is!”
“Ah, that’s the beauty and the mystery of it, see? It’s subtle. It seems to come out of nowhere.” He moves his face closer to mine again, only this time I catch a strong whiff of raw onions on his breath. “There’s another secret about that painting,” he says. “It was not meant to be about sea monsters at all. That’s just the way it came out. It was intended to be a picture of morning mist rising above the English Channel. That’s how art happens sometimes. You don’t intend it to be a certain way but it assumes its own identity and takes its own course. It’s quite magical, eh?”
“Yes, it’s a mystery all right,” I say, recoiling slightly from the pungent aroma. “Usually, I try to be logical about these matters but for once I’m prepared to believe in what you say.”
Predictably, he burps, perhaps out of appreciation. Only this time, he grabs his stomach as if he is in considerable pain.
“Are you OK?” I ask.
“Nothing to worry about,” he says with a grimace. “I’ll be alright in a jiffy. But it’s time for me to head home. I’ll leave you in the company of ghosts and spies.”
I insist on helping him outside and we totter downstairs, arm in arm, towards the exit.
We leave the pub. The rain has stopped and the sun is shining. The buildings and streets seem miraculously transformed by the brilliant light and I feel some of my bright American optimism returning. Or perhaps it’s just the beer talking.
“How are you getting back to your hotel?” he asks.
“I’ll walk, I suppose. Besides, it’s probably best not to take the Underground, let alone an Uber taxi, now that I have discovered the Knowledge, thanks to you.” I afford a chuckle, thinking it’s a clever parting gesture to make to my new friend.
“That’s the spirit,” he says, laughing at my pleasantry. “At least, you’ve learned some useful knowledge to take back to your home in golden California.”
“The usual secrets and lies,” I joke.
“Yes, watch out for the ubiquitous electronic eye,” he says. “And remember this: the Sun is God.” He burps, then walks away.
After a few paces, I stop. I’ve heard that phrase before but I can’t quite put my finger on where exactly. I take out my phone. “Siri, who said ‘the Sun is God?’”
On cue, she answers: “These were the last words spoken by the English landscape painter, J.M.W. Turner.” She continues, “By the way, Mark. You may be interested to know that Admiral Puggy Booth was a pseudonym used by Mr. Turner to conceal his real identity from prying neighbors.”
“Well, well,” I say out loud. “The crafty old bugger. Thanks, Siri. I really don’t know what I’d do without you.”
I continue to walk towards Whitehall, past a row of conspicuous surveillance cameras mounted on lampposts. I’ve been in London for less than 24 hours but I feel that I’ve learned one or two new things about the country where I grew up but abandoned as a young man. With a stretch of imagination, perhaps I really was conversing with the spirit of Joseph Turner. No, that’s rubbish, I realize, and continue walking.
Just as I turn the corner, another question pops into my mind. “Siri, did Mr. Turner have dyspepsia?”
There’s a brief silence. Then she does something I didn’t even know she was capable of doing. She burps, without so much as an apology.