What I seemed to have walked in on was a sort of social club, and the circumstances were just not right for talking to strangers. In some ways it was like local "Bear Coffee Night" which also feels to me as if I've walked into a place where it's impossible to start up or break in to any conversation -- which is not in itself a bad thing: Nobody owes you friendliness just because you exist in the same room. No, the problem (in both places) is not individual behavior per se but the physical and social circumstances. In The King's Arms the small tables make for great places for friends to chat, but not for strangers to meet. There is no seating at the bar, so there is no "power seat" from which to hold barfly court. I watched folks from a distance, and concluded that in time, through perseverance and the occasional interaction, it would be possible to build up a social crowd. But I was alone in London for a night or two and not cruising and I concluded that I was not going to have the sort of connection moment I enjoy when traveling.
As I wrote the next morning, though, what happened is that in time, as the crowd increased, I found myself standing next to folks waiting for a drink at the bar, and a few minutes crowded next to a stranger can provide the opportunity to dash off a comment and perhaps get a response. From this I was able to make a few connections (and to get ignored a bit as well). Once you've started talking with somebody who is not alone, you can sometimes get introductions to that person's friends.
As I also noted the next morning, without exception the people who I simply could get no response from were all Bear-identified folks and the people who responded to me and talked to me about all manner of topics and introduced me to their friends were people who told me that they were not comfortable in the Bear crowd but had come to that pub on that night for some other particular reason (meeting a friend, tagging along with somebody else). "I find bears to be generally standoffish and cliquey," said one of the bouncy club kids when I asked why he said he wasn't comfortable in the pub, and considering what I had seen until that point in the evening at that particular place I couldn't argue with his conclusion, at least for that event.
I talked with a couple of different guys, but it was the club kids who brought me into the social world of the pub, introducing me to their friend Glenn from Perth (who also kept talking about how this wasn't the place for him that night), who in turn introduced me to two other guys who still live in Perth and who gave me contact information for my trip in September. The kids and I talked about American and British TV, about Minneapolis, about life in general. They asked what I was doing the next night, and when I said I didn't yet know, they told me they'd be meeting some friends at Comptons for a while and then heading over to Barcode and that I should join them. I said I might, that would be fun, thanks.
After dinner the next night, my last in London, I wended my way to Comptons. Comptons is a bright, cheery two-story pub in SoHo that was quite full of smiling, laughing men. I looked around and went upstairs and didn't see my new friends but I did see Glenn from Perth who was sitting at a table with his friends David and Steve (and who was also vaguely looking for the club kids who had told him as well that they'd be there). I went over intending to offer just a quick hello when this David guy looked up and said, "Steven Spielberg!" He then got up, sat me down in what had been his chair, squeezed over next to his friend Steve, and started asking me about my films, in a sort of improvisational theater game. Glenn got up and bought a round of drinks, bringing me back Guinness because he remembered it was what I had been drinking the previous night (only because I had had no idea what to order). David was decidedly the effusive one, and at one point I noted out loud that he was quite flirtatious for a Brit, which caused the folks standing nearby to laugh. "They're laughing at the loud Yank," he pointed out.
Actually at that point and for the rest of the evening (with many others, not just David) there seemed to be a running theme of poking fun at me. When I would point this out people seemed genuinely concerned that I might be upset by this, but I wasn't. Later I mentioned to my friends in Derby that the guys I'd met at the pub in London seemed to make fun of me a lot and they said, impressed, that this meant they were really taking me in as one of them. So I guess I'm flattered. David wanted to talk politics and philosophy. Steve did not want him to talk politics and philosophy. Glenn wanted to go to Barcode. I hadn't finished my Guinness but David told me to come along with them and off we went.
Barcode is presumably a dance bar, but it was too crowded for anybody to do any actual dancing. When we arrived I insisted it was my turn to buy a round, but I didn't understand anybody's order. (Vodka Ice?) So I made David come with me to the bar to give the orders and I presented the money and we all drank to my health. Cheers.
As happens even in America, when you are with other people and happily chatting away, you seem more approachable (I guess) and folks will start up conversations. It took me a while to realize that the people who came up to talk to me were not all friends of the folks I was with. Eventually my original companions moved away but David kept getting friends of his to come up to me with a pen and paper and ask for my autograph.
I talked with lots of folks at Barcode, at least as much as I could over the loud music. A couple of people bought me a round. I met people from Italy. I had as social of an evening as I could have wished for, in the unlikeliest of settings (for me). In time the bar grew too crowded to walk through, but it was time for me to head home anyway.
It was pretty much as good of a time as I have ever had at a gay bar.