The Short Version: Using The George Inn as a focal point, Pete Brown brings us a drinker’s history of Southwark. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Princess Margaret, and many more have stood for a pint at the George and it is one of only two still-standing coaching inns in London. But the location (right off London Bridge) puts it in the very center of history.
The Review: First things first, Mr. Brown must be taken to task for the completely erroneous title of the book. Yes, he takes himself to task for it – but come on now. There’s no evidence that Shakespeare drank here, played here, slept here, etc. Did he at least drink here? Quite probably, yes. But there’s no proof. And so as a result people are coming to this book thinking that “oh, it’s Shakespeare’s pub!” and it is, most decidedly, not. So shame on you for the false advertising.
But on the flip side, what a marvelous slice of history is to be found in this book. Southwark is perhaps my favorite area of London – really the South Bank, stretching from the Royal Festival Hall to London Bridge – and learning about a particular part of the city (as opposed to the entire thing all at once, which is next-to-impossible) makes for a pleasant go of things. We watch as London – and, by extension, the world – develops and we get to see it develop around Southwark.
We all know the stories, of course, of how plays (and bear-bating and brothels and so on) were essentially exiled to the south side of the river back in ye olden days. But it wasn’t just because of the Puritans. Oh no. See, there were reasons for the purveyors of entertainment to leave the city limits. Hell, the stretch of bars that used to make up the entirety of Borough High Street were there because it was cheaper for them to exist outside of the clearly defined laws inside the walls. Now, this didn’t mean that the City was just going to let it happen. The gates over London Bridge were closed up at dark and you were shit out of luck if you wanted to cross. But there were also scores of boatmen who’d take you across – and there was a better than even chance you’d end up happier on this side of the river anyway.
Chaucer is really the one who gets all this literary drinking stuff started, with The Canterbury Tales. He and his gang of pilgrims get underway at an inn (pub, bar, whatever) right down the way from The George. Shakespeare and his lot undoubtedly drank everywhere they could on the Bank (hell, the Globe was right bloody there). But it’s Dickens who makes The George famous. So what a way to ring out Dickens 2012, then, eh? There are reports (probably falsified) that the good author used The George under a different name in some novels, but it certainly shows up in Little Dorrit and there are eyewitness accounts of Dickens having been a regular. And since then, there’ve been all manner of celebrities in (including an excellent story about Princess Margaret and a Bishop taking dinner there on a Sunday).
But the book goes beyond the tales of celebrities. It talks about what life used to be like in Southwark. When the breweries were there, when it was outside the city walls, before it was even a proper borough. Borough Market, the way it used to be. The Anchor Brewery. The old London Bridge, the one that had buildings on it all the way across(!!), and the rebuilt one after it. Stories of traitors’ heads (lookin’ at you, Jack Cade) stuck on pikes atop the south gates. And these are the stories that make it all worth reading.
It helps that Brown is a genuinely funny and interesting writer. There is an early digression on the Sugababes that feels Pratchettian in its wit and stealthily deployed intelligence. And the whole book feels a bit like a drunken conversation you might have at a bar – rambling, sometimes boring, sometimes desperately interesting, and mostly just kinda lovely. I think that was Brown’s goal though: to make history (this history, specifically) feel accessible and interesting and make it less-like-history. Which he does!
Rating: 4 out of 5. If you have any interest whatsoever in the development of the South Bank, this is an excellent place to start. If you’re looking to find out where Shakespeare drank and what he drank and all that… steer clear, as you will be disappointed. But, should you happen to pick this one up even by mistake (or under the title’s false pretenses), perhaps you’ll come away glad you read it. I know that the next time I’m wandering through Borough Market or stopping off at The George (yes, I’ve been there), I’ll think of this book – and be glad to know a bit more about the history surrounding me there.