Review: Shakespeare’s Local

Posted: March 30, 2013 in Uncategorized

shakespeare's local pete brownVisit the George Inn in Southwark and you’ll see copies of this recently-published book in the window. In reviewing this book, I am also reviewing the pub. We say pub, back in history there was clear distinction between ale house (drink only), tavern (food and drink) and inn (drink, food, accommodation). In its day it was par excellence an inn, a place where its functions were at one time or another spectacularly varied: hotel; restaurant; stables; playhouse; hop exchange; warehouse; post office, and much of the time simultaneously.

But today it is very much a pub; a pub which occupies about a quarter of its original real estate, the section which runs along what was the southern side of the old inn. It is down an alley off Borough High Street and you would miss it if you were not seeking it. The first section retains the galleried aspect which once would have run around the whole courtyard. Inside, it is as you might expect, all low ceilings and wooden beams. Plenty of wood. It is divided into small sections: about four bar/lounge bits and a restaurant bit at the far end. The walls are decorated with old photos and etchings of the inn, former denizens and worthies of the local area. There is in a frame a life assurance policy belonging to Charles Dickens. For he drank here, as did Churchill and Attlee.

Because this is a listed building under the aegis of the National Trust, there are no tellies, juke boxes, gambling machines or piped music. This is how it should be and makes for good ambience and conversational environment, almost totally lacking in pubs today. The brewery is Greene King, who don’t make fantastic beer in my opinion, but they do make a George Ale (4%) exclusively for this pub, which is not bad at all. Two pints came in at under £8 (sorry, wasn’t paying attention to my change), which is okay by me for what is supposedly a tourist trap situated in a “yuppie playground” – the author’s description of Borough today.

george in southwark

george in southwark

The George was neither the largest nor most famous of Southwark’s dozen-plus coaching inns (that accolade goes to the now-lost Tabard next door, as featured in Canterbury Tales). But it is the only surviving one, and that is what matters. In any case, it has a terrifically rich history in its own right. Pete Brown, ad industry escapee and award-winning beer writer* has written its biography. As befits the subject matter, he has a breezy style with occasional asides direct to camera. That’s not to say he doesn’t take his subject deadly seriously, he does. Shakepeare’s Local is thoroughly researched, taking forward past attempts by others which were eccentric at best, chief of whom one William Rendle.

The building of which the current George is a remnant, dates from 1676 following two disastrous fires which destroyed its predecessors. This was about half way through its life story taking us back to 15C pre-Tudor times. Brown invites us to ponder the “Trigg’s broom” (or Sugarbabes) question: is something whose fabric has been 100% replaced, still essentially the same thing? Being of romantic mien, he concludes yes, today’s George Inn can indeed be considered the same beast as its medieval great-great-grandparent and intervening iterations.

In this book, we learn what the pub was for, what it did and the people who lived in it, ran it, and crossed its portals. But as a well-rounded history book, we have context, that is to say the inter-relationship between the inn and Southwark, Southwark and London and indeed further afield. How the fortunes of the George and its owners waxed and waned through triumph and disaster; at the height of its success during the short-lived coaching age and rapid decline and redundancy with the coming of the railways and the opening of the magnificent hop exchange nearby (eclipsing all neighbouring inns’ ability to function as hop exchanges themselves); why the George survived (sort of), while all its rivals perished.

Most importantly for me, there are the heroes of this story: the George’s landlords and landladies down the ages. They all had something in common: dedication to and love of their charge, which goes some way to explaining its survival. All remarkable and determined innkeepers, special mention must go to the formidable Agnes Murray who worked at the George from 1871 to 1934, from barmaid to landlady.

Shakespeare’s Local has a few dozen illustrations. Old photos and engraving, but most handy of all – maps and plans. Of these the most remarkable is a re-drawn rendering from the earliest known map of Southwark, dating from 1542. You could line this up with the equivalent from the latest London A to Z and it would make almost perfect sense.

The book is lightly footnoted on the actual pages to which they refer, not at the back. I far prefer this. There is a good bibliography at the back and a detailed and useful timeline. But no index, unfortunately.

An excellent, informative read.

Shakespeare’s Local. Six Centuries of History Seen Through One Extraordinary Pub (352pp) by Pete Brown (2012, Macmillan) has a cover price of £16.99 but is available for around £11.

* Picture the scene. “So, Brown, what plans do you have for after you’ve left school?” “I wish to be a beer writer, sir.” “Get out.”

george inn southwark

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