Exit, pursued by a beer...

Exit, pursued by a beer…

“Robberies. Muggings. Fatal Accidents. Interest rates.”

There’s apparently something about the tail end of February that makes me yearn to know more about London. Two years ago, that focus fell to the city’s people. Last year, I explored the tube network. This year, I took a look at one of the most British inventions of all: the pub. It’s been longer than usual since my last review, and this is nothing to do with the quality of the book, but more to with troubling external issues such as work, illness, my birthday and a general recalibration of my life. But I’m back now, so pull yourself a pint and let’s get on with the discussion.

Shakespeare’s Local is the fourth book by Pete Brown, a beer expert who realised that by writing about it, he could drink more of it. I was naturally captured by the title, and then found that I had no choice but to buy it when I flicked it open to find a photograph of the pub in question: The George Inn, in Southwark. It wasn’t a pub I frequented, and still don’t, but I’ve drunk there a few times and always admired it. Brown is also taken by the pub that according to the National Trust has been there since 1677, but according to ancient records is much, much older. And so begins the tale.

Brown takes us back to the days of Chaucer and earlier to talk about The George Inn, only it turns out there aren’t a huge amount of records remaining from that far back, so there’s instead a lot of speculation and talk of other local pubs that probably did the same things as the George. Quite quickly, what began as a promised look at the history of a single pub turns into a history of innkeeping in general, London and in particular Southwark, industry and theatre. Only when the story catches up again to the late 1800s (when the pub was supposedly a favourite of Charles Dickens) do we begin to see specific details about the pub in question.

It sounds like I’m complaining, but I’m really not. Brown himself admits that the title is slightly misleading as, while Shakespeare certainly lived, worked and presumably drank in Southwark at a time when the George was there, there is absolutely no evidence to say he did or didn’t ever visit, merely a suggestion that, “Well, yeah, he probably did”. And, actually, that’s good enough for me, because while the book is a love letter to the George, it’s also a love letter to the whole of the Southwark and Borough area, that infamous den of vice that has now become rather fashionable and full once more of playhouses, as well as strange new buildings like the Shard and the Tate Modern.

The book deals with why Southwark and the inns there became so important (and it’s a genuinely interesting story), how they changed their uses over time and how the invention of the railway all but killed off the great pubs of Borough, leaving only the George standing, proud and ancient and full of history. Along the way we encounter characters we know who have a link – tenuous or not – to the George, from Pitt the Younger and Samuel Peyps, right up to Princess Margaret and Rik Mayall.

Brown knows he’s speculating on a lot of the topics, but his frank admission of this fact means you can’t really care. History is, after all, a lie that we’ve all agreed on (to paraphrase Napoleon) and he’s not pulling his suggestions out of thin air. Merely, he takes what we know about the other pubs of the area and applies it logically to what we can then assume of the George. Above all, Brown is a hilarious raconteur and a man you wouldn’t feel worried about spending an evening in the pub with. For what could be such a dry topic, Brown makes it work and brings it to life, describing with great colour the former festivals of Southwark and some of the larger-than-life landlords that have worked behind the George’s bar.

If you like pubs, booze, London or history, this is a book worth looking into. And when you’ve read it, I’ll meet you in the George for a drink to discuss it. See you there – it’s your round.