The George Inn sits south of the River Thames near the foot of London Bridge. Its district, Southwark (for us Americans, ignore most of the letters and pronounce it “SUH-thk”), is now a part of London. But for most of its long history, it existed outside the gates, a bastion against invaders and the repository for all the commerce, vice and dissension Londoners wanted close at hand but not too close.
In his newest book, Shakespeare’s Pub, English author Pete Brown takes the seat beside you in the George Inn, buys you a pint, then spins a twisting, heady story that shuttles in time between Roman Britain and today, and in scale between the local shop and the Empire. The cover calls it “a barstool history of London as seen through the windows of its oldest pub.”
Inns large and small once packed the Borough High Street that leads to London Bridge, but the George is the only one left, much reduced from its glory days as a coaching inn. As Brown notes, the George wasn’t the biggest of the inns, nor the most famous—that honor would belong to the Tabard next door, where Chaucer’s pilgrims set out for Canterbury, or the White Hart, a setting for both Shakespeare and Dickens. But the George is the only survivor, and because today it is the last of its kind, the George is Brown’s vehicle.
In researching Shakespeare’s Pub, the author spent a year exploring libraries, on-line sources, academic theses, museums and public document archives, and compiled an exhaustive 25,000-word document that he calls “the most boring thing that’s ever been written about the George Inn.” Brown is a storyteller, not a reciter of dates and facts, and he proposes to use the dates and facts as the scaffolding for a marvelous narrative.
This is terrific storytelling, but also a smart move: By rejecting the list-maker’s approach to history, Brown gives himself permission to take a more speculative approach to his tale. He has the facts, but there aren’t all that many of them, so the story of the George Inn has to be told at times with facts on loan from other sources.
For example, since the George burned down and was rebuilt in 1676, Brown has no way of knowing what it looked like in its earlier, perhaps original, incarnation. But he visits medieval coaching inns still standing in towns far from London and asks the reader to accept that his findings could apply to the George.
More extrapolation is needed to connect the George to the book’s title character. Fair warning: The name Shakespeare’s Pub is a bit of a bait and switch because there’s no solid evidence that Shakespeare ever drank there. But he lived in Southwark, and the Globe and other theaters were constructed there. It is reasonable to surmise that Shakespeare knew the George and “drank there at least occasionally.”
That kind of guesswork might horrify purists, but it’s a plausible interpretation of the facts Brown is able to marshal, and it launches him on a wonderful chapter on the players, actors and entertainments that thrived south of the Thames.
The George and its neighboring inns entered their heyday during the 18th and 19th centuries, when the stagecoach dominated travel. “[D]uring that brief period, the stagecoach transformed inns like the George, for a time, into arguably the most important businesses in the country.”
Then, just as quickly, another transformation in the movement of people and goods made the inns obsolete: The railroad arrived, bypassing the George and delivering its cargo to the heart of the city. Though the great inns reinvented themselves again, many failed.
The George survived through a combination of remarkable personalities and national nostalgia, and Pete Brown makes us happy it did. And, despite the good laughs to be found between the covers of Shakespeare’s Pub, there is deep, unaffected love for the places like the George, where Brown finds “a sense of place, a collection of memories that have accumulated in the space over the time it has been used for its unchanging purpose, over the centuries that people have laughed, drunk, argued, eaten, flirted, slept and done business there.”
This is a marvelous tale. Pour yourself a traditional London porter and settle in for a good read.