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A rewarding and funny history of London through one pub and the street outside
on 14 December 2012
Pete Brown's history of one hugely historical London pub is a very funny, interesting and enjoyable book.
His story is not necessarily of just this pub but of Southwark itself, this relatively tiny area around the south end of London Bridge into which were forced all the people and pursuits London would not allow within its gates - and which was therefore a bubbling tub of the most fascinating and reprehensible activities. Theatre, prostitution, rebellion, brewery - if it wasn't for the disgusting industries such as soap-boiling, leather-working and lime-burning stinking the place up, surely everyone would have wanted to move there.
The book gives vivid, bustling portraits of this neighbourhood as a bottleneck beneath or needle-point up into the City of London (London Bridge was the only bridge until about the 1750s) in three very different stages. First is the rambunctious medieval Borough, carved up into chunks belonging to bishops and dukes who also owned the countless brothels. This is the mud-splattered, chaotic, lovable district that Chaucer and Shakespeare knew well, when inns were a refuge and a necessity created by the novel habit of travel. In such inns as the George, the nobleman sat (sometimes) alongside all the other members of society, a notion which bestows the opening plot device for Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Falstaff is a frequenter of such inns with reckless young Hal, and plays were performed there before they had their own permanent buildings to call home.
The second stage is the heart of the book, where we see the inn we know (very substantial by today's standards) grown to something like eight times its current size. Pete Brown gives a portrait of a huge establishment, offering within its walls almost every kind of business that a small town would need. It's hard to imagine an inn something like the size of a cruise ship, but it was - and on Borough High Street there were ten, twelve, fifteen of them all in a row, such was the business coming into London and across the Thames.
After the sudden death of the dashing stagecoach (why did I never think before, when I called someone a 'slowcoach', where that phrase came from?) at the hands of the railways, we see the inn becoming what it is today: a loved and carefully preserved instrument of nostalgia.
Pete Brown's approach to history is respectful of the attitude of the historical residents of Borough - which is to say, he is irreverent and frequently takes the piss out of persons he thinks has it coming. I regretfully failed to make it to the George and drink a pint of Abbot as I read the closing pages, but I look forward to being there soon in the taproom, and looking up at the Parliament Clock, and thinking how this room used to be divided into three. And thinking of the six hundred years of drinkers, travellers and locals this book introduces you to.