By Pete Brown
384pp, Macmillan (RRP £16.99, EBOOK £9.85)
This is a book about a pub: the George Inn in Southwark. The George has been around in one form or another for five centuries. Hidden away off Borough High Street, with the Shard piercing the sky to its front, it’s especially unique in being London’s last galleried coaching inn. I’ve been there several times: it’s a rickety old place, listing like an ancient ship of the line, its galleries tipsily overlooking the yard where tourists drink deeply of Ye Olde England. Charles Dickens drank here, as did Dr Johnson. The Globe was just around the corner so Shakespeare probably popped in, which why we’ve got this catchy little title.
Pete Brown is one of the UK’s leading beer writers and has three beer-centric books to prove it. His last one was Hops and Glory, in which he transported a barrel of India Pale Ale to India on a variety of boats (to replicate the 19th century trading route). It was a unique tale of leaky casks, banana boats, mid-ocean madness and lots of beer. It won him Beer Writer of the Year 2009, but this time, this London-based Yorkshireman hasn’t strayed too far.
Why the George? It might be a survivor but it’s not the oldest London inn. It’s not the most historic either. However, Brown choose it because as he writes early in the book: ‘there are arguably more celebrated pubs…but if you are going to focus on the story of one pub, you’ve got to pick the one that tells the best story.’
And stories he tells. Princess Margaret came for Sunday lunch in the 1960s with the Bishop of Southwark; the newspapers wagged fingers as only they can after the Princess and her group seemed to carry on way past closing time. Winston Churchill dined here, bringing his own port though he met his match in redoubtable landlady Agnes Murray, who served from 1871 until 1934.
‘He once turned up for dinner with a bottle of quality port, explaining to Miss Murray that on his last visit there was none. She served him with a quiet smile, and then presented him with a bill, which included “Corkage: one shilling and sixpence”.’
So did Shakespeare visit the George? Brown believes so, but he also writes: ‘did Shakespeare perform plays at the George? Much as it pains me to say so, probably not.’ You could argue that the book title is somewhat of a red herring as it suggests that the book might be a keenly argued thesis on Shakespeare’s relationship with the George. It’s not. Think Julie Myerson’s Home instead, applied to a pub and written in Brown’s matey, down to earth slightly tipsy man at the bar style (his footnotes are hilarious).
It’s lively and exuberant, a literary version of a cracking pub crawl. It recounts the history of the George and its people, but also delightfully digresses to the social history of Southwark while celebrating those who have walked and drank in its streets over the centuries. From puritans to prime ministers, princesses to poets, the George has seen them all. Though I’m not sure I’d have liked a drink with 18th century regular, the poet Sir John Mennis: his speciality was writing about flatulence.