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Tales From a London Barstool: A Review of Pete Brown's "Shakespeare's Pub"

Melanie Kirkpatrick

Halfway into Pete Brown’s “Shakespeare’s Pub” comes a touching story of human kindness. It takes place in London in the mid-18th century and concerns a member of Parliament by the name of Edward Digby.

Digby had a reputation of being “something of a dandy,” Mr. Brown recounts, “and was always decked out in the very latest fashions.” Yet at Christmas and Easter something odd happened. Digby would put on a shabby blue coat, leave his house and disappear into the city. Digby’s uncle, a prominent figure in the Whig government, was worried about his nephew and arranged to have him followed. The uncle’s agents trailed Digby to the section of London called Southwark, finally losing track of him near the notorious Marshalsea Prison for debtors.

When the agents asked a prison guard if he had seen the man in the blue coat, the guard replied: “Yes, masters . . . but he is not a man, he is an angel.” In the warder’s telling, Digby was an angel of mercy for many prisoners, whom he would set free by paying off their debts. When the agents finally caught up with Digby, he invited them to join him for dinner at the George Inn with the prisoners he had just freed, as he did every Christmas and Easter.

Digby’s story is one of the vignettes recounted by Mr. Brown in what the subtitle of his book describes as a “barstool history of London as seen through the windows of its oldest pub the George Inn.” The inn is situated in Southwark, on the south side of the Thames, a few steps from where the old London Bridge stood from the early 13th century to the early 19th.

In the 21st century, the George Inn has become a tourist attraction. In Mr. Brown’s words, it is the “last living survivor” of all of London’s “great, galleried coaching inns.” The current building was erected in 1677, but an inn has existed on the site since medieval times.

Mr. Brown is an amateur historian and the author of several books about pubs and beer. In pursuit of a good story, he sometimes ventures far from the George into subjects with only tangential connections to his ostensible topic. The diversions can be worthy of notesuch as an interesting, if unsavory, aside on the rotting head of William “Braveheart” Wallace, which was boiled in oil and spiked on nearby London Bridge in 1305.

There’s no historical evidence that Chaucer hoisted a tankard at the George in the 14th century. But that doesn’t stop Mr. Brown from speculating that he did so, given that the inn where Chaucer set “The Canterbury Tales” was next door to the establishment that became the George. This notion sets the stage for a delightful discussion of everyday life at medieval English inns. Did you know that men and women slept together on straw mats on the floor of vast second-floor dormitories? (The flea was their ever-present companion.) Or that ale-makers were usually widows?

Nor is there anything in the historical record to prove that Shakespeare frequented the George. As Mr. Brown puts it, rather sillily, no one knows what “the Bard got up to with the lads on a Friday night.” Shakespeare lived in Southwark from the late 1590s until 1604, and his theater, the Globe, opened there in 1599. These facts provide the launching pad for an informative chapter on the entertainment industry circa 1600, including wandering minstrels, acrobats, clowns, cock-fighting, bear-baiting and other amusementsthough very little about the George Inn itself.

Before the construction of the Globe and other stand-alone theaters, the great inns of the day competed to attract customers by producing plays in their interior yards. Mr. Brown notes the “striking similarities” between inn-yards such as the George’s and Elizabethan playhouses, which evolved into modern-day theaters. “Inn-yard galleries were ranged around three sides of the building, just as balconies are in theaters now,” he writes.

“Shakespeare’s Pub” is also a commercial history, chronicling the shifting role of the George Inn in London’s economy as it evolved over half a millennium. While the George’s principal business was always the hospitality industry, over the centuries the inn served as a place of entertainment, a town hall, a post office and a warehouse. During the stagecoach era, the George functioned as a kind of mall, its yard filled with shops catering to the travelers who came to London from all over Britain. In the 19th century, the inn was at the heart of the beer industry, its attics turned into showrooms for hop salesmen. Today it still serves food and drink and has popular banquet rooms on the upper floors, which used to house overnight guests.

“Shakespeare’s Pub” presents a stream of entertaining facts and stories. In that sense, it is a companion for anyone interested in the history of the pub, an institution at the heart of British social life. That said, the book sometimes feels padded and would be a better read if it were a third shorter. Unfortunately, too, it is marred by Mr. Brown’s annoying prose style, which can be hucksterish, juvenile and occasionally vulgar. A gratuitous swipe at Margaret Thatcher serves no purpose.

If you can get past these deficiencies, you’ll probably learn something and benefit from Mr. Brown’s obviously extensive research. As for the author, he comes across like a jaunty, talkative fellow who might sit down next to you at your local barat first, pleasingly engaging and then, alas, more and more tiresome.

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