Verifiable facts about William Shakespeare are few and far between.
There are reckoned to be about 100 documents relating to him, virtually all of which are of a legal nature. Moreover, he left just 14 works in his own hand and there is no contemporary record of what he looked like or what kind of a person he was. But this has not stopped people writing about him. Despite, or perhaps because, there is so little to go on more – infinitely more – has been written about him than he could ever have written himself.
By its author's own admission, Pete Brown's book, which is sub-titled Six Centuries Of History Seen Through One Extraordinary Pub, is more speculative than most. Indeed, 140 pages slip over like a pint of Guinness before Shakespeare enters the narrative. First, however, Brown reassures his readers that the Stratford Bard did exist and that he wrote most of the plays with which he is credited. For this, one is most grateful. He is less certain, though, that he was a regular at the George Inn in Southwark, which is the subject of his book, conceding on page 143:
"If you bought this book in the hope of finding lots of detailed accounts of what the Bard got up to with the lads on a Friday night, with details of cheesy chat-up lines, approaching the halfway point I have to confess that there are no such stories. That's because there are no records at all of what pubs Shakespeare went to, or what he did while he was there. And that, obviously, means there are no records of Shakespeare ever having visited the George Inn.
Nevertheless, insists Brown, "Shakespeare is still central to the story of the George." To back up this bold assertion he offers scant evidence that might withstand gentle cross-examination. Inns in Shakespeare's day, it's true, often hosted theatre companies, a number of which were based in Southwark. But there is no actual evidence which suggests the George was one of them. Nor, indeed, is there any mention in any of Shakespeare's work of an inn called the George while, inconveniently for Brown, he does cite one called the White Hart. It's true, though, that in King John reference is made to an inn called the Saint George but it's clearly not the George. Ultimately, Brown has no option but to concede that his case is built on the sands of supposition.
This may not be such a bad thing. For if one ignores its transgression of trades description legislation, Shakespeare's Local is an engaging, entertaining, often illuminating and wilfully digressive account of the history not only of the George but of an area of London that will be of interest to students of the capital and, en passant, of brewing, drinking, coaching inns and much more besides. When was the George Inn built? Brown has no idea but thanks to the wonder of the internet he thinks it may have been "sometime" between 1475 and 1485, though there may have been an inn on the same site before then. A few hundred yards away stood the Tabard, famous as the point of departure for the pilgrims in Chaucer's Canterbury tales. Another nearby inn was the aforementioned White Hart, of which, if Shakespeare was not a customer then Dickens surely was.
Over the centuries the George has undergone many changes and little, if anything, of the original building survives. In 1676, for instance, it was burned down, as was every other inn in the borough. Such inns were primarily used by travellers, many of whom – pace Chaucer – were of a religious bent. Situated close to London Bridge, the George was well-placed, though contributors to the 17th-century version of TripAdvisor, including the authors of such poems as Upon a Fart unluckily let and The Fart censured in the Parliament House, were less than impressed by the quality of the wine on offer.
What transformed the fortune of inns like the George was the stagecoach. If you want to get a flavour of what those glory days were like, suggests Brown, simply buy a ticket to the Glastonbury Festival and pray for rain. "Then load a wooden trailer with your tent, bong, cases of Stella, funny hats and ironic flag, and try to drag it along the main track." By the early 1800s, the George was to coaches what Clapham Junction is to trains. A key source is The Pickwick Papers, "one of the best books you can read if you want to become familiar with the everyday reality of coach travel." The only problem is that by the time Dickens came to write it – 1836 – the coach was in the process of being mercilessly superseded by the railway.
Of course, the inn which featured in The Pickwick Papers was the White Hart, not, alas, the George. Unlike Shakespeare, however, Dickens did eventually mention the George in his work, in Little Dorrit. Today it is managed by "Britain's biggest brewer" selling "the largest cask-ale brand in the UK", which is not to the taste of our amiable author, formerly "Beer Writer of the Year". Its owner is the National Trust and it is a magnet for tourists on the heritage trail. It seems that locals, perhaps unaware they could be supping in Shakespeare's local, prefer to go elsewhere for their ale.