|The George Inn, Borough High St, SE1. A while ago.
After a couple of false starts (or false endings I suppose) I’m back in the real world. On Thursday I pressed ‘send’ on the manuscript of my new book, and this weekend my editor becomes the third person in the world to read it (after me and the Beer Widow). From here it’s full steam ahead with edits (hopefully not too many) cover designs, bound proofs out to reviewers and so on, leading up to the launch later this year.
I started this book almost a year ago. Then in October I had my laptop stolen. It wasn’t backed up (it is now) and I lost every last bit of work I’d done on the book. I started making my notes again from scratch on 7th October. I sent the book off on 1st March. I hope I never have to work to that kind of timetable again, but I think I got away with it.
It’s been confirmed that the book will be called SHAKESPEARE’S LOCAL: Five Centuries of History Seen From One Extraordinary Pub. It tells the story of the George Inn, Southwark, South London, and everything that has happened in it, to it and around it, and the people who have eaten, drunk, stayed, worked, performed and fought there.
It’s not really a beer book as such – it’s a bit of a departure on that score (though there is one chapter that centres on one of the most famous breweries the world has ever seen). But it is a book about pubs – not just this one pub, but all pubs, especially inns. These days we use words like ‘inn’, ‘tavern’, ‘alehouse’ and ‘pub’ interchangeably, but at one time the differences were so stark they were enshrined in law. One aspect of the book is the story of how inns were essentially the lynchpins for Britain’s entire economy, facilitating the movement of goods, money and people that enabled both the Industrial Revolution and the growth of a mercantile class. Before we had town halls, municipal buildings, assembly rooms, theatres and concert halls, the inn was the only building in town with large meeting rooms and spaces, and it performed all these functions.
It’s also the story of Southwark – an extraordinary town that was once the centre of the world. London Bridge was the only bridge across the Thames from Roman times until 1750. Anything coming to the capital from the south east or Continental Europe came up Borough High Street and past the George – that’s why this pub was just one of twenty or so inns along a half mile stretch of road, along with innumerable alehouses and taverns. The bottleneck across the bridge meant many people simply stayed in Southwark. It was just outside London’s jurisdiction and the Citys’ laws didn’t apply, so Southwark became home to nonconformists of every stripe, fugitives and refugees from across the world, villains, rogues, whores and wasters, most of whom popped in for a pint (all except the puritans, who dismissed pubs as the ‘blockhouses of the Devil’.)
The story of the George is the story of the last survivor of these great inns. It was never the biggest, most famous, most beautiful or important – even though it was big, famous, beautiful and important. Chaucer chose the inn next door to the south as his start point for the Canterbury Tales. Both Dickens and Shakespeare chose the inn next door to the north as the setting for key scenes in their respective works. But they all knew the George, and the George is the one that survived, carrying the legacy of what was once the most important street of pubs in the world.
The story of the George is also the story of some bizarre characters who once drunk there. There’s Sir John Mennis, Comptroller of Charles II’s Royal Navy and inventory of a literary genre I’ve chosen to call Stuart-Era Fart Poetry. There’s John Taylor, the Water Poet, who once rowed from London to the Isle of Sheppey in a boat made from paper with oars of salt cod tied to sticks. There’s Shakespeare, Dickens, Chaucer, Dick Turpin, the Sugababes, Samuel Pepys, Philip ‘the most miserable man in the world’ Stubbes, Samuel Johnson, a monkey riding a horse, and possibly the greatest pub landlady who ever lived.
But the main character is the pub itself – just a pub, and so much more, like all pubs are. When you see what it’s been through, the survival of the George makes a mockery of anyone who says pubs are dying out.
That’s the gist of what I told my publisher’s sales force when I had to present the book to them a couple of weeks ago. It wasn’t easy – I had to follow a debut novelist whose book is already tipped for great things and is in discussions about movie rights – and Rastamouse.
|Wha’ g’wan? I share a publisher with this mouse.
The creators of Rastamouse had them a-rockin’ and a-rhymin’, grown men and women squealing with delight. “Follow that,” said my publisher. I tried. It seemed to go down well.
So well, in fact, that they moved the publication date. Shakespeare’s Local will now be published on 8th November, right in the middle of the peak Christmas book buying period, competing with comedians’ memoirs, ‘Katie’ ‘Price’ ‘novels’ and glossy cookbooks. The cover design hasn’t been finalised yet, but even from early designs it’s going to look like a very nice present to buy someone.
So now, finally, I’m back to blogging. I’ve got loads to write about as I reacquaint myself with the beer world and start leaving the house again.
I hope you all played nice while I was gone. It’s good to be back.