|The George Inn, Southwark, Late nineteenth century|
It's been four years now since I signed the deal on my last book, Hops & Glory. That’s so long ago, I had only written three entries on this blog at the time, and most current UK beer blogs were still twinkles in a beer geek’s eye.
For the past two years I've been trying to develop ideas that move on a little from beer. After three books that look at history, travel and complete obsession, I’ve done all I can in book form for the time being – or at least, the kind of books I write.
I have no intention of stopping or even slowing down in beer journalism and blogging, and there may also be other books – more conventional style drinks books – in the offing. But all the ideas I’ve had for narrative, story-driven, personal journey type books in beer feel like they subscribe to the law of diminishing returns. If I ever reach the stage where tens of thousands of people are prepared to buy a book just because it has my name on the cover, I'll definitely revisit various ideas for more epic beer journeys, but at the moment there's simply not a big enough market to justify the expense and time commitment they require.
So after the epic travel of the last two books, I wanted to do something that would keep me closer to home - but that's still grand in scope in its own way. I’d also like to do a book where I don't spend the entire advance - and more - on plane tickets and boat voyages. And finally, I wanted to do something that could extend my growing interest in social history beyond beer, but still keep one foot firmly in the pub.
To tick all these boxes, my editor has been urging me for months to write a very detailed social history of one pub, through the ages, and everyone who drank in it, everything that's happened to it. Fine, but what pub?
The answer hit us just before Christmas - and has been taking shape since then.
The George Inn in Southwark, south London, is London’s last remaining galleried coaching inn – one of the few left in the country. The current building has stood there since 1686, when it was rebuilt after fire. The inn dates back before then at least to 1452, and probably earlier. Its vast network was once home to the hop trade from Kent up to London.
For centuries, when London Bridge was the only river crossing into the city, the gates were locked at night, so travellers to and from the south would set off from and arrive at Southwark. By Hewnry VIII's time Borough High Street was one long line of inns. The Tabard – Chaucer’s start point for the Canterbury Tales – was right next door. Neighbouring on the other side was the White Hart, mentioned by Shakespeare in Henry VI, and featuring heavily in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. Dickens was also a regular at the George, and mentions it by name in Little Dorritt. And Shakespeare - who lived just down the road for a few years – almost certainly performed plays in the inn-yard before the Globe was built.
So you have the three great cornerstones of the English literary canon in or near the pub. But more than that, the constancy of the George as everything around it has changed (none of the other twenty-odd Southwark inns now survives) makes it the perfect vehicle to look at six centuries of social history. As you stand on the ancient wooden balconies now, you can see London’s latest phallus, the Shard, rising up in front if you. And that kind of freaks me out. When Dickens wrote about this place 175 years ago this year, he was already being nostalgic about it. Imagine that!
Imagine all the people who have drunk here – not just Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Dwight D Eisenhower, Princess Margaret, Gary Cooper and other Hollywood stars who made a special pilgrimage, not just the long gone society of London ale conners who used to bless the new season’s ale here, not just the Thespians who staged Shakespeare plays in the inn-yard all the way up to the 1970s, or the ghost of the old landlady who haunts the upper floors. Imagine all the ordinary market traders, hop merchants, bear baiters, prostitutes from the nearby Southwark ‘stews’, clergymen, highwaymen, theatre goers, waggoners, gentlemen and rogues who’ve passed their time in this building. What did they eat? Drink? Wear? Talk about?
That’s the pitch.
I’m writing it intensively through the rest of 2011, hoping for a release in 2012, in time for the Olympics.
And hopefully, it won’t be the only book I’ll be working on! But more on that later, if my other project, in collaboration with a very talented photographer, also comes off.
Anyway, if the blogging slips, that’s why. If you want me, I’ll probably be in the Southwark Local History library.