Saturday, January 04, 2014

History of London Watermen

For fun and wonder today, the paddling we're exploring is... the history of London's oldest Pub! Um. Pubs don't sound like they have much to do with small boats. (For those who haven't heard the word, a pub is a British or Canadian bar that's one genteel step nicer than an ordinary bar.) But this pub is on the south bank of the Thames. For the better part of 600 years, if you didn't walk across London Bridge through the crowds, you took a small boat to get to the George Inn.
The history of this particular pub from 1476 to the present was investigated thoroughly in archives of records, in old maps, and in old books of fiction and non-fiction. That kind of investigation involves the serious use of library science by an expert. So, instead of a paddler telling us a trip story, the expert telling our story is... Pete Brown. A writer. So dedicated to his research that he spent hour after hour in pubs and libraries all over London. And Brown really is an expert on writing about pubs, based on his earlier books titled Hops And Glory, Three Sheets To The Wind, and Man Walks Into A Pub: A Sociable History of Beer. That kind of experience makes Brown well-suited to write Shakespeare's Pub: A Barstool History of London as Seen Through the Windows of Its Oldest Pub – The George Inn.
This photo of the George's innyard appeared at a British website's review of the book.
Putting aside any joking about paddlers making beer runs, this book is actually an interesting read. Brown shows us the architecture of the George's old building changing through the centuries of fires and rebuilding. His sociological description of the Inn's location at one end of London Bridge has the reader seeing the heads of traitors impaled on spikes, and a steady traffic of small boats crossing the Thames river loaded with goods and people. And the people are the real story: fascinating people who owned and managed the George Inn or popped round for a pint of beer and a bite to eat, and the highwaymen who robbed them. “So before we get to the pistols, paintwork and heaving bosoms, I need to attempt something I don't think anyone has done before,” writes Brown on page 182. “I need to try to make the history of road transport sound interesting to a mainstream, balanced audience.” Luckily, Brown was able to make the watermen appeal to any reader.
It's the London watermen who take over the middle of the book, even more than the highwaymen. The hard-working cargo movers, the rascals who conveyed people while re-negotiating the rate in mid-stream, and the smugglers are all described in detail. I particularly liked the tale of the Water Poet, who gave himself that epithet and self-published his way to modest success as a writer for the watermen.
If watermen, highwaymen, and publicans aren't to your taste, you might not read this book from cover to cover as I did, including the Timeline and Bibliography. I found it a rollicking good read! The photographs and illustrations are appealing, with useful captions. Anyone writing a history paper on London watermen or planning a trip down the Thames by small boat would do well to read a chapter or two of Shakespeare's Pub – or if you're writing about English pubs or British history or the writers Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, and of course, William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's Pub
A Barstool History of London as Seen Through the Windows of Its Oldest Pub – The George Inn
Pete Brown
St Martin's Press, New York 2013 
352 pages

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