Sunday, 17 March 2013

Shakespeare's Local - crossing over

Covers photograph badly in Kindle. Fact.
Shakespeare's Local by Pete Brown (Macmillan: 2012) - A history of the George Inn in Southwark, telling it's remarkable tale over many hundreds of years as it played host to some of histories greats and survived where many of its more famous contemporaries failed.

Crossover books are books of a specific (and usually niche) genre which win over a  general audience. 50 Shades of Grey is probably one of the best recent examples, taking erotica to the masses. Harry Potter did a similar thing for Young Adult fiction. Lord of the Rings for fantasy.

In that sort of company, Shakespeare’s Local won’t set the world on fire. But it deserves a serious nod of appreciation. How do you make local history more appealing to a wide audience? Focus it on a pub, throw in (often drunken) anecdotes of some of history’s luminaries, and hey presto, you’ve got a crossover hit on your hands.

Well, that’s the thinking anyway. But does the UK’s most famous beer historian and commentator pull it off? I think so. Mostly anyway.

For starts, he doesn’t write like the historians you read in school. This is not a text book, with a “and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened” approach. Pete Brown is way more conversational and entertaining than that. He warns you from the outset, giving you fair notice that he’s going to jump around a bit, include a few assumptions, litter the text with amusing footnotes. 

In reality, he doesn’t jump around the timeline as much as he perhaps thinks he does, but he keeps it lively nonetheless. As soon as you think you might be hitting a sticky patch, where he might be forced just to recount a few dry historical happenings in order to make sure the book has some proper context, he whizzes off into another anecdote or another rant or another character portrait. 

Maybe that's easier in a local history book anchored on pubs than it would be in a local history book about agricultural processes, but kudos nonetheless.

It’s all relative, of course. This is no thriller. Brown does what he can to inject drama, and an amusing analogy or quip is never too far away. But this won’t having you on the edge of your seat or rolling on the floor laughing. It’s a lively, colourful, entertainingly disjointed local history book, but it’s still a local history book.

So, if I’m 100% honest (and why wouldn’t I be), I reckon you still need to have at least a pilot light’s worth of interest in the subject matter before you pick this up. 

Me, I enjoy a bit of history. I enjoy it more when a crossover historian like Brown is at the helm, and I enjoy it more when it’s about something fun (like pubs), but I enjoy the dry stuff sometimes too.

I’m not saying you need to be a popular history fanatic, glued to Simon Schama every time he’s on telly. Just that you need at least a little spark of interest, even if it’s been largely suppressed. If there’s ever been a tiny voice at the back of your head which sounds like a history geek but has struggled to make itself heard, this could be the book to let the little guy out on.


I originally gave this a 7, then remembered my Kindle-era rule of only buying the hard copy of stuff I give 8 or above to. At which point I realised I really wanted to own the hard copy of this, so it MUST be worth an 8. (Impeccable logic, which I defy you to pick apart).

Interesting aside on this – Brown had his laptop with ALL his work on the book stolen when he was 3 months away from deadline, so had to start from scratch. Still churned out an 8 GBR though. I’m pretty darn impressed with that.

Next week (if I finish it in time) a new release from the Tinder Press, which they were kind enough to send me an advance copy of (which makes me feel smug).

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