Sunday 6 October 2013

Sin on the South Bank: A Review of "Bankside."

Bankside: London’s Original District of Sin
David Brandon and Alan Brooke
Amberley, paperback 2013
987 1445613840


Flowing through the heart of the capital, the history of the river Thames offers a powerful symbol for the lives of Londoners through the centuries. In fact, there have been people living on the site since before Roman times, washing there, catching fish and watching the horizon for signs of invaders. It was their livelihood, their transport and a symbol of the dependency of its people, shaped as they were by its moods and tides. From Elizabethan boatmen dashed against the arches of London Bridge, to the magical Frost Fairs, and the Victorian Lightermen steering their way through Dickensian fog, the river remains central to the city’s story. David Brandon and Alan Brooke’s Bankside: London’s Original District of Sin focuses on the way it has defined London, by carving it in two parts. Their story of life on the south bank tells a colourful and entrancing tale of Londoners through the ages.

With chapters divided thematically, Bankside offers a glimpse into the inns and taverns that first grew up south of the river to house travellers. Perhaps the most famous of these was Chaucer’s Tabard Inn, where the pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales feasted and planned their storytelling contest. Brandon and Brooke have tracked down the details of its neighbouring inns; The Bear at the Bridge, which opened around 1318 following a great flood, the Boar’s Head of 1459, the White Hart of 1406 and others. They appear as backdrops in the lives of famous men and women; the scenery for wooing and rebellion. At The Bear, in 1665, diarist Samuel Pepys snacked on ‘a biscuit and a piece of cheese and gill of sacke,’ and was entranced by the beauty of Frances Stuart, mistress of Charles II. Later that century, the landlord played host to the raucous drinking sessions of the Restoration dramatists, who were reputed to drink their canary wine filtered through their mistress’s underclothing. The pub is also mentioned by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist. By contrast, The White Hart was used by Jack Cade as his headquarters during the peasants’ revolt of 1450. Despite having rallied up to 45,000 men in his name, Cade was hunted down and killed and his complaints about oppression and misgovernment were crushed. But they did not go away. The Wars of the Roses broke out five years later, fermented by similar concerns. The pub struggled on into the Victorian era, being occupied by a railway company before being pulled down in 1889.

Bankside is full of glorious detail. London-based readers will find it a full and helpful guide to the city they know but residency is not essential for the enjoyment of this book. Drawing on history, literature, myths and popular culture, the authors’ wealth of knowledge masquerades under a gossipy style, making it accessible and interesting. There is bound to be something new to discover here and something to appeal to all tastes, with chapters covering markets, prisons, worship, hospitals and theatres. A huge span is included too, ranging from the very first settlements all the way through to the twenty-first century, with its reinvention of the area, in popular culture and literature. This section is of particular interest, not just for its relevance but its almost encyclopaedic guidebook nature, documenting the uses of various streets in recent films. If you wished to visit the area today, this book contains useful information that would help you plan your trip, detailing information like what can be found in the Tate Modern and the relevant distances between places, which all seem “a short walk” from each other.

I found the chapter on literary and theatrical bankside to be one of the most interesting sections. The location of the theatres and taverns here, outside the city’s jurisdiction make it uniquely placed as a venue for showcasing new and controversial drama. As Brandon and Brooke explain, playwrights like Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and their contemporaries were drawn south, where the Globe theatre was constructed under cover of darkness. It was designed as a wooden “O”, a representation of the world with its paintings of stars and clouds overhead and ghosts rising from the bowels of hell, under the stage. A flag would fly to signify that a performance was about to begin, usually at two in the afternoon, to utilise the daylight. However, a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII reached a more dramatic conclusion than even the Bard had predicted, when a theatrical cannon ball lodged in the straw roof, which burst out in flames. The sight and smell must have been visible from the opposite bank, right to the northern boundaries of the city. This section provides a nice contrast to some of the grisly details of the history of the Clink prison and the bug-infested hospitals.

Bankside has a lot to offer the reader. There are two really good picture sections, featuring a range of well-chosen images which really compliment the text.  The only quibble I have is that the writing is uneven; it does take a little while to get going but soon warms to its theme. The style does vary between sections, with some written fairly dryly and others being rather colloquial in tone for my taste. This may be the result of co-authorship and does not detract from the material itself. Brandon and Brooke have done an admirable job of delving into London’s original district of sin, making its history accessible and exciting.



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