Bankside: London's Original District of Sin

December 1, 2011

I should probably keep this quiet - I know how huge academic salaries are and that you'll snap up the London house I've always had my eye on. One of the three riverside terraced houses on Cardinal's Wharf (sandwiched between Tate Modern and the exhibition space of Shakespeare's Globe) is on the market, as I write, for a mere £5 million. Built in 1710, the house, David Brandon and Alan Brooke remark, "appears to have started life in the 1570s as a brothel". In its metamorphosis from a den of iniquity to one of the most desirable of London addresses, Cardinal's Wharf is a microcosm of Bankside as a whole. The present construction of the Shard skyscraper, 10 minutes' walk to the east, epitomises the mutation of Southwark from "the City of London's disreputable underbelly" to an area with the prestige of the traditionally more fashionable districts of Mayfair and St James's. But whereas the West End's luxury comes in the shape of Palladian mansions, Southwark's comes in the radically modern forms of the Shard or the floor-to-ceiling plate-glass acute angles of the apartment blocks currently nearing completion on Holland Street, which runs across the south-west corner of Tate Modern. What was "the earliest occupied part of Roman London" is now one of the city's most conspicuously covetable Post-Modern playgrounds.

In Bankside, Brandon and Brooke chart this transformation with the unabashed enthusiasm of television historians. Its subtitle conveys the book's nudging charm: London's Original District of Sin. The account is colloquial, informative and populist: "We simply love and revere London, north and south, and we hope that this feeling can be sensed in the pages that follow." What does follow is a whistle-stop tour of Southwark from its Roman foundations to the arrival of Tate Modern, Vinopolis and that meeting-place of faux authenticity and Disneyfication, Shakespeare's Globe.

There are chapters devoted to London Bridge, prisons, places of worship, inns and taverns, literary connections, frost fairs and industry. The closing chapters consider the post-war (mis)fortunes of the area and its recent emergence as a centre of culture, architecturally (the Millennium Bridge), artistically (Tate Modern), gastronomically (the cornucopia of Borough Market) and theatrically (the Globe). Dominating all this newfangledness is the imposing beauty of St Mary Overie, later called St Saviour and (since 1905) Southwark Cathedral, "London's second oldest church, after Westminster Abbey" and "a place of Christian worship for over 1,000 years". The cheek-by-jowl of old and new, for instance, the lively juxtaposition of the cathedral with the brand new Borough Viaduct (enabling increased rail capacity to flow through London Bridge Station), gives this area a frisson unusual in other more homogeneous regions of the capital. The corny replica of the Globe, not to mention the tourist tat of The Clink Prison Museum or the fake Golden Hinde, jostle with the deep-rooted history of The George Inn or the magnificent rose window of the Bishop of Winchester's ruined palace, and it is this mixture that makes Bankside fortunately intriguing and unfortunately heaving.

While the city fares well here, Londoners are treated less sympathetically: Pepys "was quite extraordinarily randy. If he espied almost any female of childbearing age, he wanted to grope her and frequently did." Dr Johnson "could have talked for England in the Olympics". Most cavalier is Brandon and Brooke's simplistic verdict on Sir Thomas More, who "only had to mutter a few contrite words and he could have escaped his fate, but he was a stubborn man and so his head in due course appeared on the spike on the bridge". Would that the authors had extended the same compassion to its inhabitants as they have to the city itself.

Bankside: London's Original District of Sin

By David Brandon and Alan Brooke. Amberley, 288pp, £20.00. ISBN 9781848683365. Published 25 October 2011

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