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Friday, 4 December 2009
Check Out The Checkers of Chequers

After reading Esmerelda’s very interesting posts on Public Houses and Inn signs at this post and also here I went crawling through my attic and dug out some of my notes from those ill-remembered lectures, delivered to me in far off and almost forgotten (yes, and halcyon) times, which I mentioned in the comments to her post here.

It seems, from that which I noted as a callow youngster paying but scant attention to a minor part of my degree course, that the chequerboard design of alternating differently coloured squares is ultimately, way back in the dim and distant past of our evolving civilisation, based on a natural flavouring for beer!
Now, bear with me here and forgive my natural loquacity - which is probably due to my natural penchant for consumption of the product of the brewer’s skills, anyway.
It seems, at least according to my badly written notes and poor memory, that archaeologists have determined that beer, before the discovery of hops, was often flavoured with the fruits of the of the wild Service tree (Sorbus torminalis, syn. Torminalis clusii). That particular rowan tree is native all across Europe, North Africa and across Asia Minor as far as as the Elburz Mountains and it’s interesting to note that true beer is not found in the archaeological record east of the Elburz range. The fruits of the wild Service tree taste a little like dates and are still collected from the few surviving trees in the hedgerows of Britain and preserved in honey and eaten at New Year in some country villages. It’s not every year that the fruits will ripen in Britain because Sorbus torminalis requires a hot summer and a long, warm autumn for the fruits to ripen and then blett to edibility, but global warming means that this is now happening in most years and frequent periods of climatic optimum means that regular ripening happened often enough in our past for the memory to be preserved from one generation to the next. However, beer was usually flavoured with underripe and slightly astringent fruits and, anyway, the bletted fruits produced a very short lived brew that was drunk young and was reviled by most as the old women’s drink.
Now what, I hear you all ask, has that got to do with ‘chequers’ and Esme’s interesting, and thirst provoking, disquisitions on Pub signs and her splendid photographs of a reviving artisanal artform? Well, stay with me for just a moment or two whilst I pour myself another foaming tankard of the brew that cheers from the jug, the little brown jug, which the boot boy has just replenished for me from the pub (‘The Swan in Happiness’, if you must know – too, too precious) on the corner of our lane and the High Street.
The bark of the Sorbus torminalis peels away in a roughly chequerboard pattern – the grey bark peels away in rough squares to reveal the dark brown layers underneath – but, and much more importantly, the ripe fruit has lenticel markings which look much like a chequered pattern and the fruits, in English and to this very day, are known as ‘chequers’. English is by no means the only Indic language to preserve this source, most do, and beer, specifically small beer (as a method of rendering water safe to drink using the sterilising properties of alcohol), is historically important. The chequerboard pattern on Inn signs indicated that there was sufficient alcohol in the water such as to render it safe to drink and that sign, that indication, dates from the day and age when the alcohol, the beer, was flavoured with the berries of the wild Service tree – the chequered berry – and that dates back so far into prehistory as to be almost astounding.
One can only guess at the meanings that our very ancient ancestors, lacking any understanding of chemistry or biology, might have ascribed to drunken insights and at how the chequerboard pattern of Dark and Light squares became embroiled in, and entangled with, our religious beliefs but that that pattern did become so mixed up with our beliefs and lives on, today, in so many ways, is undeniable. That Esme finds it hither and yon on so many of her carefully photographed Inn signs is proof, if proof is needed, of just how ancient much of our culture actually is. Esmerelda’s photographs prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that an ancient belief, perhaps an alchemical superstition, lives on into our modern world, albeit unrecognised and in a different way.
Oh, and let me be honest here, sometimes art is just art. Sometimes an Inn sign is just an Inn sign. Sometimes there is no ancient meaning. There is a pub that I know of called the “Queen in Arms”. It’s the hangout of several chess clubs and its sign is a chequerboard painted by the landlord, in all innocence, just two years ago. He doesn’t know that he is the heritor of a proud, millennia-old tradition – why should he? But he is!
By the way, Esme, does the Bosom’s Inn in St. Lawrence Lane still exist? Despite all the time I’ve spent in London I’ve never thought to check up on that! That was one of the great City Inns assigned to Charles Vs suite, when he came over to visit Henry VIII in 1522. At the sign of "St. Lawrence Bosoms" twenty beds and stabling for sixty horses were ordered.

That strange old bit about the trained horse and Bankes which was written under the pen names of "John Dando, the wierdrawer of Hadley, and Harrie Runt, head ostler of Besomes Inne," probably refers to the same Inn, but the horse in question mustn’t be confused with the spartina grazing Bankers living on the islands of North Carolina's Outer Banks.

But this brief entry into the affray is ‘Loves Labours Wonne’ and all I mean to do is shew how Esme’s lovely collection of photographs of ancient Inn signs demonstrate yet another example of our deep and ancient culture and what we could lose if the vile conformity of Islamic belief were to gain the upper hand in our countries.
Now, whose round is it? Thanks! Mine’s a pint of the best. Dash it, make it a half-and-half with a flesh and blood on the side. May as well be hanged for a lamb as led to the slaughter!
Posted on 12/04/2009 6:49 AM by John M. Joyce
7 Dec 2009
Send an emailBentham

I insist...the next round's on me, but John must drink it all down while standing up. No cheating now...every last drop!!

5 Dec 2009
Send an emailJohn M. J.


I can assure you you that  the lasque-cut Shah Diamond does not feature in Part Three for it it is not one of the Major Stones dating, as it does, from the Golconda mines circa 1450AD.

Sometimes an 86 carat diamond is just a large diamond!


I'm very much inclined to agree with you and I'll bet that if we dug down beneath the cellars of the City Tavern we'd find evidence of an ancient hostelry. There is, as I'm sure you are very much aware, a remarkable persistence of site usage in our ancient cities. Current structures are all too often an indication of what went on on an a site in the far past. Thanks for this info.


4 Dec 2009
Send an emailreactionry
The Exchequer of Lectures?
Or: A Penny For The Bowser
Or: A Spaniard For The Spaniel
Or: "On Account of the Flies" & Fleas & Ticks
Or: Speak, Checkers
Or: They Also Serve Which Only Stay & Sit
Or: Finnegans Woof
Or: A Good Bite For Mothing
Or: Lady McGruff Says "Out, Damned Spot!"
Or: You Can Teach Old Tricky Dick New Dirty Tricks
Or: It's Good For The Coat
Or: That Dog Won't E. Howard Hunt
Or: Milhous On The Gloss
Or: Procol Harum Scarum
Or: The Checkered Past Of Griboyedov
Or: Crimenently & Pun-Ishment
Or: The Bum Of The Rock
Or: Whitman At Whittier
Dear John,
Many Thanks, or, as a German expat abiding in your showered isle might say, "Feelin' Dank!" for your wonderful post.  Which was surely the result of painkillerstaking labours rather than of, if you'll forgive the malapropism, a first, or second, or even third, draught.
Sad to report, though, the fly in the ointment or agaric is that your piece, along with NER's "Dead or alive" thread, served to remind me that my dear cocker spaniel is now an ex-Checkers.  I won't bore you with most of the details of the procedings, but I should note that I was unable to procure the services of Joe Cocker (geddit?) for a performance at The Spaniard (again, geddit?) of some cuts from Mad Dogs & Englishmen; perhaps "My Bowser couldn't write me a letter."  If the other Joyce would be so kind as to forive me - "Fidos/Fido's Wake" was a simple "affair to remember" (see "the nearest thing to 'all good dogs go to heaven' ") as Checkers was wrapped in my wife's respectable Republican cloth coat; small bier, really.
I still can't get the little pooch out of my mind as I ponder whether the bark of the Wild Service Tree (which further serves to remind me that I should have hung from a tree John S. Service aka Sovietus Terminalis syn. Terminalis Nocluesii) is worse than the astringent bite of the fruit of Sorbus Torminalis.  Sigh - shades of "Speak, Memory" as I recall my little cocker (I won't shock the Reader with the attempt to breed him which ended prematurely and half-cockered) playfully chasing his tail and, more on point (geddit?) chasing butterflies and moths though he rarely treed them. 
While you are right to be concerned about rising temperatures, I hope that you are grateful for the mixed blessings of the rules and regulations, as well as the dynamism, of a mixed economy, to wit, your air has gotten much cleaner over the past several decades.  -Less coals from Newcastle and all that.  I reallly shouldn't er, pepper* you with questions, but have you noticed that said treed moths are becoming a "whiter shade of pale" (apologies to what? Protocols of the Elders of Hareem?) ?  With respect to my own "evolution," I'm "well-rested" but scarcely "tanned."  Please excuse that digression, but if memory serves, the species in question is the famous Dorian Grey.  As you may recall, the effects of fallout from Chernobyl have been credited or blamed for the appearance in Finland of the Ainola Grey, which was celebrated with the playing of Sibelius' Unfinished Egophony.  Which, of course, is known for its unusual five bleats to a measure and, naturally, the e to a key changes have naught to do with "Grey" or "Gray."  I need not (but will) remind you of the similar history in Japan of the Enola Gray.
I too, have once again waxed too loquacious, or to put it again less kindly, have exhibited logorrhea or, as [the] hoi polloi might put it, "verbal diarrhea" - or if you prefer, "diarrhoea."  I should just bide my time, hoping that future scholars will at least scribble some of my extenuating circumstances onto the margins of history books.  But, -Sheesh! and Crimenently! - here moving from Checkers to Chechens and to Alexander Griboyedov, who, as a veritable Officer McGruff**, took a bite out of the Crimea, you'd think I'd absconded (at least I never Abscamed) with the frickin' Shah Diamond*
And just between you and me and the Gentle Reader, will the above rock figure in the third installment of your Detective Chief Inspector Michael Lushkins series?  -Mums - or is it "mummers"? - the word - or as Paul B. might say (do I repeat myself? very well then; with a barbaric yawp I repeat myself), Shhhh....Shah still!  However, and you may call me squeamish, my beamish Boyar - maybe I don't have the "stones" for it- I'd prefer that the Shah Diamond didn't make its first appearance allah some (In the year or the rear of our ...Good Lord!) "anus" horribilis.
Gotta' run and not to put too fine a pint onnit, and as Griboyedov didn't quite say, they danged me and nearly hanged me, but I spit on the verdict of history!
Crookedly Yours,
Dick Nixon.

4 Dec 2009
Esmerelda Weatherwax

That was interesting.
The Wild Service tree is rare but there are some specimens locally to which I shall pay more careful attention.
The current pub in Lawrence Lane is called the City Tavern. It looks 20th century but I wouldn't mind betting that there are ancient foundations.