Welcome to the Naff and Fakit

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The Independent Online
I could not claim to have been a regular at The Jolly Milkman in Mortlake but it was enough of a landmark in the psychological landscape for me to blanch silently when they changed its name to The Pickled Newt. Likewise when I found that an old Fleet Street haunt, The King and Keys, next door to the former Daily Telegraph building, had become a Scruffy Murphy's. And on the subject of the renaissance of The Ferret and Trouserleg in Surbiton it is doubtless best to remain quiet.

The Lib Dem MP Nigel Jones has no such compunction. He is to drag the House of Commons Beer Club, of which he is vice-chairman, into a concern with the tendency of breweries to change the names of our pubs, some of them extremely ancient - inn signs go back to Roman times and a goodly number of medieval names are extant. In their place we are plagued with Slug and Lettuces and Kitty O'Sheas.

It feels not just as if someone is trying to rewrite our personal history but as though they are pulling threads from the tapestry of our national history.

Britain's 90,000 pub signs are an index to its past. The White Hart stands as a residual allegiance to Richard II, whose emblem it was. The Red Lion speaks of a loyalty to John of Gaunt. The Bear and Ragged Staff sides, more safely, with the King Maker, Warwick.

They tell us of sport - The Dog and Duck reminds us of Charles II's favoured pastime of throwing spaniels into the pond to hunt the mallard. They chronicle social change - The Crown and Anchor was the badge of the Royal Navy's petty officers who retired from the sea to become landlords. The Marquis of Granby in the 18th century set up his pensioned-off soldiers as inn- keepers when they left the Army.

There has always been change, of course. Many a Cross Keys (the sign of the Bishop of Rome) prudently became a King's Head at the time of the Reformation when pub names like The Virgin Mary or The Rock vanished and The Salutation in Highgate Hill (with its sign of the Virgin Mary being informed of her pregnancy by a heavenly messenger) became The Angel.

Few would object to some modern changes, like the brewery bosses in Middlesbrough renaming The Isaac Wilson when they discovered that the local Victorian bigwig had led the town's teetotal movement. Then there was Lord Daresbury, boss of Greenalls Brewery, who insisted that an eponymous pub change its name because the Post Office kept sending his mail there.

But there is nothing meaningful about most modern name-changes. The fake Celticisation of the nation's pubs or their awful dumbing-down with variations on the "Firkin" theme are driven only by marketing. It is no use complaining of the naffness of The Rat and Carrot or the puerility of The Pheasant Plucker. That is their point: "repositioning in the market" requires driving out those of moderate tastes in favour of teenagers on their seventh pint of lager.

It could be the brewers are right. Ours is an age of mindless commercial vacuity. Perhaps we need our pub signs to remind us of that.

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