Saturday, August 8, 2015

The English culture of location names

Many years ago, living in England, I came across a charming and humorous book that even then was old, How To Be An Alien by George Mikes.

Mikes was Hungarian born, a journalist and author. He was posted to the UK by his newspaper in the run-up to the outbreak of World War II and never left, becoming a British citizen in 1946. How To Be An Alien was his second book and set the standard for his writing life (he wrote some 40 books). It is the book that made his name and remains in print in the UK. It is a brief, delightfully pointed rundown of the main stereotypes of the British and British customs. Perhaps the most famous chapter is the one sentence Chapter 7 - Sex. In toto it reads -
European men and women have sex lives; English men and women have hot-water bottles.
In that quintessential English way, no-one took umbrage, instead embracing Mikes and his work.

Even today, it remains both humorous and largely still on-mark, particularly outside of London. It is a brief read of less than 40 pages but a delightful 40 pages.

I especially liked Chapter 21 - How to Plan a Town which captures the British genius for whimsey, freedom, eccentricity, and quirkiness. This chapter is as accurate and relevant today as seventy years ago.
The English like to be uncomfortable. They think that this makes them strong. Only weak people from Europe live in comfortable pleasant towns.

People who build English towns want to make everything difficult. In Europe, doctors, lawyers and people who sell books have their houses and shops together in different parts of the town so you can always find a good (or a bad but expensive) doctor anywhere. In England, your address is important. In London, all the doctors live and work in Harley Street, all the lawyers are in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and all the book-sellers are in the Charing Cross Road. The newspaper offices are all in Fleet Street, the people who make men’s clothes are all in Saville Row and the car salesmen are in Great Portland Street. Theatres are near Piccadilly Circus and cinemas are in Leicester Square. Soon all the fruit and vegetable shops will move to Hornsey Lane, all the butchers to the Mile End Road and all the men’s toilets to Bloomsbury.

Now, I want to tell you about how to build an English town. You must understand that an English town is built to make life as difficult as possible for foreigners.

1 First of all, never build a straight street. The English do not like to be able to see two ends of a street. Make bends in the streets or make them S-shaped. The letters L,T,V,Y,W, and O also make good shapes for streets. It would please the Greeks if you built a few 0 or B-shaped streets. Maybe you could build streets like Russian or Chinese letters, too.

2 Never build all the houses in a street in a straight line. The British are free people so they are free to build their houses in circles.

3 Make sure that nobody can find the houses. European people put the numbers 1, 3, 5, 7 on one side of the street and 2, 4, 6, 8 on the other side of the street. The small numbers always start from the north or west. In England they start the numbers at one end of the street, then suddenly stop and continue the numbers on the opposite side going back the other way.

You can leave out some numbers and you can continue the numbers in a side street; you can also give the same number to two or three houses.

And you can do more! Many people do not have numbers on their houses; instead they give their houses names. It is very amusing to go to a street with three hundred and fifty houses and to look for a house called ‘The House’. Or you can visit a house called ‘Orange Tree House’ and find that there are three apple trees in the garden.

4 If the road bends, give a different name to the second part of it but, if it bends a lot so it is really two different streets, you can keep the same name. If the street is long and straight, give it many different names (High Holborn, New Oxford Street, Oxford Street, Bayswater Road, Notting Hill Gate, Holland Park, etc.*)

5 Some clever foreigners will find the street that they want, so make it harder for them. Call the street by another name. Don’t just call it a ‘street’, call it a ‘road’, ‘way’, ‘park’, ‘garden’, etc.

Now try this:

(a) Put all the streets with the same name in the same part of town: Belsize Park, Belsize Street, Belsize Gardens, Belsize Way, etc.

(b) Put a number of streets with the same name in different parts of the town. If you have twenty Princes Squares and twenty Warwick Roads, nobody will be able to find the right place.

6 Paint the street name in large letters on a piece of wood. Hide this piece of wood carefully. Put it very high on the wall or very low behind the flowers in someone’s garden, or in a shadow – anywhere where people cannot see it. Even better, take the street name to your bank and ask the bank to keep it for you. If you don’t, somebody will find out where they are.

* These are all parts of one very long, straight street in the centre of London.
This long preamble is brought to mind by a passage in John Keegan's Intelligence in War, an account of the role military intelligence plays in wars and illustrated by accounts of different battles and campaigns. Chapter Three is Local Knowledge: Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. One of Keegan's observations is that, oddly, at the outbreak of the Civil War, no uniform, triangulated national map of the United States existed. There were local maps, some of great precision, but there was no overall integrated map. As a product of historical circumstance, the coasts were well mapped as were the frontier states. The founding colonies made do with local maps. This quirk of history had a significant influence on the circumstances of the Shenandoah campaign led by Stonewall Jackson, who was almost always at a supply and manpower disadvantage compared to the Union generals.
Local knowledge often counted far more than the plates in a shoddy bookshop atlas. It was much more readily available, inside the South, to Confederate defenders than Union invaders. Without it, confusions accumulated. Even quite good maps could be out of date, while there was no guarantee that the mapmaker's choice of place-name was that used by locals. "Cold Harbor, Virginia" (the site of one of General Ulysses Grant's battles in 1864) "was sometimes called Coal Harbor, and there was also a New Cold Harbor and a 'burned' Cold Harbor. Burned Cold Harbor was known by the locals as Old Cold Harbor. Many of the roads were known by one of two names: the Market or River Road; the Williamsburg or Seven Mile Road; the Quaker or Willis Church Road. To add to the confusion, there were sometimes other nearby roads with the same or similar names that ran in completely different directions."
Tell me Keegan isn't channelling Mikes there.

But the Virginians came by their geographical naming proclivities honestly, having been settled by the English.

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