By Gavin Ashenden
I had forgotten how fun road names were.
We have wonderfully rude names in our islands. They are perpetually sources of laughter and humor, even if they are difficult for the locals to live with.
Fanny Hands Lane in Ludford, Minge Lane in Upton-Upon-Severn. Pratts Bottom in London always makes kids laugh out loud, as does Brown Willy in Cornwall. Nob End in Manchester is hard to take seriously but saved by its spelling; Shitterton in Dorset is matched only by Crapstone in Devon.
But it’s not so much toilet humor that energizes critics as political correctness (of course). So Shitterton was undisturbed, but “Darkie Lane” was suddenly the source of social unrest.
One day last summer a family who lived in a town came to Dorset for a short holiday and were shocked and offended when they came across Darkie Lane. They wrote to Swanage Council to express their horror at the not even implicit, but explicit racism embedded in the address.
The good news is that the council’s power to change place names has been restricted. They can only do this if two-thirds of the people living there agree. And they didn’t.
As often, the legislation governing local councils is complex and differs from region to region in the British Isles. But Michael Gove is soon to introduce new laws making it mandatory for all councils to consult residents on any woke changes.
Blackboy Lane in Haringey, London, (and Hill in Bristol) caused horror. Sadiq Khan insisted the name be changed to La Rose Lane, after John La Rose an “activist”. La Rose is certainly a nicer address, but does not circumvent the larger problem of having to explain our cultural history. ‘Blackboy’ in a name is much more likely to refer to English chimney sweeps rather than African slaves. But that doesn’t cut much ice in our post-truth era where offense and personal horror trump facts and history.
A few years ago Birmingham Council decided that the old lists of road names were not good enough. They were half right of course. ‘Acacia Avenue’ does little to deepen the richness of our cultural experience. But they embarked on a utopian nanny overdrive to inspire the brave people of Birmingham to attune their consciousness to the impulse of social revolutions, and offered inspiring alternatives:
‘Diversity Grove, Equality Road, Destiny Road, Inspire Avenue, Respect Way and Humanity Close.’
Given our bureaucrats’ thirst for power to scold us or give us good advice, we’re lucky it didn’t go any further. The city with stations can lose the station approach and instead be assigned “See, say, sorted way”. If coronavirus experts find their way anywhere near name-choosing committees, we’ll have the first steps of child hygiene made perpetually present with “Hands, Face, Space Place.” ‘Catch it Bin it Kill it Close’. We could go further with “Protect the NHS Avenue”.
“No Hate Avenue” would be a good reminder of how we’d like the world to become, but could make it hard to come home after a bad day at the office, or be hard to live with if your marriage breaks down.
There is little poetry in politics, which is one of the reasons why politicians have the least possible lead. Looking at the world through the prism of power creates an ugly horizon that art, poetry and music can otherwise beautify.
But perhaps the biggest difference between politicians and art, or power and love, is that politicians don’t tell the truth, but love does.
Shakespeare asks if names matter. One of his most poignant quotes suggests that may not be the case. Juliet whispers to Romeo,
‘O, be another name!
What’s in a name? What is called a rose
Under any other name would smell as good;’
But just because Juliet makes a point poetically and nicely doesn’t mean Shakespeare presented it as true. The end of Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy. The love of two teenagers proves insufficient to cure the rage and revenge in which their two families are trapped.
Of all peoples, Shakespeare knew the power of names. Names are words. Words change lives, minds and hearts. Words convey or hide the truth. Words matter.
In fact, with a title quoting Juliet’s aphorism, a neurological paper published by McGill University in 2008 examined whether presenting an odor with a positive, negative, or neutral name would influence how people perceive it.
The result will not surprise you. A smell was considered more pleasant when accompanied by a pleasant name.
But advertisers have always known it too and spend millions looking for the right words and slogans to influence our response and make us spend money.
Words are at the heart of our culture wars. Being able to tell the difference between good and bad, real and unreal, will be the key to whether a society survives or fails. Being able to use words to tell the truth marks the difference between sanity and madness.
Abolish Darkie Lane or Blackboy Hill in favor or “You can be what you want to be Crescent”, “Silence is the avenue of violence” or “Diversity is our strength Hill”, may not offer what the we hope. Devotion to dogma may enforce belief in truth, but does not change one truth into another. If you are not allowed to tell the difference between sex and gender and cannot describe what a woman is, name changes may not be enough.