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Friday, 12 February 2010

This Place Has a Name

I have an old atlas where the British Empire is coloured a faded mauve and the colonies are marked boldly and clearly to display the extent of the Empire’s domain. Leaving aside (easy to say) the bloody and violent history that accompanies our conquering of these foreign sands it naturally follows that we probably had something to do with the naming of the towns, cities and localities of these countries.

So why? Why on this purple-empired earth did we end up giving all the fantastic place names to them? Stand well back and allow me to demonstrate:

While the good ole boys across the pond have such visionary and poetic names as Memphis, Yazoo City, Erie, Albany and Buffalo, we have Dunstable, Kettering, Droitwich and Stoke Edith (no, I didn’t make it up).

Clicking play on the CD player gets us such great tunes as Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again and 24 Hours from Tulsa. Whereas we get Sir Paul telling us, pleading with us, desperately trying to convince us, to think about the Mull of Kintyre with the same poetic yearning.

Georgia was so cool that the Devil went down there AND so sweet that it was on Ray Charles’ mind. A lot. Can you really imagine someone singing “Stuck inside of Nantwich with the Chorley Blues Again”? You can’t. And if you can you really need to get out more.

So before this turns into one of my “…and another thing!” rants, what’s my point?

Well I should first say that, names aside, I’d much rather go to the Mull of Kintyre than I would Memphis. But secondly, there are always a few exceptions to the rule and, for me at least, those exceptions are part of the reason why I love those places so much: Their name is rooted in the history of the landscape they inhabit.

This is never more so a thing of reality for me than in the names of the fenland landscape where I grew up and spent 18 years of my life. I hesitate to call them ‘landmarks’ because in the fens, a burnt-out Fiesta counts as a landmark. But it is the names and the stories that flow out of them that make the place with its black earth and impossible skies so visceral, so vital, so present. I can still tick them off as I drive, in my minds eye, across a landscape that, uniquely, can be so forbidding and so astonishingly beautiful all at the same time.

Middle Level Drain, Popham’s Eau, Morton’s Leam, New Bedford Sluice, Sixty Foot Drain, Eau Brink and countless others; each one reeking of the stories that accompany their construction of a tamed but unstable landscape and their destruction of a seasonal nightmare arriving in the nocturnal, freezing, flooded dreams of the peoples that made their homes here before drainage.

It is not hard in a landscape as immediate as the fens to sense the stories that claim that Archbishop John Morton was a mediaeval Stalin, emptying his gulags and using prisoners from the 100 years war to dig and tramp out the middle level navigations that bear his name. Likewise, we sense the hard drive to reclaim when Vermuyden and his Dutch Adventurers first set out to cut the New Bedford River, leaving behind them Dutch names in their children and displacing the fenland peoples, many of which, it is said, were witches.

For me at least, these names, places and the stories that lay beneath them leave a kind of vestige of fear and wonder; a restlessness in the brain which tugs at my sense of comfort but at the same time cements my sense of place. It scratches at the windows of the car as I drive, insisting that the landscape was claimed from the wilderness but that the water maintains its rights to the fens whenever it chooses to exercise them.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

We are storytellers

whether we like it or not. So I’d better learn to live with it and move on.

My Grandfather was a great storyteller and a first rate sigh-er. Sighing was his way of expressing enormous disgust and exasperation with anything unsatisfactory that was going on within earshot.

This was particularly evident when we wanted to switch the TV on. Under normal circumstances in my Grandfather’s house the watching of “my programme” required the applicant to submit in triplicate and at least three hours in advance the proposal that one wanted to watch “my programme”. In his august committee of one, this required careful reading of the Telegraph listings page (to cross-check the information being given) and after careful consideration of the application Granddad, with a due sense of exhortation and warning, would grant his permission.

However, if the TV were to be turned on without this lengthy consultation then the sighs would ensue. Massive, despairing sighs denoting that his grandsons had clearly given up on life and that their cathode ray, teak-laminated drug dealer in the corner had them in its icy grasp and there was put simply, no escape and no hope.

Because my Grandfather was a storyteller.

I’m not talking about the happily-ever-after kind of story or empty, made-up, frighten-the-children stories. No. I’m talking about real stories about real people and real things. Sit down and have a conversation with him for half an hour and you’d find out that “there was a house, which has since been knocked down, where…” and a thousand other tales like it.

Where did all this stuff come from? And why was he carrying it around?

He had it in his veins. So do you. So do I. He didn’t know you didn’t have to talk about this stuff. He did it because he was grounded in every experience he’d ever had and every person he’d ever met. He collected their stories not because he wanted to but because they collected him; stuck to him like tics. And it doesn’t stop there.

The sharing of these stories roots you and the subject in a time, a place, a landscape, a house, an emotion, a moment. What is the sadness behind the boarded-up house? Who was it that gave that wood its name? Why am I not the first person to walk this path by the river? Making that connection helps my own feelings about that environment somehow swim into slow focus. Think, just for a moment, of a place that is special to you: because your predecessors also knew it was special; because they used to take you there; you know why it’s special because you know its history; because someone told you.

These stories, these curiosity-tingling, stranger-than-fiction, five-minute, wide-eyed, heart-rending stories, not only connect the teller and the listener but the listener with the landscape. I believe, and my long-dead Grandfather seems to concur, that the more we listen and the more we tell, the more we understand our own sense of time and place.

The Beginning.