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.