A ROAD BY ANY OTHER NAME

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The Independent Culture
English Literature provides the richest source of silly place names in the world - from Jonathan Swift's Lilliput and Brobdingnag to the idyllic PG Wodehouse villages of East Wobsley and Lower Briskett-in- the-Midden. Give a Brit a silly name and he's in seventh heaven. But a complete list of extraordinarily silly places is, by no means, all fiction and fantasy. What about the Cornish hamlet of London Apprentice, the Scottish Highland district of E, or the ludicrous Welsh village of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantyfiliogogogoch?

So who are the people whose enviable job it is to christen these places? Who, for instance, was the genius who thought of calling the road from Kilburn to Cricklewood Shoot-up Hill? An Irish drug-addict, perhaps? In south-east London, local councillors have followed the example of their colleagues across the country by naming a grim estate cul-de-sac Nelson Mandela Road. Not everybody is happy about that, it seems. A cunning spark has taken the trouble to scrape off the "Mandela" bit of the sign in order to change the tribute from the South African president to the whey-faced admiral of Trafalgar. Not to be outdone, some determined person has reasserted "Mandela" with a felt-tip pen; but confusion still reigns, with what appears to be a Czech lesbian adornment ("Martina 4 Eva") scribbled in passionate graffiti beneath.

Then there's John Barnes Walk, in London's East End. Fans of a certain black British footballer may read this as another floppy attempt by local council executives to instil a sense of community (black is cool! football is even cooler!) into a grisly, struggling area. Nothing so PC. If asked, Newham Council will happily inform you that the road is in fact named after John Barnes the insurance agent and philanthropist. Oh, him.

Road names have traditionally been used to tell us something about the inhabitants that live in those streets or the businesses that operate from them. Jew's Row, Baker Street and Fisherman's Drive, for instance. So what are we to think of the people who spend their lives in Ha-Ha Road, London SE18? Are we meant to be laughing at them or with them? And what of Catbrain Hill - a street name like that cannot possibly reflect to the greater glory of those who live there. Daimler Avenue, on the other hand (one of a surprising number of streets which appear to have borrowed their names from car-manufacturing companies) gives an ironic indication of the aspirations festering behind the closed doors of the modest dwellings within.

So what's in a name? Nothing, according to Shakespeare. "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," he claimed, famously - but one wonders if the residents of Dogpool Lane, Ipswich , would agree with that. Was it a delinquent with a penknife who scratched the "l" away? Or could it have been a cunning local warning strangers to keep out? Nobody wants to live at Stinking Water Creek, or even go there, but in Herefordshire The Stank has now become a popular walkway. Was it once called The Stink? Does it no longer whiff the way it did?

A sign that must have been deliberately erected to discourage the stranger is the one at There and Back Again Lane, in a quiet district of Bristol. It must have the same effect on the weary traveller as "Lost Way" or "Maze Street" - "just don't bother!" it proclaims. But if we really want to keep strangers away from our homes, perhaps we should try to be a little more imaginative. Instead of making our streets sound cosy, we should proclaim them as hostile places. Little Dorrit Court, Honeysuckle Lea and Alice Way - pfff! Dracula Drive, Rottweiler Lane and Radioactive Crescent - that's what we need - these are the sorts of names that will protect us from burglary and intrusion in the coming millennium - these are the names that will quench our national thirst for silliness, and throw the barbarians from the gate.

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