Victoria Summerley: Town Life

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Regular readers of this column may remember the story of my friend Carl and his smart stainless steel house number, which was borne home in triumph from New York and installed upon his front door, only to be half-inched by some Walthamstow ne'er-do-well.

Following this experience, one might forgive Carl for considering the number six to be somewhat unlucky, but he is not a man to be deterred by a minor inconvenience such as larceny. Come the Grand National, he put all he had (well, a fiver) on Numbersixvalverde, which - spookily - won by six lengths. At odds of 11-1, this went some way towards making up for the theft of Carl's numeral.

Those of you not conversant with the sport of kings may not be aware that this year's Grand National winner was named after the Portuguese holiday home of its owner, Irish millionaire Bernard Carroll. One can only wonder whether it has subsequently led to confusion in the Carroll household. If someone says they're off to see Numbersixvalverde, do you hand them a bucket of bran mash, or a bucket and spade?

Still, the idea of calling your horse after your house makes a refreshing change from the usual routine of calling your house after your holiday. According to a Halifax survey, names such as Windermere, or Ambleside, or Tresco are still popular with British home-owners. I can only assume that in 30 years from now, retirement bungalows will be called things like Machu Picchu or Annapurna or Koh Samui - or perhaps Dunbackpackin' or Duncheckin' (the latter for anyone who has ever had to endure the British Airways check-in desk at Terminal Four on the first Saturday of the school holidays).

Other buildings have names thrust upon them. Hands up, anyone who knows the official name of the Gherkin. No, it's not the Swiss Re Tower - though it is owned by Swiss Re. It's 30 St Mary Axe. St Mary Axe, incidentally, is itself a kind of nickname, given to the now defunct church of St Mary the Virgin, which was dedicated to St Ursula and the 1,100 virgins who were martyred with her. They were beheaded by the king of the Huns and the axe used was, according to tradition, kept in the church.

Then there's the Millennium Dome, now renamed the 02. How many people will be referring to it as the O2 in a year's time? I can tell you now: zero, apart from the PR department at the mobile phone network that came up with the daft idea of renaming (sorry, rebranding) it in the first place.

Among the ranks of Victorian and Edwardian terraced houses that spread across London, there are often names set in stained glass above the front door, or on plaques above the entrance, the origins of which have long since sunk into obscurity. I used to live next door to a house called Rosedale (complete with roses in the front garden), and round the corner was a residence named Blair Atholl (though sadly, without a bagpipe or a shred of tartan to be seen).

Giving romantic names to urban dwellings is asking for trouble, of course. The house where I grew up, in the unromantic borough of Croydon, was called Fairlight. As the process now known as "Croydonisation" got underway in the Sixties, the outlook grew less and less fair and less and less light, thanks to the inexorable rise of a glass-and-steel stockade of office blocks and skyscrapers around us.

One, at the end of our road, opposite East Croydon Station, was officially called the NLA Tower, but was far better known as the Wedding Cake, or, later, as the 50p Building, because it looks like a pile of 50p pieces. When it was finished, in 1970, it was generally regarded as an eyesore (Prince Charles didn't make his "monstrous carbuncle" speech until 1984, otherwise the c-word would undoubtedly have been used).

Today it is regarded as an architectural treasure. But then, as the 02 people seem to have failed to realise, once the British public, and especially Londoners, give something a nickname, it's an indication that it has won their affection. Given a choice between corporate branding and public esteem, I know which I'd choose.

Comments