One of the things that I like to do when I am meant to be doing something else, like reading a book, is to listen to Radio 4. Oddly enough, one of the things that Radio 4 likes to do when it should be doing something else is to get someone to read a book out, and so it was the other day that instead of reading a book, I found myself listening to one. Listening, in fact, to someone with an American accent reading an abridged version of Paul Theroux's new book about his travels through Africa.
I can't remember much about it. As you can see from my careful circumlocution, I cannot even recall the title. But I have a gift for enjoying books and then not remembering much about them. I have been rereading the Sherlock Holmes stories since I was a child, and some of them still take me by surprise – in other words, there are some in which I cannot remember who did it.
I was rereading The Five Orange Pips the other day, the one all about the Ku Klux Klan, and was genuinely surprised when the young man who had come to Holmes for help was murdered without Holmes being able to stop it, even though I must have read it a dozen times. I see it as a blessing, to be able to reread books without ever quite remembering what they are all about, so although for this reason my examination results in literary matters were not always top grade, I do retain a certain freshness when reading old favourites again.
And all I can really now remember about my exposure to the nameless Paul Theroux travel book is that he passed through Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, and said in passing that the railway station there was designed and built by Gustave Eiffel, the man who brought us the Eiffel Tower. I found this bit of information extraordinary. That the man who erected the most famous paperweight in the world, the man who altered the Paris skyline for all time, the man whose building attracted so many would-be suicides from around the world that the Samaritans could easily set up an office on-site – that the great Eiffel should have built a little railway station at the far end of Africa, eclipsed everything else that Theroux had to say.
Well, it's not so very little. I have now looked up pictures of Maputo Station on the internet and it turns out that it's quite big. It's also quite ugly. It's green-and-white tiled, and it has a big dome in the middle, and a solid block on either side, and a big CFM on its forehead, standing for whatever the Portuguese for Chemins de Fer de Mozambique is, and if it wasn't for the odd palm tree standing in front of it, you could quite easily believe that it was an old-fashioned Belgian department store. If Gustave Eiffel had built this in the middle of Paris, no matter how big, it would never have become a landmark like the Eiffel Tower...
Talking of which, is the Eiffel Tower the only famous building in the world that is named after its builder? I can't think of any others.
Big structures are usually named after the owners or sponsors (Chrysler Building, Oxo Tower), or the rich man behind it all (Guggenheim, Frick), or some famous dead person (Albert, Lincoln, St Paul's), or anyone but the person who had the idea and built it. I can't think of anything that's been named after Wren, or Brunel, except Brunel University, and he didn't build that. (It would be interesting to imagine what Brunel University would have looked like if he had designed and built it – some monstrous, iron-clad floating palace of learning, perhaps, tossing off the Cornwall Coast, ready to steam south for the winter...)
So why alone does Eiffel get his name on a tower? My theory is that it is because the tower is so peculiarly useless. It doesn't have any obvious function. Nobody lives in it, or does anything in it except go to the top and come down again. It can't have a commercial name, and it's hard to think of a brief description. It's useless. It's not the only useless thing around. The Greenwich Dome was useless. But it wasn't intended to be useless. The Eiffel Tower was. Unlike the railway station at Maputo...
A reader writes: Hold on, hold on. Is this article just a way of finding out from readers if they can think of any other building that was named after the builder?
Miles Kington writes: Yes. I'm afraid it is.
Reader: I wouldn't have read this far if I'd known that. I think I'll go to the sports pages now.
Miles Kington: Good idea. I'll come with you.