Yesterday, halfway through writing a piece saying how clever Mrs Gaskell had been to invent such a plausible place name as Cranford, I discovered that there are in fact several real places in Britain called Cranford. No matter. I thought she had invented it. Maybe she thought she had too. It's a clever name either way. And that whole area of real names and false names is so fluid, anyway, that you can never be quite sure where the borders lie.
I have, for instance, long felt that Courtney Pine is an ideal name for an English village, even though the real Courtney Pine is a talented, black, British jazz musician, very urban, very hip, very unvillage-like, which makes it even better.
Sometimes it's the other way round and you come across a village name crying out to be the name of a character in fiction. The first time I drove through a local village near Warminster called Upton Scudamore, my wife-to-be, sitting beside me, cried out: "Upton Scudamore! It's got to be an American lawyer!" (In that instant I knew this was the woman I had to marry.) In the Cotswolds, near the Fosse Way somewhere, I occasionally pass a direction post pointing to two villages called Dorn and Botsford, and every time I do, I renew my oath to create a heroine one day called Dawn Botsford.
Even temporary road signs get turned into names. Loose Chippings turns up often as a jokey village. At the top of the hill near my village there is a warning sign marked "Adverse Camber". I have no idea what you are meant to do about an Adverse Camber, which sounds a bit like "Advent Calendar" said with your mouth full, but I think that using it as a village name is the only true solution. "Little did I realise as I came to stay in Adverse Camber that month that my troubles were only just beginning."
The village where I live is called Limpley Stoke, a name which is a constant source of wonder to Londoners and Americans and other folk who don't get out and about much. Every year I determine to write an ode to autumn which uses lots of local village names as poetic phrases. It starts like this: "Limpley Stoke the embers now, See the autumn leaves Combe Down."
And that is as far as it has ever got. Most British place names are hundreds of years old, but in America they were still making new places and giving them new names until quite recently, so you would have thought they might have come up with some real goodies. It doesn't seem to have worked out that way. Most American place names seem to fall into utterly predictable patterns. Old Spanish ones, like El Paso and Las Vegas. Nobly idealistic ones like Concord, or the Greek for "brotherly love", Philadelphia. Indigenous relics like Manhattan or Chicago. Traces of nostalgia for the old country, such as New York, and Harlem. Stupid names, such as anything ending in "-ville"
Maybe it's the fake names made up by authors that still sound the most authentic. Names like "Midsomer", where all those murders happen. Like PG Wodehouse's "Market Blandings". Like EF Benson's "Tilling", playground of Mapp and Lucia, and like Dylan Thomas's "Llareggub".
And perhaps also, though less certainly, like Ankh-Morpork, which is one of the cities invented by Terry Pratchett in his Discworld series, and which in 2002 became the first ever fictional place ever to be twinned with somewhere here on Earth.
There was a grand ceremony at Wincanton in Somerset, declaring that the town of Wincanton was now duly twinned with the city of Ankh-Morpork, a move behind which the people of Wincanton were solidly united, not to mention the Somerset County Council.
There was even an Ankh- Morpork consulate set up in the main street of Wincanton, presumably for stray aliens to apply to for replanetation.
Then Whitehall stepped in and banned the twinning, ruling that twinning could only legally take place between real places.
I swear it's true. Some things you couldn't make up.Reuse content