Thomas Sutcliffe: A Street Sign Of The Times

Click to follow

I'm not sure how many people read Jorge Luis Borges these days. He seems to have fallen a little from the high vogue he enjoyed when I was at university - a time when his particular brand of literary paradox formed a perfect fit with fashionable developments in structuralist criticism. But I found myself thinking the other day of his story Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote - particularly beloved by structuralists because of its mordantly witty take on the authority of the text and the enigmas of authorial intention. So mordant, in fact, that you could easily read it as a satire on the appetite for ostentatious perversity that was one feature of second-rate structuralist writing - which only confirms the fact that Borges usually gets the last laugh.

Pierre Menard purports to be a scholarly obituary of a French writer who set out to write Don Quixote - an endeavour that is not treated as a mere act of copying out but as a dazzling feat of creativity. At one point, the narrator compares two identical passages - one written by Cervantes and one by Menard - and contrasts the slack rhetorical clichés of the first with the startling philosophical insights of the latter. He also notes - he's nothing if not scrupulously fair - that while Cervantes' Spanish is perfectly natural in its expression, Menard's is a touch archaic and affected.

It came to mind, anyway, when I read about the short-lived proposal to rename Penny Lane in Liverpool, as part of a drive to purge the A-Z of its memorials to former slave-traders. Supporters of the plan argued that it was unconscionable that a modern, multi-racial city should still honour those who built their fortunes on human misery. Opponents pointed out that it was insane to deprive Liverpool of one of its globally recognised cultural assets - as the geographical origin of some of The Beatles' best loved songs. And the obvious solution - it seemed to me - was the Borgesian one. The thoroughfare would simply have to be renamed.

A date should have been set for a formal ceremony, a podium erected for speeches and the new signs readied for their unveiling. Some appropriate civic dignitary would have made a speech formally retracting the honour extended to James Penny, 18th-century slave-ship owner, and confirming the city's commitment to equal opportunities and mutual tolerance. And then a local celebrity (perhaps even Sir Paul himself) would have pulled a sash and revealed that, henceforth, the road would be known as Penny Lane, named in honour of the country's smallest unit of currency, a coin which has worked itself as inextricably into our collective consciousness as it does into the linings of our pockets. It has a lovely ring to it, Penny Lane, don't you think? Frugal, accessible and historically durable. So much better than Penny Lane, with its undertones of bulging waistcoats and the cruel crack of the overseer's whip.

As it happens, Liverpool has ruled out any change - and the Borgesian solution is only applicable in a certain limited number of cases. But I found myself thinking more about the curious collective work of memory our street names form when I heard the Today Programme discussing Stalin Road in Colchester. This, too, has caused some local distress - Uncle Joe's reputation having undergone fairly major revision since he was a wartime ally. Some residents feel uncomfortable about the fact that their home address commemorates a genocidal tyrant. You can see their point. If the Daily Mail and its fellow appeasers had got their way in the late Thirties, one assumes there would have been some Hitler Avenues and Goebbels Drives around the country - and one can't feel it would help the property prices. But against their view that the street map should be purged of evidence of wartime moral compromises was the argument that you can't just rewrite the historical record to suit contemporary political niceties - with an unstated suggestion that there might be something a little Stalinist about making awkward truths disappear.

By this logic, the street map of Britain is a fixed historical document - a sort of Tarmac memory which usefully preserves elements of the past that might otherwise be forgotten. But if so, what a strange and erratic memory it is. How many people thought of James Penny, for instance, until the revisionists reminded us? How many people, when they pass one of the hundreds of Alma Terraces across the country, think of British victory in the Crimea, rather than a much-loved Coronation Street character? In truth, British street names are more like Menard's Quixote - a work where the words stay the same but the meanings constantly shift.