Why are the British so boring with names?
Crossrail is a great engineering feat – but did we need to call it the Elizabeth Line?
Back in the 1850s, when London was getting its first proper government, the authorities had a problem with street names – they were just so boring that it was actually confusing.
According to Judith Flanders’s The Victorian City: ‘In 1853, London had twenty-five Victoria Streets, thirty-seven King and twenty-seven Queen Streets, twenty-two Princes, seventeen Dukes, thirty-four Yorks and twenty-three Gloucesters – and that was without counting the similarly named Places, Roads, Squares, Courts, Alleys or Mews, or even the many synonyms that designated squalid backcourts: Rents, Rows, Gardens, Places, Buildings, Lanes, Yards and Walks. One parish alone had half a dozen George Streets.’
Bearing in mind how small London was at the time, no more than zone 1 and bits of zone 2, it’s quite impressive that they managed to have so many Victoria Streets. Impressive, and obviously stupid. The Metropolitan Board of Works forced parishes to rename duplicates; but even as the capital expanded, borough councils continued the practice, so that dozens of new Victoria roads and streets were created (many of which have since been changed).
Perhaps it reflects a deeply content and loyal public, but it’s more a testimony to how dull and unimaginative the British are about naming things. And it’s a fine tradition we continue today with the Elizabeth Line.
The launch of London’s new railway is hugely exciting stuff. Countless people – that is, men – rose early to ride the trains, and there is even a poem to celebrate. If, like me, you love transit systems and like nothing better than an evening spent staring at metro maps, perhaps mentally planning where you’d build new lines or perfect the interchange system, this is like the World Cup, except if the World Cup only happened every few decades, because of delays and overspending.
When Crossrail was first proposed, Elizabeth wasn’t even queen; it’s now been almost 50 years since the first report was made recommending it. The project went over time and over budget, but still, as London Mayor Sadiq Khan put it, it is an awesome achievement of engineering, the new stations like ‘cathedrals’— a very Victorian way of looking at it.
In contrast the London Underground was originally suggested in 1845. Twenty years later the first line was opened; within another thirty this had been joined by the District, Northern, Central and Bakerloo.
Although the new Elizabethans are in many ways the anti-Victorians – declinist, slow to get things built, filled with civilisational self-hatred – in our naming patterns we are recognisably the same people.
A few years back, when Britain launched its biggest ever warship, weighing in at 65,000 tons, they named it HMS Queen Elizabeth. This came after it was decided we needed a new name for our part of Antarctica – with huge originality, they went for ‘Queen Elizabeth Land’. Even Big Ben was renamed the Queen Elizabeth Tower in 2012.
The Queen, bizarrely, has twenty hospitals named after her, which led to a small revolt when the South Glasgow University Hospital became the latest. Considering how many brilliant scientists Scotland has produced, you might think they could have found someone else. Alexander Fleming, one of the alternatives suggested, grew up not far away in Ayrshire and saved literally hundreds of millions of lives.
Edward Jenner, meanwhile, has the Viale Edoardo Jenner in Milan named in his honour, and a town in Pennsylvania. While there is a Jenner Road in Stoke Newington, you wouldn’t necessarily know it was in tribute to the man who discovered vaccinations. That is because, when we honour someone with a street, the British shyly only feature their surname; the only time we follow the continental pattern of including the full name is, bizarrely, with local councillors. The people who run local government in Britain are not against honouring heroes in theory, they just think the real heroes aren’t explorers, scientists or military leaders, but the people who run local government.
There must be few countries in history which have named so many things after their leader, with the exception of the Soviet Union, which commemorated Lenin with vast numbers of streets, squares and cities. Other leading communists were also so honoured, of course, although they had an unfortunate habit of falling from grace.
There is no Alexander Fleming Hospital. There is no Alexander Fleming Avenue, for that matter. Where are the great boulevards or stations named after Wellington or Nelson, Austen or Dickens, Gladstone or Disraeli? London has no station directly commemorating individuals, although DLR stops George V and Royal Albert, as well as Holland Park, Victoria, Regent’s Park and Warren Street, are indirectly named after people (and there are also saints). That is incredibly boring.
Paris has various Metro stops named after great individuals, even if admittedly quite a few were communists. You have De Gaulle, Roosevelt, Victor Hugo… isn’t that more inspiring than ‘East Finchley’ or ‘West Croydon’? Or how about the irresistably romantic-sounding Fyodor Dostoevsky station in Moscow, named despite fears it would attract suicides.
A while back TfL asked for suggestions for proposed new station names on the Bakerloo Line, and while I offered Geoffrey Chaucer for one of them, being on The Canterbury Tales route, I guarantee they will give it the most boring possible name, like Peckham North. (In fact, the extension probably won’t get built now, because of cheems.)
Even one of the Crossrail boring machines used to dig the tunnel, and weighing in at 1,000 tonnes, was called Victoria, even though both the diggers were made in Germany – just like the Royal Family!!!! [Ian Hislop laughs, HIGNFY audience erupts].
We have this deeply dull naming pattern because we have basically subsumed all our national identity into the personage of the Royal Family. There is no real national day or celebration of Britishness or Englishness that doesn’t revolve around the royals. Unlike almost every other country in Europe, we have no religious holidays aside from Easter and Christmas. There are no Corpus Christi celebrations nor All Souls Day moments of communal remembrance.
Next week we have two days off to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee but most of western Europe gets a holiday this Thursday – for Ascension Day – and in a couple of weeks will similarly mark Pentecost. It used to be that Englishmen and women would enjoy those dates as holidays – not any more. After the Reformation our identity and calendar was directed towards the Royal Family as symbols of the nation, a tradition that has survived the fall of the empire to which it was so linked. Most recently, the royal wedding of 2011 served as a day of national celebration, while Prince Philip’s funeral was one of national mourning.
The royal family exists partly so that we don’t have to think about the often controversial and dangerous issues of national identity. It’s an illustration of how strong this habit has become that, while few of the great scientists are honoured by the education system, even Richard III has an infant school named after him. One would think the fact that he, rather famously, murdered two children would disqualify him, but the man is uncancelable.
Having said all this, perhaps the Elizabeth Line, an awesome feat that has coincided with the Queen’s reign from conception to completion, is an appropriate and suitable name. Let’s just hope that the costs and delays don’t put anyone off further engineering projects, and that we can at some point look forward to the opening of the Philip Line. Although I suspect that, by the time it gets built, we’ll be naming it after King George.