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Pete Wiggs

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The Evocative Power of Place Names

Posted: 24/04/2012 00:00

The front cover of our new album features a map from an imaginary A-Z where all the street names, pubs and other cartographic features are song names, actual song names like 'Tobacco Road' and 'Devil Gate Drive' - it's a world you want to live in.

So whilst shamelessly plugging our new offering I thought I would muse on the allure or otherwise of the names that the places and streets we occupy have come to be known by.
As soon as I read or hear of a place, my brain conjures an image, sometimes it's a fully blown finely detailed videogame-style alternate reality, other times perhaps just a swinging pub sign depicting an eerie Medieval knight slaying a dragon in faded, flaking paint. Often it is only a blurry indistinct ectoplasmic puff that stays in my mind's eye for the time it takes to say the name out loud - "Tring" and it's gone.

We named our band Saint Etienne because to us it embodied the continental cool of 1970s period Dominique Rocheteau in his tricoleur edged bottle green kit and the associated cafés, the cars, the girls and the spirit of the French New Wave that our youthful minds imagined to exude from every paving slab of its cosmopolitan streets. To others it's a fairly dull, very pedestrian, beige industrial city, or to some of a less heathen bent than I it's Saint Stephen, the patron saint of coffin makers being pelted to death with stones.

Historical events such as battles (Naseby), disasters (Lockerbie), monkey hangings (Hartlepool) can taint and override the brain's natural image making functions. I used to always associate Pease Pottage (off the A23 near Crawley) with a very clear and vivid picture of a tin of Foresight Pease Pudding (dark blue with red lettering), but recently a friend of my brother's told me in all seriousness that he had heard that Pease Pottage was the historic location of Britain's first gay settlement. The tin can, once so strong in my mind, is now laying crumpled on the hard shoulder, in its place a televisual vignette of a mythical, almost Pythonesque, and very camp Iron Age camp.

For a good 35 years or so I had managed to maintain Litttlehampton's image (unrealistically) as a quaint picture postcard view of a fishing hamlet, fending off the pictorial advances of the saucier variety of postcard's 'small penis' interpretation of the town's name. Recently, however, my wife told me she had heard that Littlehampton had the highest paedophile to child ratio of any town on the south coast, however true or untrue this story may be, the charming hamlet of my imaginary postcard has been raised to the ground and a sinister gang of balding sexual deviants now tramp through its ashes.

With some place names all the creative visual work has been done for you, take the village of Fucking in Austria, for example, whose residents must surely be as affected in their day to day lives by their commune's sexually loaded moniker as the residents of Cerne Abbas in Dorset are in thrall to the towering chalk phallus of their hill etched giant, that manages to inveigle its way into every conceivable sightline in the village it overshadows.

Whether instigated as a bizarre social experiment to test the long term effects of a location's name on its inhabitants, or merely as a tribute to a native comedy legend, Eastleigh council recently named one of its streets Benny Hill Close. Will its more attractive residents gradually become more scantily clad than the norm? Will they run round chasing men at double speed waving their fists in the air? Will the milkman drive the fastest milk cart in the West? Hopefully.

To be given the chance to name a street would be an opportunity of a lifetime. It happened to a work colleague of mine (in the murky past when I had a proper job). A local developer needed her permission for a planning application and in return he said she could call a new road anything she liked. Such power, a chance to alter the psycho geographic landscape of North London, to touch all those that pass by. A chance to venerate a personal hero, make an in joke against your neighbours, deliver a multi layered triple entendre even. What did she call it? ...Ireland Place. She was Irish, but I failed to hide my disappointment in her unimaginativeness.

Still, 23 or so years on, Ireland Place N22 8YY lives on in everyone's A-Z's, internet Maps and Sat Navs, and as a grey particle or two of The Knowledge alleged to reside in every London cabbie's brain. And if seeing the name Ireland Place takes someone, however fleetingly, out of their day to day drudgery and into an emerald tinged reverie, who am I to complain.

 
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