IN THE Soviet Union, place names were regarded as a bourgeois custom. Wherever possible, a rational order was imposed: health clinics and educational facilities, for example, were simply numbered (my friend in Tambov went to School 7). With the rise of digital technology and surveillance, our future will be ‘living by numbers’, as predicted by British band New Musik in their pop song of that title in 1980. The human element will be erased by technocracy, uprooting us from our heritage and social norms.
The first stage of this process is the erasure of proper nouns. Names identifying a particular place with the community and its social history are being replaced by bureaucratic schema or commercial branding.
Readers may recall the Hillhead by-election in 1982, when Roy Jenkins won the first seat for the SDP. At that time, Glasgow had a dozen parliamentary constituencies, with representatives for Pollok, Govan, Springburn, Cathcart and other historically distinct areas. In 2005 the Boundary Commission reduced Scotland from 72 to 59 seats (although it continued to have more than its deserved share). Almost every constituency was redrawn and renamed.
Many of the old seats were merged, and the sense of local identity was lost in the new configuration of Glasgow South, South-West, North-West, North, North-East, Central and East. The same was done in Edinburgh, a city of evocatively named districts such as Corstorphine, Morningside and Portobello. Malcolm Rifkind, Scottish Tory leader in Margaret Thatcher’s government, presided over Edinburgh Pentlands. But now the constituencies are blandly identified by points of the compass. Such lack of imagination is galling in the home of Sir Walter Scott, whose novel Heart of Midlothian gave its name to one of Edinburgh’s two football clubs.
Detrimental renaming has also occurred in the sporting arena. Gosforth, the top rugby union club in the North East, was changed to Newcastle, as if people would not know where it was based. A footballing comparison would be Hibernian becoming ‘East Edinburgh’, but thankfully football fans are less amenable to marketing methods. Nonetheless, many football clubs have accepted sponsorship renaming of their grounds. Bolton Wanderers were one of the first to abandon their old ground for a new base, the Reebok Stadium, which has been rebranded several times since. Arsenal play at the Emirates Stadium, a short distance but a world apart from their previous, geographically specific home of Highbury.
About twenty years ago someone decided that London’s railway termini needed logistic relabelling. Victoria, Paddington and King’s Cross became London Victoria, and so on. It seems that we cannot be trusted to know where we are going. (Sensibly, this convention was not applied to London Bridge.) Up country, Piccadilly and Victoria stations have had Manchester affixed to their titles, and Waverley is now definitely in Edinburgh. Paragon and Citadel stations have been erased from the map: you must go to Hull and Carlisle now.
And what happened to Tiger Bay? The stretch of water around the docks has been dissolved into Cardiff Bay. All that’s left is the memory of Shirley Bassey and the classic film Tiger Bay of 1959, starring John Mills and his young daughter Hayley.
We are losing not only our pubs, churches and other community assets but the very names of our built environment. This is part of the agenda to weaken our belongingness, and to infantilise us into dependence on digital technology and satellite navigation. Proper nouns become nouns, and nouns become numbers. Airstrip One here we come . . .