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An essay by Max Beerbohm

The Naming Of Streets

Title:     The Naming Of Streets
Author: Max Beerbohm [More Titles by Beerbohm]

'The Rebuilding of London' proceeds ruthlessly apace. The humble old houses that dare not scrape the sky are being duly punished for their timidity. Down they come; and in their place are shot up new tenements, quick and high as rockets. And the little old streets, so narrow and exclusive, so shy and crooked--we are making an example of them, too. We lose our way in them, do we?--we whose time is money. Our omnibuses can't trundle through them, can't they? Very well, then. Down with them! We have no use for them. This is the age of `noble arteries.'

`The Rebuilding of London' is a source of much pride and pleasure to most of London's citizens, especially to them who are county councillors, builders, contractors, navvies, glaziers, decorators, and so forth. There is but a tiny residue of persons who do not swell and sparkle. And of these glum bystanders at the carnival I am one. Our aloofness is mainly irrational, I suppose. It is due mainly to temperamental Toryism. We say `The old is better.' This we say to ourselves, every one of us feeling himself thereby justified in his attitude. But we are quite aware that such a postulate would not be accepted by time majority. For the majority, then, let us make some show of ratiocination. Let us argue that, forasmuch as London is an historic city, with many phases and periods behind her, and forasmuch as many of these phases and periods are enshrined in the aspect of her buildings, the constant rasure of these buildings is a disservice to the historian not less than to the mere sentimentalist, and that it will moreover (this is a more telling argument) filch from Englishmen the pleasant power of crowing over Americans, and from Americans the unpleasant necessity of balancing their pity for our present with envy of our past. After all, our past is our point d'appui. Our present is merely a bad imitation of what the Americans can do much better.

Ignoring as mere scurrility this criticism of London's present, but touched by my appeal to his pride in its history, the average citizen will reply, reasonably enough, to this effect: `By all means let us have architectural evidence of our epochs--Caroline, Georgian, Victorian, what you will. But why should the Edvardian be ruled out? London is packed full of architecture already. Only by rasing much of its present architecture can we find room for commemorating duly the glorious epoch which we have just entered. To this reply there are two rejoinders: (1) let special suburbs be founded for Edvardian buildings; (2) there are no really Edvardian buildings, and there won't be any. Long before the close of the Victorian Era our architects had ceased to be creative. They could not express in their work the spirit of their time. They could but evolve a medley of old styles, some foreign, some native, all inappropriate. Take the case of Mayfair. Mayfair has for some years been in a state of transition. The old Mayfair, grim and sombre, with its air of selfish privacy and hauteur and leisure, its plain bricked facades, so disdainful of show- -was it not redolent of the century in which it came to being? Its wide pavements and narrow roads between--could not one see in them the time when by day gentlemen and ladies went out afoot, needing no vehicle to whisk them to a destination, and walked to and fro amply, needing elbow-room for their dignity and their finery, and by night were borne in chairs, singly? And those queer little places of worship, those stucco chapels, with their very secular little columns, their ample pews, and their negligible altars over which one saw the Lion and the Unicorn fighting, as who should say, for the Cross--did they not breathe all the inimitable Erastianism of their period? In qua te qaero proseucha, my Lady Powderbox? Alas! every one of your tabernacles is dust now--dust turned to mud by the tears of the ghost of the Rev. Charles Honeyman, and by my own tears.... I have strayed again into sentiment. Back to the point--which is that the new houses and streets in Mayfair mean nothing. Let me show you Mount Street. Let me show you that airy stretch of sham antiquity, and defy you to say that it symbolises, how remotely soever, the spirit of its time. Mount Street is typical of the new Mayfair. And the new Mayfair is typical of the new London. In the height of these new houses, in the width of these new roads, future students will find, doubtless, something characteristic of this pressing and bustling age. But from the style of the houses he will learn nothing at all. The style might mean anything; and means, therefore, nothing. Original architecture is a lost art in England; and an art that is once lost is never found again. The Edvardian Era cannot be commemorated in its architecture.

Erection of new buildings robs us of the past and gives us in exchange nothing of the present. Consequently, the excuse put by me into the gaping mouth of the average Londoner cannot be accepted. I had no idea that my case was such a good one. Having now vindicated on grounds of patriotic utility that which I took to be a mere sentimental prejudice, I may be pardoned for dragging `beauty' into the question. The new buildings are not only uninteresting through lack of temporal and local significance: they are also hideous. With all his learned eclecticism, the new architect seems unable to evolve a fake that shall be pleasing to the eye. Not at all pleasing is a mad hotch-potch of early Victorian hospital, Jacobean manor-house, Venetian palace, and bride-cake in Gunter's best manner. Yet that, apparently, is the modern English architect's pet ideal. Even when he confines himself to one manner, the result (even if it be in itself decent) is made horrible by vicinity to the work of a rival who has been dabbling in some other manner. Every street in London is being converted into a battlefield of styles, all shrieking at one another, all murdering one another. The tumult may be exciting, especially to the architects, but it is not beautiful. It is not good to live in.

However, I am no propagandist. I am not sanguine enough to suppose that I could do anything to stop either the adulteration or the demolition of old streets. I do not wish to infect the public with my own misgivings. On the contrary, my motive for this essay is to inoculate the public with my own placid indifference in a certain matter which seems always to cause them painful anxiety. Whenever a new highway is about to be opened, the newspapers are filled with letters suggesting that it ought to be called by this or that beautiful name, or by the name of this or that national hero. Well, in point of fact, a name cannot (in the long-run) make any shadow of difference in our sentiment for the street that bears it, for our sentiment is solely according to the character of the street itself; and, further, a street does nothing at all to keep green the memory of one whose name is given to it.

For a street one name is as good as another. To prove this proposition, let us proceed by analogy of the names borne by human beings. Surnames and Christian names may alike be divided into two classes: (1) those which, being identical with words in the dictionary, connote some definite thing; (2) those which, connoting nothing, may or may not suggest something by their sound. Instances of Christian names in the first class are Rose, Faith; of surnames, Lavender, Badger; of Christian names in the second class, Celia, Mary; of surnames, Jones, Vavasour. Let us consider the surnames in the first class. You will say, off-hand, that Lavender sounds pretty, and that Badger sounds ugly. Very well. Now, suppose that Christian names connoting unpleasant things were sometimes conferred at baptisms. Imagine two sisters named Nettle and Envy. Off-hand, you will say that these names sound ugly, whilst Rose and Faith sound pretty. Yet, believe me, there is not, in point of actual sound, one pin to choose either between Badger and Lavender, or between Rose and Nettle, or between Faith and Envy. There is no such thing as a singly euphonious or a singly cacophonous name. There is no word which, by itself, sounds ill or well. In combination, names or words may be made to sound ill or well. A sentence can be musical or unmusical. But in detachment words are no more preferable one to another in their sound than are single notes of music. What you take to be beauty or ugliness of sound is indeed nothing but beauty or ugliness of meaning. You are pleased by the sound of such words as gondola, vestments, chancel, ermine, manor-house. They seem to be fraught with a subtle onomatopoeia, severally suggesting by their sounds the grace or sanctity or solid comfort of the things which they connote. You murmur them luxuriously, dreamily. Prepare for a slight shock. Scrofula, investments, cancer, vermin, warehouse. Horrible words, are they not? But say gondola--scrofula, vestments--investments, and so on; and then lay your hand on your heart, and declare that the words in the first list are in mere sound nicer than the words in the second. Of course they are not. If gondola were a disease, and if a scrofula were a beautiful boat peculiar to a beautiful city, the effect of each word would be exactly the reverse of what it is. This rule may be applied to all the other words in the two lists. And these lists might, of course, be extended to infinity. The appropriately beautiful or ugly sound of any word is an illusion wrought on us by what the word connotes. Beauty sounds as ugly as ugliness sounds beautiful. Neither of them has by itself any quality in sound.

It follows, then, that the Christian names and surnames in my first class sound beautiful or ugly according to what they connote. The sound of those in the second class depends on the extent to which it suggests any known word more than another. Of course, there might be a name hideous in itself. There might, for example, be a Mr. Griggsbiggmiggs. But there is not. And the fact that I, after prolonged study of a Postal Directory, have been obliged to use my imagination as factory for a name that connotes nothing and is ugly in itself may be taken as proof that such names do not exist actually. You cannot stump me by citing Mr. Matthew Arnold's citation of the words `Ragg is in custody,' and his comment that `there was no Ragg by the Ilyssus.' `Ragg' has not an ugly sound in itself. Mr. Arnold was jarred merely by its suggestion of something ugly, a rag, and by the cold brutality of the police-court reporter in withholding the prefix `Miss' from a poor girl who had got into trouble. If `Ragg' had been brought to his notice as the name of some illustrious old family, Mr. Arnold would never have dragged in the Ilyssus. The name would have had for him a savour of quaint distinction. The suggestion of a rag would never have struck him. For it is a fact that whatever thing may be connoted or suggested by a name is utterly overshadowed by the name's bearer (unless, as in the case of poor `Ragg,' there is seen to be some connexion between the bearer and the thing implied by the name). Roughly, it may be said that all names connote their bearers, and them only.

To have a `beautiful' name is no advantage. To have an `ugly' name is no drawback. I am aware that this is a heresy. In a famous passage, Bulwer Lytton propounded through one of his characters a theory that `it is not only the effect that the sound of a name has on others which is to be thoughtfully considered; the effect that his name produces on the man himself is perhaps still more important. Some names stimulate and encourage the owner, others deject and paralyse him.'

Bulwer himself, I doubt not, believed that there was something in this theory. It is natural that a novelist should. He is always at great pains to select for his every puppet a name that suggests to himself the character which he has ordained for that puppet. In real life a baby gets its surname by blind heredity, its other names by the blind whim of its parents, who know not at all what sort of a person it will eventually become. And yet, when these babies grow up, their names seem every whit as appropriate as do the names of the romantic puppets. `Obviously,' thinks the novelist, `these human beings must "grow to" their names; or else, we must be viewing them in the light of their names.' And the quiet ordinary people, who do not write novels, incline to his conjectures. How else can they explain the fact that every name seems to fit its bearer so exactly, to sum him or her up in a flash? The true explanation, missed by them, is that a name derives its whole quality from its bearer, even as does a word from its meaning. The late Sir Redvers Buller, taure^don hupoblepsas [spelled in Greek, from Plato's Phaedo 117b], was thought to be peculiarly well fitted with his name. Yet had it belonged not to him, but to (say) some gentle and thoughtful ecclesiastic, it would have seemed quite as inevitable. `Gore' is quite as taurine as `Buller,' and yet does it not seem to us the right name for the author of Lux Mundi? In connection with him, who is struck by its taurinity? What hint of ovinity would there have been for us if Sir Redvers' surname had happened to be that of him who wrote the Essays of Elia? Conversely, `Charles Buller' seems to us now an impossible nom de vie for Elia; yet it would have done just as well, really. Even `Redvers Buller' would have done just as well. `Walter Pater' means for us--how perfectly!--the author of Marius the Epicurean, whilst the author of All Sorts and Conditions of Men was summed up for us, not less absolutely, in `Walter Besant.' And yet, if the surnames of these two opposite Walters had been changed at birth, what difference would have been made? `Walter Besant' would have signified a prose style sensuous in its severity, an exquisitely patient scholarship, an exquisitely sympathetic way of criticism. `Walter Pater' would have signified no style, but an unslakable thirst for information, and a bustling human sympathy, and power of carrying things through. Or take two names often found in conjunction--Johnson and Boswell. Had the dear great oracle been named Boswell, and had the sitter-at-his-feet been named Johnson, would the two names seem to us less appropriate than they do? Should we suffer any greater loss than if Salmon were Gluckstein, and Gluckstein Salmon? Finally, take a case in which the same name was borne by two very different characters. What name could seem more descriptive of a certain illustrious Archbishop of Westminster than `Manning'? It seems the very epitome of saintly astuteness. But for `Cardinal' substitute `Mrs.' as its prefix, and, presto! it is equally descriptive of that dreadful medio-Victorian murderess who in the dock of the Old Bailey wore a black satin gown, and thereby created against black satin a prejudice which has but lately died. In itself black satin is a beautiful thing. Yet for many years, by force of association, it was accounted loathsome. Conversely, one knows that many quite hideous fashions in costume have been set by beautiful women. Such instances of the subtle power of association will make clear to you how very easily a name (being neither beautiful nor hideous in itself) can be made hideous or beautiful by its bearer--how inevitably it becomes for us a symbol of its bearer's most salient qualities or defects, be they physical, moral, or intellectual.

Streets are not less characteristic than human beings. `Look!' cried a friend of mine, whom lately I found studying a map of London, `isn't it appalling? All these streets--thousands of them--in this tiny compass! Think of the miles and miles of drab monotony this map contains! I pointed out to him (it is a thinker's penalty to be always pointing things out to people) that his words were nonsense. I told him that the streets on this map were no more monotonous than the rivers on the map of England. Just as there were no two rivers alike, every one of them having its own speed, its own windings, depths, and shallows, its own way with the reeds and grasses, so had every street its own claim to an especial nymph, forasmuch as no two streets had exactly the same proportions, the same habitual traffic, the same type of shops or houses, the same inhabitants. In some cases, of course, the difference between the `atmosphere' of two streets is a subtle difference. But it is always there, not less definite to any one who searches for it than the difference between (say) Hill Street and Pont Street, High Street Kensington and High Street Notting Hill, Fleet Street and the Strand. I have here purposely opposed to each other streets that have obvious points of likeness. But what a yawning gulf of difference is between each couple! Hill Street, with its staid distinction, and Pont Street, with its eager, pushful `smartness,' its air de petit parvenu, its obvious delight in having been `taken up'; High Street Notting Hill, down-at-heels and unashamed, with a placid smile on its broad ugly face, and High Street Kensington, with its traces of former beauty, and its air of neatness and self-respect, as befits one who in her day has been caressed by royalty; Fleet Street, that seething channel of business, and the Strand, that swollen river of business, on whose surface float so many aimless and unsightly objects. In every one of these thoroughfares my mood and my manner are differently affected. In Hill Street, instinctively, I walk very slowly--sometimes, even with a slight limp, as one recovering from an accident in the hunting-field. I feel very well-bred there, and, though not clever, very proud, and quick to resent any familiarity from those whom elsewhere I should regard as my equals. In Pont Street my demeanour is not so calm and measured. I feel less sure of myself, and adopt a slight swagger. In High Street, Kensington, I find myself dapper and respectable, with a timid leaning to the fine arts. In High Street, Notting Hill, I become frankly common. Fleet Street fills me with a conviction that if I don't make haste I shall be jeopardising the national welfare. The Strand utterly unmans me, leaving me with only two sensations: (1) a regret that I have made such a mess of my life; (2) a craving for alcohol. These are but a few instances. If I had time, I could show you that every street known to me in London has a definite effect on me, and that no two streets have exactly the same effect. For the most part, these effects differ in kind according only to the different districts and their different modes of life; but they differ in detail according to such specific little differences as exist between such cognate streets as Bruton Street and Curzon Street, Doughty Street and Great Russell Street. Every one of my readers, doubtless, realises that he, too, is thus affected by the character of streets. And I doubt not that for him, as for me, the mere sound or sight of a street's name conjures up the sensation he feels when he passes through that street. For him, probably, the name of every street has hitherto seemed to be also its exact, inevitable symbol, a perfect suggestion of its character. He has believed that the grand or beautiful streets have grand or beautiful names, the mean or ugly streets mean or ugly names. Let me assure him that this is a delusion. The name of a street, as of a human being, derives its whole quality from its bearer.

`Oxford Street' sounds harsh and ugly. `Manchester Street' sounds rather charming. Yet `Oxford' sounds beautiful, and `Manchester' sounds odious. `Oxford' turns our thoughts to that `adorable dreamer, whispering from her spires the last enchantments of the Middle Age.' An uproarious monster, belching from its factory-chimneys the latest exhalations of Hell--that is the image evoked by `Manchester.' But neither in `Manchester Street' is there for us any hint of that monster, nor in `Oxford Street' of that dreamer. The names have become part and parcel of the streets. You see, then, that it matters not whether the name given to a new street be one which in itself suggests beauty, or one which suggests ugliness. In point of fact, it is generally the most pitiable little holes and corners that bear the most ambitiously beautiful names. To any one who has studied London, such a title as `Paradise Court' conjures up a dark fetid alley, with untidy fat women gossiping in it, untidy thin women quarrelling across it, a host of haggard and shapeless children sprawling in its mud, and one or two drunken men propped against its walls. Thus, were there an official nomenclator of streets, he might be tempted to reject such names as in themselves signify anything beautiful. But his main principle would be to bestow whatever name first occurred to him, in order that he might save time for thinking about something that really mattered.

I have yet to fulfil the second part of my promise: show the futility of trying to commemorate a hero by making a street his namesake. By implication I have done this already. But, for the benefit of the less nimble among my readers, let me be explicit. Who, passing through the Cromwell Road, ever thinks of Cromwell, except by accident? What journalist ever thinks of Wellington in Wellington Street? In Marlborough Street, what policeman remembers Marlborough? In St. James's Street, has any one ever fancied he saw the ghost of a pilgrim wrapped in a cloak, leaning on a staff? Other ghosts are there in plenty. The phantom chariot of Lord Petersham dashes down the slope nightly. Nightly Mr. Ball Hughes appears in the bow-window of White's. At cock-crow Charles James Fox still emerges from Brooks's. Such men as these were indigenous to the street. Nothing will ever lay their ghosts there. But the ghost of St. James--what should it do in that galley?... Of all the streets that have been named after famous men, I know but one whose namesake is suggested by it. In Regent Street you do sometimes think of the Regent; and that is not because the street is named after him, but because it was conceived by him, and was designed and built under his auspices, and is redolent of his character and his time. When a national hero is to be commemorated by a street, he must be allowed to design the street himself. The mere plastering-up of his name is no mnemonic.

[The end]
Max Beerbohm's essay: Naming Of Streets