For the last few weeks I’ve been travelling the length and breadth of the country, from Bath to Oxford, from Oxford to Edinburgh. It’s got me thinking about place names and the power they can hold over us.
Even when there’s no more reference than the name itself, a place name can give a story so much character. Sometimes a place name is a shortcut to hundreds of years of history, but so often it can act as a signpost to the sort of story you should expect.
Bath belongs to Jane Austen, and particularly the muddy streets of Northanger Abbey. Oxford can be claimed by Northern Lights or Brideshead Revisited. Choose Edinburgh and you choose a treasure trove – Kidnapped, Jean Brodie, Trainspotting and one of my all time favourite books, Confessions of a Justified Sinner.
These novels conjure up just enough for us to be taken to a city, but unless we are that city’s citizens, we can be allowed to dream the rest.
American cities don’t have such a wealth of history, but they exude glamour. It always annoyed me, as a child, that so many songs used American place names just to add some sort of distant allure. The Beach Boys sang about California, and The Velvets went on about New York. But look for a British city in songs from the sixties and it’s almost as if we were too embarrassed to mention them. Why didn’t the Beatles ever write a song with Liverpool in the title? It wasn’t until punk that Britain became as exotic to the British as the States had been to an earlier generation.
And who could create a city as exciting, magical and diverse as London? Why bother? Its streets and boroughs are thick with the atmosphere of so much that has already been written or sung about.
But travel west along the M4 to Wales and the number of place names with any resonance dwindles to just a handful. I pity the Welsh Tourist Board who must struggle to market the principality’s towns. They sound so alike. Drive north to south and you can pass through Llandeilo, Llandovery, Llandrindod, Llanidloes, Llanbrynmair, Llangollen and Llandudno.* I get these places muddled, and I live here. Drive through our country lanes and discover Japanese tourists lost for a decade, desperately trying to remember the name of the town in which they had booked the hotel.
I wonder if it’s any surprise that the one small town in Wales all readers of this blog will know is just three letters long. It’s a word that suggest sunshine, summer, freedom and books: Hay.
Just this week there’s been the fuss of the little Welsh settlement of Varteg. You probably know the story. The Welsh language Commissioner’s opinion is that Y Farteg is historically correct, not the Anglicised spelling used by most of the residents. Some locals fear they will be ridiculed. ‘Who wants to live in Fart Egg?’ I heard one villager protest. It would be a brave novelist who chose to set a serious novel here. Dylan Thomas parodied the country’s small towns by naming his most famous invented village ‘Llareggub’. And Matt Lucas has promoted the tiny community of Llandewi Brevi so well that the signpost keeps getting nicked.
Somehow Welsh place names don’t just resist glamour, they are openly hostile to it. Welsh place names stand at the garden gate in an old cardigan and slippers, puffing on a ciggy, glaring at you to push off. So, good people of Bath and Oxford, Edinburgh and London’s many boroughs, be grateful you have your city’s evocative name to call upon, and pity the poor Welsh novelist who tries in vain to avoid a reference to the only gay in the village, whilst desperately trying to eradicate the smell of farty eggs, and is so often left with Buggerall.