Whilst in France, you notice the way that streets and squares celebrate the public life of the country. It would be difficult for the UK to have an equivalent of Place De La Republique (Yes, I know we have Parliament Square, but that’s because it runs by the Houses of Parliament – what else ? Monarchy Square, anyone ?), but we could celebrate Magna Carta, the Great Reform Bill or Women’s Franchise, couldn’t we. Other countries also have streets and avenues named after significant dates, such as Rue Mai 8, which I take to be VE Day. In truth, I rarely know what the date actually commemorate. Just as well sometimes – I looked up the date on a street in Ploermel, our local Breton town, and found it referred to a heavy bombing raid by the Allies just after D-Day that killed scores of local people. The French also celebrate the military men who liberated them – the streets south out of Ploermel, off the inevitable Avenue General de Gaulle, are named for Leclerc, Giraud and DuBreton – and there’s even a street for Lieutenant Le Vigouroux, a hero of Dien Bien Phu. We may offer Help For Heroes, but we rarely name streets after them.
There are also a host of streets named after authors – and Zola, Anatole France, Dumas and Voltaire get Metro stations. So does Picasso, actually. The French also name streets and places after politicians – or, being dead, perhaps we should call them statesmen. The Pompidou Centre. Every town has a Rue Gambetta, or Rue Adolphe Thiers or Jean Jaurès. We just don’t. Even the greats, like Wellington and Nelson get a pretty miserable deal. Earl Grey gets a column in Newcastle, and so he should (for ending rotten boroughs, not the twee tea). Apart from that, well, there is the odd Bevan Road on a distant housing estate, I guess, the occasional sporting hero (Derek Dooley Way leads into Sheffield, as Clive Sullivan Way leads into Hull) and I know Alan Turing has a by-pass in Manchester. But go through Prime Ministers and think of anything bearing their name. Peel, Disraeli, Lloyd George ? Even Churchill, that perennial contender for greatest Briton, has little named after him. You wouldn’t, I guess, look for Alec Home or John Major to sponsor a new boulevard, and Blair is too living and Thatcher too controversial but surely Macmillan deserves something ? What about people who built a more equal society, who spread the vote or introduced pensions – Francis Place, Emmeline Pankhurst, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Rochdale Pioneers ? Keir Hardie, our own Jean Jaurès ? Scientists like Darwin and Newton get on the currency but not on the high street. Rutherford or Maxwell get nowt, Cavendish a back street in Clapham. Cromwell gave his name to an army tank, Drake gets a pretty cruddy shopping centre in Plymouth, Gladstone a doctor’s bag. Elgar ? Holst ? Painters do a bit better. Constable gets Constable Country and Turner has a gallery in Margate and a wing at the Tate, but that’s because his paintings are there.
My proposal – that we name some major infrastructure projects after great people. Any new London Airport could become London Churchill Airport. The new Cross Rail needs a name – what’s wrong with Attlee ? He did more for the country than Queen Victoria, after whom everything from stations to sponge cakes are named. Look at dull tube stations and find a local hero to honour: there are more tube stations named after pubs than after people, because not a single one is named after anyone. Think of great Londoners – Pepys, Defoe, Bobby Moore, Chaucer, Herbert Morrison, Marie Lloyd, Keats, Faraday, Hogarth – that could be noted. And why not the occasional date to remember, if only to help kids through Gove’s fact based history curriculum ? The passing of the Factory Acts, the first women’s votes, and yes, even May 8th and November 11th.