Some nights I lie awake, thinking how nice it would be to assemble a city which incorporates all my favourite streets and squares. Some of them because they offer an unexpected glimpse of a river at a sharp bend, others because of their beautiful buildings, some because of their fascinating shops or magnificent trees and still others because of the people who live on them, which is a way to populate this city with my favourite people together with number of individuals I’ve only glimpsed but who have made an impression on me, such as:
- the cross-eyed Sikh taxi-driver in Delhi
- the boy in Cairo who called every heap of rubbish an “Egyptian garden”
- the man sitting on the pavement in Dakar who, when asked what time the shop behind him opened, said “We’re in Africa, relax.”
- the lady in Kampala who, when asked if she sold razor blades, answered, “No, but we have nail clippers”.
- the bus driver in Mexico who told me, “My brother is an engineer, my sister is a lawyer, but whenever I see a bus go by I want to drive it.”
- the man in Ireland who went by pushing a car and shouted, “I’ll give you a lift when I get to the petrol station.”
- the man I saw at 7 in the morning a couple of weeks ago walking down the street outside my house with two parrots on his shoulders.
After a while of sticking thoroughfares more or less haphazardly together to make my city, the whole thing starts on taking on the shape of one of those Escher pictures where you keep on going down steps but never reach the next floor or you find that you reach the sea by walking uphill. As you move around your burgeoning city you also realise how difficult it is to visualise going down a street and then turning round and coming back the other way. Try it.
Other people around the world, or at least in adjacent time zones, are also lying awake thinking things. In some countries, I believe, some mayors toss and turn trying to devise ways to make life more uncomfortable for people who look slightly different than they do. Sometimes they sit up with a start and exclaim, “Yes, let’s name a street after So-and-so.” So-and-so St. wouldn’t be bad, but sometimes the names they come up with seem to have been chosen to commemorate particularly corrupt or vicious people.
When I get wind of these suggestions I lie awake thinking that I would prefer to have a landfill established at the end of the street rather than get saddled with one of these names. Even worse are names of battles. I think that if you really have to name a street after a battle you should make sure it is one of those things that run like scar tissue through our industrial wastelands. Streets which are full of broken glass and dead rodents.
But even if they are names of people you admire or like, they still don’t work. Some things have to grow like plants. Cities, streets and street names too should develop as naturally as possible. The great thing about cities is that they are full of a million minds. What could be more lifeless than those singly-minded artificially planned cities entrusted to one brain with streets called Progress Road, Democracy Avenue, Nationbuilding Boulevard ? (By the way, if you insist on Progress Road, do make sure it is a one-way street).
You can put up as many nameplates as you want to call a street Beethoven Street but you are never going to get a street to feel like him, not deliberately anyway. And dedicating a noisy, highly trafficked street to Beethoven is just as insulting to him as purloining his Hymn to Joy and making a bad anthem out of it.
Across the river from where I live in Rome is a square called Campo dei Fiori, which means Field of Flowers, because there used to be meadows there. Now there is no grass but instead exorbitantly priced vegetables on stalls. And a statue of the philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was burnt at the stake there in 1600 for thinking too much. Surely nobody could be more deserving of having a square, this square, named after him, especially since he has the added indignity of standing through the night with his plinth full of the empty bottles of beer and wine which people dump at his feet as well as covered by the stranded luminescent flying disks which land on him just a few seconds after they have been purchased from the hawkers in the square. But, despite all this, Piazza Giordano Bruno would also be a lifeless name.
In his lovely poem Evocation of Recife, Manoel Bandeira wrote:
the streets of my
childhood had such lovely names!
(I hate to think
they may have renamed it after some So-and-So)
Behind the house
…where we used to sneak a smoke
other side the Dawn Street wharf…
…where we used to fish in
I would love to have Nostalgia Street in my city, but I can’t because I have never seen it. On the other hand, there are many which are there on account of their names. Near one of my six harbours is Rua da Cozinha Economica (Cheap Cooking
Road – from Lisbon). Also from Lisbon is Praza da Alegria (Joy Square) where I chose a hotel once simply because it sounded like a positive place to stay. Up a steep hill, goes via Scosciacavalli (Horses-do-the-splits Rd.) from Ancona. And lost in a maze of other lanes is via Senza Nome (No Name Street) from Bologna. When you know the history of the latter road, it gets more interesting. Apparently Senza Nome comes from a deformation of Sozzo Nome (Dirty Name), which is what it was called in the 19th Century. And it was called Dirty Name, because earlier in history, when the tight alley had been full of prostitutes soliciting it was called via Sfregatette (Scrapetits Rd.).
Scrapetits would, I find, be a good address for a London football club – like White Hart Lane or Stamford Bridge. Perhaps we could get another Russian robber-baron to start up a new club and bribe someone to change the name of a street or even a square to Scrapetits. Maybe one of the many London places commemorating a battle. Perhaps Trafalgar? Nelson might even prefer it.
Anyway, I have a suggestion for you mayors next time you’re fantasizing about renaming a street. Try Go-back-to-sleep Road.