A road by any other name…

DEREK TURNER takes a Brum road-trip

What’s in a name? A great deal – so Birmingham City Council hopes. In December, as part of a £500m redevelopment of the city’s blighted Perry Barr district, it revealed the names of six new roads to “reflect community and Commonwealth sport values”. Diversity Grove, Equality Road, Destiny Road, Inspire Avenue, Respect Way and Humanity Close will shortly be adorning the Birmingham A-Z, and by 2023 residents will be giving their addresses embarrassedly to Deliveroo drivers.

Potential names were submitted by “the public”, and selected by a panel led by local politicians. According to one member of the panel, there was

…an impressive submission of entries that epitomised not just the core values and culture of Perry Barr but encompassed what the area is all about.

Puzzled Brummies immediately took to social media to wonder why none of these had been chosen.

According to the competition criteria,

Street names should ideally have a local connection, which is historically, geographically or culturally relevant.

Yet these names do not obviously have a particular Birmingham connection, and arguably not much “relevance” anywhere. These are not place-names for posterity, but sermons by street-furniture. Another Birmingham thoroughfare comes irresistibly to mind – Needless Alley – and a Lincolnshire road I noticed recently, Labour-in-Vain Drove.

Insofar as Diversity, Equality, Destiny, Inspire, Respect or Humanity do have real-world application, it may not be one all Brummies can embrace unreservedly. Elevated language frequently has less elevated applications; as Tacitus, quoting a subjugated Briton, noted of his own people, “they make a desert and call it peace”.

But then the Handsworth heroine who ‘thought’ of these names is a forward-thinking missionary, and above such earthly considerations. Social media sleuthing unearths wholly expected attitudes, a humdrum hashtaggery – BLM, Corbyn, DecoloniseBrum (and Yorkshire, while she’s on the subject, which is probably quite often), Israeli “apartheid”, race quotas, Tories hating the poor. She nurses an impressive dislike of James Watts’ business partner Matthew Boulton, judging from the many photos of Boulton-related Birmingham place-names onto which some monomaniac has Blu-Tacked typed ‘recontextualisations’. This is a lady who trends. The comical bathos of her toponymy exposes a hole in the heart of 21st century Brum, and Britain. In the land of the bland, the cliché is king. David Brent’s song Equality Street was a cynical ploy, and a good joke; Equality Road is less desirable.

Names have always been surrounded with superstition. As it says in 1 Samuel, “As his name is, so is he”.  Puritans aimed for Elect-ion by giving children hortatory names – Charity, Faith, Goody, Hope, Praise-God. Their Godless heirs try to be ‘Goodies’ in their turn by naming places after equally insubstantial ideals, chasing contemporary chimeræ with the same guilty enjoyment Ranters devoted to Revelations.

The coiner and adopters of these names clearly hope that, in the words of the 1791 ballad, Song on Obtaining the Birmingham and Worcester Canal Bill, “Twill prejudice stifle, and malice strike dumb”. A Conservative councillor who chortled at the new names as “Woke Way” was chided by the panel’s chair –

It is disappointing that Cllr Morrall does not appear to share these values or respect the views of the selection panel.

Behind these primly freezing words stretches a bleakly unwelcoming England, where human nature is to remade every morning, long-standing landmarks are to be levelled, and taken-for-granted things are to be taken. It is the same world, but a different planet – an alien environment with an atmosphere of noxious gases, and governed by platitudinous correctness. This may not be The Road to Serfdom, but it does resemble a Road to Nowhere. To turn around that property market cliche, “No location, no location, no location”.

Street-naming has historically been a form of culture-cleansing, warfare by other means, as incoming regimes impose their moral and social preferences on the losers. Names like Revolution Road, or 5th October Avenue, have frequently been inflicted on harmless highways, although sometimes only temporarily. Russia has reverted to many pre-1917 names – but the Cold War’s ‘winner’ has been convulsing its cultural cartography in response to radical social shifts, frenziedly naming roads after Martin Luther King, and recently even George Floyd. Is this ‘respect’, as is claimed – or is some less edifying emotion? Perhaps even fear? Renamers often seem not quite to know what they are doing, or why.

Romans Latinised England’s infra dig Iron Age trackways, and Normans Frenchified Saxon nomenclature. Socially-uncertain Georgian and Victorian town councillors sanitised suddenly shocking streets, exemplified by the “Grape Lanes” still seen in British cities – a gloss on “Gropecuntlane”, alluding to the ancient presence of prostitutes. They also sought to sweep away what they saw as irrelevant remembrances of the past – thus the 19th century rash of Gas Streets and Station Road (plus some more pious thoroughfares, often echoing religious revivals, like Fortitude Street or Temperance Road). They delivered a shiny new modernity, lavishly bestowing the names of engineers, explorers, generals, industrialists, missionaries, monarchs and planters on newly set-out streets, valorising the villas of the newly-rich and crowning even workmen’s terraces with classical and imperial motifs. Today’s craze for naming streets after Nelson Mandela, Windrush passengers, or Guru Nanak is a case of the Empire striking back.

Birmingham has always been busily Promethean, and has attracted the worst as well as the best kinds of change. Emma’s Mrs Elton expressed a common prejudice – “One has no great hopes from Birmingham. I always say there is something direful in the sound”. Two centuries or so on, the pleasant local accent ranks at the bottom of those unofficial but oddly powerful ‘trustworthiness’ surveys that appear spasmodically in the media, which are subliminally influential on those deciding where to site call centres and other industries. This is to ignore utterly the city’s shining other side – geniuses like Joseph Priestley, the kindness of the Cadburys, the civic pride of Joseph Chamberlain, the excellence of the CBSO, the many thousands of hardworking and respectable people.

The municipality has at times been badly served by its agenda-setters and political leaders, and modern Birmingham still bears the scars of the overlong incumbency (1935-1963) of Herbert Manzoni as City Engineer and Surveyor. Manzoni bequeathed Brummies a brutalist, traffic-blasted landscape at colossal cost, and his Bull Ring and Inner Ring Road are now being superseded at even greater expense. Manzoni’s views on Brum’s old buildings betray an absolute absence of imagination –

I have never been very certain as to the value of tangible links with the past… As for future generations, I think they will be better occupied in applying their thoughts and energies to forging ahead, rather than looking backward.

His epic incomprehension is echoed in the ostentatiously ‘socially concerned’ but secretly ruthless language of ‘decolonisation’ and ‘diversification’. These six roads in question may be new roads, but they are built on the thrown-down past. They are really different kinds of demolition, and their impossibly tangled rationales are the ideological equivalents of Perry Barr’s unsavoury neighbour, Spaghetti Junction. The Brave New Birmingham Manzoni and others brought was obsolete even before it was finished – and their “forging ahead” is now our inconvenient and shameful past, for which we must all undergo a painful and undignified procedure of deconstruction, and decolonic irrigation.

As Perry Barr booms and clangs with the din of earth-movers and pile-drivers, so the British imagination is being constantly razed and rebuilt, our inner and outer landscapes a permanent building site. Perhaps one day even the proud Handsworth heroine’s streets will become embarrassments, banal vestiges of a patronising political tradition and a worn-out West no longer ‘relevant’ to the Brum of 50 years hence.