Friday, 6 August 2010

What's in a name ?

I live in the London Borough of Haringey - it is not a place name that has any great sentimental pull on most of its inhabitants. Most people who live there would probably identify themselves as residents of a more specific and recognisable district - in my case Tottenham.

I would probably go as far as to say that the more artificially contrived  the name of the local government body of an area the less likely people are to identify with it. For example my home town of Staines is now officially the Borough Of Spelthorne - an even more  anodyne and bland name choice.

The rationale behind these place names is not really historic or geographic but political. They both revive some fairly obscure historic connections  - Haering  was a Saxon chief who gave his name to the district of Harringay which confusingly is just a very small part of Haringey and Spelthorne was a hundred recorded in the Doomsday book. In other words these names may mean  bugger-all to the inhabitants for generations but they don't actually offend anyone or stir up any local rivalries.

Strangely, although  the  suburb where I grew up feels  a world away from the inner city borough I now live in , both are part of the same historic  county of Middlesex. So purely by coincidence  and in a theoretical sense only, I've spent almost all of my life there - despite the fact that the county hasn't existed as a local government entity since 1964 - just before I was born. But it did  live on  as an optional postal address -  however the final nail in Middlesex's coffin has been driven  in now that  it has just been announced that the Post Office is going to remove counties from postal addresses.

Over the years my 'homeland' has been messed about with quite a bit as far as local government goes - at various times it has  been:
• The land of the Trinovantes (the pre-Roman tribal area)
• Camulodunum / Londinium (under the Romans)
• Maxima Caesariensis (the Late Roman province)
• Middlesex (land of the Middle Saxons)
• Essex  (transferred following Saxon internecine wars)
• Mercia (transferred again to avoid being taken into the Danelaw)
• Then back to Middlesex for  nine centuries or so ...
• Until in  1889 when  the metropolitan bit was hived off to become  the County of London ...which in 1964 was re-branded as Greater London, with the remaining bits  of Midldlesex parceled out to neighbouring Surrey and Hertfordshire.

In these days when local government is the main deliverer and consequently now the main cutter of public services there are unquestionably far more important issues to get worked up about than place names.

But in fact the two things are not unconnected - it comes down to  entitlement, accountability and democracy - and people feeling that an area belongs to them. Names are political and can be manipulated to change how people feel about them. Just think of the ever changing names for our main welfare state body in recent years - the DHSS, the DSS, the DWP  -  all bureaucratic nonsense perhaps -  but also an effective  and cynical tactic to make these bodies appear more obscure and less readily defended by the people that need them.


Harringay Online said...

A man after our own heart.

Haringey Council keep messing with our neighbourhood's name - embarrassment at the confusion created in 1965 perhaps? Or, more likely, politicking by local politicians.

You're quite right to underline the significance of a place name.

Harringay Online said...

PS: We've linked to your post on Harringay Online.