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Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Kurt Cobain Bridge? Amy Winehouse Corner?: History vs 'celebrity' in the naming of town places

One thing this Kat loves about living in London is the constant history around her, such as through the naming of streets, monuments or buildings throughout the capital. For instance, everyday when scampering to the Tube she walks along Cromwell Road, named after Republican Leader Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) and not, to her surprise, English statesmen Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540). Other scamperings in London have included Downing Street (SW1A), named after George Downing (1623-1684), a confident and intellgence chief of Oliver Cromwell; Jermyn Street (SW1Y), named after Henry Jermyn (1605-1684), an influential courtier and landowner who constantly devised schemes with foreign powers for the restoration and stability of the monarchy; Abingdon Street (SE1), named after Mary Abingdon, author of the letter which would uncover the plot to blow up Parliament in 1605 and Lamb's Conduit Street (WC1N), named after wealthy philanthropist William Lambe who rebuilt Holborn Conduit as a fresh supply of water in 1564. In the limited selection above, the common thread appears to be that these individuals have made substantial contributions to the British Empire.

This Kat was rather surprised to read that Aberdeen in Washington State in the US was recently considering re-naming the Young Street Bridge over the Wishkah River after Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain (1967-1994). Cobain was born in Aberdeen and, in an interview with Monk Magazine in 1992, stated that he regarded the bridge as a quintessential place in Aberdeen where he used to spend time. Rumour has it that spending time under the bridge even inspired Cobain to write the lyrics to 'Something in the Way' on Nirvana's Nevermind album. Cobain was clearly a great musician and songwriter, having sold 25 million albums in the US alone as part of Nirvana in the early 1990s. However, he also struggled with drug addiction, illness and depression, tragically leading him to commit suicide by a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head in 1994. Views on his legacy vary widely, with some considering him a musical genius, others a celebrity drug addict and anything but a role model.

All this raises the interesting questions ... Should Cobain be honoured by naming a place in Aberdeen after him? If so, should Cobain be honoured by re-naming the Young Street Bridge after him, when that bridge was originally named after Alexander Young to honour his achievement in building of the first sawmill in Aberdeen?

Without a doubt, attitudes to people and their achievements change over time. For instance, in times gone by, there was a flurry of places named in England after Nelson Mandela and in the US after Martin Luther King. Both were controversial political figures in their day, although now they are universally praised from most (if not all) sides in the political spectrum. More recently, there were attempts to re-name Havelock Road in London (SW19), originally named after Henry Havelock (1795-1857) who was a prominent British General during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Today, there is a large Sikh Gurdwara temple on the road and the campaign proposed to change the name to Gurdwara Road (Gurdwara meaning Temple in Punjabi). Further, there have been suggestions to re-name Penny Lane in Liverpool (L8), originally named after James Penny (d 1799), a prominent 18th century slave trader. The street was later immortalised by the Beatles in the song 'Penny Lane', a lane not far from John Lennon's house.

In 2008, policy think tank New Local Government Network started a campaign to re-name British roads after modern people. This was on the basis that highlighting recent achievements by locals would build civic pride. However, historically, streets were named after individuals so that their achievements would not be forgotten over time. In the internet age, this Kat would suggest that it is highly unlikely that worthy modern achievements will simply fade into obscurity nor fail to be a source of community pride.

As it turns out, last week the City Council of Aberdeen decided by a vote of 10-1 not to re-name the Young Street Bridge after Kurt Cobain. Cobain will, however, have a landing named after him.

The IPKat cannot help but ask: Is it permissible selectively to re-edit history in this manner? If we do, are we in danger of bowing to the cult of temporary celebrity? Merpel is an ardent admirer of Amy Winehouse's (1983-2011) songwriting and singing ability, but wonders whether it is too soon to name somewhere in Camden after her ... Merpel also does not have much luck with Royal Mail and dreads to think what kind of chaos might follow if too many street names were changed ...

5 comments:

Preston Richard said...

Depends on the history you would want your people to remember, India renamed many streets named after colonial powers to names of Indian Freedom fighters after its Independence.

Thomas Dillon said...

Entertaining post! - which confirms my scepticism about the creation of personality rights such as California Civil Code section 3344: http://law.onecle.com/california/civil/3344.html

Arthur Sleep said...

Surely "Amy WineHouse" would be a great name for a bar?

Gentoo said...

Place naming too soon skews the importance of fame over significance. Springing off the theme of 27 year olds - there's a blue plaque for Jimi Hendrix in Brook Street.

It's documented that he spent approximately 44 days there. Probably a better place for the blue plaque would have been Ringo Starr's gaff in Montague Place*, JH's first residence in London, but there was a fair amount of lobbying for Brook Street to celebrate the 26th (sic) anniversary of his death not unassociated with the publication of an autobiography if I recall correctly.

Surely this blue plaque devalues the blue plaque next door where Handel lived (not that they ever met...) for about 30 years.

*Completely unremarked in a postcard from "Experience Hendrix" in Seattle showing JH standing outside that flat, titled simply as "standing in a doorway"

Ron said...

Road renaming is not just a modern phenomenon: the 1938 edition of the London A-Z [recently republished in facsimilie with genealogists in mind] has a section, present in the original, covering the road renamings that had then recently taken place.

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