Wednesday, 10 January 2007

What's in a name?

Every few years, some bright spark in these parts decides it would be a good idea to lobby for the name of our nearest town, Coalville, to be changed, on the grounds that (a) there are no coal mines here any more, and (b) it's ugly. Never mind that the alternatives suggested have usually been along the lines of Enterpriseville (yes, really, although possibly we'd have got some tourist trade from confused Star Trek fans).
Now admittedly, when you stop and think about it, Coalville does conjure up a pretty grimy picture, but it must have seemed very snappy back in 1840 or whenever, when we were at the sharp end of the Industrial Revolution, and I don't see any particular reason to hide our history. And the suggestions generally come from people living in Ashby de la Zouch, four miles away and with a long-standing superiority complex. If only Sir Walter Scott had thought a bit harder about what he was doing when he set part of Ivanhoe there - they've been trading shamelessly on it ever since.
But to get to the point (finally, you cry). Last time it was mentioned, it got me thinking about whether Coalville does, as a word, sound any worse than the various Domesday names around it, once you take away the Victorian Johnny-Come-Lately implications. Because after all, poetry is often about sound as much as meaning, although I suppose ideally you'd always unite the two seamlessly.
Anyway, I don't think that Coalville, as a sound, is any worse than lots of the surrounding villages - Thringstone, Shepshed, Ibstock, Whitwick. If it was spelt Coleville or Colville, I'd imagine there'd be lots less fuss. Plus, if you're a native, you call it Coville anyway, so it's not an issue.
So, presumably, the people who are causing a brouhaha immediately picture an old-fashioned, it's-grim-up-north mining town at the merest mention of Coalville. For my own part, it never occurs to me, but then I've lived hereabouts most of my life.
It all made me think there must be a good poem in there somewhere, and fortunately someone other than me has already written it. Joanne Limburg's Barton in the Beans (coincidentally, a village just down the road, and containing a lot of names local to here) does the job better than I could ever dream of, playing with the first impressions conjured up by placenames (admittedly, it's even better when you know how much of a contrast her images are with some of the actual places). Don't be put off by the Dutch version - scroll down and it's there in English too. It's the only place I could find it on the net.
Oh, and I reached a birder's Holy Grail today. We all secretly want to be able to make the very childish but inevitable joke "I popped out for a Shag at lunch" (let's face it, I was unable to resist putting such cormorant-related hilarity in a poem), and today I was finally able to, when one turned up at the Town Bridge in Peterborough. It was gone by the time we got there, but it won't stop me cracking the same old gag.

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