Topic 1: Curtains for All of Us – an Everyday Tale of Mystery
|Who lowered the floor, then?|
When I first moved to my present home I was still smarting from the financial implications of divorce – I was not exactly starving, but I had to be more careful than I had been used to. In the attic of the oldest part of this house there are two bedrooms which were a loft conversion, probably carried out in about 1975 – years before my time.
These two rooms are connected by a glazed double door, and there is a curtain pole above the door to protect the modesty of the people who sleep there. I duly went to Argos and bought a cheap pair of curtains. They were blue, and – because of the amount of sunlight which comes in through the big roof windows up there in the attic – they very quickly faded to become strange, striped, blue-and-light-grey objects. Not great.
Sometime later, after the Contesse had joined me here, we smartened things up by replacing the old, piebald blue curtains (which are still around, in my dust-sheet box in the garage) with some new, cream ones. These were also from Argos, but how can you go wrong with a cheap pair of curtains?
A quick word here about Argos – they are a fine institution, and I have bought a good number of decent objects from Argos over the years. However – and this is nothing to do with snobbery or anything – there is a specific point about shopping there.
Whereas, if I buy something from Marks & Spencer, or Next, or John Lewis, or a number of other such stores, there is always a vague implication that the minimum quality you can get will always be acceptable, this is not true of Argos, in the same way that it was not true of Woolworths when they were going strong. It is possible to buy an item from Argos which is so cheap that you are left wishing you had spent rather more on it. This particular brand of curtains is of this sort.
The first issue was length. Naturally the cream curtains were not the exact length to suit the double doors, so the Contesse (a very fine wielder of needle and thread, in addition to her other talents) measured one of the curtains, worked out how much to shorten it, and neatly cut and hemmed this amount from the bottom of each.
The reasonable assumption that the paired curtains were the same length to start with proved incorrect. After the hemming and pressing was complete, one of the curtains required a few inches more to be removed to match them up. This was duly carried out, and since then they have done excellent service through the years, gently fading to a lighter shade of cream.
We have recently had the old roof windows replaced, and during the cleaning-up after the builders had gone the curtains were washed and pressed. They are now paler still – a pleasant off-white shade, but interestingly they are different lengths again. One has shrunk to be a few inches shorter than the other. No great problem – maybe it is time to invest in some new curtains again – but we wondered idly whether the original mismatched lengths would have shrunk to be the same if we had left them. It seems unlikely, but it would have been a hell of a piece of planning on the part of the manufacturer. We agree that our next curtains will be
(1) Rather better quality, if possible
(2) Washed and pressed before being cut to length
|Something tasteful, understated...|
Topic 2: Places which Do Not Exist
This is a real hotchpotch. I’ve always been fascinated by place names, and also had a very soft spot for the figure of speech (is it a zeugma?) which is exemplified by “he set off, in high spirits and a tweed suit”. Many years ago, an equally daft work colleague (Rattigan) and I used to entertain ourselves (and irritate our workmates) by inventing place names. This started out when, one day, a female colleague said that she had not yet met a man she would care to marry, but “she lived in hope”.
Rattigan felt that it would be splendid if someone did in fact live in, say, a village named Hope, and this led to a fantasy that someone might claim to live in Hope, which alas was only a short distance from another village called Despair. I still shudder to think what the unfortunate folk we worked with made of our guffaws, but this whole topic gained quite a momentum.
Rattigan invented another village named Abject Poverty, inhabited by the less fortunate, and so it went on. I can only claim, in our defence, that the work of our department was pretty tedious otherwise. Names of real places are a wonderful store of history, or common culture, or recollections of communal bad breaks. At the very least, some old names give an insight into how people thought, or how their language sounded, in times which are now largely forgotten.
The subject is worth a long treatise of its own, and I have written something in past blog posts here about the wealth of fine and whimsical names in Northumberland and Durham, and about the development of convincing-but-fictitious ECW-vintage North of England names which stopped short of the music-hall Clagthwaite. I end this with a tale which is merely silly, but it gets us close to the fertile topic of place names which have become rude as the language has changed – a source of endless delight to children from 4 to 104.
Some years ago, our summer holiday involved a drive from Scotland to the ferry terminal at Portsmouth, en route for Brittany. We stopped overnight with friends in Leicestershire to break the journey, and some time the following morning we found ourselves in Northampton, travelling – to the joy of my son – along a highway called Pants Lane. Almost worth the entire cost of the holiday, I’m sure you will agree.
Since then I’ve tried several times to check this out. If you look at maps of Northampton, you will not find Pants Lane. How can this be? – we read it on the street signs in 2008. Is it possible that a bashful or irate community (or their elected leaders) have suppressed the traditional name of the street, rather than celebrating its value as a source of local pride?
What is the mystery of Pants Lane? Is it too awful to tell?
In fact, the answer is disappointingly mundane, though in its way it is a triumph of the human spirit. The road is actually called Bants Lane, but a long and noble tradition ensures that children have always systematically defaced the street signs to produce the preferred version, and the council has yet to find a way to stop them doing it. Similarly, the children of the village of East Linton, near where I live, insist on altering the signs to read Fast Linto; though no-one knows what it means, that is the corrected form. Tradition is a fine thing.
Thought for today. The council can change Chamberlain Street into Mandela Way any time they want, without a great deal of fuss and maybe without even asking anyone if it’s OK. What about the democracy thing? – if the kids of a town alter the street name for long enough, could it ever become, officially, by usage, Pants Lane?
|The - er - Diggers|
There is an odd relationship between what places are known as, and what their official names are. This finds its most common form in the names of public houses. In Edinburgh there is a famous pub, well known to Hearts football fans, called the Athletic Arms, but it is always referred to as “The Diggers”, and there is an old cemetery across the street from it. There can be no-one left alive who remembers any direct connection between the pub and the men who dug the graves, but it’s part of the lore of the city.
|The Tyne Bridge at East Linton|
In the aforementioned village of East Linton there is a handsome, but very narrow, bridge over the River Tyne (not the same one as goes through Newcastle), and it is not so very long ago that the main road from Edinburgh to London passed over this very bridge. That part of the village is known, not surprisingly, as Bridgend, and for many years the Bridgend Inn stood close to the bridge. The inn is still there, though now it is the Linton Hotel. What the locals call the pub, though, is the Red Lion, which is the name it bore for a while after it was the Bridgend Inn and before it got its present name. Weird stuff this – do people hang on to old names out of tradition, or out of natural cussedness, or just to confuse visitors?