The war in Vietnam had Tariq Ali. Now the culture wars have their own street-fighting man. The housing minister, Robert Jenrick, assuring Telegraph readers that, contrary to their instinct that the matter might be a ludicrous waste of time when a thousand a day are expiring from Covid-19, that they really ought to summon the spunk for an ideological battle with Birmingham City Council.
Why is this so urgent? The council has named some roads after abstract concepts: Diversity Grove, Equality Road, Respect Way. The minister’s objections are semantic and psychological: “Abstractions never carry as much meaning as the local and the particular, and this vision of a woke future is dispossessed and unreal, even disconcerting.” This, he writes, is “what the future looks like with the past erased”.
We hear a lot about the erasure of history, particularly from non-historians. The development is a new-build on land once owned by Birmingham City University. Nothing has been erased, and I’m not convinced that Health, Education and Life Sciences Faculty Street would have fitted on the front of a council tax bill.
What about the supposed deleterious effects of living under an abstract concept? To assess this, we would need to consult the residents of the various Love Lanes, Victory Rows and Coronation Streets around the country. Maybe the inhabitants of Virtue Close, part of a growing development near Derby, could volunteer themselves for study? (Though I suspect many of them know that the name of their street, adjoining Clarissa Close and Grandison Close, is borrowed from the subtitle of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela , and may not feel they need liberating from the association.)
Obviously this research will have to wait for a less plague-struck moment. But in the meantime, the minister’s intervention offers an opportunity to think about a couple of related points.
How, since suburbs first began spreading, new street names have formed a record of aspiration, pretension, and the changing zeitgeist. Diversity Grove would speak of its moment just as strongly as the terraces in Hull named after Anglo-Boer battles, or addresses such as Zangwill Road SE3, (named after a celebrated Zionist playwright) and Trilby Road, SE23 (memorialising the hypnotised model in the George du Maurier novel).
But it also speaks to a phenomenon much more wretched than municipal earnestness. Its opposite, really. If you’ve ever been screwed over by a property management company with a name like an earldom or a Cotswold village, you’ll know the kind of thing I mean. Questionable conduct by entities that trade under names that conjure a deep ancestral history upon which they have no claim.
Chartwell, for instance. When we hear that word, we’re meant to think of Winston Churchill’s country estate; the redoubtable old man puffing on a cigar and doing a bit of amateur bricklaying. News stories about the provision of free school meals have added another image: catering workers on industrial estates subdividing carrots and spooning tuna into dog poo bags.
Fight a battle over that, and someone might name a street after you.