We don’t celebrate our geniuses

We do celebrate our noblemen

William of Ockham, he of the razor fame, was one of Europe’s – which is to say the world’s – most important medieval thinkers.

He was born in 1285 or thereabouts in, as the name suggests, Ockham. I’ve always known this trivial fact, and I must have driven past the Ockham exit off the A3 hundreds of times. Yet bizarrely it never occurred to me that William came from that very same unremarkable Surrey village.

Somehow, Surrey isn’t associated in my mind with a centre of scholastic thought. Paris, yes. Bologna, perhaps. Canterbury and Oxford, fine, if we wish to be patriotic. But Surrey is a place where footballers live, not scholastic and nominalist philosophers of the High Middle Ages.

However, once I finally put William and Ockham together, I felt the urge to drive to that village, not just zip past the road sign pointing in its direction. I don’t know what I expected to see. Some sort of homage, I suppose. A statue perhaps. A plaque, definitely. Or maybe a square named after the pride of Ockham.

Anyway, I can tell you exactly what I did find: nothing. Not a single reference of any kind to – I’m taking a stab in the dark here – probably the only great man to have come from Ockham. William didn’t even rate a lousy plaque.

He isn’t the only one. We don’t tend to honour our cultural figures the way the French honour theirs. In Britain, such plaudits are more likely to go to aristocrats than to writers, painters and composers.

Granted, there are several streets around the Tate Gallery named after English painters. But I can’t think offhand of a single street, close or square named after William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Henry Purcell or for that matter John Donne, Christopher Marlowe or Samuel Richardson.

Chesterton once wrote an essay comparing the street names in London’s central Charing Cross area and Paris. He pointed out that the side streets running into the Strand are all named after noblemen, whereas few Paris streets are.

The duke of Norfolk was thus honoured twice, in the streets bearing his title, Norfolk, and his family name, Arundel. As to George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, his lover James I was so smitten with the handsome lad that he had six streets named after him: George, Villiers, The, Duke, Of, Buckingham.

As to the Dukes of Grosvenor, they own much of central London, which fact is immortalised in at least a dozen place names I can think of, and there must be more.

To be fair, the French used not to be so different in that respect. It’s just that they had that little fracas in 1789, which played havoc with the names of streets and squares. Thus Place Louis XV had to become Place de la Révolution, and so it remained until Louis-Philippe decided to split the difference and called it Place de la Concorde.

And the stately Place Royale, which is still adorned with the equestrian statue of Louis XIII, had to suffer the indignity of being renamed Place des Vosges, after the first province that supported the revolutionary army with its taxes.

Now many Paris streets bear the names of Bonaparte and his multiple battles, although no Rue Waterloo springs to mind. Also commemorated in this fashion are salient dates in the political calendar, such as the 14 July, 25 August or 4 September. And of course uncountable streets and squares are named after great cultural figures.

And it’s not just Paris either. A couple of week ago we spent a night in Rouen, one of our favourite places in France. That’s of course where Flaubert comes from, and the city doesn’t let you forget that fact for a second. Probably not everything in Rouen is named after the writer, but one can easily get that impression.

The city centre has kept much of its beautiful old architecture, and one can just see Madame Bovary doing the dirty in the back of a carriage trundling along the cobbled streets. Or perhaps Penelope is right and it’s just my dirty mind.

You can see that sort of thing throughout France. Close to us are two villages, Toucy and Saint-Sauveur. The former is the birthplace of the lexicographer Larousse, and his statue proudly sits in the town square, whereas a local pâtisserie is known for its Larousse cake.

The other village is native to the strictly mediocre writer Colette. Except don’t you dare call her – or any other French writer – mediocre when talking to the French. As far as they are concerned, all their writers fall into the range between brilliant and universal genius.

If you dare describe any French writer, including that giftless girlish scribbler Colette, as anything outside that range, even your French friends will snap your head off, a fate that almost befell me on numerous occasions (I’m seldom reticent in expressing my cultural judgements). And of course her native village has a huge Colette museum, which I’ve never visited in the 23 years that we’ve been in the area.

Drive a couple of miles down the road from us on the way to Auxerre and you’ll cross a Rue Debussy in the back of beyond. And the centre of Auxerre lavishly commemorates Marie Noël, a poetess I’m man enough to admit I had never heard of until we moved into the area.

And the point? Well, it’s fairly obvious. Culture, in its narrow meaning of high culture, clearly plays a greater role in France than in Britain. Even minor figures like Marie Noël are honoured in the way our giants like William of Ockham aren’t.

That doesn’t mean French culture is greater than ours – it isn’t. However, culture has a stronger adhesive power in French history, gluing together the nation’s past and present. If English place names reflect at least a millennium of political continuity, the country’s salient contribution to Western civilisation, the French tend to buttress their society with their cultural ethos.

You understand I’m talking about general tendencies emerging out of numerous exceptions. But the tendencies are discernible, and they help to understand two great countries so similar in many respects, yet also so different in spite of their proximity.

Things we see help us understand things we don’t see. And understanding two of the most important parts of our civilisation will help us understand the whole thing better. Such understanding is worth having, I think.

5 thoughts on “We don’t celebrate our geniuses”

  1. There are some bizarre exceptions, or perhaps the only one. Years ago, sauntering through Pere Lachaise I was somewhat surprised to see how unsung and unexceptional Proust’s grave was. Many other famous foreigners’ burial sites, Oscar Wilde’s for example, and even that cultural nonentity Jim Morrison, seem to attract far more attention and reverence than France’s greatest literary genius (In my estimation Shakespeare’s equal, though perhaps you will care to prove the absurdity of such a comparison on some more befitting occasion).

    1. Then again, Churchill’s grave at Bladon is marked only by a simple slab. Proust, I think, is too close to our time to be as revered in France as, say, Racine is. Some patina of age usually helps. I wouldn’t compare Proust to Shakespeare though — the genres are too different. So I shan’t even try to argue for or against. Now, had you said that Racine is Shakespeare’s equal, I’d have you tarred and feathered (verbally, that is).

  2. The story goes that Churchill refused burial at Westminster Abbey because, ‘having never let anyone walk over me during my lifetime, I’m certainly not going to let them do so when I’m dead.’

  3. To provide an exception: In Ulverston, Cumbria, we have a Stan Laurel pub and a Laurel & Hardy museum and statue in the centre of town. Although admittedly, that’s not very high-brow.

  4. For street names, here in the U.S. we seem to favor numbers: 1st Avenue, 1st street. Most cities have a Main Street. There are a few themes in local areas: states and presidents come to mind. However, these are far from all-encompassing. In fact it is hard to discern why some made the cut and others did not. One neighborhood was designed with streets named after varies tree species. We give some highways honorary names for fallen police officers, but those are not official names to be found on a map, they are posted locally for short sections. Of course, starting in 1983 most large cities renamed a major boulevard after Martin Luther King, Jr. And in Los Angeles we proudly (?) drive down Cesar Chavez Avenue. Here in southern California we have an embarrassing custom of giving streets Spanish sounding names, though if one speaks the language he cannot ascertain any real meaning. And to my continued bewilderment I have yet to drive down Brian Blvd.

    My favorite is a small road between Los Angeles and San Diego that leads from the coast to Camp Pendleton named Basilone Road. I would hope that Houston has a few streets named after pioneers of the space program (something other than Johnson).

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