Classics in the cul-de-sacs
- February 16, 2021
- Fergus Butler-Gallie
Our cities are so saturated in the mythology of the ancient world that classical allusions pop up in unexpected places.
I walked last week to Thessaly. This was no illicit trek across Europe to the birthplace of Achilles. Instead it was a stroll to Battersea, down Thessaly Street and past the 1938 housing project named Thessaly House. Glorious though the building is – a sort of typewriter in brick, typical of London County Council’s efforts in that interwar period – I felt pretty far from the Hellenic shores of its name sake as I wandered past in the driving February rain. How strange, I thought, to evoke that theatre of so much ancient lore in this soggy patch next to the Thames!
It is a trend I have noticed before; Classical evocations in street names that seem, on the face of it, almost fantastically removed from their contexts. One of my favourite walks when I lived in Liverpool took me along a patchy, windswept gnarl of a street, once clustered with terraced houses but now little more than an ill-surfaced slip road leading off from the approach to the tunnel under the Mersey. Indeed all that was noticeably on the street was its sign – which bore the legend, Juvenal Street. The poet – who delighted in lacerating the folly and excess of Rome – would doubtless see the funny side of his name being now affixed to a rocky gunnel in the furthest flung corner of its former empire.
Juvenal was not alone in North Liverpool. The ghosts of the Ancients would find the nomenclature around Everton distinctly pleasing, should they swap Limbo or the Elysian Fields for the Mersey. Nearby was Great Homer Street, named for the famed, blind father of poetry, a Jason Walk, for the chief Argonaut, a Mitylene Street too, for the home of Sappho on Lesbos. The Victorians, their brains teeming with ways to marry the classical poetry and prose that shaped their imaginations with the brick and steel with which they were shaping the world, found in Greek and Roman street names a chance to honour what they held to be the previous highpoints of human civilisation and to educate the citizens of the empire they presumed would surpass even those that had gone before. That, I suppose, or they simply realised there are only so many Station Roads or Church Streets that one area can stomach. My favourite of these tarmac evocations of ancient poetry, glory and mythology was Medea Close, a little lane on the bottom of Everton Brow.
I conducted a funeral for a family there and, when I checked the address with the funeral director, made sure to dredge up as much of my past education as I could muster and ensure that I pronounced the name of the ancient sorcereress correctly over the phone. ‘Sorry’ came the reply from the undertaker, ‘it’s pronounced mee-dia Close. It’s always been mee-dia’. The family later confirmed this. They were right of course – they lived there after all – and if the citizens of that street sought to evolve language and accent and myth did they not have as much right to do so as those who dreamed poetic dreams on the shores of the Aegean? What had the petty Classical pretensions of Victorian town planners or my half remembered Ovid to do with this particular Scouse branch that had sprung from the Golden Bough? So, Meedia it was and, as far as I know, remains. Juvenal, as I said, would have enjoyed it all.
I returned to Thessaly again this week and, as I looked up at its greyish-brown bricks, reflected that – as with that classical corner of Merseyside – she too has known tall tales told worthy of any classical author. She is home to people after all, and so must have known, in her eighty or so years, as much tragedy and comedy as any Aeolian theatre. She too, no doubt, has her myths; reason’s cloak, as we are finding out in this age of pandemic and power shift, is neither a natural nor a comfortable fit. Battersea isn’t as far from Delphi or Olympus as we might think: myth, legend and story will be told wherever it is we gather together. Homer and Juvenal endure because they wrote of human pride and fear and glory and disappointment as themes and in ways that re-echo and endure. Perhaps naming the scenes where those tropes and tales are enacted and evolve today after those who told them so well in the past isn’t so strange after all.