The Reader’s Gazetteer: N

DSCF8578

This is a surprisingly difficult letter. I struggled. Wikipedia’s List of fictional countries and List of fictional towns in literature both look hopeful, but a closer inspection of the N sections reveals that most of the locations either appear in a medium that I’m not including, or don’t pretend to exist in the world as we know it.

The exception is Norland, in a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which has little identifying detail beyond a sufficiently substantial submarine division to be a credible threat in the early 1920s. Even Thomas Hardy’s Wessex can only come up with Narrowbourne, in a short story I haven’t read. Novel-length works featuring settlements beginning with N? The internet fails me.

Why? New and North between them ought to yield plenty of plausible towns. I wonder whether calling anything fictional ‘New’ is a bit too much of a lampshade for something that’s meant to be set in the world as we know it. Perhaps it draws attention to the fact that the place has existed mere months, or, at the outside, decades, in the author’s head. (Or, conversely, one or more fictional Newports is slipping past me because I’ve mixed them up with the real ones.)

However, my father was able to point me at North Bromwich, and so it’s back to the fictional West Midlands, perhaps a little bit further west of where we were last time. He has a lovely set of blue-and-gold Francis Brett Young hardbacks, which no doubt I’ll read my way through at some point, but in the meantime Project Gutenberg came up with a couple. Of these, I’m reliably informed that The Young Physician spends the most time in North Bromwich, so off I went.

In fact, most of the first half of the book finds our hero, Edwin, at school in Sussex, with occasional visits home. And there’s a lovely train journey to get him there, which I can’t resist including at length, even though the Home Counties and Victoria and Paddington stations and Reading and Oxford are real enough. I’m going to say that it’s the careful positioning of the fictional place with reference to the real ones that makes it work:

By this time the region of downs had been left far behind.  They were gliding, more smoothly, it seemed, through the heavily-wooded park country of the home counties.  Stations became more frequent, and the train began to fill with business people hurrying to London for their morning’s work.  They settled themselves in their carriages as though they were confident that their seats had been reserved for them.  They were all rather carefully, rather shabbily dressed: the cuffs of their coats were shiny, and the cuffs of their shirts fringed, and one of them, a gentleman with a top-hat half-covered by a mourning-band, wore cuff-covers of white paper.  They all read their morning papers and rarely spoke; but when they did speak to each other they used an almost formal respect in their addresses which implied that they were all respectable, God-fearing people with responsibilities and semi-detached houses.  Edwin they ignored—not so much as a wilful intrusion as an unfortunate accident.  He began to feel ashamed that, by starting from the terminus, he had occupied a corner seat to which the gentleman with the paper cuffs had an inalienable right.

In a little while the villas from which this population had emerged began to creep closer to the track, and by the seventh station their backs were crowding close to the embankment with long, narrow gardens in which the crimson rambler rose seemed to have established itself like a weed.  The houses, too, or rather the backs of them, grew more uniform, being all built with bricks of an unhealthy yellow or putty colour.  Soon there were no more buildings semi-detached.  The endless rows seemed to be suffering some process of squeezing or constriction that made them coalesce and edged them closer and closer to the railway line.  Soon the gardens grew so small that there was no room in them for green things, only for a patch of black earth occupied by lean cats, and posts connected by untidy pieces of rope on which torn laundry was hung out to collect the smuts or flap drearily in a night of drizzle.  Then the gardens went altogether; and the beautiful and natural love of green things showed itself in sodden window-boxes full of languishing geranium cuttings or mignonette.  The very atmosphere seemed to have been subjected to the increasing squeeze; for the mild air of the downs had here a yellow tinge as though it were being curdled.  To complete the process the train plunged, at last, into a sulphurous tunnel, emerging amid acrid fumes in a sort of underground vault where the door was opened by a ticket-collector with a red tie, tired already, who shouted “Tickets, please.”

None of the respectable suburban gentlemen took any notice of him, for by purchasing season tickets they had rendered themselves immune from his attentions; but he glared at Edwin, and Edwin passed him his ticket, which was handed on as if it were a curiosity and a rather vulgar possession by the gentlemen on his side of the compartment.  The door was slammed.  The man with the top-hat placed it carefully on his head and adjusted the paper cuffs.  Others folded their morning papers and put them in their pockets.  One, apparently recognizing a friend who was sitting opposite to him, for the first time, said “Good-morning,” and the train passed amid thunderous echoes under the arch and into Victoria Station.  All his fellow-passengers were adepts at evacuation, and before he knew where he was Edwin was alone in the carriage.

He was very lonely and yet, somehow, a little important.  Usually, at term end, he had crossed London with Widdup, whose westward train also started from Paddington.  He hailed a hansom, and one that was worthy of its name: a shining chariot, all coach-builders’ varnish, with yellow wheels and polished brass door-handles and clean straw that smelt of the stable on its floor.  The cabman was youngish, mahogany-complexioned, and ready to be facetious.  He called Edwin “My lord,” and Edwin hardly knew whether to treat him seriously or not.  “Geawing to the races, my lord?” he said.  The Lord knew Edwin had had enough of races for a bit.  He said “Paddington.”  “Ascot or Newbury?” said the cabby, climbing to his seat.

It was a great moment.  The movement was all so swift and luxurious, the hansom so delicately sprung that it swayed gently with the horse’s motion.  The polished lamps on either side were filled with wedding rosettes.  Inside on either hand were oblong mirrors in which Edwin could almost see his own profile: a subject of endless curiosity.  There was even a little brass receptacle for cigar-ash.  A Cunarder of a cab!  The cabby whistled “Little Dolly Daydreams” with a ravishing tremolo.  The cab, which had jolted a trifle on the setts of the station-yard, passed among a flight of feeding pigeons out of the iron gates into the bowling smoothness of the Palace Road.  My word, this was life. . .  .  …

The streets were so wide and clean, the green fringe of the park so pleasant: through the railings he could see men and women on horseback taking an early ride, enjoying, like him, the coolness of the morning air.  He wondered at the great white stucco houses of Park Lane, standing back from the wide pavement with an air of pompous reticence.  Before one of them, remnant of a summer dance the night before, a tented portico, striped with red and white, overstretched the pavement.  Edwin did not know what kind of people lived in these houses, but in the light of this morning it seemed to him that theirs must be an existence of fabulous happiness, all clean and bright and shining as the morning itself or the rubber-tired hansom, spinning along with its yellow spokes beside the neat park railings.

Once again the resorts of elegance were left behind.  The hansom, heaving heavily, was checked on the slope of the gradient descending to the departure platform at Paddington.  Opposite the booking-office it stopped, and Edwin was released from this paradisaical loosebox.  The cabby, wishing him the best of luck at Goodwood, patted his horse, whom he had christened Jeddah, and climbed up again to his seat whistling divinely.  Edwin was disgorged upon the long platform at Paddington that rumbled with the sound of many moving trollies below a faint hiss of escaping steam, and smelt, as he had always remembered it, of sulphur mingled with axle grease and the peculiar odour that hangs about tin milk-cans.  He was thankful to be free of it, sitting in the corner of a third-class carriage opposite a stout woman with eyes that looked as if she had been crying all night, and a heavy black veil, whose hat was surmounted by coloured photographs of the Memorial Theatre at Stratford and Brixham Trawlers waiting for a Breeze.

This train ran out of London more easily than the other had entered it.  The area of painful constriction seemed more narrow, and in an incredibly short time he found himself gliding along the Thames valley with the ghostly round tower of Windsor Castle on his left.

At Reading, where the sidings of the biscuit factory reminded him of teas which he had “brewed” with Widdup, the woman opposite took out a crumpled paper bag, and began to eat sandwiches.

The sun, meanwhile, was climbing towards the south, and the railway carriage began to reflect the summery atmosphere of the green and pleasant land through which the train was passing.  It made golden the dust on the window-pane at Edwin’s elbow and discovered warm colours in the pile of the russet cloth with which the carriage was upholstered.

It was a country of green woods and fields of ripening mowing-grass from which the sound of a machine could sometimes be heard above the rumble of the train.  It all seemed extraordinarily peaceful.  A cuckoo passed in level flight from one of the hedgerow elms to the dark edge of a wood.  In the heart of the wood itself a straight green clearing appeared.  It reminded Edwin of the green roads that pierced the woods below Uffdown, and he remembered, poignantly, the walk with his mother in the Easter holidays when they had reached the crown of the hills at sunset… another sight fell upon his eyes and filled him with a new and strange excitement: a small cluster of spires set in a city of pale smoke, and one commanding dome.  He held his breath.  He knew that it was Oxford.

This, then, was the city of his dreams.  Here, in a little while, he would find himself living the new life of leisure and spaciousness and culture which had become his chief ambition.  This was his Mecca: “That lovely city with her dreaming spires,” he whispered to himself.  It was indeed merciful that the vision of his second dream should come to cheer him when the first became so perilously near extinction.

Yes, you say, but what about North Bromwich? We’ll get there, I promise.

“This rack is intended for light articles only.  It must not be used for heavy luggage.  This rack is intended for light articles.  Only it must not be used for heavy luggage.  While there’s life there’s hope.  While there’s life there’s hope.  While there’s life there’s hope.”

So, in the pitiful whirl of Edwin’s brain, foolish words re-echoed, and in the end the empty phrase seemed to attach itself to the regular beat of the train’s rhythm as the wheels rolled over the joints in the rails.  Mesmerised by the formula he only dimly realised that they were now roaring, under a sky far paler and less blue, towards the huge pall of yellowish atmosphere beneath which the black country sweltered.

Soon the prim small gardens told that they were touching the tentacles of a great town.  A patch of desert country, scarred with forgotten workings in which water reflected the pale sky, and scattered with heaps of slag.  A pair of conical blast furnaces standing side by side and towering above the black factory sheds like temples of some savage religion, as indeed they were.  Gloomy canal wharfs, fronting on smoke-blackened walls where leaky steampipes, bound with asbestos, hissed.  The exhaust of a single small engine, puffing regular jets of dazzling white steam, seen but not heard.  A canal barge painted in garish colours, swimming in yellow water, foul with alkali refuse.  A disused factory with a tall chimney on which the words Harris and Co., Brass Founders, was painted in vertical letters which the mesmeric eye must read.  Another mile of black desert, pools, and slag heaps, and ragged children flying kites.  Everywhere a vast debris of rusty iron, old wheels, corroded boilers, tubes writhen and tangled as if they had been struck by lightning.  An asphalt school-yard on a slope, with a tall, gothic school and children screaming their lungs out, but silent to Edwin’s ears.  Endless mean streets of dusky brick houses with roofs of purple slate and blue brick footpaths.  Dust and an acrid smell as of smoking pit heaps.  More houses, and above them, misty, and almost beautiful, the high clock tower of the Art Gallery.  A thunderous tunnel. . . .  The clamour of the wheels swelled to an uproar.  “While there’s life there’s hope.  While there’s life there’s hope.”  Under the gloom of the great glass roof the train emerged.

The art gallery gives us the clue to the real-world equivalent of North Bromwich. Later we discover that the Mayor has presented it with an ‘unrivalled collection of Madox-Jones cartoons’. I went on a school trip to Birmingham Art Gallery, to look at the Pre-Raphaelites, and the Botanic Gardens, to look at plants, when I was twelve. I don’t remember much about it, except for a rather magnificent Lady of Shalott (not that one, a different one) who was on loan from somewhere else. Since then I’ve only ever been through Birmingham on the train, or changed at New Street. (By the way, the obvious London station to leave from would be Euston; I’m not really sure why Edwin goes via Oxford. Any ideas?)

As Edwin settles back in, and starts shuttling between his home of Halesby and the city of North Bromwich, we get to know it better, from, shall we say, various different points of view:

The city of iron stands upon three hills and its valleys were once watered by two rivers; but since the day when its name was humbly written in Doomsday these pastoral features have disappeared, so that the hills are only known as tramway gradients that testify to the excellence of the Corporation’s power station, and the rivers, running in brick culverts, have been deprived not only of their liberty but even of their natural function of receiving a portion of the city’s gigantic sewage.  The original market of North Bromwich has been not so much debauched from without, in the manner of other growing towns, as organised from within by the development of its own inherent powers for evil.  It is not a place from which men have wilfully cast out beauty so much as one from which beauty has vanished in spite of man’s pitiful aspirations to preserve it.  Indeed, its citizens are objects rather for pity than for reproach, and would be astonished to receive either, for many of them are wealthy, and from their childhood, knowing no better, have believed that wealth is a justification and an apology for every mortal evil from ugliness to original sin.

The narrative is quite concerned with water and where it goes, and what goes into it. Earlier in the book Edwin meets a labourer who’s working on the pipeline getting water from Wales into North Bromwich. (This, too, sparks vague childhood memories for me. I think we had a picnic next a Welsh reservoir somewhere.) Now:

the rain of the Savaddan watershed, which geology had destined for the Wye and later for the Atlantic, must now traverse eighty miles or more of conquered territory, and after being defouled by the domestic usages of North Bromwich, must find its way into the Trent, and so to the German Ocean, as the Romans thoughtlessly labelled the North Sea.  “Water,” said the Mayor, who was also known as Sir Joseph Astill, the brewer, “water is one of the necessities of life.  It is our duty to the public to see that they have it, and that they have it pure and unadulterated.”

Actually, I think he has a very good point. People need water. This fictional city, overlaid on a real one, needs its fictional plumbing and fictional sewers (not to mention its fictional railway lines) to make it function.

 

Books mentioned in this post

The Young Physician, Francis Brett Young

Danger!, Arthur Conan Doyle

Life’s Little Ironies, Thomas Hardy

ABCDEFGHIJKLM