I’m back in full writing harness after a few days away in the Weald of Kent, visiting the likes of Hever Castle and Chartwell as well as making the obligatory jaunt over to Calais to pick up some cheese and one of those nice French apple tarts (and, yes, possibly the odd bottle of wine or two as well…). It was the first time I’d been to Chartwell, the home of Sir Winston Churchill from 1922 until his death, and although the house itself wasn’t open, a couple of exhibition areas were. One of them included a copy of a memo written by Churchill in 1945, shortly before he left office, in which he embarks upon a gloriously full-blooded Churchillian rant on the subject of foreign place names:
I do not consider that names that have been familiar for generations in England should be altered to study the whims of foreigners living in those parts…Constantinople should never be abandoned, though for stupid people Istanbul may be written in brackets after it. As for Angora, long familiar with us through the Angora Cats, I will resist to the utmost of my power its degradation to Ankara.
With the surrender of Germany still some days away and the war against Japan still in full swing, the Prime Minister warmed to his theme.
You should note, by the way, the bad luck which always pursues peoples who change the name of their cities. Fortune is rightly malignant to those who break with the traditions and customs of their past…If we do not make a stand we shall in a few weeks be asked to call Leghorn Livorno, and the BBC will be pronouncing Paris Paree. Foreign names were made for Englishmen, not Englishmen for foreign names.
One wonders what Churchill would have made of the recent transformation of Peking into Beijing, Bombay into Mumbai and Calcutta into Kolkata. My attitude to such things is a bit more relaxed than Winston’s (perhaps because when I was only nine my home town changed its name from Llanelly to the Welsh version, Llanelli), but even so, it took me quite some time to realise that Chennai was not some sort of vast Indian version of Milton Keynes that had suddenly sprung up from nowhere but was in fact the city I had always called Madras. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realised just how much this question of ‘political (or historical) correctness’ in the selection of names impinges on my own work. For instance, in the fourth Quinton novel The Lion of Midnight, which I’m writing at the moment, a lot of the action is set in and around the city known to its inhabitants as Göteborg; but Quinton would undoubtedly have called it to Gothenburg, as most Britons still do to this day. (Of course, Churchill was quite prescient about this: the BBC and other media, which take such pains to get the spelling and pronunciation of the ‘new’ PC Asian and African names absolutely spot on, balk at applying the same approach to European names, presumably because they know that their audience would revolt if confronted with the likes of Göteborg and ‘Paree’.) On the other hand, Quinton would undoubtedly have called the Kings of both Sweden and Spain in 1666 ‘King Charles’, but I decided that this might cause confusion with the many references to his own king, Charles II, so the Swedish monarch has been rendered as Karl and the Spanish one as Carlos; but then, what to do about earlier Kings of Spain, as readers accustomed to think of the latter as ‘King Philip’ might be confused by ‘Felipe’?
Ultimately, my solution has been to apply a principle of selective inconsistency – to use the name that I think will be most easily recognisable to the majority of my readers, even if it doesn’t necessarily correspond to either absolutely accurate historical or modern practice. But I have much worse to come later in the year, namely my naval history of Wales, Britannia’s Dragon. Believe me, the minefield that is getting the terminology of the modern Third World correct is as nothing when compared with the dilemmas presented by Welsh placenames. Should it be Swansea or Abertawe (or, in the spirit of Derry/Londonderry, both?). Should the river be spelt Towy – probably still the form most familiar to non-Welsh readers – or Tywi, the correct modern (and ancient) version? Should I place Pontypridd in its current administrative region, the county borough of Rhondda Cynon Taf, or in the historical county of Glamorgan? I have a feeling that the somewhat idiosyncratic solutions I’ll be adopting might enrage a few purists with both Welsh linguistic and English historical sensibilities, and will almost certainly have Winston spinning in his grave, but I guess it’s a risk I’ll have to take!