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Putting politicians on the map is not a good idea

Reports suggest Margaret Thatcher will have a street in Madrid named after her.

By on Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Flowers laid outside the home of Baroness Thatcher in Belgravia

Flowers laid outside the home of Baroness Thatcher in Belgravia

It seems that Margaret Thatcher may soon have a street named after her, not in Grantham, or even London, but in Madrid (hat tip to Archbishop Cranmer.) One politician in the city is uncertain about this development, we read, as he does not want to see “the politicisation of the street map”. I have to say, I think he has a point.

For us English, politicising the street map is always something we associate with rather dodgy regimes. This probably reached its apogee with the late Nicolae Ceausescu who transformed large swathes of Bucharest from a charming city into a totalitarian nightmare, the centrepiece of which was the Boulevard of Victorious Socialism, leading up to his pharaonic palace. Stalin too was not averse to lavish bad taste architecture, and he had numerous streets named after him. But this sort of folly is not peculiar to the Left. Benito Mussolini did untold damage to Rome with his mania for new wide boulevards, the most damaging of which is the Via della Conciliazione, which leads up to Saint Peter’s. One is meant to come into St Peter’s Square as if by surprise, emerging from some dark medieval alleyway; but Mussolini made this impossible, and quite ruined Bernini’s masterpiece. He did the same, incidentally, at the bottom of the steps leading up to the Church of Aracoeli. This dramatic staircase was once accessed from a small piazza. Alas, no more. Now it is lost in a wide street of thundering traffic.

Of course, no one is going to demolish houses in Madrid to create the Boulevard of Victorious Thatcherism, but the mindset is the same, though the scale may differ. Redrawing or just renaming the map is a step that ought not to be embarked on without good reason. In Nairobi the avenue leading up to the station is called Moi Avenue, even though the man after whom it is named still lives. The other main street is called Kenyatta Avenue, named after Kenya’s first president. There is also a Mama Ngina Street: she is still alive, widow of the first president, and mother of the current president. It is rather annoying to deal with street names that make political points.

When the Knights of Malta under the leadership of Grand Master La Valette built their capital city, which is reputed to be the first planned city in Europe, they laid down various rules about the grid pattern, street width, and the necessity of having a saint’s statue on every street corner. And they also stipulated that each street should be named after a saint. The main street was named after the patron saint of Aragon, and thus was Strada San Giorgio, and remained so into the nineteenth century. Alas, someone in the colonial era decided to rename it Kingsway. When Malta became a Republic, the road was renamed Republic Street, as it remains to this day. I rather wish it was still St George’s Street.

At least Malta has seen no wholesale renaming of cities for political reasons, as has happened in Vietnam, Mexico and South Africa. Ciudad Juarez was once called El Paso del Norte, Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City, and Pretoria has been renamed Tshanwe, or will be soon. God forbid anyone should have the idea of calling Grantham ‘Thatcherville’ or ‘Iron Lady City’. It is not that I did not admire The Blessed Margaret (as Norman St John Stevas called her); but I like history more, and I think that we should stick to traditional names.