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Oxford Dictionary of British Place-Names by A.D. MillsA Dictionary of British Place-Names, A.D. Mills (Oxford University Press 1991)

A palimpsest is a manuscript that has been scraped clean and used to write something new. But the original manuscript can still be glimpsed under the new writing. British place-names are like that, except that they’re a palimpsest of a palimpsest and some of the oldest names are still there. Germanic languages like Anglo-Saxon and Norse replaced Celtic ones like Welsh and Gaelic, but those languages may have replaced something even earlier:

Some river-names, few in number but the most ancient of all, seem to belong to an unknown early Indo-European language which is neither Celtic nor Germanic. Such pre-Celtic names, sometimes termed ‘Old European’, may have been in use among the very early inhabitants of these languages in Neolithic times, and it is assumed they were passed on to Celtic settlers arriving from the Continent about the fourth century BC. Among the ancient names that possibly belong to this small but important group are Colne, Humber, Itchen, and Wey. (Introduction, “The Chronology and Languages of English Place-Names”, pg. XV)

I don’t see how they know that language was Indo-European. Perhaps it was a linguistic isolate or related to Basque or Etruscan. Or perhaps it was Indo-European but had preserved something even earlier. The names of rivers are usually the most ancient of all, because rivers are visually and psychologically powerful things. Whatever the truth about those river-names, there’s a strange power in the thought of an entire language reduced to a few syllables, like a sea shrinking to a few salty pools. I’m reminded of the doomed siren in Clark Ashton Smith’s “Sadastor”, confined to the pool that is all that remains of a world-ocean.

When we say “Humber” or “Wey”, we step into a pool of that ancient language and it lives again for an instant. If the theories are correct, that is. There is a lot of conjecture and uncertainty in toponymy, the science of place-names. This entry is like a fairy-tale in miniature:

Warnford Hants. Warnæford c. 1053, Warneford 1086 (DB). ‘Ford frequented by wrens or one used by stallions’. OE wærna or *wæærna + ford. Alternatively the first element may be an OE man’s name *Wæærna.

Wrens, stallions or man? The entry in the Domesday Book (DB) didn’t record the exact quality of the vowel, so the original meaning is lost. Something similar happens in the preceding entry, but this one is a fairy-story by the Brothers Grimm:

Warnborough, North & Warnborough, South Hants. Weargeburnan 973-4. Wergeborn 1086 (DB). Possibly ‘stream where criminals were drowned’, OE wearg + burna, though wearg may have an earlier sense ‘wolf’, hence perhaps ‘stream frequented by wolves’.

But far more onomastic fish were caught by the Domesday Book than slipped through. It was a net cast by the Normans over their new kingdom and historians have been feasting on the catch for centuries. Very few names were recorded much earlier. One of those that were hasn’t survived unaltered:

Hebrides (islands) Arg., Highland, W. Isles. Hæbudes 77, Hebudes 300. Meaning uncertain. The Roman name was Edudæ or Ebudes, and the present name resulted from a misreading of the latter, with ri for u.

I like fortuitous changes like that. Is it another pre-Celtic name? Perhaps. But mysteries can rise from clear meanings too:

Caithness (district) Highland. Kathenessia c. 970. ‘Promontory of the Cats’. OScand. nes. It is not known why the early Celtic tribe here were called ‘cats’; the cat may have been their token animal.

We know what the name means, but not why it got that meaning. We’ve lost so much of the past and that’s one of the powerful things about this book. George Orwell summed up the feeling in another context:

When I think of antiquity, the detail that frightens me is that those hundreds of millions of slaves on whose backs civilization rested generation after generation have left behind them no record whatever. We do not even know their names. In the whole of Greek and Roman history, how many slaves’ names are known to you? I can think of two, or possibly three. One is Spartacus and the other is Epictetus. Also, in the Roman room at the British Museum there is a glass jar with the maker’s name inscribed on the bottom, ‘FELIX FECIT’. I have a mental picture of poor Felix (a Gaul with red hair and a metal collar round his neck), but in fact he may not have been a slave; so there are only two slaves whose names I definitely know, and probably few people can remember more. The rest have gone down into utter silence. (“Looking Back on the Spanish War”, 1942)

So have most of the people who lived on the British Isles. Kings have reigned here and been utterly forgotten. But here and there a name survives with no story attached to it:

Broomfleet E.R. Yorks. Brungareflet 1150-4. ‘Stretch of river belonging to a man called Brūngār’. OE pers. name + flēot.

Who was Brūngār? Was he important? Was the name a joke? If the name hadn’t been recorded so early, we might now think the name refers to a plant, like “Broomfield, ‘open land where broom grows’”. Misinterpretations must happen a lot in toponymy: Celtic words with one meaning look like Anglo-Saxon words with another, pre-Celtic names may have been folk-etymologized, and so on.

That raises another haunting question, which Orwell addresses here in another and more serious form:

If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened – that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death? The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. (Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Part 1, ch. 3)

Suppose that an apparently transparent place-name like Greenfield or Shepton is a re-working of an older name with an entirely different meaning in Celtic or pre-Celtic. Does the truth survive in any sense? Or does the meaning of the new name change the truth? This must have happened many times in Britain and elsewhere.

The reverse is rarer: some apparently mysterious names might be scribal slips or lost words in familiar languages. This village in Worcestershire has a strange name that may be thousands of years old:

Tardebigge Worcs. Tærdebicgan c. 1000, Terdeberie [sic] 1086 (DB). Possibly a Celtic name from Brittonic *tarth ‘spring’ + *pig ‘point, peak’.

Or does it go back even earlier, to that vanished pre-Celtic language? Perhaps. Or perhaps it’s really Anglo-Saxon, distorted or otherwise. Unless a chronoscope is invented, we may never know the truth and mysteries like that may remain.

But mysteries are rare. Viewed in the context of local topography or history, place-names usually have obvious meanings. And they tell us what we’ve lost. Britain used to be a place of glades:

Lanercost Cumbria. Lanrecost 1169. Celtic *lannerch ‘glade, clearing’, perhaps with the pers. name Aust (from Latin Augustus).

It used to be a place of wolves too:

Greywell Hants. Graiwella 1167. Probably ‘spring or stream frequented by wolves’, OE *grææg + wella.

And of witches:

Hascombe Surrey Hescumb 1232. Possibly ‘the witch’s valley’. OE hægtesse + cumb.

And of Woden:

Wednesbury Sandw. Wadnesberie 1086 [DB]. ‘Stronghold associated with the heathen god Wōden’. OE god-name + burh (dative byrig).

But the forests were cut down, the wolves were slaughtered, and the grey Galilean triumphed over Woden. So another layer of meaning washed over the landscape and new languages appeared in place-names, like Latin and French: Eccles means “church” and Beaulieu means “beautiful place”, for example. To survive, some of the old paganism had to be obscure:

Sawel (Samhail) (mountain) Tyrone. ‘Likeness’. Samhail Phite Meadhbha c. 1680. The full name is Samhail Phite Méabha, ‘likeness to Maeve’s vulva’, referring to a hollow on the side of the mountain.

Most of the etymologies in A Dictionary of British Place-Names are mundane, not Maevish, but age can lend glamour even to the mundane. Some place-names in Britain are very old and this book is a good way to feel the years.

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Front cover of Granite and Grit by Ronald TurnbullGranite and Grit: A Walker’s Guide to the Geology of British Mountains, Ronald Turnbull (Francis Lincoln 2011)

For a small country, Britain has had a big influence on the world. Like a lot of other things, modern geology started here. There are several reasons for that and one is very simple: pioneering geologists had mountains of material to work with. According to the author, “Britain has the most varied geology of any country in the world.” This is an excellent introduction to the rocks of the realm, from gneiss in the Outer Hebrides to granite on Dartmoor. I like the way Turnbull discusses not only how rocks affect your eyes – their colour, texture and contours – but also how they affect your boots. He’s a hillwalker, not a professional geologist, so he conveys a strong sense of place and of how Britain’s landscape varies. But there’s more than geological variation here: Britain isn’t just rich in rocks and its landscape is shaped by more than physics and chemistry. This is the caption to one spectacular photo of a misty mountain:

Bwlch y Saethau, where according to legend King Arthur battled his nephew Mordred; behind, Y Lliwedd stands at the centre of a far greater act of violence, the Lower Rhyolite Tuff event. (ch. 10, “Redhot Flying Avalanches: Ignimbrites in Snowdonia”, pg. 98)

Britain’s varied mountains are named in Britain’s varied languages: Welsh, English and Gaelic give different flavours to the landscapes they describe, from Carnedd Dafydd to Eskdale, from Ingleborough to Stuc a’ Chroin, from Ardnamurchan to Mynydd Mawr. But English names split into Norse and Anglo-Saxon, which have different flavours too. Underlying all these languages is a common ancestor, just as some very different rocks have common ancestors too. Heat, compression and erosion change rocks; time, separation and mutation change languages. So Turnbull is writing about two kinds of history as he discusses different parts of Britain: geological history and linguistic history.

Linguistics dwarfs geology in complexity, but geology dwarfs linguistics in time. To understand why Britain looks the way it does, you have to go back billions of years and trace its movement over many thousands of kilometres. You also have to study seemingly exotic things like volcanoes, glaciers and tropical botany, all of which are central parts of Britain’s geology. Turnbull is a relaxed but knowledgeable guide to some big events and some big transformations and because he isn’t a professional he knows how to write for a general reader. He doesn’t just inform, he re-orientates: you won’t look at Britain in the same way:

Black pointy islands of volcanic ash rise above the sea, the water around them a froth of falling ash. The shores of the new islands get washed away by tsunamis as chunks of other islands fall into the sea. Lava slides down and then runs level, to form black land made of glass. The glassy ground crackles as it cools, and then quickly weathers to orange shards and gravel. Showers of sharp-edged volcanic rubble fall into the sea, forming seabed layers 300m deep which will eventually be the summit of Snowdon itself. (ch. 10, pp. 103-4)

Geology is like cuisine in reverse: from the cooked dish you have to work out the recipe. Landscapes that seem inert can have cataclysmic pasts, full of fire and thunder or flood and frost. There are centuries of ingenious deduction and painstaking observation behind the chatty text and attractive photos in this book, but there are still mysteries to solve. More maths will be needed, because matter obeys mathematical rules in all its transformations, whether geological or culinary. And those material transformations have immaterial parallels in linguistics and sociology, where maths is the key to understanding too. And science itself has metamorphosed and mutated. Geology is an important subject not just for its contemporary research but also for its influence on other fields. It made scientists realize the vast age of the earth. Charles Darwin used that idea to transform biology. Like the pioneering geologists, he was British. That isn’t a coincidence and it’s something else that increases the power of this book. The planet starts here. So does the universe.

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The Satan Bug (1962) / The Way to Dusty Death (1973), Alistair MacLean

MacLean isn’t the best thriller-writer I know, because I think Ian Fleming is better, broader and more entertaining. But The Satan Bug, originally published under the name Ian Stuart, is probably the best of his many books. Or rather, the best version of his book, because he wrote variants on a single theme: hierarchy-hating hero defeats super-cerebral sado-villain(s) whilst wet, wounded and whiskey-soaked. The hero isn’t usually described in detail, because that would have got in the way of the wish-fulfilment fantasy for the heterosexual males who formed MacLean’s main audience. The nondescript hero here is called Pierre Cavell, a highly intelligent, highly skilled Anglo-French secret agent who has turned down six decorations – “three British, two French and one Belgian” (ch. 1) – at the end of the war before joining British intelligence and trying to stop minor but dangerous thefts from a high-security germ-warfare laboratory in Wiltshire called Mordon.

Then the thefts turn major: the laboratory has brewed a super-virus called the Satan Bug and someone makes off with two flasks of it, despite the high security. Cavell endures cold, kicks and cracks on the cranium as he unravels the crook’s cunning and literally saves the world in the final chapter, high over the rain-soaked streets of London. The ending is reminiscent of Fleming’s Goldfinger, which was published in 1959, but MacLean’s villain is more of a God-finger: he could destroy the world with one hand tied behind his back. The botulinum toxin he has also stolen, a gramme of which could wipe millions of people, is much less dangerous than the infernal infection he was really after. Following the theft, an Italian bacteriologist at Mordon describes what it can do:

In its final form, the Satan Bug is an extremely refined powder. I take a salt-spoon of this powder, go outside in the grounds of Mordon and turn the salt-spoon upside down. What happens? Every person in Mordon would be dead within an hour, the whole of Wiltshire would be an open tomb by dawn. In a week, ten days, all life would have ceased to exist in Britain. I mean all life. The Plague, the Black Death – was nothing compared with this. Long before the last man died in agony ships or planes or birds or just the waters of the North Sea would have carried the Satan Bug to Europe. We can conceive of no obstacle that can stop its eventual world-wide spread… The Lapp trapping in the far north of Sweden. The Chinese peasant tilling his rice-fields in the Yangtse valley. The cattle rancher on his station in the Australian outback, the shopper in Fifth Avenue, the primitive in Tierra del Fuego. Dead. All dead. Because I turned a salt-spoon upside down. Nothing, nothing, nothing can stop the Satan Bug. (ch. 3)

MacLean could write compelling prose about the biggest and baddest of themes, but he was also capable of touches like this, when the police are issuing a description of a get-away car:

“Alfringham. Then the London road. Cancel the call for the Fiat. It’s now a turquoise Vanden Plas Princess 3-litre. All stations. Locate, follow, but don’t close in.”

“Blue-green,” the general murmured. “Blue-green, not turquoise. Don’t call it turquoise. It’s policemen you’re talking to, not their wives. Half of them would think you’re talking about their Christmas dinner.” (ch. 11)

The general is Cavell’s spy-chief and the father of Cavell’s beautiful blonde wife, who gets kidnapped by the villain and his psychopathic deaf-mute assistant in chapter ten. That sort of thing was a bit dated even in 1962, but MacLean also bases a plot detour on an amateur astronomer taking photos of Jupiter’s “satellite Io occulting its own shadow” (ch. 5), so he obviously had a well-stocked brain. It was a well-soaked brain too and his alcoholism isn’t hard to guess from the constant references to hard liquor, though they aren’t as obtrusive and gratuitous as they are in some of his other books. The source of his obsession with cold, wet and injury won’t be so easy to guess, but the obsession is all over The Satan Bug. The book is set in a very wet October and Mordon is “grim, grey and gaunt… under darkly lowering skies” (ch. 2). Because of his war-service, Cavell is almost blind in one eye and has a crippled foot. He also spends the closing half of the book with cracked ribs after the villain tries to dispose of him. Why all the wet and wounding? Well, MacLean served on the Arctic convoys supplying the Soviet Union during the Second World War and his experiences there never left him or lifted from his writing. I also wonder about an earlier part of his life: his mother-tongue was actually Gaelic, not English, and perhaps that helps explain the drive and directness of his prose. He also has a verbal tic of describing people or things as “very X indeed”. It’s part of his hyperbole, but is it also an echo of some characteristic Gaelicism?

Perhaps, but I wonder about genetics as well as Gaelic. Scots have been disproportionally successful in all areas of Anglophone culture and MacLean, one of the best-selling authors in history, is a good literary example. And if I look at my favourite authors, I find that Scots are disproportionately represented there, one way or another. Ian Fleming had Scottish ancestry, for example, and so did Swinburne and Evelyn Waugh, though Waugh’s surname is actually a form of “Welsh”, from Anglo-Saxon walh, meaning “foreign” (as in walnut, because the tree isn’t native to Britain). And Waugh looked, and drank, remarkably like the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Thomas isn’t one of my favourite writers, though I do recognize his talent. All the same, he may be another example of the link between literary greatness and Celtic genes.

I wouldn’t call MacLean a literary great, but he definitely had talent and could write up a storm. It’s rain-storms in this book; elsewhere, in Night Without End (1959) or Ice Station Zebra (1963), it’s snow-storms. If you want to understand why he sold so many millions, The Satan Bug may be the best place to start. The copy you read may also be older than you are, but my tattered, age-stained, pre-post-code paperback – stamped “At Your Service | 7 Warren Road | Cheadle Hume | Books and Bric-a-Brac | Bought and Sold” – is more enjoyable to read than a modern paperback would be. Black marks on whitish paper create and populate a world: writing is a strange and magical thing. There are two stills from the film-of-the-book on the back cover of my copy, but film is a less strange and less wonderful thing. It still hasn’t caught up with what writing can do and in some ways it never will.

Nor will computer games, but I can see similarities between computer games and The Satan Bug – and also MacLean’s formula-one thriller The Way to Dusty Death, which I’ve re-read at the same time. The Way to Dusty Death has another good title and is another entertaining read, but it’s on the downward slope of Mount MacLean, heading towards the foothills of rubbish like River of Death (1981) and San Andreas (1984). Like The Satan Bug, it’s a wish-fulfilment fantasy for heterosexual males, though it’s not as complete a fantasy as the James Bond books. MacLean’s books are clean books, without sex or lechery, though the glugging of whiskey is often accompanied by the slugging of villains. The Way to Dusty Death isn’t unusual in its slugging, but is in one of its sluggees:

She spat at him. “Fix it yourself.”

Harlow gave no warning. There was a blur of movement and the silencer of the pistol smashed against the blonde’s face. She screamed, staggered and fell to a sitting position, blood welling from gashes on both cheek and mouth.

“Jesus!” Rory was appalled. “Mr Harlow!” (ch. 10)

Like the pistol-whipped blonde, Rory is an unusual character for MacLean. He’s a teenager and was perhaps meant to allow the sons of MacLean’s older fans to think themselves into the story too. It’s good that he didn’t like that pistol-whipping, but the hero Johnny Harlow has a justification for it: the blonde is beautiful, true, but she’s also a cold-blooded murderess, because she’s recently disguised herself as a nurse and fed a sugar-coated cyanide pill to an inconvenient prisoner. Unlike some of the old writers described by George Orwell in his classic essay “Raffles and Miss Blandish” (1944), MacLean needs to give his heroes good excuses for their brutality and bullying. Cavell is trying to save the world in The Satan Bug and Harlow is trying to defeat a heroin-gang in The Road to Dusty to Death.

And get his employer’s kidnapped wife back. He does both, of course, but the book is curiously empty and dream-like by comparison with The Satan Bug. At one point Harlow exchanges idiomatic banter with two French policemen, but MacLean doesn’t bother to say what language they’re talking in. Is Harlow unusually skilled at French or are the policemen unusually skilled at English? No clue is offered: the European setting of the book seems little more than an excuse to include some exotic surnames and places and every character is a walking, talking cliché, from Harlow himself, the world’s greatest racing-driver, to Harlow’s love-interest, the beautiful, black-haired Mary MacAlpine, twenty-year-old daughter of the millionaire owner of the Coronado racing team. But clichés can be compelling, or they wouldn’t be clichés, and the book starts well. This is the opening paragraph:

Harlow sat by the side of the race-track on that hot and cloudless afternoon, his long hair blowing about in the fresh breeze and partially obscuring his face, his golden helmet clutched so tightly in his gauntleted hands that he appeared to be trying to crush it: the hands were shaking uncontrollably and occasional violent tremors racked his entire body.

He has just survived a bad crash. His friend Isaac Jethou hasn’t and is “being cremated in the white-flamed funeral pyre of what had once been his Grand Prix Formula One racing car”. Harlow stares at the flames with “the eyes of an eagle gone blind” and then pours himself brandy in the pits with a “castanet rattle” of bottle on glass. But one difference between him and MacLean’s other heroes is that they drink because they like it. He drinks because he’s pretending to like it, part of a deception to make both his friends and his foes think he’s lost his nerve. This is the scene that greets his boss MacAlpine and a journalist called Dunnett in Harlow’s hotel bedroom after the crash:

Harlow, clad only in shirt and trousers and still wearing his shoes, was stretched out in bed, apparently in an almost coma-like condition. His arm dangled over the side of the bed, his right hand clutching the neck of the whiskey bottle. MacAlpine, grim-faced and almost incredulous, approached the bed, bent over Harlow, sniffed in disgust and removed the bottle from Harlow’s nerveless hand… Both men turned and left the room, closing the broken door behind them. Harlow opened his eyes, rubbed his chin thoughtfully. His hand stopped moving and he sniffed his palm. His wrinkled his nose in distaste. (end of ch. 2)

This book was a wish-fulfilment fantasy for its alcoholic author too, but the theme of deception is everywhere in MacLean’s writing. It’s related to paranoia and sleeplessness, which are two more important themes. Paranoia and sleeplessness go together, in fact, as MacLean must have learnt on the Arctic convoys and Harlow gets little sleep at the end of the book, though he doesn’t get wet. That happens to one of the villains instead, but MacLean doesn’t alter much else and the hero triumphs fully and finally in the end.

This is one way the book differs from a computer-game. Like The Satan Bug, it could supply plot-and-hero for one, but it follows a “linear narrative” and MacLean decides what happens next. Not that I’m knocking linear narratives: DNA follows one too and DNA is responsible for both language and computer-games. The era of language is millennia-old now; the era of computer-games began a few decades ago. The males who once read MacLean books are much more likely to be watching pixels now, but it’s reassuring that my copy of The Way to Dusty Death was published in 2009, part of HarperCollins’ reissue of all MacLean’s novels. I prefer to read MacLean’s novels in editions published before he died in 1987, but I’d be happy to re-read some of them again in any format. And when I say “re-read again”, that’s exactly what I mean: the ones I like I’ve read several times. Others I’ve read once and will not be reading again. The Satan Bug and The Way to Dusty Death are among those I will re-read again. They’re fun, as intended, and thought-provoking, as not always intended. If you’re looking to try MacLean for the first time, I’d recommend The Satan Bug. It’s better-written, better-plotted, and its bio-terror theme hasn’t dated.

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