Friday, April 01, 2011

Are Australians the most unimaginative people in the world?

The other night I was talking to a mate who is wanting to set up a simple website for his own business. He was complaining that while he has an idea of what he wants to put on his website in terms of content, when it comes to graphics and colours and the like, he is at a complete loss. He can not start from a blank page. When he looks at a room, he can not imagine the furniture in any other spot than what it is. When he has a choice of shirts to buy, he can not decide which one would look best when worn. His wife, an Australian with Italian parents, says to him, "You just don't have any imagination, Darl'."

Despite this, he is quite good at Jazz improvisation.

Recently at a child's birthday party, I was talking to this Canadian lady who lives here in Sydney. I was describing to her where our son Jude goes to day-care, and I said, "The place is near the street which runs alongside the train station, Station St, I think."

She replied, "Station St. Hmmph. That is so Australian."

(By the way, I was wrong, Susan. The place is actually on the corner where the Gas Company building used to be. It's called Gas Lane.)

And thinking about it, Susan is right. So many things in this country are labelled with either what they look like, or what they are used for. If not that, then the place is named for some place in the UK or after some person. I blame it mainly on the people who founded this country. They were unimaginative military types, or civil servants toadying to some bigshot back home who could get them off this rock and home to a nice cosy job where they don't have to daily walk past some poor bugger being given 100 lashes for not tipping his hat. Or possibly the poor bugger himself, later on in life when he's gotten off the chain gang and exploring the bush, imagination stunted by senseless beatings and starvation-level diet.

So, a road between Sydney and Bathurst is called "Sydney Road" at the Bathurst end, and "Bathurst Road" at the Sydney end. The big long road that heads north: "The Great Northern Road". The place where some bloke and his party has a nice breakfast while exploring the environs is called "Breakfast Creek". Places named after politicians abound, British Home Secretaries and Secretary of State for Colonies being the favourites: Sydney, Hawkesbury River, Melbourne, Goulburn, Hobart, Camden, Castlereagh River, Liverpool, Bathurst, Huskisson, Murray River, Newcastle to name a few. Or Governors of New South Wales: Hunter Valley and River, Brisbane, The Darling Downs, Fort Dennison, and Gippsland. Phillip, King and Bourke Streets all over the place.

Not William Bligh, though. He understandably doesn't get much of a look in.

Governor Lachlan Macquariejust named everything after himself.

A beach that happens to be 11.3 kilometres long is called Seven Mile Beach. Numerous Sandy Beaches, and numerous Shelly Beaches (also Shelley Beaches, though. How poetic). A beach that has interesting colours through the sand is Rainbow Beach. The beach where the local indigenous fellahs looked strong and manly is called Manly. And the big long reef that barriers the coast of Queensland (Queen's Land, eh?) from the Pacific Ocean is The Great Barrier Reef.

How many country towns in Australia have this sort of thing? Most streets out of town are named after the town that the road heads to. Church St has a church. The road out to the local stone quarry is called Quarry Road. There'll be a few pubs in town of course, The Commercial near the first bank, the Station Hotel in Station Street near the train station, a Union Hotel near the now non-existent Trade Union Hall, and an Exchange Hotel of course. Everyone has an Exchange, regardless of whether there really was an exchange there or not. There may be a golf course on Links Road. In Memorial Park in the centre of town, there'll be a War Memorial for one or more conflicts. In olden times, you'd probably go shopping in Market St. The athletics field will be located in Sportsground Road. There's a particularly curved road called Boomerang Road. Wharf Road, however, will only be in coastal towns, or those near large bodies of water.

It started even before there was European settlement here when Captain Cook was driving the Endeavour up the east coast. Just about everywhere he put in was named after someone or something obvious. All the way up past Cooktown to where he took possession of the east coast of Australia, on, ahem, Possession Island.

What about New South Wales itself. The place looks a little bit like South Wales (oh really?), and it's new. New. South Wales. Not the old one.

The naming nightmare continues on to this day. The place in Sydney where operas are performed: The Sydney Opera House. An iconic building, a laconic name.

There are many, many exceptions of course. Particularly anything with an Aboriginal name is cool, even if just because it doesn't sound so bland. Cattai, Kurrajong, Mulgoa, for instance, are places in and around Sydney named after the poor fellahs who don't live there anymore. I grew up in Milperra, "meeting place" in the local dialect. Interestingly many of the streets in Milperra are named after World War I battles and towns.

So my solution? Do the Ayers' Rock/Uluru thing. Grab a dictionary of the local Aboriginal dialect (there's a few to choose from), and start renaming things. Make the name be descriptive if possible. Wave Rock could be renamed the local equivalent of "Rock formation shaped like Bob Hawke's hair." The Opera House could be Eora for "Meeting Place of Large Loud Women." Blacktown could simply be renamed by the Dharug equivalent of "Town where the White people live."