It’s late for a weeknight, and I’m trying to get back home to Broadmeadows from Northcote in what looks like a straightforward fashion – tram towards Bundoora and then a Smart Bus via Keon Park. It being the 21st century, I figure I could do worse than check when the next Smart Bus is coming, so I call metlink. I want, I tell a man, to get a bus to Airport West. He retreats behind muzak and announcements for five minutes and then returns. ‘You want to go to Melbourne Airport?’
Melbourne has a rich and extraordinary history, and its nomenclature is a big part of that. Settlers and public servants and developers and others have all played a part in attaching names to places – be it a place name (or random word) from an indigenous language, the name of an old homestead, an evocation of someone’s birthplace in Britain, or a prominent politician. All of these are legitimate to varying degrees.
Where problems arise are in similarities. Ten years ago my wife and I lived in Mincha Street, West Brunswick. Manica Street is two blocks away; both streets run north from Brunswick Road near the turn off to the Tulla. The number of times that people – taxi drivers, party goers, other general visitors – came to our door hoping it was 6 Manica Street became ridiculous (and that doesn’t include the number of times we got 6 Manica Street’s mail). Presumably 6 Manica got our mail and visitors too. What was perhaps strangest was the disbelief – even disgust and dismay – directed our way by others’ mistakes.
Those two streets have been two blocks apart for a hundred and twenty years, and surely hundreds of thousands of visitors have been confused by the similarity for more than a century. It’s only a couple of minutes to go from the right place to the wrong place; the errant visitors might even have become better people through learning to read not just the first and last letter of a name but also the letters in between. But it is, essentially, a confusion that did not ever have to happen.
Once, we lived in Hartwell; a friend coming to visit one Saturday afternoon got on the Altona train rather than the Alamein, and lost two hours. Well, anyone can half read a sign. But the electrification of the line from Broadmeadows to Craigieburn has given Melbourne a new soundalike: now there is a Craigieburn line and a Cranbourne line, and it would be a stretch to find two stations that were so far apart on the suburban system, yet sounded so similar. I have to confess, I’ve been caught out a couple of times listening to half-garbled train announcements or rushing to get to the right platform at Flinders Street. So imagine you’re new to Melbourne: how easy would it be to go wrong?
Why, for that matter, would you even suspect there was a difference between a bus to Airport West and Melbourne Airport? Let’s not even get onto Hampton vs. Hampton Park, or the several hundred ‘Railway Parades’ and ‘Victoria Streets’ in our fair city.
In many ways, there are strong similarities between these problems and those of the English language generally. We are told by fans of English’s peccadilloes that it is a rich and diverse patchwork of historical accidents that connect us to Chaucer and the Bard, and to lose any component of our language stew is to lose our intellectual heritage; at the same time, we’re told that English is always changing and shifting, and that’s part of the pleasure – the important thing being that there be no hand in control of the changes. Similarly, local place names have local meanings (even if, like English, they are often second-hand, distorted, half-understood or non-understood meanings) and these are not to be messed with. Cranbourne and Craigieburn: two appropriated British place names of tenuous value, which we cannot tamper with because they have always been and must ever be.
I’m positing that place names are there to distinguish places from each other. Putting Manica two streets away from Mincha was a short-sighted decision. One of those names (or, to be absolutely fair, both of them) should be changed. Craigieburn and Cranbourne should be changed, too, or railway lines should be named for their orientation (South West Line, North West Line, or Hume Line, or whatever). Airport West should get a name that acknowledges, firstly, that when most Melbournians (much less most tourists) think of an Airport, they don’t think about Essendon Airport, and secondly, Airport West is a really bad name for a perfectly pleasant suburb. This is not interfering with a rich tapestry: it’s redefining it to make it richer. It’s also an opportunity to come up with new names that recognize women, indigenous people, and other concepts that did not previously get a look in when naming decisions were made in the past.
No doubt television news can hit the streets when this article is published and vox pop three random Airport Westers whose first response will be ‘Why change Airport West? Everyone knows where Airport West is.’ But then perhaps someone could give them a few minutes to consider all the times in the past where confusion has reigned. The next step of course would be to proactively come up with an option that didn’t just designate a place as west of one of Melbourne’s many Airports which no-one thinks of as ‘the airport’ anymore. It’s easy – it can even be lucrative, stripping out prejudice towards places perceived, for no good reason, as low status – but no-one wants to bite the bullet (or perhaps, seem pretentious). I wonder what Brian Mannix thinks?