Familiar Names in the Oddest Places
It is quite shocking, really. I was convinced that I lived in the only Glasgow in the world.
I was sure, in fact, that I had looked it up in my Reader's Digest Great World Atlas years ago so that when I wrote newspaper articles it seemed clear that only the single word GLASGOW was needed as the dateline at the top (the "dateline" traditionally indicated the date as well as the place that a story originated, but nowadays the place alone seems sufficient). I convinced myself that the only Glasgow was the Glasgow in Scotland.
I was wrong.
It was the man at UPS who, on the phone this morning, put me straight. He has a computer on which (apparently) every named place within the solar system that might receive a UPS package is listed.
I was endeavoring to arrange the pick-up of an envelope going from Glasgow, Scotland, to Boston.
"Boston, USA or Boston, Lincolnshire?" he inquired. "There are two, you know."
As it happens, I do know that.
When I was at school, one of the strange educational exertions to which we were subjected was to memorize all of the black-and-white plates in a book about English parish churches. Not only the names of the churches, but their location, approximate date, and, above all, their style - whether they were Early English or Anglo-Saxon, Norman or Decorated. It was tremendous training for ... well, for recognizing the style of parish churches in later life.
One of the plates in this book showed a church with an exaggeratedly tall West tower known as "the stump" - St. Botolph's Church at Boston, Lincolnshire.
Boston, Mass., derived its name from the Lincolnshire town because many of the Pilgrims came from there or nearby.
So my reply to the UPS man's inquiry was "The big Boston." Then I added: "At least there's only one Glasgow."
"Oh, no, no," he said, "I don't think so."
"I'm sure I looked it up one time."
"Hold on a moment," he said. You could tell his computer was hard at work. "Just as I thought," he said. "There are six in the United States: in Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. I have the ZIP Codes, if you like."
"Well, I never. But I bet there's only one Bingley, then? That's where I'm from."
He checked Bingley, and I felt that, after all, the world was a more original place than I was beginning to suspect. He affirmed that the Yorkshire town's name is unique. Then he looked up his own village - unfortunately, I didn't note its rather charming name - and he triumphantly discovered that it, too, was the only one of its kind.
"But Plymouth," he said, "there are dozens of Plymouths all over the States."
After he signed off, I looked up Plymouth in my atlas: There was the English one, and five USA sound-alikes, though he'd had many more on his list. Then I looked up Glasgow and found that one of the American versions was in fact mentioned by those people from Pleasantville (N.Y.). How had I missed it before? It was the one in Kentucky. Somehow, I am rather taken with the notion of a Glasgow in Kentucky.
I started to wonder what other British place-names might have occurred to the settlers as they surged across the continent and searched their memories for suitable nomenclature. Or did they take telephone directories from the Old World along? I dare to hazard that nobody thought of Willoughby Waterless or Chewton Mendip or Sticklepath? (All - honestly - genuine English places.)
Sometimes odd events gather and form an ad hoc coherence, and so it was today. Looking for a book on the other side of the study, I spotted a padded envelope in a pile of papers. It aroused my conscience. In this envelope, so long ago that I am embarrassed to confess it, arrived a delightful little volume about Japanese printmaker Torii Kiyonaga. The kind sender of this gift deserved far quicker thanks from me than I had dispatched, because I was very tickled with the surprise book and the delightful letter with it. But my thanks had been dilatory, to say the least.
So today I phoned her and we had a good chat.
I hope she won't mind my mentioning that she lives in Kennebunk, Maine. The man at Telephone Enquiries who had found her number was a Northern Englishman, and he pronounced "Kennebunk" in an accent that only a Northern Englishman can do with proper punch.
I imitated him for the benefit of my friend the book-sender. And then she told me about the sign you encounter as you enter her hometown. It reads:
KENNEBUNK: THE ONLY VILLAGE IN THE WORLD SO NAMED.