Early street names were practical. In medieval England, names developed gradually, drawn from a nearby tree or river, the farm at the end of the road, the inn on the corner. Streets might be named for what happened there—Gropecunt Lane, for example—but also what you could find—the butcher, the blacksmith, the produce market. Other streets were helpfully named for where they led to—take the London Road to London, for example. Street names became official only after long use and the rise of street signs. Unsurprisingly, dull names like Church Street, Mill Lane, and Station Road are still among the most common street names in England.
And yet this haphazard approach also bequeathed us Britain’s most ear-pleasing names. Reading the streets of English towns and cities is a delightful exercise in time travel. In London, names like Honey Lane, Bread Street and Poultry conjure the food markets that once lived there. Fish Street Hill, where a thriving fish market once stood, was once called New Fish Market to avoid confusion with Old Fish Street, the site of another market. Pudding Lane, where the great Fire of London began in 1666, probably referred not to a sweet dessert, but to animal guts, or “offal pudding.”
From my window, I can see a white mulberry, a tree I’m fascinated by—one of the reasons I decided to live where I live. The mulberry is a generous plant—all spring and all summer it offers dozens of avian families its sweet and healthful fruits. Right now, the mulberry hasn’t got back its leaves, and so I see a stretch of quiet street, rarely traversed by people on their way to the park. The weather in Wrocław is almost summery: a blinding sun, blue sky, clean air. Today, as I was walking my dog, I saw two magpies chasing an owl from their nest. At a remove of just a couple of feet, the owl and I gazed into each other’s eyes. Animals, too, seem to be waiting expectantly, wondering what’s going to happen next.
No contemporary writer I know of conveys desire better than Garth Greenwell. His second book of fiction, Cleanness, is an audacious wonder, whose nine stories of intensely textured personal interactions form an unusually hard to define novelistic whole. The book is an argument against convention, both structurally and on the character level—the melding of forms makes Cleanness feel both unique and familiar as it explores the boundaries of longing and the turbulence of love.
Trollope is sometimes considered a niche author for greying Anglophiles. He wrote about quintessentially British institutions such as the Houses of Parliament and the Church of England. He lived in the high Victorian era when women and servants knew their places and men wore gigantic beards. Don’t be put off: his appeal transcends his time and class. The lead singer of the Pet Shop Boys, Neil Tennant, wrote the song “Can You Forgive Her?” after reading Trollope’s novel of the same name.
O’Connell’s timing was either a bit premature or just right. In the last three months a global pandemic has already killed tens of thousands, disrupted fragile supply chains and laid bare which governments will quickly mobilize to save lives and which governments won’t. What was once considered a doomsday scenario is beginning to look like an actual situation.
But “Notes From an Apocalypse” isn’t meant to be a response to any particular event; it’s an exploration of a sensibility. O’Connell says his book was motivated by his own “tendency toward the eschatological.” He knows that this inclination is very old; upheaval and uncertainty have always given rise to cataclysmic thoughts. Increased access to information hasn’t abated the suspicion that something is going awry — if anything, we’re more informed than ever about the many forces that could do us in. “What if now it’s especially the end of the world,” O’Connell writes, “by which I mean even more the end of the world?”
Always the same clutch
of bread feathers, wing,
water before crime