I had been the first person to settle on a plot of land, a lovely little vale in the Wiltshire countryside in between Bath and Chippenham around sixty years ago. Back then I was seventeen. My father had always wanted me to inherit his farm and continue the tradition of working and toiling his land without any respite, just like many of my forefathers had done, but I wasn’t interested. I had an unquenchable thirst to work relentlessly on something I could call mine, something I could say I’d developed from nothing, a farm of my own or even a settlement, a village maybe. That’s what I did.
My father disowned me over the decision. He had said to me the night before I left that I’d been brainwashed by the fancies of literature. He had given me Knut Hamsun’s The Growth of the Soil to read as a fourteen year old. The story of Isak, a man, like him that had worked tirelessly on a farm and had accidentally developed it into quite a lucrative little empire, however the money had never phased him, all he wanted to do was work his land and provide a decent life for his family.
I evidently interpreted the story differently to how my father had, and indeed how he subsequently thought I’d read into the narrative. I told him I’d grow up to be a successful landowner, he merely cursed at the suggestion and told me to “never darken his doors again.” One morning in the early hours I packed a few things up, some clothes, some food and a small array of handheld tools and I crept out whilst everybody was sleeping. My father and I never spoke to each other again.
I walked for miles, until eventually I discovered a small vale, it was beautiful, it was bare, it was green and its mid-summer colour was emphasised by the blinding sun that was uncontaminated by the constriction of any cloud cover. It was a glorious day. I decided that that would be my own little steady rolling slope of purpose and perfection. Initially I built myself a hut; I chopped down trees and purchased corrugated metal, screws and roofing tiles from the nearby town of Corsham. When that was complete, I worked and worked and worked the land, cultivating, sowing seeds, rearing cattle for a hefty price, but keeping a couple aside for milk and cheese and constantly visiting places like Box, Neston, Easton and Notton to sell my wares. I would always consider who had called these places these ridiculous names.
My labour continued for decades, practically unhindered, apart from the time I had to pay eight hundred pounds to the authorities for land rights. That was a minor drop in the ocean however considering what I have now, sixty years on, when my family and I look down from the top of the subtle vale and see a conglomeration of abodes and shops that make up a quaint little village comprising three hundred residents. And what’s more, it’s all mine.
As always silly beaurocracy reared its ugly head and got in the way. I had learnt that you couldn’t just name a place and that was final, instead you had to attend a kind of raffle with other landowners to determine what your land would be called. For sixty years of steady ramification of construction and small time development and, of course working the land I had always put the naming of the village on the back-burner, so despite it being a sizable village, it had no name.
So today I feel nervous. I travelled here to Bristol last night and stayed in a nice hotel (I’ve got the money to bed down in lavish accommodation). Despite the nerves I had a great nights sleep, I was overtaken by a red hot tiredness that one can only really experience in a smart hotel. Despite this I’m missing the village already. I received a letter last week giving me information about the function and the seven other participants who will be relying on a bowler hat, a screwed up piece of paper and pure chance to determine the name for their settlement. The sun isn’t out; the sky’s bruised so that only adds to my unease. I always have had a propitious character.
I walk in to a small room at the council offices. I recognise two fellow landowners, Mark and Ben; we smile at each other and I sit down. My mouth is dry, my legs feel weak. At the head of the table is a bald guy, the official, the referee, the chief.
‘Are you Albert Crest?’ he says.
I nod, swallowing no saliva.
‘Alright, we can begin,’ he says, continuing, ‘Now then I take it you all received the letter informing you of the rules. Just to be on the safe side, I’ll re-cap. You will take it in turns to pick a name out of the hat, whatever name you get will be the name of your place. I will then write it down and it will be official. It will be sent to London and installed on the national register. Is that clear?’
He continues, ‘Just to make it fair, I have your names in this hat next to me. I’ll pick a name out each time, and whoever’s name I chose will then pick a place name.’
‘Here, here,’ Ben mumbles.
‘We’ll begin.’ The chief enthusiastically buries his hand in the hat of people names, shuffles about a bit as if he’s felt something untoward and then picks out a piece of paper, unravels it, looks up and recites the name, ‘Jake Benedict.’
Jake, a rotund man in his fifties nervously gets out of his chair and quickly picks out a screwed up piece of paper, he straightens it out and shakes his head, despondently clutching the table. ‘Fuck’s sake, Thrushers Bush. Thrushers bastard Bush.’
A couple of giggles ensue and the chief says, ‘less of your language.’ He then writes it down in his big book.
Jake sits back, looking gutted. I realise for the first time where all the crap place names come from.
‘Right next, Sid Silvestre.’
For the next four people the place names are just as bad, Bishops Itchington, Ugley Green, Farfside and Cacklock. It’s not a good day. On and on the names are called out, it looks like my name will be one of the last. Ben gets called. He bites his nails and then reaches for the hat.
‘Yes, Woodstock.’ He nods his head, scanning the room.
And then the chief calls out my name. I furtively hover above the hat and pick out a slip of paper; I feel the sweat gather heavily on my brow as everybody looks over, intrigued as to the next name to be confirmed. I look at it; all feeling is drained from my every limb. I sit down, putting my hand over my mouth, shaking my head, reluctant to speak, reluctant to confirm what my village will go down as in The Ordnance Survey Map of Great Britain.
‘I don’t believe it... Gastard.’
‘Is it bad?’ Mark says, still worried because he’s yet to be called out. ‘What is it Albert?’
I adroitly turn my head and snap, ‘I’ve just said it, Mark. Gastard.’
The chief writes it down, I notice a few smiles. My blood begins to boil. Mark’s the last to get called out. I pray to the good lord he gets a shit name. He takes out the one remaining slip of paper, opens it, his face showing no emotion, his face like ductile iron. I look over to him.
‘What did you get?’
He lifts his head, ‘Hey?’
‘What have you got?’
‘Come on, don’t fuck about, you know what I’m getting at. What place name did you get?’
‘I don’t want to say Albert, it’s not good.’
‘Just tell us.’ Everybody agrees, eager to know what the last remaining place name is.
Mark attempts to stall time by taking a sip of his drink; I snatch the piece of paper from him. My eyes widen. ‘You fucker. Little London?’
He unconvincingly screws his face up and nods slightly, ‘Bad isn’t it?’
‘Don’t even start, yeah, don’t you dare even start.’
The chief writes it down, I look over at Mark:
‘I don’t believe it Mark, what’s your settlement, about four houses, it isn’t even a village, it’s an Hamlet and you get a name like that and I have to go back to my village of three hundred people and tell ‘em it’s called Gastard. I’m going to get lynched.’
Jake, the rotund man pipes up, ‘What about me? My settlement’s nearer a thousand and it’s called Thrushers Bush.’
I start up again, ignoring Jake’s comment, ‘Sixty years, man and boy I’ve toiled on the land, building, working every hour God sends, and for what? For it to be called Gastard.’
I get up and leave in a huff, I’m in a daze, no, it isn’t even a daze, it’s worse than that, it’s a nightmare. I walk out onto the streets, clutching with resentment the slip of paper fate evidently handed me. Sixty years I’d worked on that small pocket of rural England and now this. I feel cheated and I start crying, wondering whether I can ever bring myself to return to the village of Gastard.