I recently got into a conversation with members of my family about names. Somebody asked what names we would choose for ourselves. Amazingly it turned out that everybody had one, secretly tucked away.
The female choices were touchingly straightforward - Constance, Zoe, that sort of thing - which in each case was fairly close to the name that they already had. The men's choices were stranger, in some cases even disturbing. One person left the family traumatised by claiming with a straight face that he wished he were called Vivian. We're still trying to deal with that. Someone else said he would like to be known as Koolbreeze. As for myself, I slightly leaned towards Blind Lemon and Jelly Roll but settled on Leadbelly. Leadbelly French? No, just Leadbelly would suit me fine.
That was scary enough, but how would you react if a friend told you he was thinking of changing his name because he thought it would improve his life or that it would make people like him more? What you'd say, I hope, is: "Your problem isn't your name. Your problem is why you think changing your name will solve anything. You need to deal with your life, not your name." Except that I hope you'd put it more tactfully than that.
That's more or less what I thought when I heard about the campaign to find a new name for Heathrow Airport. Predictably, the two main candidates for London's mayor competed as to who could be more absurd on the subject. Ken Livingstone said it was a good idea because Heathrow was a "boring" name. He sounds like those confectioners who decided that "Opal Fruits" was dull and we'd buy more of them if they were called "Starburst". Jeffrey Archer said the name should be devised by polling Londoners. As it happens, Heathrow isn't even in London. What about polling the inhabitants of Windsor?
If there is any point in contributing to this pseudo-debate, I happen to think that there is something pleasing about the way that London's three big horrible airports have names that sound like idyllic tiny villages: Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted. You can almost hear the crack of leather on willow across the village green, almost smell that warm beer. It somehow fits in with an England in which, for the moment at least, the PM lives in 10 Downing Street rather than the Prime Ministerial Palace.
You might remember William Hague's endorsement of the campaign to change the name of Heathrow to "Diana, Princess of Wales, Airport". In the few weeks before everybody became bored with her, it looked as if we were going to be living in a country called Dianania. In America they weren't so lucky. After the assassination of President Kennedy, virtually everything that could be nailed down was rechristened something Kennedy and some nice old names were lost. Nasa came to its senses and discreetly changed Cape Kennedy back to Cape Canaveral, but the lovely name of Idlewild Airport went for ever.
Our ludicrous bureaucrats and rebranders talk about choosing names to reflect our heritage. The names already do. But it's a weirder heritage that has laws of its own. Because of frequency of use, old forms such as "London" and "parliament" can survive unchanged in ways that other words don't. Over time a nickname such as "Big Ben" can replace the official title. The Coliseum in Rome was originally called "Flavian's Amphitheatre". It probably got its current name not because of its size but because of the huge statue of Nero that happened to stand next to it.
But if there has to be a new name, then I think the choice should be given to one of those Japanese electronic companies who invent names for computer games that are meant to sound English but have something askew: Gameboy, Supermario. They would choose a name like Gosexy airport. That would be interesting. But then I think that all the money spent on domes, Derry Irvine's wallpaper and Jack Cunningham's new office should have gone on cycle paths so that children could get to school by bike. That would be a real monument.
PS Last week I wrote what was meant to be an unsentimental account of life in the country but everybody who read it seems to have assumed I'd had a breakdown and was moving back to London. It's not true, but I'm disturbed to discover that contentment came out sounding like depression. If I were called Leadbelly, maybe I would sound happier.