by Belle Waring on June 26, 2006

As a young girl I was an avid reader of Stephen Potter, especially the peerless Lifemanship. I also re-read Thackeray’s Book of Snobs many times, for the not particularly compelling reason that it was the only interesting book in my brother’s room at my grandmother’s house. (I say “not particularly compelling” in spite of the manifest excellence of the book, which is hilarious, but rather because we had a library on the second floor.) These two books did much to make me the cynical, frivolous person I am today. The thing is, I was convinced, at an early stage, that there really was a Lifesmanship organization at 681 Station Road, Yeovil, and it was a hazy dream of mine that I might travel to England and join at some time in the future. By the time I was 10 I think I was starting to suspect this was never to be (and, in my defense, I never imagined that I might actually meet, say Odoreida.) But I have always wondered, is there supposed to be something particularly funny about Yeovil? I gather that it’s a real place and everything. Is it a really boring place? A thrilling town full of laffs and hilarity? What?



Cryptic Ned 06.26.06 at 8:18 pm

I have a similar question about Huddersfield. I think all four or five times I’ve seen an English person refer to a backwards area filled with what Americans would consider hicks, it’s a reference to Huddersfield. Why is that?

Also, what’s the British equivalent of “hick”?


Ian 06.26.06 at 8:20 pm

I know what you’re saying about Lifemanship. The name Yeovil must have had a special poetry for Oxbridge absurdists in the 30s: the loony combination of letters, the earthiness of “yeo”, the echoes of weevil and evil… maybe you had to be there. For Oxbridge dropouts who moved onto Private Eye in the 70s, “Neasden” had a similarly hilarious poetry, and I can sort of understand that.


marcel 06.26.06 at 8:36 pm

Wow. I didn’t know anybody else knew about these books. My father had them in his shelf, right next to Lardner’s The Underhanded Serve, which may explain why my favorite was Gamesmanship.

I have only once before had a similar feeling of recognizing a kindred soul. My current house is on a river. Shortly before moving to in, I was describing it to an Indian colleague and mentioned that the river was at the bottom of the backyard, except in early spring, when I feared that the backyard was at the bottom of the river. He recognized the reference without missing a beat, and took it from there. Boy, did I feel one-upped!


Kieran Healy 06.26.06 at 8:43 pm

England is full of names that vaguely evoke the absurd: “Uxbridge”, “Crawley”, “Peckham”, “Frimley”, “Croydon.” And that’s not even looking at places with more than one word in their name: “Chipping Sodbury”, “Hemel Hempstead”, etc.


Peter Levine 06.26.06 at 9:07 pm

Lower Upnor (Kent) is always worth a mention.


ProfWombat 06.26.06 at 9:16 pm

Yang Yeovil was a character in Alfred Bester’s ‘The Stars My Destination’, which as I recall well postdated Potter…


Cryptic Ned 06.26.06 at 9:32 pm

America is even more full of absurd names, but their absurdity is less subtle because they are basically collections of vague syllables that once resembled an Indian word. I like taking people along the road that takes about 20 miles to go through Mocanaqua, Shickshinny, Wapwallopen and Nuangola.

The English absurd names are very similar to normal English names, but just slightly askew. Why is it that “Bruntingthorpe” sounds silly, but “Donington” doesn’t?


nameless 06.26.06 at 10:06 pm

A few place names from the Rand McNally map of Arkansas: Gin Bottle, 86, Toad Suck Ferry.
A friend of mine from Arkansas claimed that RM always inserted one phony name in every map as a way of protecting its copyright, the same way the OED inserted that phony word (forgotten what it was). The question is: which one of these, if any, is the ringer?


Kieran Healy 06.26.06 at 10:06 pm

Accrington Stanley.


Mary Kay 06.26.06 at 10:21 pm

Well, it isn’t Toad Suck; there really is such a place and they make a significant amount of their income selling t-shirts and other paraphenalia imprinted with their name. Among my UK friends Milton Keynes has always been the name of choice for silliness.



Cryptic Ned 06.26.06 at 10:24 pm

But what about Yeovil and Huddersfield?

What makes them archetypal?


M. Gordon 06.26.06 at 10:56 pm

Never having traveled outside of Little Rock when I was in Arkansas (for the junior olympics for fencing when I was 16, to be as pretensious as humanly possible about it), I have had to content myself with New Jersey for my lexicon of bizarre place names: Ho-Ho-Kus, Netcong, Mahwah, Tenafly, Metuchen, etc.


Laura 06.26.06 at 11:00 pm

Same principle that Merchant & Gervais followed when they set The Office in Slough.

This is the third post on Stephen Potter stuff I’ve read today. One at The Valve, and another at Boring Like a Drill.

Whither the Carnival of Lifemanship?


Cryptic Ned 06.26.06 at 11:44 pm

The funny thing about the bizarre place names in New Jersey is that they all appear, one after the other, right when you’re approaching New York City from route 80.

Rockaway, Parsippany, Nutley, Hackensack, Teaneck, Passaic, Secaucus, Weequahic, Weehawken, Hoboken, they’re all right there. It contributes to the feeling that NYC is in a forbidden alien landscape different from the rest of the country.


joe 06.27.06 at 12:24 am

re 9 above – Accrington Stanley is the name of their local soccer team.
Stayed once in a B and B at Piddle Hinton, between Upper Piddle Hinton and Lower Piddle Hinton.


Delicious Pundit 06.27.06 at 12:38 am

Out here in Hollywood, in the comedy business, even, I try to get people hooked on the genius of Stephen Potter, but no takers, really, just polite smiles. I don’t care. They are a cure for the blues, and they also enable one to display the proper Lifeman attitude at the valet, when your ’93 Saturn drives up amidst the Beemers.

Confidential to Belle: do you Harvard or Edinburgh? And why the silence of Yale?


Chris Bertram 06.27.06 at 2:11 am

Yeovil isn’t that far from Bristol. Its fame these days stems mainly from it having being the seat of Liberal Democrat former leader, shagmeister and viceroy of Bosnia, Paddy Pantsdown.


chris y 06.27.06 at 2:23 am

But what about Yeovil and Huddersfield?

I think the word here is “dreary”. In quite different ways, because Yeovil was a boring light industrial town and Huddersfield was a soul sucking wool manufacturing mill town, but both of them would traditionally have carried the resonance of “nothing to do here”, and of being good places to avoid.

I don’t know what’s happening in Yeovil these days, but Huddersfield has become a fantastically posh dormitory for Leeds, and in the last fifteen years has generally been regarded as a good address.


aquinas 06.27.06 at 2:42 am

Great Fryup (N Yorks) and Wetwang (E Yorks).


derek 06.27.06 at 2:46 am

Yeovil and Huddersfield aren’t special; I just think you’ve been sensitized by exposure to those names and you see them everywhere. I doubt they’re even in the top five English place names used for comedy.

(and since Mr. Healy’s anglophobia lost its charm about seven World Cup blog posts ago, I’ll point out to him that *all* the vaguely absurd English place names would be pushed out of the top five, in any “British Isles” league, by Irish ones)

Similarly, I obsessed on sightings of “Yonkers” in New York for a while, until I realized that Americans had plenty more places they could use to get a laugh. I think it was Harlan Ellison who, when asked where science fiction writers got their ideas from, replied “a post box in Schenectady”. Why Schenectady?

The most comic part of the address you quote, to me, is the idea that a “Station Road” in Yeovil could have close to seven hundred addresses on it. “Station Roads” in the UK are typically approach roads from the nearest substantial road to the front of the station. Since the Victorian railway builders strove mightily to locate their stations as close to a busy area as they could, such roads tend to be short enough that few get even close to three digits in the addresses.

PS in Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, pretty much all of the main characters, apart from the principal character, are named after English or Welsh place names: Yeovil, Wednesbury, Sheffield, Presteign…


dave heasman 06.27.06 at 2:51 am

“I don’t know what’s happening in Yeovil these days”

Since its glory day in 1949 (?) beating Arsenal in a cup match, Yeovil is now the only full-time professional football team in Somerset. In Leagure 1 (formerly Division III) this coming season.
Accrington Stanley isn’t the name of a town, it’s the name of a football team. Back from the dead to League 2 (formerly division IV).


Chris Williams 06.27.06 at 5:02 am

Yeovil is a very ordinary place distinguished for me only because my mum was born there. Shortly afterwards, it was attacked by the Luftwaffe, but I don’t think there was any connection.

The best Bester name in TSMD is Dagenham, largely because the place itself is utterly mundane.


chris y 06.27.06 at 5:27 am

Americans are often unreasonably fond of Dorking. Myself, I prefer Great Snoring.


Chris Bertram 06.27.06 at 5:34 am

Nempnett Thrubwell


Martin 06.27.06 at 5:34 am

Staines in Middlesex (although the spoilsports may have moved it into Surrey) is the Best. Placename. Ever.

I think the British English equivalent to hick (in Southern England anyway) would be yokel or bumpkin maybe? Although I think those terms are used in the US too I can’t think of a better UK equivalent.


chris y 06.27.06 at 6:02 am

Rockaway, Parsippany, Nutley, Hackensack, Teaneck, Passaic, Secaucus, Weequahic, Weehawken, Hoboken, they’re all right there.

But is there really a Salt Pork, West Virginia?


dearieme 06.27.06 at 6:18 am

Miss Victoria Wood: “Scotland, where everywhere is spelled ‘Ecclefechan’ and pronounced ‘Kirkcudbright’.
(Americans may care to guess how that latter is pronounced.)


dearieme 06.27.06 at 6:18 am

Miss Victoria Wood: “Scotland, where everywhere is spelled ‘Ecclefechan’ and pronounced ‘Kirkcudbright’.
(Americans may care to guess how that latter is pronounced.)


Chris Williams 06.27.06 at 6:39 am

Nasty (home of the Nasty Infants School)
Ugley (home of the Ugley Women’s Institute)
Dangerous Corner – it’s near Wigan.


an 06.27.06 at 6:42 am

Steeple Bumpstead south of Cambridge.

Gilbert & Sullivan used the name “Basingstoke” as a watchword for dull respectability–in Ruddigore there is a character prone to fits of madness, whose oncoming hysteria can be forestalled by saying “Basingstoke!” in a soothing yet reproachful voice.

A bit like Milton Keynes, I’d say.


SamChevre 06.27.06 at 7:14 am

The USA, as mentioned above, has no room to mock. Named places I’ve actually been in include:
Mud Lick
Marrowbone (a muddling of Marie-la-bonne)
King and Queen


Edis 06.27.06 at 7:20 am

Oh come along, Milton Keynes is a great place! Amongst other things it is planting so many trees in urban areas it is the biggest forestry plantation project in the UK.

Great to find someone else who knows about Stephen Potter’s books. I lost all my copies in some move or other decades ago, but fond memories… Yeovil has some interesting bits and pieces in it, including the village of East Coker (where I met the future mother of my son)celebrated in ‘Four Quartets’.


jaywalker 06.27.06 at 7:25 am

Derek: “… who, when asked where science fiction writers got their ideas from, replied “a post box in Schenectady”. Why Schenectady?”

Commonly called the “Wizard of Menlo Park” (now Edison NJ), Thomas Edison moved his Edison Machine Works to Schenectady in 1887. It is also the home of General Electric. ( )

Chickamauga, Bay of Pigs and Waterloo. Accidents in history carve strange places in our memory.


Kieran Healy 06.27.06 at 7:28 am

re 9 above – Accrington Stanley is the name of their local soccer team.

No, no, no. You’re supposed to say, “Accrington Stanlely? Who’re they?”


harry b 06.27.06 at 7:38 am

Potter got a new lease of life in the 70s when the BBC did a TV series out of his books. It might be worth bugging them for a DVD release if they haven’t a)lost or b)taped over the video masters, the vandals.


Cryptic Ned 06.27.06 at 8:10 am

Basingstoke in Westphalia?


Matt McIrvin 06.27.06 at 8:25 am

Fry and Laurie had a lot of fun with Uttoxeter. Listening with my American ears, I imagined the name was spelled “Eutoxida”, which would have been even better.


Matt McIrvin 06.27.06 at 8:32 am

Why Schenectady?

The old rule of comedy: K sounds are funny.

The most comic part of the address you quote, to me, is the idea that a “Station Road” in Yeovil could have close to seven hundred addresses on it.

That wouldn’t even have registered for me, in part because street addresses in some places in the US are assigned according to a large grid, and will either skip many numbers here and there, start in the tens of thousands, or both.


Matt McIrvin 06.27.06 at 8:36 am

The New York area also has Dutch-derived names such as the celebrated Fishkill.

But my favorite New Jersey name is always Cheesequake State Park.


Daniel 06.27.06 at 9:22 am

Keynsham … I remember Keynsham.


Tom 06.27.06 at 9:25 am

Passing Cheesequake State Park on the Garden State, I always think of Prince saying, “Shut up, already — damn!”

Isn’t there a Ragnarauk on Long Island?


jamie 06.27.06 at 9:45 am

In terms of comic potential, I believe my own part of Manchester – Crumpsall – still awaits discovery, so I’m glad to offer it to an erudite international audience. Make of it what you will.


tianyi 06.27.06 at 9:53 am

Slough is another town associated with dreariness – especially after The Office was set there. Gervais uses the names of comically dreary towns to good effect. Brent on being fired:

“I don’t look upon this like it’s the end, I look upon it like it’s moving on, you know. It’s almost like my work here’s done. I can’t imagine Jesus going ‘Oh, I’ve told a few people in Bethlehem I’m the son of God, can I just stay here with Mum and Dad now?’ No. You gotta move on. You gotta spread the word. You gotta go to Nazareth, please. And that’s, very much like… me. My world does not end within these four walls, Slough’s a big place. And when I’ve finished with Slough, there’s Reading, Aldershot, Bracknell, you know I’ve got to… Didcott, Yately. You know. My… Winersh, Taplow.”

Oh, and for funny names you can’t beat Marsh Gibbon in Buckinghamshire.


John Kozak 06.27.06 at 10:04 am

School for Scoundrels is based on the Lifemanship books. I don’t think it really catches their spirit – virtue is finally rewarded – but it’s quite watchable.

Favourite placenames: I like the way that Shepreth and Meldreth make the train journey to Cambridge seem like a trek through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.


dearieme 06.27.06 at 10:06 am

In Cambridgeshire, the hamlet of Six Mile Bottom.

(P.S. It lies in the parishes of Little Wilbraham, Bottisham, Brinkley, Carlton, Swaffham Bulbeck, Westerley Waterless, and Weston Colville.)


chris y 06.27.06 at 10:09 am

Jamie, come on now. Mike Harding? The 81 to Crumpsall Green? I think he recorded it in about 1972.


LowLife 06.27.06 at 10:15 am

I don’t know if anywheres else gives Lick as part of a place name but part of the appeal of famed basketballer Larry Bird must be that he was from French Lick, Indiana. I personally delight in signs noting the proximity of Beaver Lick and Big Bone Lick when transversing my mother’s home state of Kentucky. (A lick being a natural occurrance of exposed salt giving animals a chance to load up on the substance in lieu of potato chips).


jim 06.27.06 at 12:28 pm

I think I drove past Yeovil, once.


jamie 06.27.06 at 1:15 pm

Ah yeah, I’d fogotten about Mike Harding. But then again, pretty much everyone else seems to have as well.


Al Gunn 06.27.06 at 1:26 pm

re 34 above: Exactly!

I also wonder what the British translation of “hick” is?

Chav does not seem right. Pikey? Or Bumpkin? Or perhaps hicks are unique to America.

Anyway, may I quote Betjeman? It seems faintly topical.

Alright, I’ll just post a link…


matt d 06.27.06 at 1:35 pm

Canada has Moose Factory, Moose Jaw, and what I’m confident is the winner here:
Dildo, Newfoundland.


Cryptic Ned 06.27.06 at 2:17 pm

Chav does not seem right. Pikey? Or Bumpkin? Or perhaps hicks are unique to America.

I thought “Pikey” was specific for the gypies or Irish Traveler groups, although the movie “Snatch” may have misled me on this.


Chris Williams 06.27.06 at 3:33 pm

Hick? You’re looking for ‘yokel’. The Irishism ‘culchie’ works as well, but has less recognition in most of Ukania.

Not only have we forgotten about Mike Harding, we live in culture where nobody has thought to revive the 1970s folk club scene in general. This may or may not be a good thing.


serial catowner 06.27.06 at 5:31 pm

When you think about it, the television series Avengers has a lot of Harry Potter in it. Stead is always driving off to Lower Snicclesfeld in a very Stephen Potter automobile.

The funny thing about American placenames is hearing the tourists try to pronounce them. To a local, it seems inexplicable that anyone could mangle a simple name like ‘Walla Walla’. But we give a modest handicap for ‘Puyallup’.


Cryptic Ned 06.27.06 at 5:32 pm

I guess I have an inaccurate idea of the cultural signifieds swirling around the concept of Huddersfield.

I would also ask why Merthyr Tydfil is the butt of jokes, but I think every derogatory reference I’ve seen was from one person, so that might also not be a justified question.


Nabakov 06.28.06 at 4:51 am

This is not what the people on the ground were saying when I was in Munster Lager.


r. clayton 06.28.06 at 12:01 pm

The machine to my left is called West Runton. I got the name from a New Yorker article about a woman who wrote bigoted (or perhaps just chauvinist) travel books. “West Runton” sounds funny (or perhaps just amusing, particularly if you lean on “Runt”), but I like the way it rolls around in my mouth when I say it.


s. kramer 06.28.06 at 12:30 pm

I’m pretty sure that Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (a timid spinster who ends up covorting with Satan & becoming a witch) in the book of the same name lives in Yeovil. More recently, I seem to recall it as the hometown of Polly Jean Harvey. Combined, those two things have made me curious about the place, and it’s strange spelling. Anyone know the derrivation?


Chris Williams 06.28.06 at 5:26 pm

‘Yeo’ means ‘river’.


vivian 06.28.06 at 6:43 pm

Mianus, Connecticut?


Cala 06.28.06 at 8:43 pm

Medicine Hat, Alberta is one of my favorite town names (everyone refers to it as the Hat) as is Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.


Chris 06.29.06 at 12:57 am

Let us not overlook, either, Muir & Norden’s
Balham, gateway to the south
(“Time has passed by old Balham. So shall we.”)
and Jenning’s original dictionary of English placenames
(“Ilkely: having large ankles”)
later ripped off by The Meaning of Liff.

One of the joys of returning to Potter in later life is discovering the dirty jokes – having T. Driberg, for example, the source of various usages of ‘cottaging’.

There are in the village of Erith
Men who nobody seeth or heareth;
And there is by the marge
Of the river a barge
That nobody roweth or steereth.

and of course the at first surreal
“I come from Hampton Wick, so I’m used to innuendo.”
From whence came the Goon’s Major Hugh Jamtin.


iain 06.29.06 at 4:01 am

Strange that no one has mentioned Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter yet, or Horton-cum-Studley.

The closest British term for ‘hick’ is ‘teuchter’, but even in Scotland it’s falling out of use.


Richard 06.29.06 at 10:12 pm

If you hadn’t mentioned the Slaughters, I would have. I’ve also always been fond of Braughton-under-Water, and Upton Downs.
Not so far from Yeovil, Ottery St. Mary may not be totally absurd, but it still looks pretty funny when you’re driving past it late at night. I guess Wookey Hole was hardly funny at all before 1977. Woolfardisworthy, in North Devon, has almost totally given up on its wilfull spelling and gone with the more phonetic Woolsery, mostly, I think, because the cramped roads that lead to it just don’t have room for the longer name to be put on signs.

I myself come from Perranarworthal (no longer hyphenated, alas) so I can’t talk much. Since I moved to the US I’ve had to deal with Horseheads and Painted Post, but my US favourite is Truth or Consequences, charmingly close to Elephant Butte, New Mexico.

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