THE world watches and holds its breath, the cliched news reports told us last week, as if a 94 year-old man having health difficulties should be treated with some degree of shock. Nelson Mandela is perhaps the world’s most iconic figure but the coverage of his recent health has been a smidgeon nauseating. A share of the audience must have been screaming: Let the guy be ill in peace.
Outside the hospital, a pack of reporters waited and waited, presumably some of them hoping that if the news was bad, they could at least show the world how great they were at journalism by being the first to tweet the official announcement. That is how worth in journalism, after all, is rated now isn’t it? Being fastest by a couple of a hundredths of a second and having six figures on the follower clock? Let’s hope he keeps them waiting for a long time yet.
In Camden, which he visited in 2003 to unveil a plaque to Joe Slovo and Ruth First, a tribute to Mandela has already been created in his honour. There is a street in Camden Town named after him. It’s not a spectacular boulevard, but it’s there, behind Royal College Street.
In the 1980s, Labour councillor Hugh Bayley, now a Labour MP in York, campaigned hard for it to get a new name in his honour. He believed the old name Selous Street had referred to Frederick Selous, the colonialist friend of Cecil Rhodes, and this gave an extra symbolism.
In truth, the street had been originally christened after Camden Town painter Henry Selous. And, boy, did The Spectator get the hump about it. Bayley was accused of indulging an obsession.
Admirably, the Speccie last week pushed all of its archives online and you can spend hours and hours looking through articles dating back to the 19th century. Get to the bit about Camden Council changing Selous Street to Mandela Street and you find Alexander Chancellor holding fort, annoyed by what he saw as a growing trend to name everything after Mandela.
He wrote in 1983 that there was a need to “redress the wrong done by Camden to the family of Selous“.
The easiest way of solving this, Chancellor suggested, was to rename Carnaby Street, which he dismissed as a place “people by denim-clad Germans and guitar strumming Frenchmen buying Union Jacks” after the wronged Selous.
His Spectator notepad column said: “The air is full of amplified pop music, which would doubtless be found particularly distressing by the man after whom the street is named — the composer William Carnaby (1772-1839). Carnaby does not seem to have been much of a composer. The street was presumably named after him because he was organist round the corner at the Hanover Chapel in Regent Street. His claim to a permanent memorial in London, while obviously greater than that of Nelson Mandela, would appear to be less powerful than that of Henry Selous, the Victorian painter displaced by Mandela in Camden; for the Selous family has been prominent in Camden for generations.”
“So I suggest that Carnaby Street is renamed Selous Street. There is a precedent for changing the name of a street which has particularly disagreeable connotations. A change of name would assist the change of image. And it could also help to redress the wrong done by Camden to the family of Selous.”
The air in Carnaby Street is still filled with amplified pop music, but with the passing of time I doubt The Spectator would share the same irritated mood today at the council’s decision to show a bit of recognition for Mandela in Camden Town.