Spurred by Boaty McBoatface, Ian Jack devoted his Saturday Guardian column to the naming of things:
The naming habit probably reached its zenith between 1920 and 1950, when the four big railway companies produced thousands of steam locomotives that carried brass nameplates, variously honouring army regiments, public schools, battleships, Derby winners, famous shipping lines, country houses, aristocrats, remote colonies, old kings, young princesses and holders of the Victoria Cross.
No other railway system in the world named nearly as high a proportion of its engines. The brass plates represented what seemed most solid, singular and enduring about British life – and also what was most conservative.
New ways of travel shrank the tradition of individualising the means of transport. The Spirit of Saint Louis took Charles Lindberg across the Atlantic; the Enola Gray dropped the bomb on Hiroshima – but how many other aircraft are remembered by a name rather than a flight number? The Lusitania sank, flight MH370 vanished, and memory says it was Pan Am 103 that blew up over Lockerbie, rather than a 747 called Clipper Maid of the Seas.
As to trains, I think I’ve seen one called Penny the Pendolino. Others are named after Thunderbird puppets – Virgil Tracy, Brains, Parker. There’s a lot to be said for plain numbers.This afternoon I came home from Leicester aboard a train called 'Invest in Nottingham'. He has a point.
I was also reminded of Nicholas Whittaker's Platform Souls - a book that, in a just world, would have done for trainspotting what Fever Pitch did for football.
There he wrote about seeing his first Great Western steam locomotive, Freshford Manor, on the line beside Dudley Zoo:
I underlined the number in my ABC Combine as soon as I got home, and for weeks it was my proudest exhibit. I'd sit staring at it for ages, but the more I looked, the more taunted I felt by its uniqueness; one thin red line in an otherwise unused section of the book.
What about all those other GWR locomotives with such quintessential English names: Witherstock Hall, Tudor Grange, Cadbury Castle, Hinton Manor? To the bookish child that I was, it conjoured up a weird and wonderful England populated by Agatha Christie colonels, Wodehouse aunts and Elizabethan plotters.