Howard Croft column: Re-writing the past in search of Maid Marian

Belfast City Airport was renamed in honour of football George Best.
Belfast City Airport was renamed in honour of football George Best.

I have always approved of our custom of naming airports and other facilities in a way intended to be of practical value to the public. Other countries, notably the US, tend to name them after people, often while they are still alive. Having lived in America for several years, and before that been a frequent visitor using internal flights, I have a reasonable knowledge of airports, but I have no idea where George Bush Airport is. With Leeds-Bradford you know where you are, even if you might not know where you are going.

Of course, our customs are changing. We now have George Best Airport (Belfast) in honour of a gifted football player who died of alcoholic liver disease and John Lennon Airport (Liverpool) in recognition of a pop star. Both dead, of course, which is probably wise. But who knows, with the current enthusiasm on the part of the criminal justice system for pursuing deceased people for crimes and misdemeanours allegedly committed during their lives (non-recent crimes as they are called) we could find ourselves embarrassed.

The best policy, or second best after naming by city or town, is the one pursued in what is now called, absurdly, South Yorkshire. What by rights should be called Doncaster Airport is actually known as Robin Hood Airport. Robin Hood, like Edward Heath and others, is not here to defend himself and proof would be hard to come by, but he has the additional advantage in that it is by no means certain that he actually existed. This does not of course mean that prosecutors and zealous police officers are not toiling in historical archives in an attempt to discover how old (that is, how young) Maid Marian was when she got mixed up with Robin Hood. She too may not have existed either, but if she was 15 they may go after poor old Robin. We should bear in mind, however, that in some accounts she is alleged to have been a cross-dresser, which may colour the official view.

This is all very troubling and it reminds me of the difficulty the BBC had when they commissioned and published a history of Desert Island Discs. The book contains a list of all the guests who have ever appeared on the programme, almost 3,000 of them at the time, and the BBC suits discovered to their dismay that Gary Glitter was on the list. Glitter’s real name was Paul Gadd, but he also went by Paul Rubber. He had received a lengthy prison sentence for horrific sexual assaults on minors. Could his name be removed from the list, they wondered?

There were, of course, precedents; in the Soviet Union under Stalin and later, discredited officials were routinely and crudely airbrushed out of photographs of big wigs posing on the Kremlin wall, their version of the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Luckily, common sense (and possibly integrity, who knows?) prevailed, because as time went by other non-recent guests were revealed to be rotters. Rolf Harris, for example, appeared on the show twice, Jimmy Savile of course and, surprisingly, T. Dan Smith who, although not a sex offender, was a prolifically corrupt local government politician. One wonders why he was invited onto the show in the first place. Had the timing been different, Newcastle Airport could have been named T. Dan Smith Airport. We could do without revised issues of what is a splendid book (I have two copies) marked “re-printed with corrections” whenever a Desert Island Discs guest stands revealed as a shady character with a dreadful past.

Anyway, on another matter entirely, I was intrigued by a letter I received from York Hospital inviting me to attend an appointment with a consultant, or one of his team. I have never met a consultant, nor have I ever spoken to anyone claiming to have done so – always one of “the team”, usually looking too young to hold a driving licence never mind a medical qualification. Do consultants exist, or are they straw men whose salaries are pooled and shared by the nurses? But that is by the by – what intrigued me was the instruction to bring along a specimen of “fresh urine”.

“Fresh” has never before been specified, but I am sure that there must be a good reason for it. What do they think we do, these clever doctors, when we are at home away from their supervision; that we keep stale specimens on a shelf in the pantry against possible future need, or in the hope that it will with time turn into Calvados that we can serve to our guests?