From Bobby Sands Street in Tehran (home to the British embassy) to the startling number of thoroughfares in the UK formerly known as Gropecunt Lane, this eclectic social history probes how something as seemingly mundane as our address defines us, enshrining our politics, culture, health and wealth; and saying something about our identity, class and race. Above all, it addresses "the power to name, to hide, to decide who counts". Has the feel of Prisoners of Geography about it.
Much of the book’s material is based on interviews: often fascinating, but occasionally reminiscent of lifestyle pages in their tendency to dwell on the interviewees’ looks, clothes, habits, accents. The lack of continuity can be jarring, too. Street addresses were almost nonexistent in ancient Rome, one chapter informs us; in another, Chicago planners, devising a “coolly logical” system a century ago, think of Rome as their model. That the book is wide-ranging in its geography is an achievement but also a limitation. (As, for example, Jerry White’s Campbell Bunk: The worst street in north London between the wars proves, it helps to stay local when writing social history.)
Mask’s fascinating study is filled with insights into how addresses affect ordinary people around the world. She concludes the future may lie in GPS apps. In the end, despite the political associations and the effect on property values of street names (in Australia unusual names such as Wanke Road can knock 20% off values), Mask likes the controversies: “Arguments are what divide communities, but they are also what constitutes them as communities.”
The Address Book is full of these sorts of insights — about the racial tensions caused by the renaming of roads in South Africa, for example, or the ridiculous prices paid for “vanity addresses” in New York, many of them nowhere near the actual building. The first city to come up with the idea of odd and even sides of the street? Philadelphia in the 1790s. The least popular number between one and 14 in the UK? No 13, of course — 34% of streets (and 74% in Birmingham, for some reason) skip it. Mask can sometimes be a bit too chatty, and she can often wander off topic, but her book is full of surprises — not the least of which is the drama and curiosity she brings to this most apparently mundane of subjects.