Have you noticed how more and more cities are naming bits of their infrastructure after people who grew up there and then went on to distinguish themselves in some way? Airports proudly proclaiming their association with the birthplaces of John Lennon and George Best are just the latest example of the trend that gave us the Brunel roundabout in Slough, Manchester’s John Dalton Street, a theatre in North Durham named after the actor Alun Armstrong, and so on and so on.
What we haven’t done – yet – is follow the example of those cities in countries where naming conference centres after famous men (and in only very few cases, famous women) is common practice. The US leads the way in this respect. Many, if not most, of their conference centres bear the names of well-known people associated with the city in some way. More often than not, the eponymous person is, or rather was, a politician of some kind – usually a former governor, congressman or mayor. New York’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center is probably the best-known example of this, and Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center is another – named after the erstwhile Governor of Pennsylvania. But there are rare exceptions of conference centres bearing the names of non-politicians. For example, the McCormick Place venue in Chicago was named after Robert R. McCormick, a publisher.
Beyond the US, the practice of honouring retired politicians and former heads of state by naming a conference centre after them seems to be more prevalent in the developing world than in other first-world countries. Julius Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta and Mahatma Gandhi, for example, all have conference venues bearing their names.
We have very few examples in this country, where the usual practice is to name conference centres, sensibly enough, after the city that they’re located in. Of course, the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre (conveniently located just up the road from the Queen Mother Sports Centre) is a notable exception – and exceptional too in that it is one of the few conference centres in the world named after a woman (the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center in Bangkok is another).
As far as I know, there are no major venues in the UK named after our local or national politicians – which probably says everything about how we feel about most members of our political class. And given how quickly celebrity can topple over into the deepest, darkest notoriety, naming venues after local ‘heroes’ can be a high-risk policy – as the management of the former Savile’s Hall conference centre in Leeds would confirm.
I grew up in Penicuik (Scottish readers can skip the next few sentences). It’s a town about 10 miles south of Edinburgh, and it’s where you’ll find yourself if you take a wrong turn on the way from the capital to Peebles. One of the town’s claims to fame is that, decades ago, a question on Brain of Britain was ‘How do you spell Penicuik?’. None of those sassenach eggheads got it right, as anyone in the town will proudly tell you to this day.
Now, I’d like to think that when Penicuik finally gets its own world-class venue it will proudly bear the name of the Rob Davidson Conference Centre. Or, as the Americans would call it, the Robert I. Davidson Convention Center. (‘Inglis’, if you must know).