Sunday 6 June 2010

Napa Happy Nappy Valley (and Dr Johnson)

There is an area of South London known to all, and even sundry, as Nappy Valley. It's basically Wandsworth. The reason for the name is that the area is positively teeming with fecund young professional couples whose constant rutting has given it the highest birth rate in Europe (or so saith Wikipedia without citation). [N.B. Nappy is English for diaper. In fact non-Londoners may want to skip this post].

I happened to be discussing the area with Mrs Malaprop yesterday and, of course, the conversation leapt, flea-like, to the Origin of the Name.

I asserted that it was to do with Napa Valley in California, where the wine comes from. I said that the name was obviously down to affluent, priapic couples changing nappies whilst sipping white wine.

Mrs Malaprop said that she had always assumed that it was to do with Happy Valley in Kenya, where the murders happen.

So today I set about investigating. It turns out that Mrs Malaprop was right and I was wrong, which I feel remains a moral victory for me.

The phrase, you see, is not English in origin. The first reference that I can find to London's Nappy Valley is from The Independent in 1997. But I discovered this in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1984:

Horror films soar in popularity during the school holidays. Children's films are most popular in Tuggeranong (known as Nappy Valley) and other far-flung suburbs which are the newest and have the youngest families.

Tuggeranong is a suburb of Canberra, so it would seem that Australia can claim the original Nappy Valley. However, in her riveting account of the 1984 general election campaign in New Zealand (not written till 1985) Josephine Grierson records her press officer warning her of victory:

"You'd better watch it you know or you may end up with three years of "Nappy Valley"! I've already heard you referred to as the "Pakuranga housewife".

Pakuranga is a suburb of Auckland. So parallel births of the name? Some strange antipodean synchronicity?

No. Just outside Auckland, a mere, 23 miles from the aforementioned Nappy Valley is a little place called Happy Valley. They make honey there. So it must be a pun on the name: the appy, not the nap.

In Australia it's a little farther, but the connection is still easy to make. You go from Canberra to Adelaide (both in the South East) and you have a well known suburb again called Happy Valley. So, though there may not be a Kenyan connection, I am satisfied that in both cases it's a pun on Happy Valley.

So where does Happy Valley come from? Perhaps it's just the twee imaginings of an optimistic settler. But I can get the phrase straight back to Dr Johnson, which makes me much happier.

Dr Johnson wrote Rasselas. It's about a prince (coincidentally called Rasselas) whose father decides to keep him away from the sins of society. So he is brought up in an impregnable valley where he is given all that he could possibly want other than knowledge of the world.

However... well here's the opening of the second chapter:


Here the sons and daughters of Abyssinia lived only to know the soft vicissitudes of pleasure and repose...

I like to think that those distant settlers were thinking of Rasselas when they did their naming, if only because Rasselas has suffered an terrible, terrible fate. You see, it's a Very Good Book, but it's identical in concept and was published in the same year as Candide by Voltaire, which is an Absolutely Bloody Wonderful Book.

Candide is a book about a completely innocent young man who sets off on a world tour that allows for lots of satirical vignettes. Rasellas is a book about a completely innocent young man who sets off on a world tour that allows for lots of satirical vignettes. The result is that almost nobody bothers to read Rasselas. Even I have lost my copy and don't particularly care. I can't even recommend that you read it because Candide is better. A merely good book, like Rasellas, cannot compete.

Evelyn Waugh probably considered this. He once wrote a story called A House of Gentlefolks. It begins, like Rasselas and Candide, with a boy who has been kept completely away from the world until his eighteenth birthday being allowed out (with a guide) and setting off on a series of satirical vignettes. Except that he doesn't. They're about to set off on a world tour when, after only ten pages the narrator says:

It seems to me sometimes that Nature, like a lazy author, will round off abruptly into a short story what she obviously intended to be the opening of a novel.

And a lawyer arrives to take the boy back. For an ardent lover of early Waugh like me, that sentence is unutterably sad. I think that Waugh was thinking of the fate of Rasellas.

There was, though, a man called Isaac Brown Jr, who liked Johnson's book and called his son Rasselas Wilcox Brown, and Rasselas went to Pennsylvania and founded Rasselas PA.

Now you tell me.


  1. "You go from Canberra to Adelaide ..."

    Yes, you can, but you have a 720 mile drive in front of you.

  2. The Antipodean7 June 2010 at 07:53

    More homework, and Rob's got in first on the geography!

    Patrick White's first novel was called Happy Valley. I've never read it (quelle horreur) but it was set in NSW, which is a more likely area of influence for Canberran's than Adelaide. Most likely they were all (including Mr White, educated at Cambridge) influenced by the Doctor, and showing off their education. And it just sounds good.

    With regard to your now-deleted query (the feed delivered it regardless) the Napa Valley has been known in these parts for some time. An older friend of mine has a long-standing dream of visiting it one day, formed out of a youthful attachment to the idea of the region. I understand that several Americans assisted in / advised on the establishment of the Margaret River wine region, so over here in the West it was known. If you drank wine, that is, which admittedly was a more select group at that time.

    I don't know much about Wandsworth, but apparently there's a dodgy end: "At the end of the high street, Harris Street, near the Queen's Head." Dragging down the tone, I know, but it's what Shakespeare would've been writing today, I tell you. Possibly more poetically, but nevertheless. (Please note, I am in no way suggesting that Richard Curtis is Shakespeare.)

  3. Rob, I thought everything in Australia was that far apart. I've never been there, but am assured that there are so many internal flights that distances are measured in flying time rather than British miles. (In Cyprus distances are measured in cigarettes, so rather than a place being ten minutes walk away, it's two).
    Antipodean, I didn't know about the Patrick White novel. It certainly doesn't change the Happy-not-Napa point but does give an extra Australian source.

    Everything South Of The River is dodgy, I only go there in the Inky Fool tank.

  4. Non-Londoner here. Not even slightly tempted to skip this. Will not remember much of this. Don't care. Sheer pleasure of reading it is enough.

  5. Dogberry: Boring fact warning.

    Perth is further from Melbourne (my town) than Moscow is from London. But the big difference is that there is only one city (Adelaide) between them. There is quite a bit of nothing.

  6. Further more...

    Yes, journeys in Australia either by air or by land transport are measured in time.