The Naming of Hearts
I was listening, as you do when you’re pottering around the kitchen and are undeniably middle class, to Radio 4 the other day.
I listen to the radio A LOT. It is my companion during the many domestic tasks that I attempt each day. I have mentioned in previous blogs that I generally rant at the radio. I also learn. I think. I disagree. I am moved. Few and too far between, these days, are the programmes that stop me from racking up the dishwasher with their eloquence, imagery and beauty, that make me almost wet myself with mirth.
There used to be such programmes of course. Now it’s all news. Fake news of course which is also called speculation. Polls asked of small numbers of people who are crossing their fingers behind their backs when asked if they are going to vote/tory/trump/brexit/eat dairy. Anyway, I need to take a deep breath in this blog.
The programme I was listening to was about books and how art works and it might also have been about social classes and their nomenclature and how your name gives you away. Have to say it veered wildly, as Radio 4 programmes sometimes do. The Radio 4 term for this is being ‘eclectic’ or possibly ‘esoteric’. I was interested at first and then an editor was interviewed about working with writers and the naming of characters.
What a pompous fart the woman was. I appreciate that ‘fart’ is not very Radio 4 but nevertheless. She talked about writers naming their characters by the ‘wrong names’ and that these names were ‘unsuitable’ because they were patently the wrong social group. She had a trilling laugh that accompanied her tales of correcting these glaring literary errors.
I’ve got several problems with this. The first is with the stone tablet that decreed that everyone but everyone knows what is going in a writer’s head better than they themselves do. This tenet was chiselled out years ago and is wrong. There are lots of people who, when the pages are full, declare what is wrong with a piece of writing and, as one wise old writer once said “Where were you when the pages were empty?”. A writer writes. They crush the ideas out of their hearts and souls and let the blood of storytelling smirch the pages. Inky fingers pick at the nose of plot. A mouthful of pins pinches in thought as the writer dresses their characters. There is often a reason that a character is wearing a tweed overcoat. Sometimes, the reason is very simple, the writer LIKES tweed overcoats.
Writers have landscapes. Their territory. This territory is as particular and pungent as the Terroir of winemaking. We make up the towns. We twist the existing geography of the places we grew up and we make them into storyscape. We hope that the smoke drifts into your head too. Do we all dream of the same Manderley?
For me, characters arrive named. There is no arguing about what they are called. I can’t argue with them. They bring their name along with their eyepatch or their kilt or their cigar. At the moment I have Ivo in my head. He has been there for a while and he’s been in the wars. Stitched. Bruised. He’s sitting in a caravan in Pembrokeshire right now and he’s wearing a heavy black wool overcoat that a man named Dragorian made, bespoke. He’s had a bad time and he’s a bad man. Of sorts. I haven’t completed his story yet so he’s waiting in the caravan and the wind is making it rock. I can see the print on the caravan sofa, smell the plastic of the worktop and see where the rain has got in a little over the mouldy smelling bread bin. It is not Ivo’s caravan by the way. It belonged to someone else. Someone now dead.
He’s called Ivo for a reason. It is his name.
The editor idiot (hm, so very nearly an anagram it aches) was smug in her notion that only the characters that she named were ‘correctly named’. I stood in my kitchen, halted in my task, to have a moment’s silence for the grieving writers she had left in her wake.
I had a friend at school who was called Pamela. She hated the name and even disliked the shortened version of it. Nor was she what someone might describe as ‘a Pamela’. And here is the rub with names. We do have ideas about who a Pamela is or a Betty or a Doris, the names that creak with age nowadays. My own name ‘Helen’ is so 60s/70s along with Alison and Samantha. If you named a character ‘Susan’ nowadays she’d have to be middle aged. Or would she? These labels come and go, they float in and out on the tides of fashion. Who is to say who is or isn’t a Chantal? Or a Jackson? What about Conrad? You are who you are. This Molly is different from that Mollie and it isn’t the spelling it is the person behind the name. Who doesn’t have a name that they hate because it was held by their nemesis at primary school or the bully at University?
The editor has no right to hold such sway over characters. This person is not your character. Yes, there are markers of social class carried by name, Bunty or Jinty, Lucinda or Giles. You might be wrong in your judgement about them. In my own ancestry we had a Squire and a Major, nothing to do with their rank in society, one was a waggoner and the other owned a chip shop. Their names carried some hint at what was in their parents heads. What is to stop someone naming their child Jezebel, just because they like the name? There is no sense to names. They are thoughts and dreams written into the coats of our children.
One of our friends sons had a baby recently, a girl. He and his wife called her ‘Mackenzie’ in honour of his late dad’s best friend. I think its wonderful, a true name, carrying love and history that she can take into her future.
I have no doubt that the Editor interviewed would probably purse her lips and have her finger poised over the cut and paste option. It is no accident that I have forgotten the name of the Editor herself. Cruella, perhaps?