What’s in a name?
I think I might have invested a little bit too much in my quest to find the perfect pen name. It is keeping me up at night: I lie in bed at night and obsess over Isobel, Laurie, Chloe, Cate and many more, testing them out with different surnames. It reminds me of the imaginary family I had at 8 years old, and all the fun I had giving each of my 14 children names. Sometimes I even wonder if I want to find a name, or if I just enjoy mulling over all these alter egos that I seem to have, or if I perhaps want to have more children.
I realise that simply liking a name is not enough. As an 8 year old, it is easy to name your imaginary children and not have to think about the consequences. This is three months ago, when I first decided I needed an alternative identity if I was going to be a writer and work in schools. I want to have an exotic surname – I am just a big show-off. But it’s a little bit more than this: I have some Portugese, Burmese and Indian and even Welsh heritage and I would love to drag this down from the family tree. D’Silva is a possibility – a surname my Auntie Maggie has adopted. I love this Portugese name, but I don’t feel I can carry it off. I am just too Caucasian. But it’s not only that – any name I chose would have to be an identity that I could easily attach to. I quickly come to the conclusion that just liking a name was not enough. I love the name Frankie, but whichever way I look at it, I will never be a Frankie. Even my alter ego writing self is not a Frankie, I need something a bit safer, a bit less funky, a bit more me. I test out ‘Chloe Hartnell’ but it sounds like the name of a student who has gone missing in a UK city and whose body has been found in the river (sorry to be morbid).
As for surnames, I couldn’t authentically use someone else’s; it would be like taking someone’s whole history as my own. Hartnell, Shaw, Edwards, Swann, are all names that are in my family. I am intuitively drawn to using my maternal Grandmother’s surname Hartnell; mostly because of my associations with her side of the family: her brothers and sisters were born entertainers, story-tellers, joke-tellers, charmers. Auntie Vi always had treats and stickers for us in her handbag, as well as things we were not allowed (clip-on earrings and stick-on bindis), Uncle Bunny was an expert magician, Uncle David always produced twenty pound notes out of nowhere and slipped them into our eager hands. I rang out the tones of Hartnell in my head until it took on another meaning and I thought about those siblings and my grandparents more than I had ever thought about them before; I thought about the men of the family fighting their way round Myanmar in the Second World War. I thought about their stories about man-eating tigers in blue-topped mountains and wondered if they were true. I thought about my grandma swearing we were from Gypsy stock. I went over the scene where Uncle Bunny sat in my grandma’s huge armchair making a two pence coin disappear, playing the wonderful sight of his big brown winking eye in his big brown smiling face over and over again.
All the lovely female names from my Grandparents on both sides came back to me: Violet, Alice, Margot. I remember my great Aunt Blanche, my maternal grandmother’s blind aunt, who was from Bangladesh and was a Nun, a billowing cloud of white and blue habit sitting in grandma’s kitchen smiling. It quickly becomes apparent that people don’t associate this name with a beautiful, lovely old lady from Bangladesh and though I would love to reinvigorate her good name and memory, it just doesn’t sound right with my family surnames. And while for me, Margot is an adventurer, wise girl, immigrant, war nurse, I get reminded by my brother-in-law that for most she is just the stuck up character from ‘The Good Life’.
And what about my Dad’s side of the family? My Dad lost his Dad when he was only a teenager and he sounded like a real character – an entrepreuner, entertainer from Birmingham, with Welsh heritage, being an Edwards. His name was Alfred John but was nicknamed Eddie. I love this name for a girl too, for some reason names with ‘ie’ at the end are a bit cheekier and have a bit more personality than ‘a’. The name Georgia has a whole different ring to Georgie. The name Evie a different quality to Eva. I think I could get away with being a bit cheeky, I think a bit of cheekiness is obligatory for a blogger with an opinion. But I just can’t break the link between the name ‘Eddie’ and Eddie the Eagle Edwards, the famous British Skier. Alfred has no real female equivalent but I mull over Freda or Alfeda as names to bring him back to life. Eddie’s wife and Dad’s Mum was Violet, a lovely lady from Birmingham. We often spent weekend nights at Grandma Edwards’ in Leamington Spa as young girls and I am indebted to her for introducing ‘Blind Date’ to our Saturday nights and for feeling special having a living relative with a maiden name so elegant as Swann. I remember the thick block of light from her high-up block window, with a thin line of Swarowski ornaments and Royal Adderley china floral arrangements on the windowsill. A glass block with inlaid autumn leaves was kept on the glass coffee table. It said: ‘False friends are like autumn leaves, found everywhere. True friends are like diamonds, precious but rare’. I remember the clean smell of her flat and always loved her food; sweet Ribena, broccoli and mashed potatoes with roast chicken. I remember snapping the wishbone with my sister and marvelling at how grandparents could always get their hands on the most faraway things that are difficult to find, like wishbones. Grandma would always make a large pastry pie with mincemeat and serve it with custard. Violet is a gorgeous name, and my Grandma Shaw’s sister’s name too.
Ultimately choosing a new name is a bit like choosing a new flatmate. However much I loved Violet and many of the other names I had considered, I couldn’t live with them. Although initially I wanted an exotic, unusual name, I just knew that an ostentatious flatmate would be fun and then flop. I would get sick of her and her loud guests, elaborate cooking and never cleaning up after herself. And I just knew I would find Alice or Margot or Violet too safe and boring, she would stay in her room all the time. A little bit of cheekiness and flamboyance was allowed. But I still can’t settle on a name so the search goes on.