A guy called Shirley and a girl called Sam

Click to follow
The Independent Online
I once knew a BBC presenter who was a bit of a name-dropper. Actually, he was a lot of a name-dropper. He was such a name-dropper that he hated to admit there was anyone he did not know or had not met. Once he was in a conversation in which the name of Francis Wheen came up, and he was asked if he knew Francis.

"Oh yes," he said. "She and I have often worked together."

As Francis Wheen is a man, this was generally considered to be an own goal. How we all laughed. But I know how that man felt now, because the same sort of thing has happened to me. Last week I referred to the obscure American poet Joyce Kilmer, now chiefly remembered for the poem starting "I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree", and said that I knew nothing about her life. Immediately letters started flooding in saying (in tones not unlike William Brown's) that I obviously knew nothing about life at all if I thought that Joyce Kilmer was a woman because Joyce Kilmer was a man, gosh, we thought everyone knew that Joyce Kilmer was a man, what about Joyce Cary, he was a man and he was called Joyce, fancy not knowing that Joyce Kilmer was a man, we thought everyone knew that Joyce Kilmer was a man ...

I printed a retraction and a semi-grovelling apology but still the letters came, so I think I must stand up for myself and say that if men insist on having women's names and vice versa, they can't be surprised if mistakes do occasionally occur. I myself was misled from an early age when it comes to the name Joyce, as the only Joyce I ever knew was my great-aunt Joyce, and she was definitely a woman. She was also the only woman I knew who always smoked when she did the washing up, but in the 1950s that didn't seem too bad, somehow. The thing is that she was called Joyce and she was a woman, and she was the only Joyce in my world, so I assumed naturally that people called Joyce were women.

What made me even more confused, though I didn't realise it at the time, was that Auntie Joyce was married to a man with a girl's name. My great- uncle was called Evelyn. He was the only Evelyn I ever met, and the only other one I ever heard of was Evelyn Waugh, so it seemed natural to assume that people called Evelyn were men. Later on in life I started to come across other people called Evelyn who displayed distinctly female characteristics, but early on in life I thought that Evelyn was a boy's name and Joyce was a girl's, so that when people were introducing my great-uncle and great-aunt to people, there was no need for a conversation like this:-

"Have you met Evelyn and Joyce?"

"No. Delighted. Which of you is which?"

(Now I do realise that Evelyn Glennie is not a man. In fact, she does not even pronounce her name the same as my great-uncle. He was Eave-lynn and she is Evv-lyn. I know this because I once heard her correct Ned Sherrin over the pronunciation of her name on Loose Ends, and it is one of the great mysteries of the modern age that a supposedly profoundly deaf drummer can hear a single syllable being mispronounced ...)

Personally, I blame the women. They have been taking over men's names as quietly and insidiously as they have been taking over trousers and jeans. Samantha Fox can call her herself Sam Fox and get away with it, even if she sounds like a missing brother for Edward and James Fox. You can be a female poet called Stevie Smith and you can be a female actress called Billie Whitelaw but a man has to stick to a man's name, so that when I first came across a song that started "Frankie and Johnny were lovers", I had to wait for a while to find out which was the man and which was the woman.

(That was in the innocent 1950s again. Nowadays you would have to wait to find out if Frankie and Johnny were both men or both women.)

Another name with sexual ambiguity is Shirley, which can belong to a woman, as in Shirley Williams, or to a man, as in ... well, Shirley Brooks is the only example I can readily think of, he being a long-forgotten editor of Punch. I have also met girls who preferred to be called Charlie and several women who preferred to be called Jo and I think I once met a girl who said she liked to be called Andy, though I may have misheard her.

But I have only once in my life met a couple who had got the problem solved for once and for all, for the simple reason that they both had the same name.

He was called Robin.

So was she.

Nobody could ever get them mixed up.