Brian Viner: 'As a Trevor, you can chortle at silly names. As an Iolanthe, you can't'

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The sad demise of our gearbox was chronicled in this column last week, and since it would plainly be madness to shell out £4,150.35 (inc VAT) for a new one to be fitted in a Volvo with nearly 150,000 miles on the clock, we have started the tiresome quest for another car. Whether to place our diminished faith in another Volvo is the £281-per-month question, that being the five-year financing deal offered to us by one dealer hereabouts, although the second-hand estate he would like to sell us is black, and Jane doesn't fancy having a long, black car parked outside the house. She thinks it will take her instinctively to the crematorium, when she wants to go to the Co-op.

She discussed the matter with her friend Joanna on their dog-walk the other day, and Joanna was reminded of a Mercedes she and her husband Stephen used to have, which they got for a bargain price because it really had belonged to a funeral director. After that they had a gold Merc which again they bought cheaply because nobody wanted gold cars, although Stephen always insisted that it was travertine, not gold, and once contested a speeding ticket on the basis that the policeman's eyesight must have been dodgy, what with him describing as gold a car that was quite obviously travertine.

Anyway, we've been trawling through the internet looking at used cars, and have found ourselves longing for the days when vehicles were white, red, blue and green. Now they are black sapphire, titanium grey, magic blue, caper green, savile grey pearl and even electric silver coarse flake metallic. It's like buying a car from Farrow and Ball, or would be, if Farrow and Ball hadn't stepped up to the next level of daftness, offering matt vinyl emulsions in arsenic, clunch, elephant's breath, dead salmon, mouse's back and ancient virtue. All you want to do is find a suitable colour for the downstairs loo and suddenly you're overcome with emulsion.

Moreover, the problem with extravagant names is that they generate extravagant expectations. Once you've had a room painted in ancient virtue, you can't sit in there picking your nose and watching Britain's Got Talent, you have to be listening to Bach while reading Pliny the Elder, at the very least. And the topic of ancient Rome brings me right back to Volvos, strangely enough. I was leafing through their brochure the other day wondering what alloy wheels I would have on my new XC90 if I could afford such a thing, and the choice was between Alastor, Antaeus, Aquarius, Camulus, Cratus, Galateia, Oceanus and Vulcanis. But how terrible to be stuck in a tailback on the M6 when you've got Vulcanis wheels, and should really be racing Ben Hur.

All of which applies doubly, trebly, to people with flamboyant names. I always feel sorry for those children of pop stars called things like Amadeus or Zebedee, who will have enough of a challenge being the offspring of famous parents without also having to live up to their names. Better to go through life as a charismatic Trevor, exceeding expectations, than a dull Iolanthe, failing to meet them.

Besides, as a Trevor you can legitimately chortle at silly names, which is one of life's great pleasures, and which as an Iolanthe you can't. I have related before the tale of an American I met on holiday years ago, when we were living in north London, who asked me whereabouts I lived and sniggered when I said Crouch End. Then, happily, I discovered that he was called Tray and spent the rest of the evenings trying to exact subtle revenge by getting Tray to say "the drinks are on me".

Sometimes with names, though, you simply have to hold up your hands in admiration. When my father-in-law started work at a South Yorkshire colliery in the 1940s, he was taken under the wing of a miner known to everyone as Di Reckless, but Di's splendid full name was Diamond Jubilee Reckless, born in 1897, the 60th year of Queen Victoria's reign.

However, it is my mother-in-law, Anne, who is the source of my new favourite name story. When she worked in the National Coal Board offices in Barnsley, Anne had a junior colleague called Anne Winder, whom she once had cause to admonish. So she drew herself up to her full height, summoned her most commanding voice, and inadvertently said, "now look here, Molly Window..."