Brian Viner: Call a spade a spade and a child 'Baroness'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Not least of the many pleasures of spending some sustained time with my parents-in-law, Anne and Bob, over the festive season is hearing Bob's tales of when he were nobbut a lad working in the collieries of south Yorkshire 60-odd years ago. Every Christmas, he tells us about someone we've never heard of before, a character lifted straight from the pages of the novel Damon Runyon would have written, had he written about Barnsley folk.

But it is not so much the personalities of these men that I enjoy hearing about, as their names. Those who populated the pit villages of south Yorkshire might not have had much variety or sparkle in their lives, but by God they put some imagination into naming their nippers.

This year, several more were added to the dramatis personae of Bob's early life. One was an engineer at Rockingham Colliery named Golding Pugh; another was an older miner called Di Reckless, who was in his late forties when 14-year-old Bob started his apprenticeship in 1946. Not everyone was kind to the apprentices; like all the others, Bob suffered the obligatory first-day initiation rites, in his case being sent to the supplies room to ask for something called a long weight and being left standing for 45 minutes, before being told sharply, "reet, tha's 'ad tha long wait, tha can bugger off na!"

But he remembers Di Reckless and his brother Gadsby fondly they were chubby, cheerful souls, which in Di's case was especially fitting, because Bob eventually learnt that the name was short for Diamond Jubilee: Di had been born in the week of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1897.

The convention of the British working-classes naming children after great national figures or occasions is no longer what it was, perhaps because it was propelled by a fierce, uncomplicated patriotism that has itself diminished, or perhaps because the nation has evolved for the better, and there is no longer an easily identifiable working-class.

Yet the convention is still alive and well in immigrant communities. When my children were at primary school in London, one of their classmates was a little Ghanaian girl proudly named after Margaret Thatcher. Her name was not Margaret, however, but Baroness. I like the idea of her having a kind of connection with old Di Reckless.

As for those pit villages, it wasn't only in naming children where imagination came to the fore. It was there, too, in everyday conversation, in imagery of which Hemingway would have been proud, yet which folk casually used on each other as they propped up a bar or waited at a butcher's counter. Right to the end of her long life Bob's mother Nellie my wife's grandmother would make only a single observation of a notably broad-bottomed woman: "she'll tak some britching." And she had an even better line for women who were painfully thin: "she's abaht as far though as a tram ticket."

My favourite Nellie-ism, though, concerns the slack-mouthed, flat-nosed man called Schweitzer whose family owned a warehouse in Sheffield and who was dispatched around the region selling cheap clothing door to door: "'is mouth 'angs open like a torn pocket and 'e's got a nose like a blind cobbler's thumb". She wasn't trying to be funny, either. She was just expressing herself in the only way she knew, and I wonder sometimes how much richness has been erased from our language with the demise of trams and collieries and blind cobblers. Still, it's worth noting that we're less than five years away from another Diamond Jubilee.

Songs of throaty praise

Nicolas Sarkozy's new squeeze, Carla Bruni, was yesterday reported by my colleague Peter Popham to have recorded an album of "seductively throaty" songs called Quelqu'un m'a dit (Somebody told me). What a rubbish title! I am currently researching a book about television in the 1970s and was delighted, in renewing my acquaintance with Peter Wyngarde, left,who played the louche sleuth Jason King in Department S and its spin-off, Jason King, to find that in 1970, at the peak of a popularity that would later founder when he was caught with a truck driver in a lavatory at Gloucester bus station, he released an album of seductively throaty songs called When Sex Leers Its Inquisitive Head. Now that's what I call a title!

Bravo, Rio!

On yesterday's letters page I was rightly upbraided by a reader, Michael Day from Lostwithiel, for getting my sums disastrously wrong in my recent profile of the footballer, Rio Ferdinand. I wrote that Ferdinand earns the same as a dozen nurses; Mr Day pointed out that it is more like 200.

All I can say in my feeble defence is that in haste I divided Ferdinand's six-figure salary by 12 and got what I estimated to be a nurse's salary, crucially forgetting that he gets his six-figure sum weekly, not annually. It was one of those schoolboy errors not even a schoolboy would have made.

Instead of railing anew at the grotesque remuneration given to top footballers, however, I should also share the contents of another letter, which came to directly to me, and which pointed out that Ferdinand has given time and money to the creation of a soccer academy in northern Uganda, designed to stop boys from becoming child soldiers in the Lord's Resistance Army. Bravo, Rio!