A bog-standard name is no use to a writer

The Welsh name rhymes with 'howl'. The novelist pronounced his name 'Pole'

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Today I am starting a new series called 'Encounters with Great Writers'. It has been a difficult project, as I have never encountered any great writers. But there are ways round every problem...

Today I am starting a new series called 'Encounters with Great Writers'. It has been a difficult project, as I have never encountered any great writers. But there are ways round every problem...

There were three of us in the café. Me, Nelson Algren and Anthony Powell. I sat there for a while thinking how strange it was that I was with two famous novelists. After a while, I stopped thinking it and came out with it.

"How come I'm here with you two famous guys?" I said.

"I'm not really famous," mumbled Nelson Algren. "See, I'm not the Nelson Algren. In fact, my real name is Thomas Blackwood. But I always wanted more than anything in the world to have an affair with Simone de Beauvoir, and as this was now impossible, I decided to change my name to Nelson Algren instead."

We thought about this.

"He was an American writer who did have an affair with Simone de Beauvoir," said Nelson Algren.

"Yeah, yeah," said Anthony Powell. "We know who he is. We've all done our pub quizzes. That question comes up again and again. Which famous writer did Simone de Beauvoir have an affair with who wasn't Jean Paul Sartre? The answer? Nelson bloody Algren. Not that he was that famous."

"Oh, yeah?" said Nelson Algren, all fired up. " He's famous enough! People still talk about him in America, you know, and I don't recollect anyone talking about your novels over there, Mr Big Shot Anthony Powell!"

"I would be more upset by your remarks," said Anthony Powell, "if I were that Anthony Powell. But I am not. I am not the author of A Dance to the Music of Time. I just happen to share his name. It is an ordinary, bog-standard Welsh name. There are many people in Wales called Anthony Powell."

"Oh, yeah?" said Nelson Algren. "Name them!"

"Anthony Powell," said Anthony Powell.

Nelson Algren thought about this for a moment.

"You're wrong," he said. "The bog-standard Welsh name is Powell, rhyming with 'howl'. But the novelist pronounced his name as 'Pole'. He was very definite about this."

"Well, of course, he was," said Anthony Powell. "It was the only way he could rise above the mob, pretending his name was pronounced differently. He had been landed with a bog-standard name, so he spent the rest of his life pretending it was really different. But then he came from a generation of writers in the 1930s who all had slightly different names."

"Name them," said Nelson Algren.

"Graham Greene," said Anthony Powell. "That 'e' on the end of Green. No reason for it. Claud Cockburn. Pronounced 'Coburn'. No reason for it. And Claud's a girls' name. Same with Evelyn Waugh. Another girl's name. And C Day Lewis. Fancy expecting people to call you 'C Day'. It's ludicrous! ... They were all ludicrous in the 1930s."

"Nelson Algren was around in the 1930s," said Nelson Algren.

"Another stupid name," said Anthony Powell. "What's the point of an American writer calling himself after an English admiral?"

"There were lots of Americans called Nelson," said Algren defensively.

"Name one."

"Nelson Rockefeller."

"Name another."

"Nelson Rockefeller Jr."

"Name another."

"Byron Nelson."

"Who the hell was Byron Nelson?"

"Famous golfer."

At that point a woman came and sat down at our table.

"Mind if I join you?" she said. "Irish Murdoch's the name."

"Not the Iris Murdoch?"

"Not Iris Murdoch," she said. "Irish Murdoch."

I think this series needs more work on it yet. More colour, perhaps. So next time we meet Henry Green, Patrick White and Tina Brown.

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