On Monday I wrote about the way we all address each other by our first names as soon as we meet, leaving no barrier behind which to retreat. This prompted an approach from the Today programme on Radio 4, from a young man who boldly addressed me as "Miles". They had been intrigued, he said, by hearing James Naughtie finish off an interview with Oliver Letwin and Douglas Alexander by saying: "Well, I'd normally say, thank you, Oliver and Douglas but as we're grown-ups I'll say, thank you, Mr Letwin and Mr Alexander..."
"We're not used to hearing Jim call people Mister," said the young man. "We thought perhaps he'd read your piece in the paper... Anyway, we thought that first names might make a nice short piece on the programme."
You can see the confusion. The young man referred to Naughtie as "Jim". I refer to him as "James" Naughtie, as indeed do the closing credits of Today. If I ever met him, I might well call him Mr Naughtie. And he might well think that was over-formal and think I was taking the mickey.
So what should we do ?
One line of action is to adopt your own formula. Quentin Crisp cleverly did this by always referring to people as Mr, Mrs or Miss and never using their first names. To us she may have been "Marilyn" but to him she was always "Miss Monroe" or even "Mrs Arthur Miller". Someone remembers being in the Chelsea Hotel on the night of Sid Vicious's death, and bumping into Quentin Crisp murmuring, "I hear there has been an accident to Mr Vicious..."
This is not open to most of us, who would find it a strain. When people have a title, of course, we have been handed the ideal solution. Calling people "Prime Minister" or "Ambassador" absolves you from all need to choose the right name, or even to remember the name at all. That's probably why it's easier for people on tennis courts or at the bridge table to call each other "Partner" or for passengers in a taxi to call the man in front "Driver".
Desmond Tutu is one of the most blessed of men in this respect. He is in little danger of being called Tutu, and in no danger of being called Desmond by anyone, because they will have to address him as "Archbishop" first. And the idea of anyone calling him "Des" is ludicrous. He is protected from that by his title, his surname and his slightly formal Christian name. Nobody could ever get through those three bouncers to call him "Des".
Oddly enough, it is the supposedly demotic world of sport that clings hardest to the surname. Listen to a football or rugby commentary. "It's Dawson out to Wilkinson, along the line to Cohen but he's well tackled by Paterson..." or "Nice little one two between Henry and Bergkamp..." No sign of a first name, unless it's to distinguish brothers. "Gary Neville out to Phil Neville..." There's something rather old-fashioned and public school about it all. And when they choose nicknames (Aggers... Tuffy...) it's even more old-style public school.
Total strangers at the other end of business phone lines may love their own first name ("Hello, this is Kevin speaking, how may I help you...?") but when they phone you, they love your surname so much that they keep repeating it ("How are you, Mr Kington? May I just take a moment of your time, Mr Kington, by asking if you own your own house? Thank you, Mr Kington...")
What? Oh, the Today programme! Or Today, if you're calling it by its first name. Well, they thought they wanted an item from me on Tuesday morning, but with half an hour to go a young lady rang me up and said that, alas, they had too many items and would have to drop me. And she didn't call me "Miles". I'm afraid she called me "Mr Kington". The surname of dismissal.
- More about: