Once upon a time I was doing some work in the BBC sound archives and came across an edition of Any Questions? recorded so long ago that it actually had interesting questions on it, by which I mean that they weren't questions based on the trivia of the week's headlines, but questions about life and taste and the real world.
But that wasn't the most startling thing. The thing that made me open my eyes wide with disbelief was something said by Marghanita Laski. Marghanita Laski was a sharp, clever woman, and when one of her fellow panellists tried to argue with her, saying "Look, the thing is, Marghanita...", she immediately cut across him with: "Miss Laski, if you don't mind..."
Can you imagine that happening today? The use of first names has become so universal that we have forgotten a time when we were forced to retreat behind the formality of surnames. When we meet strangers, we are introduced by first name. "Mike, this is Paul. Susan, this is Jim." "Hi, Paul." "Hello, Jim". Nowadays the surnames get left out. You can know someone for a long time without ever finding out their surname. Nor, even if you want to, can you ask to be addressed by your surname. We are all forced into intimacy.
Well, within living memory things were very different. I remember, as an aspiring freelance writer, sending stuff to Punch and getting letters of rejection (common) and acceptance (much rarer) from Peter Dickinson, an assistant editor (who went on to be a great crime and children's writer), letters that always started "Dear Kington" – which struck me as somewhat off-hand. What I didn't know was that, in the posher end of society, whence Dickinson came, it was quite normal to address each other in writing in this way and wasn't thought of as in the least cold.
When I finally was asked to join the staff of Punch, Dickinson wrote me a letter which started: "Dear Miles Kington, ( I suppose I had better bite the bullet and use your first name, as we are to be colleagues in a week or two...)"
How far away it all seems. Now everyone is on first name terms immediately. People on Big Brother only have first names. They seem to have had their surnames surgically removed. Interviewers on TV always address total strangers by their first names. Even Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs assumes that it is right to address strangers by their first names, unless they are lords or cardinals, in which case she tends not to call them anything at all except for identification purposes. (When she says "So, Sir Yehudi Menuhin, you then took up yoga...", it's for the benefit of people who have switched on late and have no idea who she's talking to.)
The use of surnames used to be a boarding school preserve, when you could spend five years sitting next to a chap called Smith and not know that his parents called him John; but I believe that, even at public schools, the use of first names has crept in. The main area in which this threatened species, the wild surname, still roams free, is, oddly, in sport, where commentators always refer to people by surname, in a rather public school sort of way – "Shearer goes down the wing, pulls the ball back for Gascoigne but he's dispossessed by Gillespie...". Only on the field, mark you. When Henman is on court, he's Henman ( "And Henman is just long..." ), but in the studio afterwards he's Tim ("So, Tim, what went wrong..?"). And some sportsmen have the strange habit of calling each other by nicknames based on surnames, like Keano and Goochie, which is strangely sickening...
The only person I have ever met who avoided all use of first names was Quentin Crisp; he made a fetish out of calling everyone Mr, Miss or Mrs. Never Oscar, always Mr Wilde. Never Marilyn, sometimes Miss Monroe, or more often Mrs Arthur Miller. Someone recalls meeting Mr Crisp wandering round the Chelsea Hotel, in New York, and murmuring, as the police swirled down the corridors: "I believe Mr Vicious has met with a fatal accident." When re-reading his film reviews recently, I came across a reference to "Lord Tennyson's description of Mr Lancelot's adultery with Mrs Arthur" and another reference to a scene in King Kong where "Miss Wray lay gibbering across Mr Kong's wrist..."
It takes style to get humour out of surnames. But style is another thing which, like the surname, seems to have gone out of fashion.Reuse content