Will the real Bilbo Baggins please stand up

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The Independent Online

Whenever I think about Mike Leigh's new film, Vera Drake, the one about abortion in the 1950s, I worry. Not about abortion. Not even about the1950s. What I worry about is how many women there are out there in real life who are called Vera Drake and whose life is being made difficult by it.

Whenever I think about Mike Leigh's new film, Vera Drake, the one about abortion in the 1950s, I worry. Not about abortion. Not even about the1950s. What I worry about is how many women there are out there in real life who are called Vera Drake and whose life is being made difficult by it.

Now, I am sure that the fate of the unborn child is more important than the fate of people called Vera Drake, but lots of people busy themselves with the pros and cons of abortion - indeed, in the USA they regularly shoot each other over the matter - whereas I don't think anyone is taking up the cause of people called Vera Drake. There can't be many of them, I suppose, but when you add the people called Vera Drake to the people called Harry Potter and James Bond and Adrian Mole and Mr D'Arcy and Bridget Jones - well, it must add up to a sizeable minority whose lives have been tinged by having their names in neon lights.

(It must be even worse if you innocently share a name with someone beyond the pale. Imagine if you were quite accidentally named Dr Crippen, or Myra Hindley, or Jeffrey Archer ...)

Writers are quite aware of this, of course, and take precautions not to offend. My own favourite is to use English place names as character names. There is a village near us called Upton Scudamore. "American lawyer!" said my wife, the first time she saw the sign. Spot on. In the next village to us there is a road called Rosemary Lane. Excellent for a female character. And so it goes. English place names never kick up a fuss and never sue.

But generally writers go either for wildly commonplace names or exotic ones. If you mundanely call a character Harry Potter, the chances are there will be dozens of them out there - even more so with characters called William Brown or Tom Brown - and so the real Potters and Browns won't feel singled out. But if you call someone something odd like Adrian Mole, it is most unlikely that there are many Moles out there, and even more unlikely that one of them is Adrian. Ditto for Nigel Molesworth. And Hannibal Lecter. And Bilbo Baggins. Especially Bilbo Baggins. In fact, I don't suppose that anyone in the world has ever looked up from a JRR Tolkien book and said: "Oh no! There's a character here with the same name as me!"

(The commonplace name ploy doesn't always work. When I was at Punch I compiled a list of horrible things for kids to do in the holidays. One was a visit to the dentist. I invented a dentist called "Mr Brown of Bradford Town". Unfortunately there was a dentist called Brown in Bradford, and one only, and he sued Punch for defamation. Didn't get much. Didn't deserve much. What a chancer. Are you still a dentist, Mr Brown? Then I take it all back.)

But sometimes it isn't films and novels which do the duplicating: it's real life. There was once a very famous American novelist called Winston Churchill, no relation, who wrote many best-sellers before the Great War and was never heard of again after our Winston Churchill arose. My old friend David Taylor, once editor of Punch, used to gleefully collect all the other people called David Taylor. In jazz there have been, quite by chance, at least three prominent figures called Benny Green (trombonist, saxophonist and pianist), and so on and so forth.

In fact, there used to be, in my dim and distant youth, a British TV panel game called The Name's The Same in which unknown people with famous names like Cary Grant and Josephine Baker would challenge a celebrity panel to guess what they were called. After all these years, I can only remember one of those names. A young man came on bearing a famous name, but it wasn't the name of a celebrity, or of a historical figure or indeed of any human.

He actually shared his name with a bit of geography. He was called Goodwin Sands.

Brilliant.

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