May 20, 2005

Show me the way to Amaryllis

When I first started working at the DHSS in 1987, I was assigned to the section dealing with the summer vacation Supplementary Benefit claims of students, who, it was thought in those naive and distant times, should be the recipients of financial assistance from the Treasury rather than the Treasury being the recipients of their financial assistance.

It was a pleasant enough way to spend a summer, processing the uncomplicated claims of generally uncomplaining students, lunching in the Civil Service clubhouse and seeing the occasional visitor to our reception area before it closed at three o'clock. These were fairly untroubling encounters too, with the exception of the young man who felt it necessary to phone up and explain that he proposed to burn the place down, and was subsequently surprised both to be met by the manager, when he arrived at the office the next day, and to be informed of his good fortune that he had not been met by the police instead.

The only other visitors that I can recall (there were more than these few, of course, though not all that many more) were the Czechoslovakian dissident philosopher Julius Tomin and his wife Zdena, then claiming asylum in the UK; a student from the North of Ireland, who when his friend suggested that he write down his home address as "Londonderry", retorted "Derry was a city when London was a swamp"; and a couple who I only remember because of their extremely memorable names. Her name was Celeste Flower, which was mellifluous enough, not to say original enough, to be getting on with. His name was every bit as original: it was Hero Amaryllis Chalmers.

I often wonder why some upper-middle class parents insist on giving their children names that are recognisably different from anything a more proletarian child could be called. One can scarcely imagine a Tarquin at a comprehensive school, a fact which has the obvious corollary that if one attended a comprehensive school, one can scarcely imagine a Tarquin at all. The television programme Restoration features a historian of architecture called Ptolemy Dean: there weren't too many Ptolemys at St Mick's in Stevenage when I was there. Sebastian called his teddy Aloysius. Even to hear the name Guy is to imagine a public schoolboy. (Well, it is to me.)

The whole point, I suppose, is to stand out from the crowd, and to stand apart from it, to proclaim one's child different. But the effect, unfortunately, is to do precisely that, to accentuate a difference that others will resent, because it is essentially a difference of birth and of inherited wealth. Prep schools insist on dressing their pupils in uniforms that put the boys in short trousers just when their rougher contemporaries have discarded them, while girls are made to wear straw boaters as if the Belles of St Trinian's were their contemporaries. Presumably they are.

I'm not sure I like it, though. I'm not at all sure I like making the children of the wealthy stand out in that way. The short trousers might as well be a Kick Me sign attached to the backsides of the boys: the straw boaters say Mock Me. And the names, too, seem to say the same thing. My parents gave me this ridiculous name to show that I am different from you. They are memorable, certainly. But I wonder if they don't cause their bearers a few humiliations to remember, too.

Celeste Flower - there surely can't be two - now appears to write guides to Shakespeare for schools, an admirable occupation, since it matters not what class of school the reader is attending. To her I owe a correct answer in a pub quiz years ago, when thanks to having been reminded of the name a long time after I actually read the books, I was able to recall the name of the queen in Babar The Elephant.

Hero, meanwhile, if it be the same individual, writes about writers. (One virtue of the idiosyncratic name - it is easy to look up on Google.) The Amaryllis appears to be omitted, but I came across the name again last night, attending a concert at St John's Church in East Dulwich given by the Dulwich Festival Chamber Orchestra as part of the Dulwich Festival. In the programme, for a performance of music by Schubert and Mozart, one of the cellists bore the first name Amaryllis. It's a strange world, classical music. The world of classical music and the social world from which its performers mostly spring. When you're not part of it, it's a very strange and different world indeed.


At May 20, 2005 12:26 pm, Blogger Jonathan M. G. Bryant said...

I can't match you for poetry but ...

20 years ago I worked in a bank. An occasional highlight (as you might imagine it was a very dull job)was the appearance of a very attractive young female customer called Ms. Gotobed.

Alas I can't recall her first name so I can't google her.

At May 21, 2005 5:13 pm, Blogger narrator said...

I can hardly describe the strange way in which I found myself here (checking a backlink to my blog and finding a blogsearch page which included one of my posts and this), but, whatever, I am glad I did. Fine stories. Fine writing.

At May 22, 2005 1:12 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I agree it's a class thing, just an overimaginative parent thing. Most of the posh people I've known were just called James or Helen, and think of all the Chardonnays or whatever. I would suggest that it's just a case of upper middle class overimaginative parents choosing different names to other overimaginative parents.

At May 23, 2005 7:55 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ha, Justin, so you're from Essex?

This explains your repeated outrageous attacks on essex and her sterling library service.

Henceforce I shall dismiss your defamations as products of an uncontrollable, irrational bias.

Another outrage laid to rest.

Fraternal regards,
Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin

At May 23, 2005 12:03 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stevenage is in Hertfordshire. You're getting confused with Reading.

At May 23, 2005 5:02 pm, Blogger ejh said...

Reading is in Berkshire. I'd guess the confusion was with Harlow.

At August 23, 2014 12:21 pm, Anonymous Richard said...

Just found this, while looking for information about Hero. perhaps you should do a bit of research before you write. Hero Amaryllis Chalmers was a FEMALE academic, Oxford graduate, now at Cambridge. She attended a Comprehensive School in South Cambridgeshire where I was a teacher from 1970 to 1978. Her parents were delightful, kind, friendly people. I knew them as her parents, and also through involvement in local music. Yes, I did wonder about their choice of name, but it seems to me you jump to too many wrong conclusions about people based on this one thing.

At August 23, 2014 9:13 pm, Blogger ejh said...

A fair point, mostly, and it's curious that I had her gender wrong.


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