The Wrong D. Wallace

In which The Author buys a book

As an early Xmas present, Waterstone’s very kindly gave each of us a £10 gift voucher. The idea was that we should spend it on books that we normally wouldn’t have bought for ourselves – instead, we should ‘discover’ something new (the theme of the Xmas marketing campaign).
I spent mine on a massive tome named Infinite Jest by an American writer named David Foster Wallace.
He’s been on the edge of my radar for a few years, but he’s never really registered until a few months ago. I was chatting to my friend Mike B., and he told me that Infinite Jest was the book that got him through a period of hospitalisation a while ago. He enthused about the book at some length (although not as great a length as the author himself seems to have done) and I made an actual note – not just a mental one – to check it out.
Then (needless to say) I didn’t bother …
Anyway, while I was reviewing Wikipedia’s list of 2008 Deaths a few weeks ago, I came across David Foster Wallace’s name. I hadn’t even realised he had departed this energy level, so I clicked the link and read the entry about him. It sounded interesting enough, but once again I didn’t follow it up.
A few weeks ago, while I was hunting down fugitive markdown stock in the dark recesses of the shop, I came across a copy of Infinite Jest, reissued in the wake of the author’s passing. I picked it up, looked at the cover, put it back, and wondered if I really had the stamina to attempt another breeze-block. The Illuminatus! trilogy was hard enough, and I don’t seem to have the concentration or attention span for heavy stuff any more. But Mike took it to the Psych Ward with him and survived (after a fashion), so what was there to lose? Last week we received our Xmas vouchers, and I brought Infinite Jest home with me.
I’ve got as far as page 17, and I’m seriously wondering whether to take it back and exchange it for something I’ll enjoy. It seems to be pretentious American tosh of the highest water. I just don’t get these drug-fuelled post-college writers who seem to think the minutiae of their ordinary lives is fascinating to everyone else.
It’s 8 p.m. on a Saturday night. I’m at home, on my own, with a shop-bought pizza warming up in the oven. I should be out in town, or even further afield, enjoying myself. But I’m not. I’m here, typing this to nobody in particular, wondering whether to have an early night or watch a couple of episodes of Torchwood on DVD first. This isn’t the way things were supposed to turn out.
I’m forty-two years old, for Christ’s sake. What the fuck have I got to show for my life? I’m stuck in the same fucking job as I was sixteen years ago, and with less chance of escaping than ever before. All my projects have been abandoned before they even had a chance to bear fruit. I don’t see any of my old friends as often as I used to. They’ve all settled down, with kids and their grown-up circle of friends. I don’t even have one illegitimate child running rampage around the streets of Aberdare. I’ve given up the beer; surprisingly, now I think about it, life wasn’t much more fun when I was a boozer. I saw the same boring people, and listened to the same boring conversations in the pub, and still went home alone every night, with a takeaway and some shrapnel where I’d blown twenty quid or more on nothing.
Yes, the mid-life crisis is looming. I should have a pretty young girl to live with, or have an affair with, or at least shag now and again. (Okay, I spend a lot of my time talking to girls significantly younger than me, but they’re just friends I know through commuting on the train. There’s no way anything is going to develop from those friendships.)
Tonight I had four options when I left work:
  • To go to the pub in Cardiff and watch the remainder of the Wales vs New Zealand game, then drift up on a later train, like I did last week.
  • To stay in Cardiff and go to a psychedelic music and film festival, organized by a friend of a colleague. I had the offer to stay over; we’ve just been paid so money wasn’t a problem. I would have met some new people and been to a place I’d never been before.
  • It’s my mate’s fortieth birthday today. He’s out in Aberdare with his wife, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, friends (all of whom I know well), and I could be out with them, catching up on old times and having a laugh.
  • Two other friends are out tonight, and asked me in the week if I fancied meeting up for a drink.
I could have done any of those things.
Instead, I played one off against the other. Ian’s psychedelic fest gave me an alibi for not meeting Rose and Andrew; the other Andrew’s birthday gave me the perfect excuse not to go to Ian’s event. Instead, I popped into the pub to wish Andrew a happy birthday and came home at 7.30.
On the bus, I was surrounded by some of the scum of Aberdare. Two of the New Horizons crowd were at the station when I arrived there. They’re supposedly ‘mentally ill’, but they seem to have blown their minds on drugs and booze, and now think that God will solve all their problems for them. There was a morbidly obese kid with a shaved head and a lumpen expression, boasting about how he’d been drinking all day. There was a gang of chavvy teenagers smoking and swigging from cans. I’ve been working all day, while these pieces of shit scrounge from my taxes and spawn even more pieces of shit to replace themselves. Evolution’s gone into reverse – it’s the survival of the unfittest.
There’s a girl in work whom I really like. She’s young and intelligent and beautiful and creative. To all intents and purposes, we’re well-suited. We get on well, we can talk for ages about stupid things. We make each other laugh. In a perfect world, she and I would get together and live happily ever after.
It’s not going to happen. Like me, she’s prone to bouts of extreme depression, resulting in anger and frustration. We’d end up killing each other. She even refused the offer of chocolate today. That’s a very bad sign. She’s just a girl who can’t say ‘yes’ – even if what she’s turning down might be fun.
Exactly like I do.
Danny Wallace, the broadcaster and writer, found himself in the same trap. Whenever he had the chance to go out with friends, or do something different, he declined. A chance meeting on a bus led to a profound change in his life. He ended up writing a book about his experience, which has now been filmed with Jim Carrey.
Maybe on Monday I’ll try and swap Infinite Jest for his book The Yes Man – I need something to cheer me up, after all.

What’s in a Name?

In which The Author muses on changing
fashions in children’s names

When was the last time you met someone called Vernon? Or Edna, or Idwal, or Doreen? If you did, the chances are they were quite elderly. Maybe somewhere down towards the roots of your family tree you’ll find an Archibald or a Henrietta. They’re not names you hear any more. I can’t think of anybody I’ve spoken to recently with any of those names. There are names which seem to place a person very specifically in their time: Albert, Maud, Cyril, Eileen, Royston, Violet – you can almost smell the carbolic soap and the overcooked cabbage, can’t you?
At the opposite extreme, anyone named Kayleigh will almost certainly have been born in or after the summer of 1985.
I can fix the date in my mind with deadly accuracy. Marillion’s single of that name was a big hit in the summer of 1985, and seemed to be played constantly on Radio 1 when I was working in Prince Charles Hospital. In fact, there was one newborn whose blood samples came to the lab with the label ‘Baby Griffiths’ (I’ve picked a surname at random!) for the first few days of her life, until the parents – presumably by virtue of Fish’s relentless neo-Prog revivalism – decided to name her Kayleigh.
Names, like so other many aspects of life, seem to go in and out of fashion. When I was in school my contemporaries had names like Christopher, Mark, Michael, John, Richard, David, Helen, Claire, Joanne, Janet, and Caroline. They were names that had a history. They were the names of saints and monarchs and historical figures. They weren’t unusual, or exotic, or plain bizarre. No teacher of mine ever stopped in his tracks when calling the register, stumbling over the name Christopher.
My own name – Stephen – has a venerable heritage, being the name of nine Popes, a saint, and a badly drawn King of England, amongst other things.
Badly Drawn King
Apart from exchanging the ‘ph’ for a ‘v’ (which as Stephen Fry recently pointed out, would have made me an American), there was little that could go wrong. My surname, of course, being an Irish patronymic, gave my teachers all manner of nightmares. Even now it confuses canvassers from call centres all over the ‘English-speaking World’ – to the extent that, when they say ‘May I speak to Mr —?’ and mispronounce my name, I simply reply, ‘Sorry, he doesn’t exist!’ and put the phone down.
By and large when we were in school there was a divide between the ‘traditional’ names like the ones I’ve mentioned, and more ‘modern’ names, which seem to have been taken from film stars and the like: Gary, Wayne, Lee. We also had a smattering of unusual ones – Keith, Marcus, Adrian, Glyndwr, Rhydian. Thinking back, Welsh first names seemed to be very much a dying breed when we were kids. I suppose this went hand-in-hand with the general decline of the Welsh language and culture in the industrial valleys of the south. The only Dafydd we knew of was our family dentist – and, for all I know, he may well have changed his name when he espoused the Plaid Cymru cause as a local councillor. Was he the only Dafydd in the village, I wonder?
Our grammar school first year was full of Ians and Davids, Michaels and Simons, Roberts and Garys, Andrews and Christophers, Darrens and Pauls, Richards and Martins. We had a few Timothys and Stuarts, a couple of Philips, a Gareth or two, a Rhodri, a Jeremy, and a Neil. We had Matthews, Marks, Johns – but no Luke. There was no James, no Thomas, no Nathan, no Evan, and definitely no Dafydd. The Old Testament names were even further out of fashion than the Welsh names – we didn’t have a single Adam or Jacob or Daniel or Saul in our year.
We did, however, share a classroom with the unfortunately-named Wayne Kerr. The poor bastard! A few years below us, my brother was in school with the even more unfortunately named Duane Pype, and a lad named Leighton Lovatt – whom their English teacher once remarked ‘sounded like a village in Oxfordshire’.
Outside school, the girls we knew were called Sharon, Yvonne, Diane, Tracy, Ellen, Andrea, Elizabeth, Karen – a similar mixture of the traditional and the modish. Our older cousins were called Christine, Denise, Diana. You don’t come across those names amongst younger girls. They’re called Ceri and Kayleigh and Gemma and Kelsey.
As I grow older, it’s interesting to see the names of younger friends reflecting a wider trend. About twenty-five years ago, the fashion seemed to swing back towards Biblical names: Benjamin, Adam, Thomas, Samuel, Hannah, Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca. This trend continues into the present school-age generation, with Nathans, Jareds, Lukes, Leahs, and Jacobs now making up the register instead of Pauls and Matthews. I’ve lost count of the number of Thomases who have been born to friends of mine over the past decade.
Meanwhile, the celebrity effect seems to continue to grip the public. I don’t know how many Jordans (both male and female) are in nursery schools throughout the valley. Nationally, the most popular names for children for a few years recently were Jack and Chloe – purely because these are the names of the offspring of TV presenters Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan.
There are parents who give their children names from films and books, in the hope that they will be ‘unusual’ – and are usually disappointed to find that the name isn’t unique after all. My ex-girlfriend Sam has a friend with a daughter named Shannara – taken from the fantasy novels of Terry Brooks, I assume. Sam was very shocked when I mentioned casually that I’ve got a friend named Shanara (with one ‘n’) – she’s twenty-six, and her parents are Bangladeshi, so I guess the Asians beat Terry Brooks to that one.
Similarly, the teenage daughter of another friend is called Keira. According to her mother, she was named after a character in a fantasy film. I wonder how they both felt when Keira Knightley shot to fame a few years ago …
Nowadays, parents claim to be giving their children ‘traditional’ Celtic names; to this end, I know of three little boys called Kian. Now, I spent a lot of time a few years ago recording the details of headstones in my local cemetery, and I don’t think I came across a single interment of a Kian. Maybe it’s not as ‘traditional’ as they think. If Stuart Cable had called his son Idwal, then I’d have gone along with that. Then again, his mother’s name is Mabel. I suppose you have to draw the line somewhere.
The local paper runs an annual Bonny Baby contest; some friends and I once joked that it should be renamed the Marvellous Monicker contest, as some of the handles these kids will carry through life are truly wonderful. Last year, the winner in one category was the amazingly-named Christopher Junior Buddy Davies. He had stiff competition, though, from a girl whose parents (presumably Jeremy Clarkson groupies) had named their daughter Diesel Porcha. But the Wayne Kerr Award must go to the infant daughter of the Bunce family – the fabulously tasty Chelsi Bunce.
Mind you, just when I thought I’d met all the great names going, last week I met a woman called Florence. Surprisingly, she’s not a neighbour of my cousin in the care home. She’s not even out of her twenties yet. But she’s originally from Uganda; maybe it’s as common a name in Kampala as Jordan is in Aberdare. I guess it’s not quite as eccentric as Diesel Porcha.