HERE’S TO YOU, JOHN ANONYMOUS

LAST week’s column (A rose by any other name) prompted one Addy colleague to suggest it should have been a piece about how boring my name was.

Thanks a lot JS!  

That same day I found myself on a job in a room full of Johns. We did the awkward handshakes all round, followed by the inexplicable repeating of each other’s names… “John” – “John” – “John” – “John”…

To someone outside it might have sounded like a scene from Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich. For me, it harked back to primary school, where Johns were as common as cheese and vegemite sandwiches.

In 1974 there were six Johns in my grade four class and probably 30-odd in the whole school. Johns were everywhere. They were VFL footballers, prime ministers, Hollywood stars and Olympians. Johns rocked.

But somehow, like Austin Powers, we lost our mojo. In the 80s and 90s, the conservative John was updated to the much cooler Jack, and no manner of suffix –  Johno, Johnny, Jonathon – could restore its place in the spotlight.

I like to imagine a Mrs Gherkin and a tribe of little Gherkins.

I was in my early teens when I began coveting more exotic names. Names that rolled off the tongue – stuck in the memory – looked impressive in print. Literature was riddled with them – Holden Caulfield, Huckleberry Finn, Uriah Heap, Jay Gatsby, Atticus Finch – names that conjured images of a life less ordinary.

There was a kid in my local squash competition with the delicious moniker, Digby Gherkin. I often imagine him now – a 50 year-old handing out his business card. I wonder if the name was his making or his downfall. I like to imagine a Mrs Gherkin and a tribe of little Gherkins.

Perhaps Digby Gherkin is a name that belonged in fiction. Maybe it was too weighty to carry in the real world. Maybe he’d have been better off as a “boring” John?

For his 2008 book, Potty, Fartwell & Knob, Russell Ash trawled through Britain’s national archives, parish registers and legal records to find names previously lost to history.

In the London marriage register he discovered a Mary Madcap who married John H Bastard in 1782. I wonder if she kept her own name – or more importantly, what the H stood for?

There was a John Anonymous born in the same city in 1865, while in Somerset, a couple of hundred years earlier, a John Mental walked the streets… now there’s the perfect nickname for yours truly.

Other notables include Lettuce Bedlam of Nottingham, Constance Smell of Essex, and the diminutive Ann Inch of Cornwall.

Apparently John is making a 21st century comeback. It’s retro these days – like burnt-orange laminex. My parents tell me that it means “gift from god”. And while our notions of god may differ, I’d rather be a gift than a leafy green vegetable.

Oh, and if you’re out there, Mr Gherkin, do drop me a line.

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