HERBERT

HERBERT

Amusing Names 1

I have an embarrassing confession to make and I am almost too cowardly to make it. In the first year of our marriage in 1979, my wife Annie gave me a ludicrous pet name and no, before you ask, it had nothing to do with sultry and suggestive bedroom intimacies, or anything like that. It was instead related to the fact that I was chief cook for most of our marriage, and Annie really loved my cuisine, and always loudly announced as much to all of her friends, including my elaborate cosmopolitan menus that I had told her about the night before, and which would make some of her women colleagues and girlfriends gasp with undisguised envy. But early on neither of us were vegetarians, and I was more of a stickler for cookbooks, and as the little North Yorkshire town where we lived had a fishmonger’s, one day I bought some haddock and then scratched round for a recipe. When Annie got home I presented a tasty fish casserole, done in olive oil and subtle herbs, and then without a second thought, explained that I had got it out of 500 Fish Recipes and it was called Herby Haddock.

Annie of course fell about at my recipe name, as for her it immediately conjured up one of those Walt Disney movies where titchy and anthropomorphic cars are called Herbie, as in Herbie Rides Again (no unseemly jokes, please). She couldn’t stop laughing ecstatically as we knocked back the succulent fish, and for the next year or so behind closed doors affectionately referred to me as Herby Haddock, or more often abbreviated it to Herby. Were I to teasingly say anything mock-critical or mock-annoyed to her, she often used this single unit handle in a tone of playful reproach, in the beseeching tones of, ‘Herrrrbbbby, but how can you say that?’

That is not the only punning example I can give, with regard to the relatively absurd Christian name of Herbert. Before dozens of you temperate and fair-minded modern democrats, start shouting hang on, nothing wrong with being called Herbert, I invite you, assuming you are male, to change your own Christian name by deed poll to Herbert, and see how you feel about it after about 24 hours. Herbert is one of the equivocal ‘Bert’ names along with Hubert, Albert, Cuthbert, Gilbert and Robert, and I would venture to say only the last of those names, is not to most Anglo-Saxon ears borderline or outright daft. The proof of the pudding is that apart from Robert, most men so-named always call themselves ‘Bert’, and keep under wraps their full designation, and especially if they are called, God love them, Cuthbert. France has its noble literary son Albert Camus, and that sounds great, whereas we have bloody old paradigm groucher Albert Tatlock, erstwhile 1960s Coronation Street TV character, with the flat cap and the miserable and huffy mien. What’s more, if Albert Camus pronounced Albair Camew, was instead an English Existentialist, and his name pronounced Albut Caymuss, I would venture to say no one on earth, not just in the UK, would read his sterling treatises, no matter how pithy and immitigably profound.

The other punning scenario goes back to 1970 when I was a student at University College, Oxford. For complex and completely forgettable reasons, I had been shoved out of my own 1st  year rooms to some 2nd year alternatives, for a short while, and one night the previous 2nd year tenant came back to try and locate something he had left behind. He was a nice friendly guy with floppy hair and a moustache, and would subsequently become something of a celebrity as a freelance photographer. I am giving his real name, or the misunderstanding that follows would make no sense. His name was Herbert Knott and both in 1970, and in his subsequent Guardian by-lines, he would regularly call himself Herbie Knott. I had no idea who the previous tenant was in my temporary quarters, so when he turned up on the door, and shook my hand and said to me: “Knott,” I had no idea what the hell he was talking about.

“Not what?”I said gormlessly.

He smiled a little wearily. “Herbie Knott. My name is Herbie Knott.”

Among the good guys called Herbert are Herbert Read (1893-1968) the anarchist, poet and art critic, and Herbert von Karajan the conductor, and Herbert Lom (1917-2012) the Czech-born film actor. Herbert Read in 1938 was editorial director at Routledge publishers in London, and it was he who insisted, against all opposition, on accepting an unsolicited novel by a barely known Dublin  gent called Samuel Beckett. The novel was called Murphy, and it had been preceded by Beckett’s first book More Pricks Than Kicks. The latter, as anyone back then would have recognised, when people knew their Scripture, is a quote from the Old Testament, but the puritanical and sadly pig ignorant Irish government banned it, assuming it was obscene. Murphy had been touted to innumerable UK publishers by Beckett’s Dublin pal, Thomas McGreevy, as the author found the business of rejection simply too agonising to deal with direct. It was rejected an incredible number of times, many more than my own 25 for Samarkand,  and 35 for Radio Activity – A Cumbrian Tale in Five Emissions.

Herbert Lom, most of us know best as Charles Dreyfus, the hapless superior of Inspector Clouseau, played by Peter Sellars in the Pink Panther movies. If you remember, he was under such appalling stress from the idiot bungler Clouseau, that he had a permanent severe twitch in one eye. Lom was a fine comic actor, but he impressed me most when I was a young teenager, and he was lead star in a 1963-1964 ITV series, called The Human Jungle. He played a brooding genius of a London psychoanalyst, and his statuesque East European features fitted the part to perfection. He also had a meditative fag on the go all the time, as in film noir light he played back his interview tapes, and pondered his clients’ psychiatric enigmas. And so it was by the age of 13, impressed as much by the low light and the fags as the tapes and the Freud, I knew above all I wanted to be a shrink just like Herbert Lom. That explains why I went up to Oxford to read Psychology, as in my naivety, aged 17, I thought Experimental Psychology was more or less the same as Psychoanalysis. Fat chance. It also explains why I switched to Sanskrit and Old Iranian, as the Oxford Psychology degree was so transcendentally boring (Attention, Perception, Reflexes, Eysenck, Eye Contact, Semantic Satiation, kiss my ass and hope to die) that I already sensed I would understand more about the soul, the occidental as well as the oriental, through studying Vedanta, the Upanishads and the like, than by buggering about with mice and rats and blindfolds and cards with single words and numbers on them.

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