I first wrote this blogpost back in 2007 (here) but I quite fancied reprinting it here as it has some resonance with the previous post about 'the names we might have had'.
I was travelling on the London Underground yesterday when I remembered a story I was once told about Charlton Heston. The story – completely untrue of course – was that he chose his stage name by randomly stabbing a map of London with a pin. Charlton. Heston. Perfect. But what if he’d been distracted by an errant fly? What if a capricious gust of wind had moved the map a little? El Cid starring Wapping Penge? Planet of the Apes starring Morden Oval? Or how about Soylent Green starring Croxley Blackfriars?
What a great name Croxley Blackfriars is. I may change my name by deed poll.
After amusing myself with these thoughts for a while, it suddenly dawned on me that I was travelling on the Bakerloo Line; a line that took its name from Baker Street and Waterloo, the original start and end of the line. But what if the tunnel had begun at Piccadilly and ended at Marylebone? Would it now be called the Piccabone Line? Would a line from Paddington to Elephant & Castle be the Elton Line? Or the Paddiphant Line?
Elton Paddiphant. Another fine name. Maybe I'll call myself that instead ...
I mentioned this to my travelling companion and he said, “Piccabone? They’d never have called it that. It doesn’t sound right, does it?”
“But does it sound any less right than Bakerloo?” I argued, “Or does ‘Bakerloo’ sound right simply because it’s familiar?”
“You’re weird,” he said.
Weird I might be but I was on to something here, I realised.
Imagine for a moment that the Duke of Wellington was the person who asked for a piece of beef between two slices of bread; or that Lord Cardigan demanded rubber boots for his troops; or that the Earl of Sandwich felt chilly enough to request a front-buttoning pullover? We’d all now wear sandwiches when we’re cold, cardigans on our feet and enjoy a packed lunch of cheese and pickle wellies.
Or imagine if Columbus had arrived in America believing that he’d arrived in Belgium rather than India. Then we would have spent our childhoods playing Cowboys and Belgians. It may sound daft to you but if things had happened differently it would be the accepted norm. Familiarity breeds acceptance.
I recall a mate of mine once saying that the aim of marketing is to turn ‘prototype into stereotype’. In other words, to turn something new and different into something familiar, cosy and acceptable. When satellite dishes and ‘squarials’ (remember them?) first started sprouting from house fronts, a lot of people groaned about how ugly they were. Do we even notice them any more? The same thing happened with the first TV aerials in the 1950s. By the time the first dish came along, familiarity had made those aerials invisible for most of us. And now I come to think about it, it’s amazing the things we take for granted – that we accept – simply because we’re used to them. Noise, for example.
During the Millennium celebrations, Radio 4 ran a series of interviews with people who were alive in 1900 and asked for their impressions of the past century. One man mentioned that, in his lifetime, he’d seen technology advance at an extraordinary rate. The Wright Brothers first flight in 1910 was shorter in distance than the wingspan of a Jumbo Jet. Yet by 1969, men were walking on the Moon. Another interviewee mentioned noise. He recalled that, as a boy, there was only one car in his home town. It belonged to rich friends of his parents and they lived 3 miles away on the other side of town. When invited for a meal, they would toot the horn upon leaving home so that the hostess could put the veg on to boil (the cross-town journey took twenty minutes). How much chance would you have today of standing one side of a town and hearing a solitary car horn three miles away on the other? Noise is everywhere. Even the remotest places on Earth have jets flying overhead. We are surrounded and swamped by a cacophony of traffic noise, screaming jet engines, rattling trains, blaring radios and squawking television sets. Add to that the ubiquitous trilling of mobile phones, the repetitive hissing beat from over-cranked i-pods and the raucous voices of several million commuters and you get some idea of what my trip to work is like. Yet I don’t even notice it most of the time.
So there you have it. I don’t notice the dissonance around me because it’s familiar dissonance. Familiarity breeds acceptance. I no longer bat an eyelid at stage names like Jasper Carrot, Alvin Stardust or Johnny Vegas - ridiculous though they are - because they’re familiar stage names (Surely the best ever was comedian Craig Ferguson’s alter-ego Bing Hitler?). Familiarity breeds acceptance is also the reason why well-known celebrities become strangely unfamiliar when you muck about with their names. Bradley Pitt. Jimmy T Kirk. Robert Williams. Richard Gervais. The names we find so recognisable could have been very different but for the quirkiness of fate. And we would have been none the wiser because they would have sounded normal to us.
Which is why, in some alternative universe, I am currently travelling to work on the St Plop Line (St Pauls to Fairlop) and musing on what other names the famous actor Leyton Mudchute could have chosen.
Ha! That’s a good one.