Apart from gender, few things are as central to a person as their name. Someone choosing a pseudonym is likely to choose a new name as close to the original one as possible, or at least keep the same initial. So is a transsexual. Still others go through different versions of their names, adopting diminutives or alternate versions of their names to suit different stages in their lives. Even when changing identities, apparently, people have a hard time severing all connections with their original name. But it’s a connection that leaves me bemused, because I mostly don’t share it.
Oh, in my teen years, I used to sign poems and stories as “B. Allan Byfield,” thinking it more euphonious than plain “Bruce Byfield.” I also toyed with changing my name to “Brian,” a much more common name for my generation, which I often got called anyway.
At times, too, I’ve lamented the lack of variations possible in my first name. If you’re called something like “James,” then you have no end of possible variations: Jamie, Jem, Jemmie, Jim, Jimmy, even Hamish, if you’re of a Gaelic turn of mind. But “Bruce”? Not much can be done with that, except adding a boyish “ie” at the end. And one or two people have tried to call me “Bru,” but it’s never caught on.
However, I can’t say that I’ve spent much time worrying about such matters. After a couple of years, I decided that “B. Allan Byfield” sounded pretentious, and I’ve never cared enough to change my name or find some variation that I like.
Really, the only thing I have against the plain monosyllable is that the only association it gave me as I was growing up was the Scottish king Robert the Bruce sitting in a cave taking lessons in perseverance from a web-spinning spider. It’s not a bad story, and persistence is one of my characteristics, so perhaps I learned from it, but I would have liked a few other Bruces for role-models as well.
On the plus side, I appreciate that my name is unusual. Since the rise of the Internet, I have noticed a few Googlegangers, including a real estate salesman and a minister, but, in every day interactions, my name is unique.
Moreover, if I encounter someone with the same surname, I can be reasonably sure that a connection exists somewhere, even if I don’t know what it is. Chances are, I am related in some way to Ted and Link Byfield of Alberta Report fame, although the fact that we are all journalists is a coincidence, and I deplore their politics. Similarly, Jamaican Byfields exist, but whether an ancestor was a slave owner or married a transported African, I don’t know. But I do like to think that the Richard Byfield who was vicar in Stratford-on-Avon in the 1590s was an ancestor, and that he might have preached to Shakespeare, or even taken his Sunday sermon down the road to have the playwright criticize his rhetoric.
Such fleeting thoughts aside, I’ve always sympathized with the poet and novelist Robert Graves, who in “My Name and I” asserted that he and his name were independent entities who were only distantly connected.
More recently, since I became a journalist and my name gained some little recognition in free and open source software circles, I’ve appreciated the title of one of Alec Guiness’ autobiographies, My Name Escapes Me. In one autobiography, Guiness mentions his bemusement at Star Wars fans sending him action figures of his character Obiwan Kenobi and imagining that he would want them.
No one has sent me any swag yet (nor would I want it), but, in my own much smaller way, I’m starting to understand what Guiness’ title means. When people discuss what I’ve written in blogs, I’ve sometimes reacted personally, if only in my head. Yet, increasingly, as I hear people praise or vilify this “Bruce Byfield,” or ascribe not only opinions, but also characteristics and habits that I don’t share in the least, I wonder who they are talking about. This “Bruce Byfield” that they are going on about doesn’t even seem to be a friend or acquaintance of mine. He certainly isn’t me.
But no doubt my name and I will travel along in loose association in much the same way as we have until now. Then I will die, and for a while my name will live on in a few statistics and memories, free of its unwanted connection with me at last.