On Being Me …
I recall reading that in 1870 about 40% of people in the UK with my family name lived in Lancashire, and as I came from there myself it didn’t seem anything out of the ordinary when I was growing up. When I did a bit of family research it became evident that almost all the family lines had remained in or around Merseyside for most of the 19th century, although beyond their addresses and occupations I didn’t learn much about them.
As I grew up it seemed there were three tribes in Liverpool with my family name: the
mob that produced the famous actor my parents’ generation knew; the mob that the produced the famous musician that my generation knew; and the mob that just did ordinary jobs – my mob, pictured here over four generations. Maybe we were linked in some way, but my grandparents didn’t have much time with certain branches of their own family because of the lifestyle or temperament of various black sheep (code for drunkenness and family violence) so any number of connections may have been lost. But don’t be shocked, working class life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries wasn’t like those Hovis ads.
As it happened I got to know part of the music family because I worked with his dad in a place where they took on students during the summer months to cover for the regulars’ holiday leave; I was one of them, and the shift managers would pair the older regulars
with the students to ensure that we didn’t get out of our depth and learned the essential survival tips quickly. Perhaps it was because our names matched, but the supervisors seemed to pair me with the musician’s dad more often than anyone else. And we got on quite well, one shift at a time, maybe because we made a point of talking about everything except his son.
Regarding first name, I was the only Brian that I knew: there were no others on either side of the family and none with that name at school, or youth club, or church either. It was such an unfamiliar name that if I’d been compensated on every occasion my name was written as Brain on certificates, prescriptions or school registers I think I would have been able to retire before I left school and never worked at all. And yet the first time I
did encounter my first other Brian at university, he had the impertinence to have the same family name as me as well! That was the point I became Brian J to distinguish myself from any other imposters.
A further namesake emerged about 10 years later but was able to claim the bragging rights by being extensively published, appointed a professor, and awarded a knighthood too. Coincidently, I was appointed to a role in another part of his place of work just after he’d retired. His unforwarded mail and assorted invitations arrived on my desk most mornings, and my name meant that I received an untypical level of service in bookshops, restaurants and other fine establishments in the city whenever I presented a payment card. It was only in the opticians we both seemed to frequent that corrected their assumptions – my eyesight wasn’t as bad as his seemed to be.
I’d become used to encountering doppelgangers by the time I saw that one of my
favourite musicians had dedicated an album to me – or someone with my name – and when I saw her on tour some time later I was introduced as one of her backing musicians. Apparently his nickname was Brain too so we shared that burden too, but it was a high point (perhaps for both of us) as he died from a heart attack a year or so later at home in Nashville.
I Google my name from time to time to see who comes up, which neophyte is carrying our banner forward. The old academic is pretty near the top of the tree and I can’t find myself anymore. Once I think I made it as the top of page 2 but the recent ‘right to be forgotten’ rule means you can’t find me easily anymore.
If ever I pass a monument or memorial, I always look to see if the name is up there on the wall. About 40 years ago the family name became a popular first name, mainly in the USA, so the extended name checks now include an Apollo astronaut who walked on the moon. But otherwise I’ve seen the family name in all types of places: on the wall of The Alamo in St Antonio; on the US Declaration of Independence and in the list of US Presidents, twice; in the records on Ellis Island; in the list of Victoria Cross recipients, three times; on the Titanic memorial in Belfast; on the Menin Gate in Ypres, and on less celebrated but in no way less forgotten war memorials. When I see their names I feel that somewhere in me there’s part of them, and somewhere in them there’s part of me.
Meanwhile, the family name is still in the top 50 in the UK, but if my own migration is typical of my generation then the percentage of us who live in Lancashire today is probably a lot lower than it used to be.