Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The sociology of names

When two EDL-supporting brothers, born in the 1970s, broke away from the route of a march through the Medway towns and attacked staff in a kebab shop simply for "looking a bit different" - so much for the EDL being any kind of allies of convenience for the anti-Islamist Left - many would have responded to the fact that they were called Wayne and Darren by saying, effectively, "what do you expect"? Many would feel the same way about the fact that two of the people on my patch who have most rapidly sunk into a morass of drink and drug abuse - seemingly waiting for death decades early - are called Jason and Wayne.  The complete social discrediting of these names, to the point where nobody would dream of giving them now, tells a significant story about the descent of large parts of a particular generation of a particular social class from the unending social advances and opportunities that their parents envisaged for them when they were born to the morass of isolation and decay that they have fallen into since.

Popular given names always reflect whatever other place and time is being romanticised at the time they are given; the current immense popularity of Jack, Harry, Alfie and Charlie reflects a certain romanticisation of a largely imaginary past England, the street urchin and the Cockney wideboy as preferable to the "feral" "chav".  By the same token, the popularity of Wayne, Darren, Lee etc. for the working class at a particular moment in history (Jason's origins are of course quite different, but it came to be of the same ilk) reflects the romance and excitement of American affluence and prosperity for parents who had lived through great hardships as children, the idea that once you had your own home (a concept then - crucially, and crucially different from my own lifetime - still couched in socialist terms in Britain) and your own consumer durables nothing was beyond you.  I don't think they ever became quite so popular in Scotland, where William seems to have held up better during its wilderness years in England and Brian seems to have lasted longer, but impossible as this is even to imagine now, Wayne and Darren were aspirational names for the English working class in the 1960s, a sign not that you could never go anywhere but that you were going somewhere, away from the slums and, indeed, the Jacks, Harrys, Alfies etc.

This is the context in which they make sense - which, unfortunately, only exists in many people's minds today as a prelude to the context in which their pariah status makes sense.  When the names were most commonly given, the underclass into which so many of their bearers have sunk didn't yet exist, and would have seemed hard to imagine. Their parents could only foresee decades of advancing opportunities and freedoms for their children; there would have been no assumption that anyone would ever find the idea of university graduates with those names funny.  By 1974, of course, the working class's hopes for its future role in society would have outstripped even that; many honestly believed that, by now, they would be in command, would have taken over the very top table.  The idea that names that betrayed a child of the working class in the 1960s or 1970s would be, in themselves, almost a badge of shame to live down would have been impossible for their parents to grasp.

There is much more to be said about this stuff - about the very fact of Lee Hall's given name, in the context of the consumerist aspirations of much of the working class at the time of his birth in 1966, arguably undermining his view that it was purely Thatcherism and Thatcherism alone that destroyed the old working-class culture, about the fact of Alex Ferguson's sons being called Jason and Darren strengthening the point I made here some time ago about his delusionary concepts of the BBC as permanently Reithian and Sky as "anti-establishment" "rebels".  But I think it should be made clear that the discrediting of these names isn't simply a naming trend in isolation; it runs in parallel with the discrediting of the dreams that sustained the working class in this country for the two decades after Suez and Hungary, both the dream of America and the dream of social emancipation here (both underlying subtexts in much of Then Play Long, rendered explicit in a piece like this).  No dreams, as yet, have adequately replaced them.

1 comment:

  1. I was wondering whether you're listening to BBC Four right now, particularly circa 30 minutes in...