Monday, 14 February 2011

The Superhero of Silly Names

I'm a big baby. I find silly names extremely amusing. This is possibly because I myself have a bloody stupid name. Steven Primrose-Smith is incredibly wet, isn't it? It's hardly the name of ruthless business leader or a dashing eighteenth century explorer. Not unless the place he was dashing to explore was the Blue Peter garden. Apparently, there's a web site that will generate a porn name for you. I suppose it's useful if you're fed up of working in the bank. For a bloke it'll come up with something strong and masculine, like Hank Stallion or Alex Porkbone. Steven Primrose-Smith is as far removed from a porn name as it's possible to be. I'm not sure what sort of job goes with Primrose-Smith. A Church of England vicar maybe, or someone who embroiders poodles.

Facebook friends from my youth will wonder why I now have this name rather than the easily forgettable Steven Smith they knew from school. Did my parents get remarried or maybe I changed it? No, basically I lied to you. I've always had this silly name. Throughout my entire childhood I prevented the leaking of a truth that I suspected would have resulted in anything from mild, good natured teasing to something requiring reconstructive surgery. And as if my name wasn't silly enough, some people have managed to get it even more amusingly wrong. The seven year-old daughter of a friend of mine thought I was called Steven Steamrose-Piss.

But some people have it a lot worse than I do. Long ago I did a cycling tour of Orkney, where I picked up the regional rag. Local papers the world over have a hard time selling themselves what with there usually being no actual news to report. The headline in that evening's copy of The Orcadian screamed, "Chaos as uncollected rubbish gathers in street" accompanied by a photo of three lonely bin bags in a scene that looked entirely unchaotic. More amusing than this was a photo on page 5 of a local lady's recent birthday gathering. Just as Tony Blackburn's surname originates from a northern mill town, other places become surnames too. Unfortunately, in Orkney there's a village called Twatt. You can see where I'm going with this. Being saddled with such a surname is unlucky enough, but you wouldn't thank your parents if they then christened you Violet. Happy birthday, you poor lass.

Jump forward a few years and I took my silly name research international. In 1996 I got a job in Austria. On my first evening in Graz, in a company apartment with no telly or radio, while waiting for my gear to arrive from the UK, I got bored. This was the sort of crippling ennui that causes you to get creative with alternative sources of amusement. All I had to read in my spartan flat was a local telephone directory. Now, I have to admit to something I'm not particularly proud of, and I apologise right now to any Austrian or German reading this, but I did what you'd expect any Englishman to do in such a situation and decided to see how many Hitlers lived in my area. I'm not exactly sure what I was going to do with this information. It's not like I was planning a putsch or anything. As it turned out there weren't any. I was later told that, for reasons of personal safety, all the Hitlers had been allowed to change their names after the war. I think this was probably a wise move. I suspect the mild, good natured teasing might have become unbearable.

Anyway, during my scan of the Austrian phone book I noticed an outstanding number of silly names. And when I turned up to work for the first time the next day, it was obvious that silly names weren't confined to telephone listings. The company email system was full of 'em. There was good old Harold Fuchs, and the painfully honest Roland Wanker. And my department contained two great ones. Despite the tragic name, Peter Piswanger really was a lovely fella. And when you appreciate that a 'd' at the end of a German word sounds very much like a 't', you'll realise the childish sniggering of Englanders every time Marina Kuntzfeld introduced herself. Even the Brits in Austria had dodgy names. I knew a bloke called Richard Cheese. He rarely contracted his first name.

But I never met the man behind the phone book's most beautiful name of all. To me, he was the superhero of all daft monikers and he was called...wait for it...Andreas Wankhammer! Isn't that just gorgeous? I saw him as a Thor-like creature battling evil with his giant penis. He probably wasn't. He was probably an accountant or something, calculating profit and loss accounts with his giant penis. But if I'd been called Andreas Wankhammer I wouldn't have hidden away my name at school. I'd have shouted it loudly from the rooftops. Admittedly, I'd probably then have been expelled. But at least I would have found my porn name.

Monday, 7 February 2011

My life as Fred West

When I've mentioned this trip to others, some have asked me why I want to do it. No matter how often I get that question I'm always slightly thrown by it. Why wouldn't I want to do it? It feels like a no-brainer. I'll be getting myself fit and healthy, seeing amazing places and meeting tons of interesting people. I'll down some of the best beer in the world in Belgium, scoff a pizza in its Neapolitan birthplace and possibly get shot dead by a genuine Russian gangster in Moscow. Even forgetting the money raised for charity and focussing purely on selfish reasons, it feels fairly negative to even consider that this trip might not be a good idea. It's like asking Mr. Kipling why he wanted to make his cakes exceedingly good rather than just a bit shit.

But I'm used to negativity. I love my mum but she's possibly the most negative person on the planet. Just as the Inuits reputedly have dozens of words for snow, my mum has three thousand different ways of saying, "That won't work!" We've already run through a couple of hundred reasons why my bike ride will fail and they've become progressively more ridiculous. For a while the favourite was that my bike would be stolen somewhere like Poland. Then we moved on to my impending mauling by a gang of desperate Albanians. It won't be long before the smart money is on my being eaten by a shark in the Alps.

Negativity prevents a lot of good stuff from happening. I'm interested in the idea of motivation. Why do some people live the life they dream of while others seem only to live for the weekends or for a couple of weeks each summer? Continuing this theme, the cycling is not the only element of this trip that doesn't meet with my mum's approval. As the second capital I'll tick off during my ride, I'm very much looking forward to pootling through Boris's new, cycle-friendlier London. The timing of my visit is crucial because I'll be spending a couple of days there enjoying the second half of a life-coaching course. I quite fancy the idea of life-coaching and helping people to help themselves to achieve what they really want. My mum finds this hysterical. "You can't be a life coach," she says. "You haven't lived!" Cheers, mum.

So the trial began. The case for the defence pointed out that, amongst other things, I've lived in four different countries and have travelled to four different continents. I've cycled the two and a half thousand kilometres from the Isle of Man to the Costa del Sol and have crewed even farther on a yacht from Marseilles to Cork. I was the director of my own software company, I finally managed to get a degree, I've run a marathon and I survived a near death experience. That was a busy weekend, I can tell you. I've stood on a stage and sung a song I wrote myself dressed as a sex-starved dinosaur, I've played the role of Fred West in a series of comedy sketches and I've even appeared under those same lights dressed in nothing but skimpy female underwear. As it really wasn't helping my case, I asked if this last bit could be struck from the record. C'mon, mum, I've lived! But then the judge revealed why I hadn't. It's because I don't have kids. To my mum, life equals children and without reproducing I may as well have spent the last forty years queueing in Greggs. The verdict was, and still is, guilty. This misses the point about life-coaching anyway. It's not about telling people how to live. It's about helping them to find what they really want to do and then to assist in putting together a plan of action. It's about a technique rather than recalling a store of personal experiences. You can become a life coach without having children. And without dressing up as Fred West.

But generally the family agrees that I should go and get a job rather than tossing around on my bike and reading books and stuff. At get togethers the house drips with a Protestant work ethic even if there's no actual religion present. But I don't want to do that. I want to have an adventure. I want to see all that Europe has to offer, and I want to finish those degrees. That's what I call living. That's my plan of action. So sod 'em! I'm doing this trip and I'll just have to take my chances in Switzerland with all those man-hungry Great Whites.