The Palace fiasco last week really does sum up some extraordinarily selective double-standards and confused notions of bigotry, prejudice, and victimhood, but British people really do sometimes make things into a mess. The thing is, they don’t usually mean to.
I have, during the 65 years of my life, been constantly asked where I come from, thanks to my name. The assumption is always that I cannot possibly be from Britain though in my case this is manifestly not based on the colour of my skin. Most think the name is likely to be French and that therefore I must be French, even though I haven’t turned up wearing a beret and smoking a Gauloise or any form of French national dress. Where are you from? they say. Obviously not from Here, the Centre of the Universe. Apparently, I must be Norman, or a Huguenot. Or anything, but not British.
Incidentally, just in case you were wondering, I was born in Wimbledon and my last French ancestor was four generations ago. The name has been acquired down the unbroken male line. My father is in all other respects of English, Scottish, and Anglo-Irish origin. My mother was Scottish.
However, it is my actual name, not one I adopted along the way to make myself seem more interesting or exotic. Though I can’t tell you how many times I wished I’d changed it to something less troublesome.
I have endured an unlimited battery of variant and often absurd spellings of my name (Gaie de Pedogene was the most remarkable), as well as an abject horror on the part of almost any other indigenous British adult to try and speak my surname out loud, however easy I try to make it for them. All you have to say is Bed-why-air which you might have thought even an imbecile could manage, but despite the patient explanation the result when someone goes live is always a disaster.
This includes the committee members of societies introducing me to audiences as their lecturer who fumble with confusion and embarrassed laughter and invariably make a pig’s ear of it (three times in the last month, no less). It’s as if the prospect of pronouncing a Foreign Name annihilates all their mental functions and turns their brains into mush. They wring their hands with apologetic bewilderment, but the joke is really on me. I’m the joke because I have a joke Foreign Name.
The culprits also included every member of staff (except the French teachers) at a school where I taught for nine years in which not one would even attempt to say it – oddly, the children seemed to have no trouble with pronouncing it correctly. That was as recent as 2016. I was reduced to Mr de la Bee by the staff.
None of these people is trying to cause offence. In fact, albeit in a cackhanded way, they are trying to avoid causing offence. So, I don’t take it.
On Friday morning (December 2nd) I was on Radio 5 Live for an hour as a guest expert. The prominent, well-paid and relentlessly right-on presenter, despite having been prepped about my name, immediately screwed it up. Of course he did. I could see he was very busy as I’d been supplied with a video feed. He was tied up texting on his phone and picking his nose – it’s a tough life.
As the hour progressed his limited command of my name deteriorated. I ended up being recast as a Frenchman as he gradually converted my first name to a French pronunciation. Was he having a laugh? Is he just a twit? Or was he suggesting that I shouldn’t pretend to be anything other than a Foreigner? It was odd to find myself becoming more foreign as the time passed. Luckily, I was only on for an hour. This in spite of the fact that I’d told him my mother came from Glasgow and my cousin is the former captain of Rangers and Scotland, Richard Gough.
A high-profile BBC presenter, no less – but what if I had been guest of colour and then thrown a wobbly? He clearly didn’t give a **** about my sensibilities (if I had any) – which is quite different from flustered lecture organisers getting themselves into hopeless muddles while trying not to be offensive.
Luckily, I don’t care much because I’m used to it – but it could end his career if he tries that on with the wrong person, and especially given the sort of place the BBC is. There are therefore all sorts of issues at play here. Should I demand an apology from the BBC Director-General? If I do, I’ll never be on another BBC show.
I suppose it’s an example of a sort of British parochial xenophobic naffness rather than anything more sinister. A condescension towards anyone deemed to be from the mythical Land of Johnny-Foreigner. You know the old newspaper headline from a century ago: “Fog in Channel – Continent Cut Off.”
But then, let’s be honest. It’s only human to be curious about something unusual, something different. Spotting a name as ‘Foreign’ and saying or implying so is a way of trying to sound sophisticated – even ‘considerate’. Why would any of us really expect anything different?
Yes, the name is annoying and time-wasting (I have spelled the name out and explained my nationality a million times). Conversely, I have never tried to ambush anyone with my name or sought to humiliate others for their failings. Nor could I claim to be a victim of racism because no-one would pay the slightest bit of attention in a world where some victims are more equal than others. To put it another way, life is not a bowl of cherries, and one just has to get on with it. Worse things happen at sea.
But it does cut both ways. In France I usually discover that the French are disgusted to be confronted with a Briton in possession of a far smarter French name than any of them have (the ‘de la’ automatically means it’s of aristocratic origin). And they know instantly I’m British – I only have to open my mouth. I suppose that’s the irony – it’s often assumed in Britain that I’m not British, whereas the French have absolutely no doubt where I come from.