Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Not in My Name

The recent death of the actress Elizabeth Taylor has reminded me that when I was younger I saw some novels on the shelves of my local library apparently written by her. This astonished me. "I didn't know she wrote fiction!" I said to myself. She didn't, of course. It was a different Elizabeth Taylor.

Even back then I felt that something about this situation was unfair. The actress had usurped the other Elizabeth Taylor's name, consigning the writer to oblivion. As it happens, that's not quite true: Elizabeth Taylor still has her dedicated readers (Roald Dahl was one enthusiast). However, if someone speaks the two words "Elizabeth" and "Taylor" in succession, it's a safe bet that most people will assume the speaker is referring to the actress, not to the author.

Coincidentally, the actress's husband played the same trick on another historical figure. When I first read in an encyclopedia that the first European to see Lake Tanganyika was Richard Burton I was truly amazed. Apparently he was looking for the source of the Nile at the time. The idea that a drunken Welsh thespian might even be able to find his way up the River Taff in Cardiff was remarkable enough. But to journey up the Nile? I scarcely believed it!

Naturally, it was a different Richard Burton... The explorer is still justly famous. Nonetheless, if someone speaks the two words "Richard" and "Burton" in succession, it's a safe bet that most people will assume the speaker is referring to the actor, not the explorer. Again, this seems grossly unfair.

Recently, someone told me that they greatly enjoyed the novels of Rosemary Sutcliff. My first reaction was to exclaim, "What? They allow her to write books in prison? And make money from them? Outrageous!" I was confusing her name with the names of two serial killers. I know who she is now, but I still think she sounds like a psychopathic murderer. Might as well be called Myra Ripper or Jack the Shipman...

I have long been obsessed with the horrible thought that someone with the same name as me might come along and do something far more remarkable and/or notorious than anything I have ever done, thus appropriating my name for themselves. I have worked hard to make a name for myself as a writer. To be displaced overnight by a different Rhys Hughes would be a dreadful fate; consignment to oblivion in such a manner strikes me as a cruel joke! Let's coin a name for this fear, shall we? How about usurp-phobia?

If such an usurper does appear, please let him be a man of honour and talent, not a drunken actor or (even worse) a vile criminal. I know there is already a Rhys Hughes who plays bass for The Shirehorses; and another Rhys Hughes is president of Interflora; but recently I discovered this news story and it depressed me. I don't want perverts and criminals to take possession of my name. I had it first!

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