Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Wider Reading | Ministry of Silly Names

Major Major’s father had a Calvinist’s faith in predestination and could perceive distinctly how everyone’s misfortunes but his own were expressions of God’s will. He smoked cigarettes and drank whiskey, and he thrived on good wit and stimulating intellectual conversation, particularly his own when he was lying about his age or telling that good one about God and his wife’s difficulties in delivering Major Major. The good one about God and his wife’s difficulties had to do with the fact that it had taken God only six days to produce the whole world, whereas his wife had spent a full day and a half in labour just to produce Major Major. A lesser man might have wavered that day in the hospital corridor, a weaker man might have compromised on such excellent substitutes as Drum Major, Minor Major, Sergeant Major or C Sharp Major, but Major Major’s father had waited fourteen years for just such an opportunity, and he was not a person to waste it. Major Major’s father had a good joke about opportunity. “Opportunity only knocks once in this world,” he would say.  Major Major’s father repeated this good joke at every opportunity.

Being born with a sickly resemblance to Henry Fonda was the first of a long series of practical jokes of which destiny was to make Major Major the unhappy victim throughout his joyless life. Being born Major Major Major was the second. The fact that he had been born Major Major Major was a secret known only to his father. Not until Major Major was enrolling in kindergarten was the discovery of his real name made, and then the effects were disastrous. The news killed his mother, who had lost her will to live and wasted away and died, which was just fine with his father, who had decided to marry the bad-tempered girl at the A & P if he had to and who had not been optimistic about his chances of getting his wife off the land without paying her some money or flogging her.
Catch 22, by Joseph Heller

Much has been writ about how Joseph Heller could only make sense of the realities of war through farce. Less has been writ about how the same can be said of the realities of names. The real-life example Major Major’s name immediately calls to mind is, of course, Neville Neville, Phil and Gary Neville’s father, forever immortalised by a song sung to the tune of Bowie’s Rebel Rebel:

Neville Neville, they’re in defence
Neville Neville, their future’s immense
Neville Neville, they ain’t half bad
Neville Neville, the name of their dad

But more relevant to the here and now – for there is nothing in football now more irrelevant than Gary Neville – is the way recent high-profile military names have once again proved Heller’s novel right. Or, more specifically, to be no more ridiculous than the actual Western military is capable of being. Has there ever been a more hilariously appropriately-named general to lead an American intervention in the Middle East than CARTER HAM, currently taking on Gaddafi? I mean, the whole Islam/pork thing aside, apparently HAM is also a US military slangly acronym for the grammatically problematic idiom, ‘Hard At Motherfuckers’. As in, marines, we're going HAM on this one! AND as everybody knows, US marines look a bit like hams. Big, sweaty, meaty ham hocks in desert fatigues. In the same way that Dave Cameron looks like a robot made of ham. Processed supermarket ham. Which tastes horrid.

Carter Ham                               Ham Hock

Ham                                     Cam

Meanwhile, have there ever been two names more representative of the atmosphere of public school masculinity (‘Play up! Play up! And play the game!’ etc.) that still, according to acquaintances of mine currently tearing up Sandhurst, dominates the upper echelons of the British Army, than AIR CHIEF MARSHAL JOCK STIRRUP and GENERAL FRANCIS RICHARD DANNATT? Is it possible to forge for oneself an eminent career in the British Army without having a surname that represents the onomatopoeic equivalent of a punch in the mouth?

We are living through a Golden Age of silly high-ranking military names. All we need now is somebody who comes close to matching Cromwell’s best-named officer, Praisegod Barebone, and we can consider ourselves truly blessed.


1 comment:

  1. Of course, of even more poetic interest than General Carter Ham is the name that the Americans have given to the whole Libyan intervention caboodle, 'Odyssey Dawn'. Here are a couple interesting blogposts on the subject:


    And here's a fragment of a poem from Jack Underwood's Faber New Poets pamphlet, which takes on this very subject:

    And what do you do?

    Write codenames, military mainly.
    'Operation blunt-tongue', that was me,
    'spirit-hat', 'yard-mile', them too.

    I'm jacking it in next month:
    civvy street, open shirt, slip-on shoes.
    I've a job lined up in colours.

    How about 'burnt viscose', 'black jam'?