Features Investigations

A Series of Unfortunate Names

George Hitler declined to speak to the writer.

What’s in a name? Some are too normal for their own good: Tom, Will, Harry. Others are markers of a parent’s classical pretension – Penelope, Iphigenia – or their lack of imagination: Matthew, son of Matthew, son of, er, Matthew. Some are shamefully double-barrelled or pointedly anonymous; pity poor Jane Doe, a government worker I found online during the research for this article. Some are just painfully embarrassing. A friend of mine grew up with a neighbour called ‘Brad Peet’. My own name, John, is an empty vessel. Being called John is like being called ‘name’.

Some names are ruined forever by one bad apple. I have never met anyone called Adolf, although I did find a ‘George Hitler’ on LinkedIn. He lives in Ohio and works as a digital product manager for Victoria’s Secret. (Hitler declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Sometimes a name takes on historical importance at precisely the wrong moment for some unsuspecting person. John Lennon was born the year before Love Me Do became The Beatles’ first number one. ‘Being from Liverpool makes it even worse,’ laughed Lennon in a gentle Scouse burr as we spoke on the phone from our respective quarantines. ‘I was 16 and I went to a nightclub in Liverpool. The police raided it and they asked me my name. They didn’t believe me. They would give me a smack or something.’

Lennon doesn’t like his namesake’s music. ‘They weren’t my favourite band at all.’ The solo stuff? ‘I always liked Paul McCartney more.’

‘When he died,’ said Lennon cheerfully, ‘I was on the shop floor in an engineering factory. God. The stick I took. Everyone saying “Aren’t you dead? Aren’t you supposed to be dead? Where’s Yoko?”

There have been some strange moments (‘I was in China once: everyone wanted to touch me, it was insane’), but Lennon took the long view on his lifelong accident of fate. ‘My dad always said to me, a name like mine breaks the ice immediately.’ He seemed to me very much like a man who got up to be John Lennon every morning with a smile on his face.

If Lennon was always too young to be mistaken for his namesake, the same isn’t true of Gina Miller, who says she has been contacted by 5 News on three separate occasions with requests for interviews.

‘They said something like, Hi Gina, I’m sure you’re incredibly busy with today’s court ruling… – it confused me because I wasn’t busy. I was in my pyjamas I think.’ (Miller declined to be interviewed by 5 News).

In fact, this happens to Miller a lot. ‘A man on Twitter reached out to tell me to keep up the good work and ignore the “Neanderthal abuse” I had been receiving. They were misplaced words, but welcome nonetheless.’

When I asked Miller if she had ever met Gina Miller, she was effusive. ‘I so nearly did! I was in the Channel 4 news studio. As I walked in Jon Snow said, “Gina Miller’s coming,” and I thought he was talking about me. And it turned out that he was referring to her.’

‘If I did meet her,’ Miller continued, ‘I might say “thank you for not giving my name a bad name”, but also maybe “couldn’t you have gone with your maiden name so I’d have a stab at making it famous first?”

David Cameron, a scaffolder from North Scotland I located on LinkedIn, told me that it sometimes takes people months to even realise the significance of his name. ‘I’m basically the polar opposite to David Cameron,’ said Cameron. ‘I’ll probably only ever wear a suit to my own funeral.’

‘I’m a big hairy Scottish man with a ginger beard, I’m a rough guy – I’m a gentle person, but I look kind of rough – I think people don’t put the name and the image together.’

‘I grew up in the area I live in, so I know everyone here. I was David Cameron years before he was.’

Cameron was working in his garden, and our phone call was interrupted briefly while, he explained to me after a brief pause, his five-year-old daughter came to bring him some water with ice. In Scotland, as in London, it was another beautiful day that the quarantined nation would spend watching through their windows. Cameron was happy to chat. As an industrial scaffolder, he moves frequently between different oil rigs in the North Sea. ‘It always breaks the ice. I used to tell people I was going to change my name to Theresa May’ he laughed, before adding without much enthusiasm, ‘now I’ll have to change it to Boris Johnson.’

He said there were always jokes about his name at work, but he noticed something unusual about people’s reactions in recent years. ‘Lads from Middlesbrough who wanted to shut all the borders because of certain races coming in and blah blah blah. They thought being called David Cameron was great. I could see the tide turning – I had a very small insight into that, the change from working-class Labour people to working-class Tory people.’

At this point I was still looking to speak to other David Camerons, having already been rebuffed by two others on LinkedIn (more or less all of the research for this article was done on LinkedIn). I was preparing to contact one on Instagram when I decided to get a look at his profile, just to have a sense of who I was about to contact.

There were two photos on the account, which had been set up recently. The first was a photo of a sign in Chipping Norton. The second was a picture of a young woman looking at a table of baked goods. The caption read, ‘V proud of Nancy baking 100 banana bread muffins for key workers in Chippy.’

I looked at the followers. I looked back at the photos. And I realised I had accidentally found the barely disguised personal Instagram account of former Prime Minister David Cameron.

I had mistaken him as merely being a man called David Cameron. Which I suppose, at heart, he is. Though not, in my own view, in the same naive good faith as the other David Camerons. I tactfully withdrew from his DMs. The account has since been made private. (Former Prime Minister David Cameron declined to be interviewed for this piece. Well, I never asked him. But he would almost definitely have declined my invitation to attend a livestreamed roundtable with four or five other David Camerons as part of my attempt to – as I pitched it to my editor – ‘foster a productive dialogue by bringing people together to answer the question of what it means to be David Cameron in 2020’.)

The urge to bring people with the same name together is a strong impulse for those of us who spend too much time online. I spoke to Jimmy Saville (he sometimes goes by ‘James’), who said he was once added to a Facebook group message of people with similar names, called LEAVE THE KIDS ALONE, ‘or words to that effect’. ‘I’m afraid I just left the chat when I saw it’, said Saville, ‘so I didn’t get to see whether things escalated.’

I heard the same story from Madeleine McCann, a production assistant based in New York. ‘On Facebook a lot of people have messaged me (mostly British people I think) over the years saying some variation of “I found you” or “your parents are looking for you” adding me to groups with other Maddie/Maddy McCanns. I could always tell when a story came out about her because then there would be a spike in the amount of messages I was getting.’

But I was still intrigued by the particular misfortune of some names: most of all, those people who have the immense misfortune of sharing their identity with monsters. How could you not be fascinated by the precise, malicious coincidence that led to someone’s name becoming a byword for wrongdoing and human destruction?

The man who replied to me was, from what I could see, a paragon of human goodness. In his professional work, he researched and spoke on behalf of some of the most oppressed people on the planet. He was a member of ethics committees and human rights advocacy groups. He seemed to have devoted his time on earth to bettering the lives of those less fortunate than he. I looked at his name. I looked at his CV. I looked back at his name.

Now that, I thought, is unfortunate.

I had reached out to him asking, as I asked everyone, if he would like to be interviewed about his experiences with his name. His message read:

Hi John
It is an adventure, but I will pass on this.

An answer that, in my eyes, managed to be both decent and firm, while suggesting, with the smallest twinkle in its eye: yes, strange things do happen. And perhaps I joke about them sometimes, in private, with close friends. But not with you.

A short coda. After this piece was filed, I got a LinkedIn message from a man who shared a name with a well-known and universally despised American criminal.

I won’t identify him beyond saying he was an English businessman in late mid-life. When I wrote to him, I had told him what I told everyone else: that I wanted to interview people who shared names with notorious figures. He responded with the only answer I’d never expected to read:

I have no idea how/why I’d be a match for your research criteria. What would you want to pick my brains about?

I didn’t know what to do. Would it be wrong to tell him? Would it be wrong not to?

There was no reason it should matter, after all. He hadn’t done anything wrong. Character, not name, is destiny, and surely this man, whoever he was, would be secure enough in himself not to be troubled by what was nothing more than a piece of bad luck? Could I leave him in ignorance? But what if ignorance really might be bliss?

I wrote him back:

Hi there! Sorry – my mistake. I must have had you confused with someone else.

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