Call Me Murgatroyd

by Mary Jackson (December 2010)

Regular readers of New English Review may remember Dr Kevin de Cock, World Health Organisation expert on the effect of male circumcision on the rate of HIV infection in heterosexual men. Perhaps you had momentarily forgotten him, but if I have anything to do with it, nobody will be allowed to forget this man and his very funny name. Nor should we forget that the Marketing Director of Damart, a company that makes thermal underwear, is the aptly named John Bottomley. Make a space in your memory for Professor John Studd, consultant gynaecologist at Chelsea and Westminster hospital in London. More recently we paid tribute to the late Alan Ball, who played ball, and scoffed at Ed Balls, who talks it. And finally – for now – we have a murderer called Mr Gunn. Yes, Mr Gunn the Murderer replaces Mr Bun the Baker in the modern game of Unhappy Families.

This is no laughing matter. Mr Gunn’s human rights have been violated. Was he sent to gaol without trial? Was he forced to work the treadmill or fed on bread and water? Far worse: he was called Gunn, and this was the trigger. From The Telegraph:

ONE of Britain’s most notorious murderers has invoked his human rights to force prison officers to call him “Mr,” it has emerged.

Staff have been ordered to address Colin Gunn, a “double-A” category inmate serving a 35-year sentence for ordering the murder of two grandparents, as “Mr Gunn.”

The ruling came after Gunn complained to the prisons and probation ombudsman saying he was not being treated with sufficient respect.

The ombudsman upheld his complaint and as a result prison officers were told to address Gunn in a manner of his choosing. Instead of opting to have them use his first name, however, Gunn apparently felt the “Mr” prefix more befitted his position as a mob boss.


From his cell, Gunn issued a statement hailing the decision as a victory over “rude, ignorant prison staff” and calling on other inmates to follow his example in demanding respect.


In one posting on his site, which was subsequently closed down, Gunn wrote: “I will be home one day and I can’t wait to look into certain people’s eyes and see the fear of me being there.”

Gunn – neither The Telegraph nor I will humour him with his preferred title – confuses “respect” with fear, and in spirit if not in speech, drops the final t. But the real insult to this puffed up piece of lowlife would be to call him not Gunn, but Colin, or worse still, Col:

Charles Moore has some interesting thoughts on the use and abuse of Christian names (my emphasis):

I am just old enough to remember a time when for males to call one another by their Christian names was a mark of intimacy. At my prep school everyone was called by his surname or nickname. At public school, friends called one another by their first names, but it was a delicate matter to know exactly when one could do this. I remember someone coming into my room and telling me formally that I was now entitled to call him (I have changed the names) ‘Peter’, instead of ‘Murgatroyd’. It was a proud moment. Now things have gone so far the other way that use of the first name has become almost a mark of not knowing someone. If I ring up an office that I have not rung before, someone says ‘Bear with me, Charles’, and emails from strangers deploy one’s first name with insistent frequency. I have lost track, in fact, of who does know me and who doesn’t, and so live on the edge of embarrassment in case I fail to recognise somebody. I’m not sure that the old rules were better, but it would be less confusing if one had a name which only one’s intimates could use. Perhaps it could be one’s computer password.

He has a point. I can’t remember the last time anybody other than the bank or the taxman called me Miss Jackson. “Mary” no longer signals intimacy, but with my permission, special friends can call me rJ459Xg0.

In the past, a mutual agreement to use Christian names – I refuse to use the more politically correct “first names” – did signal a closer friendship. Conversely, a one-sided rush to Christian names was felt to be inappropriate – think of the vulgar Mrs Elton’s “Jane Fairfax”, which so annoys Emma, who fears being “Emma Woodhoused”.

One of my favourite films, The Apartment (see my post here about the mensch mit the no napkins) makes an interesting play of names and forms of address. To the anti-hero C. C. “Bud” Baxter, the heroine, Fran, is always Miss Kubelik, mainly because they are work colleagues. “I love you, Miss Kubelik,” he says at the end, somehow making it sound more romantic than “Fran”. Ruthlessly amoral boss Mr Sheldrake is addressed by his jilted ex-lover and secretary as Jeff when she is speaking fondly of their affair, and as Mr Sheldrake to signal not politeness and respect but distance and resentment.

Nowadays the use of Christian names means nothing. Not that we are all friends all of a sudden. You may call your boss Jack, but he is still your boss, and Jill, the sales rep, may call you John or Jane, but she is still only after your money.

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Mary Jackson contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.


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