When I was 11 I got a diary for Christmas. I named it Steven.
I’d never given much thought to my own name until a year or two previously – it was just an identifier, neither good nor bad – but it had become apparent that the alliteration was deemed comical by some of my peers; my old-fashioned first name, in itself, also seemed to have inherent humour.
There weren’t many Henrys about. I’d been delighted when Princess Diana gave birth to her second baby and provided me with a comrade in Henrydom, only to be hit by a sucker punch when Buckingham Palace promptly announced that Prince Henry would never actually be referred to as Henry – in his day-to-day business he’d go by the much less fusty-sounding “Harry”.
My spectacularly outmoded moniker even had the same reputation internationally. When I was introduced to my sister’s visiting German pen pal, she guffawed: “Henry? In Germany we say ‘Heinrich’! Hahaha – das ist ein grandfather’s name!” When I went up to secondary school it became even funnier. There was a considerable tranche of fellow pupils for whom the mere utterance of the words “Henry Hepburn” induced a gut-bursting bout of laughter, suggesting that they’d just discovered a comedy mother lode far surpassing anything Monty Python, Leslie Nielson or Eddie Murphy had to offer.
(Even today, when my name and I have reconciled with each other, it still has a habit of sending out unwanted signals. A few years back, an English teacher I’d interviewed for the magazine I work for asked if, in return, I’d reply to some questions from her first-year class. They were doing an exercise where, with limited information, they had to predict what someone would look like. When informed that I was a tall and skinny sort of chap, even the teacher seemed deflated: “Oh, really? Everyone seemed to think ‘Henry Hepburn’ would be quite… rotund.”)
I asked my parents about changing my name by something I’d heard of called “deed poll”. They suggested that I might not want to be so hasty, that I wait a few years and see what I felt like when I was older. So I did the obvious thing: I projected my wishes onto my diary.
I cast around for the most sensible, straight-up, immune-to-ridicule name I could think of: Steven it was. I scrawled Steven’s signature in the top-left hand corner of the first page, and envied him because he wasn’t different. It never occurred to me that this was a slightly odd thing to do.
This growing awareness of my name’s comedy value marked a turning point that most people will recognise in their own way. There comes a time, somewhere in that awkward transition between childhood and adolescence, when difference starts to matter. The carefree, non-judgmental world of that first decade of life recedes into the distance. Difference starts to be noticed, commented upon, even exploited. I can laugh now when I think about the shame my name induced; for others, the spotlight shone on their differences will have been deeply scarring.
The teenage years are often portrayed in popular culture as a time of burgeoning individuality. In reality, the reverse is often true: bit by bit, in the determination not to stand out, individuality is chipped away. “Be yourself” is the take-home message of many a Hollywood teen flick. But being yourself is bloody hard if that is at odds with prevailing fashions, mores and peer groups, and provides others with a source of amusement or a tool for harassment. There are some teens who parade their difference with admirable chutzpah and disdain for the norm; more often, as we approach adulthood, we try to bury our differences because we believe they leave us vulnerable.
Many people go on to bloom at college or university, to find joy in a job that they love and flourish with a soulmate that they meet – places and people who help them embrace all the differences that make them unique. But how many of us in adulthood can truly say that they come anywhere near to rediscovering the joyful abandon of childhood, when our daily lives were not constrained by our differences, because we scarcely knew we had any?
Yet here’s the strange paradox: we never stop yearning for difference, and if we cannot achieve it ourselves, we look for it in others. Here’s a little challenge to prove the point: without giving it too much thought, think of three famous figures that you admire. What do they have in common? I’m willing to wager that if I asked this of any random bunch of strangers, they’d present me with a list of rebels, iconoclasts, mavericks, innovators and pioneers: people who embraced their own differences and showed others not to be afraid of breaking away from the norm.
I think of Oscar Wilde, his acerbic, iconoclastic tendencies entirely resistant to stifling Victorian morality. I think of Muhammad Ali, refusing the Vietnam draft on principle and risking the destruction of his career (“I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong…no Viet Cong ever called me ‘nigger’”.) I think of Martin Luther King, resolute in his commitment to non-violence even when that approach appeared to have failed horribly in Selma, Alabama.
To celebrate the kaleidoscope of life makes us human. At our best, we embrace difference: we lend a hand to those less fortunate; we celebrate quirks that others might see as deficiencies; we show curiosity in, rather than antipathy towards, those who take unfamiliar routes through life.
The Nazis chill us not only because of the horrific acts they perpetrated, but because they utterly rejected these most humane of qualities. Their twisted ideology was built on the very idea that difference – whether ethnic, religious, sexual, ideological, bodily, intellectual – was something to be erased, and peddled a doctrine that society was only for of a certain type of “superior” sameness. Differences did not provide the ingredients for a glorious melting pot – they were used to write the manual for the most destructive pecking order imaginable.
I’m a film buff. I’ve seen thousands of film and enjoyed a fair few, but can think of only about 10 or 15 that utterly transfixed me. And I see a theme in most of those: the tension between individuality and repressive sameness.
I think of Edward Scissorhands, where a garish suburban community initially welcomes the otherworldly innocent who comes into their midst, only to turn on him when they decide that his difference represents danger. (PLOT SPOILER ALERT) But in the bittersweet ending, we, the viewers, take comfort in knowing that it is Edward, the tender-hearted ice sculptor, who brings beauty into the world, not the shrivelled hearts filling the place from which he’s been banished.
I think of Ed Wood, the biopic of a man previously scorned as the worst film director ever (and for his cross-dressing), reclaimed by director Tim Burton as a paragon of entrepreneurial spirit and relentless enthusiasm, who never let the rules and ridicule of Hollywood douse his creative fire. I think, too, of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, where personality quirks are pathologised and Nurse Ratched’s regime refuses to tolerate free thinking – Jack Nicholson’s Randle P McMurphy, flawed character that he is, provides one of cinema’s most inspiring finales by reigniting the lust for life of his friend, Chief Bromden.
And I think of The Truman Show. When you boil it down, this is really a parable about child abuse. From birth, without any say in or even knowledge of the matter, Jim Carrey’s Truman is reared in an all-surrounding TV “reality” show, where he is made to do, say and think the same things day after day – until little by little, he starts to suspect there might be more interesting world out there.
The show’s creator is Christof, played by Ed Harris, an omniscient and quietly dictatorial force who provides the film’s most memorable line: “We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that.”
I’m a parent. I want the reality of the world my two daughters grow up in to be one where difference is celebrated and actively pursued, not sidelined or grudgingly tolerated.
Yet even when we claim to champion difference, the truth can be more complicated. “Variety is the spice of life” is one of those clichés that seems less and less apt the more you think about it. If variety is mere spice, then it’s an indulgent extra, a potentially interesting but ultimately unnecessary adornment.
Variety and difference offer so much than that – they should be the very fuel of life.
Henry lives in Falkirk. He is a journalist and a master of the school run.
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