Sunday. To Cardiff to collect some sheeting for the market stall. I drop in at my favourite soup kitchen. The coffee here is much better than the slops served out by the majority of commercial outlets like Daglocks or Coffee Incubus. The rough-sleepers, homeless and unemployed of Cathays are buggers for a skinny latte so I’m into the queue as soon as I arrive and soon occupying a table with three regular, all called – as is the local fashion – But.
Over the years, I have noticed that most men in Cardiff and Newport share this name and I have often wondered why. The explanation is confined to one of the most shameful chapters of Anglo-Welsh history, namely, Name-Stealing.
During the 11th and 12th centuries when the northern rimmers or perhaps reevers (I forget) and their Scottish neighbours were wasting their time stealing each other’s cattle, the Norman Marcher Barons were raiding Welsh settlements and stealing names. Rich and poor, young and old; no one was spared this monstrous atrocity. At the end of a hard day’s raiding, saddle bags filled to the brim with surnames, pet names, patronyms, nick- and christian names, the Marcher Barons would wash, dry, and sort their prizes before packing them ready for export to the nameless wastes beyond the Urals.
Being weaker militarily, there was little the Welsh could do to prevent what would nowadays be a classed as a criminal activity – punishable by a severe slap on the wrist or a weekend for two in a reasonable beach hotel on Mustique – whichever was the most convenient.
After two hundred years, names became closely guarded possessions amongst the Welsh and families that had not been deprived of their names rose to social prominence. Evans, Jenkins, Davis, Davies, Jones, Thomas and Sorabji are all fine examples. These families have done well for themselves down the decades and risen to high office. The evidence is still all about us. Did you know that the House of Commons currently has 34 MP’s called David Davis or Davies. As But (1), one of the soup kitchen pundits opined whistfully,
‘A single Parliament’s expense claims more than makes up for the nominal loss suffered by generations of their antecedents.’
Sitting next to him, But (2) explained a more recent disaster associated with the Great Welsh Name Famine. Everyone must have seen the classic Michael Caine film Zulu in which the 19 Jones’s of the 24th Regiment of Foot The South Wales Borderers cooped up in Rorke’s Drift are known by their army number to prevent confusion. Well by 1945, there were some many Joneses in the British Army that communication was starting to break down with tragic consequences. ‘Look out Jones 942731426589!’ lacked the urgency of ‘Look out Featherstonehaugh-Browne!’ with the disastrous results in terms of Welsh casualties. After the war, George Byron Lenin crystallised the problem in his best-selling pamphlet ‘What is to be done?” . He did not have to wait long for an answer.
But(3) claimed that it was a distant cousin of his from Betws-y-Coed who might have come up with a timely and profitable solution to the problem – although he has also claimed that his family has been responsible for inter alia the discovery of the Holy Grail (in the Cardiff suburb of Splott, apparently), evolution by natural selection (beating Darwin by a good 2 years and Wallace by a clear two decades) and luminous, edible (3 flavours) genital paint for swinger’s parties. This last claim is frankly risible as this particular item was patented by Thomas Edison in 1907.
Anyway, regardless of who actually instigated this, in 1952 the Welsh entrepreneur in question decided to end Wales’ centuries old name poverty by taking the radical step of importing new names into the country and selling them. Research was conducted and a supplier from the newly independent Pakistan seemed to be offering the best value for money. The deal was struck and the Cardiff dockside of 1952 was abuzz with expectation (sorry, I can’t read my notes, it might be expectoration). In the pubs of Tiger Bay, the talk was of nothing else.
On that fateful January morning, a crane hoisted the first crate of names from the hold of the merchantman SS Follow-Through ex-Karachi and placed it upon the wharf with all the delicacy and care for which freight forwarding industry has been justly celebrated down the years. It was only when the lid of 40 foot crate had been removed that the reason for the competitive price became apparent. Oh Calamity! Instead of 80,000 mixed Welsh names in a range of commercial sizes, the crate contained 80,000 copies of just one name and a local Karachi one at that – ‘Bhat’.
Of course, the venture was a disaster. Bankruptcy followed. For many years, these names were sold in wholesale lots through a network of pubs, church sales and Liberal Party bring-and-buy sales and Monday Club coffee mornings. Familiarity breeds contempt and soon local accents had modulated ‘Bhat’ (as in Simpson) to But (as in, er,…. but).
Eventually, the Cardiff and Newport area reached saturation point. Far from exterminating the curse of Welsh name poverty, But(3)’s cousin had made it worse by introducing a new, non-Welsh, super-name that – like Japanese knotweed – wiped all other names from the land. A good intension is often the midwife to a cruel disaster.
Not surprising then that names remain a favourite topic of discussion in South Wales. But(2) is an avid follower of the royal press stories. He laments the sad parting of the ways for Prince Harry and Chelsea although he adds, blowing the froth from the top of his second skinny latte, it was inevitable. Names are such powerful things and King Harry and Queen Chelsea doesn’t quite cut it as far as he is concerned.
‘In fact, But.’ he adds definitively, ‘I’m against anyone being named after a football team regardless of whether it’s owned by a Russian plutocrat or not!’
Admittedly, this whole thing is a bit of slap in the face for the hordes of Queen Wannabes in Europe. What possessed the claimant to the Piedmontese throne to name his daughter Princess A.C. Milan? The poor girl will never get a throne with a name like that. And what about the sion of the House of Romanov, Prince Spartak. The there’s Princess Halib of Orange? An interest in Islamic literature is one thing but what was her father thinking of? Personally, my heart goes out to Prince Atletico in Madrid, the current Carlist claimant to the Spanish throne. How cruel that his name should mock his gallant yet unsuccessful fight against obesity.
As the Siamese twin managers of Arsenal, Arse & Wenger once conjointly commented:
‘Some you win, some you lose.’
Prince Harry, of course, is now fully occupied with army flight training but being a young man, come Spring, his mind may turn to romance. I fear that he will have to cast his net ever wider. I’m a great supporter of royal families in the Far East and feel that we could do worse than import some new blue blood. One contender must be the divinely talented, beautiful Princess Amil Ton Haq A’ Demi Qals from the little-known Himalayan Kingdom of Phatang. Roedean, Oxford and Harvard means that she would be a whizz at the post-prandial Christmas Trivial Pursuits at Sandringham. But(1) was also impressed that she had worked as a slaughterman in an abbatoir near Carmarthen during the ‘long vac'; although he later added sagely that ‘boning out is no job for a woman’ and admitted that he might have got her confused with someone else.