Ian McMillan: Their names sealed my future

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I often speculate just what made me want to become a writer.

In the past I’ve come up with loads of reasons, from my dad’s Auntie Bella Howatson who wrote poems, to the fact that my mam and dad met as pen pals in the war, to the influence of the great Sir Alec Clegg of the West Riding when I was at junior school, and the wonderful library in Darfield where I kept borrowing a book called Writing for Money by Harvey Day until Mrs Dove suggested I try a different hobby, something sensible like stamp collecting. Luckily for the literary world (well, draw your own conclusions) I ignored her and borrowed it again. And again.

The other day, though, as I was thinking about my childhood and trying to remember the name of the bloke in the flat cap who fell down that hole outside our house on Barnsley Road when I was about seven, I started to think about my neighbours, Mr and Mrs Page on one side, and Mr and Mrs White on the other. I wondered if, in some kind of version of nominative determinism, they made me into a bard and a scribe.

If you’re not sure what nominative determinism is, it’s when your name seals your future in stone. So, if you’re called Billy Leake, you’ll probably be a plumber when you grow up, and if you were called Doreen Ball you’d have been a cricketer or a foxtrotter. Obviously it’s mostly rubbish but sometimes you think there might just be a grain of truth in it.

Think about it; for a number of years, when I was growing up, I had Mr White on one side and Mr Page on the other, one at 106, and one at 110. That’s their house numbers, not their ages, of course. That would have been something remarkable; we’d have had to rename them Mr Old and Mr Ancient in a nominatively deterministic way.

They were ordinary people; Mr White liked to potter in his shed and keep screws and nails in jars marked screws and nails, and for all I know he kept his jars in a box marked jars for screws and nails. Mr Page liked gardening, and he was very good at making me trolleys from old pram wheels and planks and bits of string that you steered with as you careered down the Inkerman Fields, and if one of the wheels came loose I could always get a screw from Mr White’s jar of screws. Mrs White wore a headscarf and I could hear Mrs Page singing through the wall.

I remember when my dad brought me an old typewriter from work and I sat down at it and tapped a few letters experimentally and it must have been at that point I decided that I might become a writer. I tapped away for hours, making up tales about a detective called Jaz and her assistant, a man called Big Shelley; they were loosely based on The Avengers and I recall the print getting fainter and fainter until the words were just pale ghosts on the paper. If my dad hadn’t bought a new ribbon for me I was going to ask Mr White because I was sure he’d have a jar marked old typewriter ribbons that still work. The Whites on one side; the Pages on the other, all those years. That’s why I’m a writer. The White Page; the white page that writers are always trying to fill. Strange but true. Shame they weren’t called Mr Million and Mr Aire.