What's in a name?

So much to think about after the "We are Names Not Numbers" seminar at Portmeirion. Firstly what a national treasure Simon Schama is. It was a privilege just to be in the audience when he gave his keynote talk - entirely without notes and with a panoramic inclusion of so many different strands and ideas. Throughout the three days he made incisive contributions to a wonderfully relaxed and swooping set of conversations. And I had the particular pleasure of walking up a hill with him (of course I called it a mountain when I came down) discussing his forthcoming history of the Jewish people from their invention of monotheism - surprisingly (to me) recent, circa 600 BC if I understood him correctly.

Almost impossible to summarise the conclusions, though see the website. So I will just jot down entirely randomly some of the soundbites and thoughts which just made me sit up.

  • "Personalisation is the vanity of wealth"
  • "Mass-tige" - upmarket but volume-produced luxury brands
  • Do we really want to be a name if it means that supermarkets know all we do? - sometimes anonymity feels good
  • The majority of families in Manchester are now headed by a single parent
  • The importance of churches for inter-generational contact (a particular hobby-horse of mine in an age where generations have never seemed more stratified)
  • People hating the misuse of private sector language to make the public sector sound more business-like - everyone praises entrepreneurs but why should people have to be entrepreneurs just to get their children into a good school or to get a hospital appointment?
  • Equally what has happened to civic entrepreneurs? - the people who built the iced-over and snow- covered reservoirs we passed when we drove over the Welsh mountains to get to Portmeirion
  • "This time it's different" are the four most dangerous words in economic writing
  • Barack Obama and Bernie Madoff both traded on their names
  • "Obama is the first blackberry President"
  • "Politics is the highest form of management - and half of politics is the management of hatred"

Points I interjected (in no particular order) were

  • What do we conclude from surveys of children showing their ambition is to be famous - just a celebrity, not famous for any achievement?
  • The need to promote fraternity as well as liberty and equality - and fraternity is about embracing people you don't necessarily like as well as those you do - ie we're all in it together and have a duty of loyalty to our neighbours. At a recent Eidh celebration I was struck by the observation that the Prophet called on people to know their neighbours up to 40 houses on either side - do we ever know more than three or four?
  • How many people go through their whole day with no-one speaking to them? I remember our temporary Ghanaian priest saying the thing that most disturbed him in Britain was that people did not greet one another as they passed in the street
  • If museums are the new cathedrals, are we reverting to ancestor worship?

Finally a delightful illumination from Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. She was called Yasmin because that was the name given to the daughter born in the same year as her to Rita Hayworth and the son of the Aga Khan. Unfortunately fourteen other girls in her class in her East African school were also called Yasmin for the same reason, so they all had to be given numbers to distinguish them. There we were in Portmeirion where Number Six had stood up for his right to be a name - and Yasmin had been Number Ten all along.

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