Now we call each other names we never used to

"So what's the weather like with you, Mycroft?" I asked. The phone connection was as clear as next door. But Mycroft was not next door. He was on the other side of the globe.

A few minutes earlier, Mycroft had, with consummate old-world politeness, asked me if I would be comfortable if he were to address me by my first name.

"No problem," I said. But, being of a certain generation and English, I was not entirely displeased that he had asked.

In fact, though, being English doesn't count much any more in such matters. Like it or not, we have abandoned our native reticence, and it seems that now everyone on this island is on a first-name basis.

If Mycroft had been a broadband techie based in a British call center, he wouldn't have bothered to ask. He would have jauntily and immediately called me Christopher. Even more likely, he would have called me Chris, an abbreviation I do not willingly allow even my most intimate acquaintances without a private wince or three.

Not that I want to suggest that I am stuffy. I am quite relaxed about being called almost anything unshortened - with one exception: my middle name.

I am not sure why I feel the need to keep this a close secret. I know other people who have far odder middle names.

My father and mother's generations (they belonged to one each) tended toward conniptions on the "how to address certain people" front. As a child, I sensed a tortuous social complexity in such matters. But niceties that seemed so important then seem laughable now. I remember, for instance, my mum's extraordinary difficulty in learning to call one of her dearest friends by her first name - Hilda.

Our family first knew Hilda when we moved south from Yorkshire to Surrey (much closer to London) in about 1954.

Hilda, in a manner of speaking, came with the house. She didn't "live in," but was what was known as "a daily," someone who came to cook and clean. She was extremely good at her job, and a very amiable presence. But because she once had worked as a maid in a large, posh mansion, she had developed a habit that was hard to break. She called my dad "Sir." She called my mum "Madam." And, worst of all, she started out by calling me "Master Christopher." The very memory of it still makes me cringe.

I instantly informed her that if she continued to address me thus, I would have to kill her, probably by some method found in Agatha Christie whodunits, like creosote insinuated subtly into her morning cuppa or strangulation with a woolly sock.

She was, I recall, a bit shocked. But being examined post-mortem by Hercule Poirot was not the reason. Calling me by my first name was.

But she got the message and made a small for-mankind-ish kind of leap from the Edwardian era into postwar modernity. I was "Christopher" thereafter.

On the other hand, every single one of us always addressed her as "Mrs. Finch." I am not sure I knew she had been christened Hilda until many years later. I wouldn't have felt respectful calling her Hilda and neither would my mother.

These two women, who cooked, washed, and scrubbed together, and who, I am sure, shared all kinds of informalities over some 25 years, grew greatly fond of one another. After Dad died, Mother moved away, but she and Mrs. Finch kept in frequent touch. I believe they eventually settled on first names, but I'm not sure exactly when.

My father came up against similar farces. After the war, he decided to start a market garden business on our four acres up in Yorkshire. His main business was in the wool trade, so he needed a professional gardener to run the nursery. That was Walter Ducker.

Walter said he was happy to take the job, but he made one firm stipulation - an announcement, really: He was not going to call my Dad "Sir." He'd had more than enough of that in the Army, he said, and was heartily sick of such demeaning stuff.

It's characteristic of Dad that this did not bother him. But I think Walter must have settled for "Mr. Andreae." It is impossible that he would ever have called the old boy "Wilfrid." Impossible!

To all of us, Walter was just Walter. But his wife was always referred to as Mrs. Ducker. Even the Christmas cards, I'm certain, would have read: "To Walter and Mrs. Ducker: Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year."

Even in the increasingly informal climate of the '60s, it never became easy for my father to feel at ease about using first names.

One time the headmaster of the prep school I'd attended broached the subject. He had plenty of reserve himself and had known my parents for years.

"Don't you think that we now know each other well enough?" he asked. But Dad didn't really. He went through a deal of genuine anguish.

"How can I call him 'Tom'?" he asked. "Tom, Tom - how can I?"

At the same time, I believe he was rather flattered that Tom had suggested the change. They did manage it, at first with vast self-consciousness, but they gradually got used to it.

That brings me back to Mycroft, my helpful new technical friend in New Delhi. Never before have I addressed someone as Mycroft. Indeed, the only Mycroft I'd heard of until now is the brother of that redoubtable detective, Sherlock Holmes.

My Mycroft, who knows so much about computers (and whose favorite film, I learned, is "Braveheart"), presumably has parents who are keen readers of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This leads me to a sneaking suspicion that Mycroft has a brother named Sherlock.

But I hope not. That is a name that should never leave the realm of fiction. Even today I would have great difficulty calling anyone "Sherlock."

Nor, incidentally, is Sherlock my middle name. It isn't Hercule, either. Or at least that's my story.

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