Call Me Rory

To tell the truth, my name isn’t really Rory. It’s Alistair.

Every time anyone has seen my name on an official record of some kind—teachers, bankers, doctors, dentists—I’ve had to explain that actually, my name isn’t Alistair, well, all right, it’s Alistair on my birth certificate, but really my name is Rory, and could they please call me that?

This tends to cause great stress and confusion among those who are looking at official records. I can always count on an extra ten minutes when booking a flight if I’ve been stupid enough to let on that my name is Rory. The records all say Alistair, and you don’t argue with the records. Usually I just save myself the trouble by pretending that my name is Alistair (which it is) instead of Rory (which strictly speaking it isn’t) and wondering for the 103rd time whether I should change my name by deed poll.

I never would, of course. There’s too much grief invested in “Alistair” for me to cast it aside. I owe it to the kid I once was, who at the first roll call of every school year after the teacher had said “Alistair?” had to ask, “Please Miss, can you call me Rory?”, only to be met by scornful laughter from every other kid in the class, because man it’s funny when someone is known by something other than their real name, it’s a complete cack, it’s so bloody funny that you could almost burst; and as for the name “Alistair”, well that’s beyond funny—that’s just plain weird, not a proper name like Ian or Jason or Michael or Gary or Stewart or Gerard or Tony or Warren or Todd. (Except for the other Alistair in the grade above me; he was okay.)

You’d think I’d have been okay with a name like Rory—it doesn’t need to be shortened, it’s got the “-y” ending built right in; how Aussie can you get? Except, of course, that “Rory”, too, is a weird name, not a proper name, not in 1970s Tasmania. I never knew another Rory when I grew up; never even knew of another Rory, except for the folk-singer Rory Gallagher. I never had that experience of hearing my name being called out only to realise it was meant for someone else; “Rory” was always meant for me. (When I lived in England in the early 1990s, this finally did happen. Hearing my name called out on the other side of the world was one strange sensation. These days it happens fairly frequently; “Rory” must have been in fashion with new parents around 1990.)

I never knew of another Rory in Tasmania until, that is, the early 1980s, when a local academic called Rory Jack Thompson murdered his wife and stored her dismembered corpse in his freezer. Then I knew all about it. Fortunately, the nickname “Rory Jack” never stuck, perhaps because my high school friends and enemies thought it too incongruous for words.

But wife-chopping psycho connotations aside, I’ve always liked the name Rory. It’s short, it’s distinctive, it’s almost impossible to misspell (except I once had a letter addressed to “Raurie”) and to mispronounce (except a teacher once asked if it was “Raw-ry” or “Roh-ry”, because she actually knew someone who went by the latter, strange as that seemed to a proud Raw-ry like myself). It’s masculine—there was an Irish King Rory—without being macho, which I sure ain’t. So I just tell the record-keepers that the initial “R” after “Alistair” stands for Rory, which usually takes care of any problems.

Except that my second name isn’t Rory. It’s Roderick.

You see, my parents figured I was going to be a boy, and my name was going to be “Alistair”, with the second name “Roderick” after my Dad. And then I was born, and from day one was Rory, except on my birth certificate. Partly, they say, it’s because I emerged with red hair; “Rory” means “red” in Gaelic. When I was a kid I quite liked the thought of being Rory the Red, Gaelic Warrior of the North, so I’ve given this explanation a good run over the years. Another is that it’s short for “Roderick” in Celtic circles, which made it a useful abbreviation for my second name, the obvious one having already been taken by my Dad.

So far, so good. But why isn’t it on my birth certificate? This is where the explanations get shaky. Mum once said that they called me “Alistair” in case I became Prime Minister, which must still have been a profession worth aspiring to in 1968. “Alistair” does have a more patrician, statesman-like air than “Rory” with its connotations of hairy Celtic kings and rapacious Vikings (without being oppressively macho, mind you). But when I do finally become Prime Minister—in 2068, as leader of the Cranky Centenarians Party—it’ll be as Rory Ewins, because that’s my name.

I guess they realised that putting “Rory” in front of “Alistair Roderick Ewins” would have given me the unfortunate initials R.A.R.E. And that they figured it would all work out somehow. Which, I suppose, it has.

What I can’t blame them for is my surname. That goes all the way back to whichever hairy Celtic ancestors figured it would be a top idea to name their son after the family sheep. Ewen begat Mc (“son of”) Ewen, and ultimately a diaspora of McEwens, Ewens, Ewans, Ewins, Ewinses and so on, all of us doomed to a lifetime of spelling our surnames slowly over the phone.

Besides some of those variants, we’ve had letters addressed to Ewings (the most common), Ewing, Yuens, Uwins, Uuins, and Euuins (because hearing “E, doubleyew, I, N, S” is clearly not enough for some people). Then there are those who figure you can’t have pronounced your own name properly, and must have meant Evans, Evins, Eunos, or Ennis; or the out-and-out typos, like the delicately beautiful Weins. But the favourite in our family, who lived for so long in the town of Huonville—pronounced by all good h-dropping locals as “You-n-ville”—was the letter to Rod and Bev Huons.

As the University of Tasmania’s admin staff demonstrated one glorious day, it’s even possible to get “Alistair” wrong. A handwritten “l” and “i” can, after all, resemble a “u”; and is it so strange for someone to name their child “Austair”, perhaps after a favourite regional airline?

Still, when it comes to unusually-spelled names, I could have had it worse. I could have been my brother Grahame.

Some say that the name you’re given shapes your outlook on life. It’s true. As Alistair Roderick (Rory) Ewins, I grew up knowing that I was different from other kids at about the most basic and personal level there is: my name. That sense of difference never quite left me.

My double name also gave me a mild case of split personality, knowing that there was Alistair—who was serious, intelligent, responsible, and respectable—and there was Rory, who was me. There was always some of Alistair in Rory, but they were never a perfect fit for each other. Even now, it’s strange to look at my degrees and see his name on them. I did all the work, and he got all the credit.

But whenever Alistair looks at anything he’s drawn or written, he sees the name Rory. Rory is the writer, the cartoonist, the comedian.

For a long time, I thought that eventually I would have to be one or the other. All or nothing. Alistair or Rory. And because I was a bright kid, it looked like it would be Alistair; intelligent people aren't supposed to waste their time being cartoonists or comedians. At times I even wondered if I would call myself Alistair one day.

I never did. The opportunities came and went—starting uni; moving around; leaving the country; coming back again—and I stayed Rory. And now it’s Rory’s name on the academic works; and it’s Rory signing the cartoons; and it’s Rory getting up in front of a roomful of strangers and reading a conference paper, or performing stand-up.

Alistair and Rory are both still there, wrestling for control. It looks like they’ve settled in for the longest match in history.

1998, 2004