At the age of seven I was temporarily relocated to a different town and found myself, one Monday morning, deposited by relatives at the gates of an unfamiliar school. The timing, part-way through the school-year, was unfortunate: mine was the only new face and, even at that age, I could see that there were two possible outcomes from the situation - acceptance or rejection. It was touch and go until playtime when one of the older kids barged up and demanded to know my name: “Holdsworth” I said. “Ozzy Oldsworth” he countered and, from that moment, I knew everything would be all right. I had been anointed with a name which was acceptable to the group and I was not to be ridiculed, ostracised or thumped.
Years later I came to appreciate just how fortunate I had been. Displaced people throughout history have felt obliged to change their names in order to avoid stigmatisation - to ‘fit in’ - and mine had been sorted for me, in the playground, long before it had become a burden.
The name Holdsworth is itself the product of the ‘fitting-in’ process. Although it can be traced to a hamlet in Yorkshire where stands an eponymous medieval manor house, it did not emerge fully formed. In 1272 a certain Monsieur de Aldeworth bought the land there but evidently began to feel culturally uncomfortable amongst the natives. So he adopted a few of their customs, married a local lass and eventually Anglicised his name by dropping the ‘de’ and adding the ‘H’ and‘s’. And so the paternal side of my family established its local credentials long ago. Monsieur was not to know that ‘H’ was destined to become mostly redundant in Yorkshire parlance.
The maternal side also has a mongrel ancestry but its consolidation is more recent. My mother’s father was born in the Lebanon in an era when the essentially tribal, nomadic residents of the middle-east looked upon state boundaries more as guidelines than as sacrosanct borders. Passports were considered to be of little use or consequence: the family name was the true repository of a person’s history and identity - and his family name was Beycour-Hayek.
He fetched up in Egypt where he subsequently met and married a French national – one of the many who had taken up residence there to secure their interests in the Suez Canal. It seems that he also felt the need to join the ‘in crowd’ – perhaps especially so since he was trying to build a western-style business in the form of a string of optometrist shops. So he dropped the Arab-sounding first part of his name and the French did the rest: they abandoned the ‘H’ (a trait they share with Yorkshire folk) and moulded the rump into a more French-sounding ‘Ayac’ – albeit with a colonial flavour.
But what if my Lebanese grandfather, Mr Beycour-Hayek, had chosen to marry a Yorkshire lass instead of a French one? My fantasy is that he might have ended up with the surname By'Eck - and that's what I would call "fitting in".