I’ve never been in jail, and I wasn’t educated in a 20th-century British boarding school. So I’m not used to being referred to by my surname and it’s a bit jarring reading the reviews of Long Road to Dry River on Goodreads. ‘Severn is a master wordsmith’ (thanks ‘Lib Kilian’), ‘Severn’s writing encapsulates what is special and unique about memoir’ (thanks, ‘Tash’). ‘Severn’s story is a mish-mash of disastrous life decisions, pseudo-medical theory and pop-psychology’ (OK, I made that one up).
But it makes me ponder ‘Severn’ and how I came by it, because it hasn’t always been my name. It’s not a married name either, in the way that many women, even today, take their husband’s surname.
It also makes me realise that I didn’t cover this in the book.
It happened on a flight back from Delhi. I’d just done a three-month internship with the edgy, irreverent, mouthy feminist journal Manushi (and that wasn’t in the book either. Memo to self – next blog post?). I was in my late twenties. I can’t remember what instigated it but I had an epiphany of sorts on the plane that day. It was time to change my name.
I’d always hated my surname. It was a bland name, a flat, plain name, and it handily rhymed with unfortunate things that made for silly insults in the playground, insults that a more confident child would have brushed aside. But from an early age I swallowed my surname when I had to give it, in person or on the phone—which of course meant I had to repeat it. It was agonising.
Of course, it was my father’s name too. I can’t calculate how much a factor this was, but it had felt like a ball and chain for a couple of decades.
I’d come to an age where I was beginning to doubt I’d get married any time soon. But there was the Change of Name by Deed Poll, and a perfectly serviceable name there for the taking.
Severn is a family name—my English mother’s maiden name. There’s a River Severn in England. So there’s Upton-upon-Severn (and a few more such riverbank towns), there’s a Severn Bridge (at the Wales end of the river), and even a Severn Beach.
On the plane that day, I was bursting with a sense of my new life, liberated from my old name. If I could have disembarked and caught a taxi to the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages in Chippendale I would have. But the plane was heading for Melbourne and it was nearly midnight.
I soon found some excuse to go to Sydney, where I lodged my application at the Registry. Back in Melbourne, I took my documentation to Kew Police Station and got a Justice of the Peace to validate twenty copies, then I set about changing legal and financial records—bank accounts, driver’s license, passport, the lot. In other circumstances it would have been a tedious exercise, but as I ticked off each record, I felt the loosening of that ball and chain.
Now I could announce myself on the phone, or stand up and say my name loud and clear. But this is where it gets tricky. In the UK they pronounce it ‘seven’, and anyone I meet over here who hails from those parts (just about any nurse I have dealings with, it seems), says it that way.
Then there’s my uncle’s take on it.
There’s a story that has become family folklore. On the streets of West London in the 1950s, my uncle’s name, Arthur Severn, was ‘Arfa Seven’, which naturally morphed into ‘Three and a ‘arf’. Sick of the joke, Uncle Arthur reinvented himself upon emigrating to Australia as a young man. Now he was ‘Art Severn’, with the emphasis on the ‘vern’. It did away with the groan-worthy mathematical wit, and it was cool.
I’ve never asked Uncle Art if the story was true, because I was afraid it might not be. I suppose I’ll find out now …