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What's in a Name?

My name is Alan Robson. It's quite a pleasing name. It rolls lightly off the tongue and the spelling is efficient – there are no irritatingly doubled up consonants and only two vowels are used, each of them twice. As a result, no unnecessary strain is placed upon the alphabet. It's hard to see how the name could be improved. Nevertheless, there have been times when it has caused me problems...

Wavy lines and eerie music.

When I was at university, I kept the wolf from the door by working during the long summer vacation. I had a rather interesting job as a technician in the pathology laboratory at the local hospital. I was the lowest of the low, of course. I performed menial, straightforward tasks – sterilizing the laboratory equipment, measuring haemoglobin levels and determining erythrocyte sedimentation rates. I also learned how to prepare blood slides for examination by people more highly qualified and more skilful than I was. It was a fun job, as well as a responsible one, and I enjoyed it greatly.

When I reported for work on my very first day, I was met by a man with a distinct twinkle in his eye. "Hello," he said. "You must be Alan Robson."

"That's me," I said, and we shook hands.

"Come with me," he said. "I'll take you to the laboratory and introduce you to everybody."

We walked through a maze of twisty little corridors, all alike. I wondered how I would ever learn to navigate the twisty little maze of corridors by myself. They were all exactly the same. Such a twisty maze of little corridors, each one just like all the others...

Eventually we reached the pathology laboratory and I was introduced to the other lab technicians. They all gave me a funny look when they learned my name and the twinkle in my guide's eyes brightened. Occasionally he vibrated gently, as if he was suppressing a giggle. Then came the moment he'd clearly been waiting for. "Now come and meet the chief pathologist," he said. He knocked on an office door.

"Come in!" yelled a voice.

We went in and I met the chief pathologist for the very first time. "Alan Robson," said my guide, "let me introduce Alan Robson."

"Hello," said Alan Robson. He held out his hand and I shook it. "Pleased to meet you, Alan" he said, grinning hugely.

As you might expect, having two people called Alan Robson in the laboratory, one of them the highest of the high and one of them the lowest of the low, led inevitably to a Shakespearian comedy of errors of mistaken identities. Whenever the phone rang I would always answer it, if I happened to be the person nearest to it,. "Path lab. Alan Robson speaking."

"Ah, Alan. Just the man I need." And then the voice at the other end of the phone would start discussing intimate details about some patient or other before I could interrupt and say, "But I'm not that Alan Robson..."

I learned a lot of things that I probably wasn't supposed to know about a lot of people I'd never met. These days we'd consider that to be a terrible breach of privacy. But things were very different then.

Wavy music and eerie lines.

I moved to the other side of the world and settled myself in a randomly chosen suburb of Wellington, New Zealand. One day I received a bill from an electrician who wanted me to pay him a substantially large number of dollars for repairing an electrical gizmo that I was absolutely sure I didn't own any of.

I rang the electrician and explained my bewilderment about the bill.

"Ah," said the voice at the other end of the phone. "Well, we had a fifty-fifty chance. Too bad we made the wrong choice. Don't worry about it. Just throw the bill away and forget about it."

"What do you mean you had a fifty-fifty chance?" I asked.

"We lost the worksheet with the address details on it," explained the voice. "But we remembered the name and so we looked it up in the phone book. However it turns out that there are two people called Alan Robson in the phone book and they both live very close to each other. So we tossed a coin and sent the bill to the first address in the book. That turned out to be your address and clearly  it was the wrong one. Don't worry about it – now that we know the proper address, we'll send the bill out to that and remove the one we sent to you from the system."

"Thank you," I said, somewhat bemused. "Good bye."

Intrigued by the information I had just learned, I looked myself up in the phone book. Sure enough, there I was:

Alan Robson [My Address] [My Phone Number]
Alan Robson [His Address, a couple of streets away from me] [His Phone Number]

Over the next few years I occasionally received substantial bills from sundry tradespeople all of which should clearly have been sent to him. I presume that he received a fair number of my bills as well. About once every couple of months I'd get a phone call for him and several times, in a strange parallel to the many conversations I'd once had with doctors who thought they were talking to the chief pathologist, I ended up learning many intimate details of the life of this other Alan Robson. I presume that he also learned more than he ever wanted to know about my private life as well, but I can't really confirm that because in all the years that I didn't pay his bills, I never actually met him or spoke to him. And, oddly enough, he never met or spoke to me either.

But my doppelgangers hadn't finished with me yet...

Eerie music and Wavy Gravy. Er... Lines...

One day an email slithered into my inbox. Someone I'd never heard of asked me to review a novel they'd just finished writing, and could I perhaps discuss it it on my radio programme? It's not unheard of me for me to receive review requests, but the radio programme request was a new one on me.

I emailed back. Radio programme?

Yes, radio programme, wrote the emailer and they went on to explain that I was a well known British disc jockey whose nationally broadcast programme had all kinds of special features in it, such as book reviews. Indeed, claimed my correspondent, I was also an author in my own right.

All this was news to me. So I did an ego search and typed my own name into my favourite search engine. Sure enough, the giggles informed me that I really was a Disc Jockey whose phenomenally popular radio show was transmitted throughout the length and breadth of Great Britain. The fact that I lived in New Zealand was apparently no handicap whatsoever to me putting my show together for broadcasting on the other side of the world...

Clearly I'd bumped in to yet another doppelganger. It seems that this other Alan Robson has written several books and many of his fans have compiled bibliographies. Most of these bibliographies contain the titles of books that I've written, so clearly this other Alan Robson shares many of my interests. Everyone knows that bibliographers never make mistakes.

Wavy lines and eerie music.

I moved to the other end of the country (well actually I got half way up and then I took a right turn before finally settling down). I settled in to my new house and did all the bureaucratic things necessary to keep the council satisfied. I began to contemplate a simple life of dog walking and somnolence. However I became mildly perturbed when a letter addressed to Alan Robson from the local council turned up in my mailbox. The letter congratulated me on becoming the new owner of a house at 36 Redacted Road, and went on to suggest that I might like to set up a direct debit authority with my bank so as to make it easy for the council to collect the rates on the property.

"Robin," I said.


"Do you recall us ever buying a house at 36 Redacted Road?" I asked her.

"No," said Robin. "I'm sure I'd have remembered us buying another house. It's not the kind of purchase that you easily overlook."

"That's what I thought," I said. "I think I'd better ring the council."

To think is to do. Do be do be doo...

"Hello," said a very nice man in the council office. "My name is Michael. How can I help you."

I explained about the rates demand for the house I didn't own at 36 Redacted Road.

"Hmm," said Michael. "Have you ever owned that house?"

"No, never," I said.

There was a clattering of computer keys. "Ah," said Michael. "There it is. Yes – it's definitely owned by Alan Robson. Are you telling me that you aren't Alan Robson?"

"I'm definitely Alan Robson," I said. "But I'm not the Alan Robson who owns 36 Redacted Road. That must be be another Alan Robson."

"I suppose it is just possible that there are two people called Alan Robson that we've got confused in our database," said Michael dubiously, "but I've never heard of it happening before."

"Well, it's definitely happened now," I said.

"According to our records," said Michael, "you own two houses. One at 10 Somewhere Else and also a house at 36 Redacted Road, and you are therefore liable for the rates on both properties."

"I'm quite happy to pay the rates for 10 Somewhere Else because that's where I live," I said. "But somebody else is responsible for 36 Redacted Road. That's not me."

"I'll tell you what," said Michael. "Because this is all about the rates, I'll transfer you to the rates department."

No sooner said than done. The phone in the rates department rang and rang and rang. Nobody answered it. Eventually it went to voice mail and I left a message explaining roughly what had happened and asking that somebody ring me back so that we could sort things out. I said my phone number slowly, distinctly and carefully so there could be no mistake.

Naturally, nobody ever rang me back. Nobody ever does...

In desperation, I sent an email to the squiggle who had signed the original council letter and whose email address was printed in such a minuscule font that I needed a magnifying glass to read it (trust me, I may be old, but my eyes aren't that bad – I've never seen such a tiny font). Rather to my surprise, I got a very helpful and apologetic reply a couple of hours later. There were indeed two people called Alan Robson in the council database and his transactions had been inadvertantly attached to my record. So sorry. What an odd coincidence. It's never happened before. It will never happen again until it does. It's all fixed now. Blah, blah, blah.

I look forward to the next rates demand for 36 Redacted Road...

Eerie music and wavy lines.

My name is Alan Robson. And so, it would appear, is everybody elses.

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