The curse of being called Sharon

Sharon Bolton learned the hard way that people were quick to make judgements about her based on her name, which is why she published her books using her initials. Now, she's had enough.

He could have been six-two, movie-star gorgeous, brilliant of brain and side-splittingly funny; he could have adored me, but I still couldn’t have walked down the aisle with a Kevin (passionate Man United fan), a Darren (climbing his way up the estate-agency ladder), or a Wayne (dreams of breeding pit-bulls). Because after years suffering the stigma of being Sharon, no way was I going to compound the misery by hooking up with what society might perceive to be my ideal mate.

For a few years in the late Sixties, all was well. In the working-class north of England, Sharon was a cool name, more unusual than the Susans (chunky thighs and NHS glasses), Eileens (quiet, reliable, bit dumpy), and Lindas (more time behind the bike sheds than in the classroom) who littered the playground like discarded free-milk bottles. But the Seventies saw a blossoming of Sharons: in TV shows, lampooned in our newspapers. And these Sharons were rather common (to use the parlance of the day), not terribly bright, given to public displays of flesh, possibly a bit loose about the morals. They were the vacuous, uninterested shop-girls, the cheaply dressed bar-maids, the council-estate-dwelling single mothers. The name Sharon became synonymous with a) background, b) character and c) lifestyle. To this day it conjures up images of Pauline Quirke slouching around Chigwell in a shell-suit.

I learned the hard way that people are quick to judge; will jump at the chance of a cheap ego boost at another’s expense. For a shy and rather sensitive girl it became agonising. I was introduced at social gatherings and saw instant judgment forming. Had there been a socially acceptable way of refusing to give my Christian name, I’d have found it. Guess, I could have said. Oh, you think I look like a Camilla? (Horsey type, dirty sense of humour.) How kind. Call me Camilla.(Let’s be honest,though, I’d have sounded like a hooker.)

"I don’t want to talk to any old Sharon," a disgruntled caller once told my secretary, as though I were a species, not an individual.

In an accountancy evening class an Irishman called Roger (lives with his mum, thinks she doesn’t know about his porn collection) asked my name. "And do you dance round handbags in your white stilettos with your mates Tracey and Wendy," he replied upon learning it. WTF! This was an educated man who considered himself intelligent. He wouldn’t have dreamed of being openly racist, blatantly sexist, or making a disparaging remark about a disabled person, but I – on the basis of a choice made years ago by OTHERS - was entirely fair game for his snap judgment and instant derision.

I’ve learned to modify my behaviour so as not to be the Sharon that others expect, at the same time dreaming of the fun-loving extrovert I might have become had I been called India (frightfully posh, rather deliciously bohemian) or Felicity (captain of Trinity College Ladies’ coxed eight). They can misbehave and be considered great gals, but if I get drunk and fall over at a party, well, isn’t it just what you’d expect? In my cash-strapped twenties, I shopped at Austin Reed because Sharons went to River Island. I steered away from bright colours, flouncy fabrics and anything tight, over-compensating for my acquired inferiority complex with sensible, sober suits. Amandas (plays tennis, mixes a stonking Moscow Mule) could wear white, high heels. Sharons had to stick to elegant black courts.

What’s in a name, well-meaning folkwould say. Everything! I wanted to yell back at them. Our names are an integral part of the faces we show to the world. If we’re judged first on outward appearances, we’re assessed next on our names. Change it then, they’d urge, but without considering how difficult it would be to do so.Or how pretentious I’d seem were I suddenly to announcethat I was to be known as Octavia? (Posh names always end in "a", have you noticed that?)

Nobody, I’ve learned, can resist a Sharon and Tracey quip, and I’ve yet to hear a funny one. I’ve met charming, intelligent, amusing women called Tracey and avoided them like suppurating sores because I will not be a part of a real-life Sharon and Tracey.

I’ve never once corrected someone who got my name wrong. Want to call me Sarah? (It’s usually Sarah.) By all means. So flattered you think I look like a Sarah.

So in 2006, when my first book was about to be published, I had qualms. Sacrifice had been described as "a dark, serious, exhilarating thriller". I already knew that men in the UK could be reluctant to buy a book by a female author. Could I honestly expect anyone to buy one written by a Sharon? So on the advice of my UK publishers I chose a sexless anonymity and published my first five books under the semi-pseudonym, S J Bolton. I was happy. I could hide behind a genderless, classless persona and let my creepy, psychological murder-mysteries speak for themselves. 

But you know what, I’m over fifty now and I’ve had enough. Keith Waterhouse, who was responsible for the stigma in the first place, is dead and his stupid prejudice should die with him. The Sharons (and Traceys) of today aren’t vacuous girls in their twenties with perma-tans and X Factor obsessions, they are grown women in their forties and fifties: married, mothers, educated to various degrees and in diverse occupations and I just happen to be one of them.

So here it is, my coming out. My name is Sharon. My books are published (and reviewed favourably) all over the world. They’ve been shortlisted for numerous awards and even won one or two. Above all, they are written for people who believe the quality of the story is more important than the gender, social standing, background or given name of the author.

My husband’s name, by the way? Andrew Charles: posh enough for the both of us.

Like This, For Ever by Sharon Bolton is published this week (Corgi, £6.99)

 

 

Pauline Quirke, Lesley Joseph and Linda Robson as Sharon, Dorien and Tracey in "Birds of a Feather".
Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder