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Why British awkwardness can make it tough having a foreign name

From being given a curious stare to having your CV overlooked, having an ethnic name can bring out the worst in British awkwardness.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published its reaction this week to the recent British Social Attitudes Survey results, concluding that racial prejudice is “bad economics”. The piece also remarks upon a DWP study that showed people with “names associated with ethnic minority groups” were almost a third less likely to be called for a job interview than someone with a ‘White British’ name.

In fact, there are examples of people changing the name they put at the top of their CVs in order to aid them in their job hunts. Only last year, Virgin Atlantic was taken to an employment tribunal by a man called Max Kpakio, who claimed they had turned him down because of his name, as they accepted him when he reapplied under the name "Craig Owen". (Although he eventually lost the tribunal, because he'd changed more than just his name on the second application).

As someone without a ‘White British’ name – though, as it’s Armenian, I suppose it is the very definition of Caucasian – this brought to mind the various implications of having a foreign name in modern Britain. Among decent people, these are mainly socially awkward, often superficial, repercussions, but it’s easy to see how they could filter up to a prospective employer’s mindset. It's the British propensity for wanting an easy life. A seemingly innocuous, often endearing attitude. But not when it means avoiding someone because their name's a bit funny.

First, pronunciation. This is a factor that plays out a splurge of Britain’s neuroses in one botched jumble of syllables. Working out how to converse with a stranger, while constantly feeling on the brink of offending them. With different accents involved. It’s just one big two-way apology.

Because if we’re going to start a conversation with someone new – already a highly unsavoury idea for many of us, let’s admit – a supposedly difficult name makes this minefield even trickier to navigate. And then we have to make sure we remember the name in question, as it would be unthinkable to slip into terms of endearment (“Mate”) or the weird gender-political mess of “Sir” and “Miss” – these options are conveniently anonymous, but too despicable to contemplate for a decent professional human person.

And then once you’ve met someone with a foreign name – particularly if you’ve read it rather than heard it from the scary, cosmopolitan horse’s mouth – how to ensure you pronounce it correctly? We couldn’t possibly ask. That would require a potentially awkward conversational opener. So people generally just go for it, eyes forward, resolutely spluttering through each impossible syllable, or avoid the issue completely.

I’ve encountered this problem of politeness in all sorts of contexts: missing a doctor’s appointment for not recognising my mispronounced name being called; a family I stayed with on holiday consistently calling me “Louche” for the entirety of my stay (when I hadn’t once lounged on their chaise longue); the presenter on Radio 5 Live soldiering through an interview repeatedly addressing me as “Anoosh Shake-a-Line”. Which is not how it’s pronounced, but meant a more amusing 10.45pm weekday news slot for my listening friends, at least.

Essentially, it’s the conversational equivalent of when BBC newsreaders take a deep breath and just power through those ambiguously pronounced names that crop up from time to time. Boko Haram. Sven-Goran Eriksson. Gaddafi. Farage.

But mispronunciation isn’t the biggest problem. It’s usually by the politically correct and polite people who just want to say your name with minimal fuss; their hearts are in the right place, even if their diphthongs aren’t. No. It’s the “oo-er, that’s exotic” aspect that’s worse. Because introduce yourself to someone with perhaps more Ukippy credentials than you’d hope, and you’ll usually receive the response:

“So where are you from?”

To which I take great pleasure in replying “London”, and watching them nod bemusedly, their eyes betraying insurmountable confusion that I haven’t regaled them apologetically with tales of a journey from the harsh plains of Anatolia to Zone 3.

These irritating, occasionally vaguely xenophobic, social implications of having a foreign name in Britain aren’t nearly as bad as being declined for a job interview on account of it. But it’s worth remembering that awkwardness in conversation could easily translate to awkwardness in considering CVs. And that, mate, is discrimination.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State