I’ve always thought Brian was a strange name. The name had a peak of popularity around the time of The Magic Roundabout children’s TV series in the 1960s and 70s. It’s been downhill for the popularity of Brian ever since. Brian was the name of the yellow snail in The Magic Roundabout. Ever since watching it, snails have been called Brian, for me, in the same way that all cows are called Ermintrude. Naturally, I think of all people with hair over their eyes as Dougal. That’s the power of children’s TV.
Brian was also a character in one of the songs by a favourite band of mine, Fischer-Z. It’s called You’ll Never Find Brian Here, and it’s from their 1981 album Red Skies Over Paradise. It’s an apocalyptic album imagining nuclear holocaust, because that’s what bands did in 1981. Every decade has its own neuroses. Ours are different but just as worrying. I never knew what the band’s name meant. Fischer-Z? It sounded like the name of an Eastern European spy.
Brian was also the name of my mum’s friend’s son. When Brian got one of the first personal computers my brother went to their house to help him set it up. Brian had been trying and failing to set it up for days. Whenever my mum would meet up with her friend she’d come back with tales of what Brian had been up to. Brian’s mum worked at the bank and my mum would meet her for lunch.
He was younger than me and we went to the same school. I was a prefect and sometimes wondered which one he was. Was he one of the really annoying ones?
I moved away to university and would ring my parents. My mum would tell me she’d met up with her friend and then tell me what Brian was up to now. As the years went on, so my phone calls continued and so, inexorably, did news of Brian.
Firstly my mum reported that Brian had done badly in his A level exams and didn’t go to university, but it didn’t matter because he’d just signed a million pound record deal. I’d worked incredibly hard for two years for my A levels and had just spent three years of intense work at university. I was unemployed and penniless. “That’s nice”, I’d say.
Then I’d ring up and he was touring all over the world playing gigs. He was on some big tour bus travelling across America. I was getting wet commuting to a low paid job on my bicycle. My mum sent me a copy of his single. “Thanks for sending it”. At least it was awful.
Then my mum reported that the band had broken up, but they didn’t have to give any of the million pounds back. I’d bought my first house, interest rates were 14.5% and my mortgage was two thirds of my take-home pay. We had sticks for furniture. He was going back to university to do a degree. I’m sure she said that he could still get a full grant, but by that stage I was only half listening. Then it was a doctorate he was doing.
Over the years, sporadic reports came back to me. “Brian’s on Top of the Pops”, she’d say. I’d mumble, “Oh is he?” and wish she’d change the subject. “Brian’s working in Switzerland”, she’d say, and I’d try to be polite and sound disinterested at the same time. At least I’d got a passport at that stage, even if I’d only ever used it twice. There was no success I could have which couldn’t be upstaged by Brian.
So it went on. Brian this, Brian that. Whenever I’d ring home and my mum had met up with her friend, I’d get the full update. “Brian’s a professor now,”, she’d say. “Brian’s got a book coming out”, she’d say, “And the publishers want him to do another.”
It was only when my mum said, “Brian’s got his own series on the BBC”, that I said, “Hold on mum, what’s Brian’s surname?”
“Cox”, she said. “Brian Cox”, didn’t you know?
“You mean that all these years you’ve been telling me about your friend’s son Brian, it’s been Brian Cox?”
In June this year Professor Brian Cox tweeted:
“The first PC I built by the way was a 386 SX 25 with a 40 MB hard disk. It ran DOS 5, which in my view was a good operating system.”
Ha! I thought, this is my chance! “Was that the one my brother Michael helped you get working?”, was what I tweeted. He didn’t reply.
Fischer-Z split up too, but when they reformed in 1989 they released the album Fish’s Head, and I realised the band’s name wasn’t the name of some Eastern European spy at all.
Sometimes I’m just really slow on the uptake. As slow as a snail called Brian.