Take a look at this photograph I snapped off a few weeks ago in a branch of Waterstones. Tell me if you notice anything odd about the positioning of my book – apart, that is, from the fact that I, like so many needy authors, turned it to face outwards. Notice anything else? Well, unusually, the books on this shelf are not arranged alphabetically by author’s name. Yep, us ‘Z’ people tend to find our books on the bottom shelf of shops and libraries, with the consequent risk of back injury for potential buyers. I mean, all good books have a strong spine, but some books require readers to have one too.
To be honest, I’m not a stranger to this kind of alphabetical discrimination. I first encountered it in the early years of school. On ‘medical day’ when all the pupils were lined up to see the nurse for the ‘head lice and hygiene’ check, Carol Armstrong and John Anderson were at the top of the queue. After the nurse had a quick peek at their scalp and pants, both were free to hit the playground for fun and games. Meanwhile Anne Marie Young and I inched slowly forward from the back of the line and, by the time the bad-tempered nurse called us she was already snapping elasticated waistbands in anger, playtime was over and we had missed the first fifteen minutes of an arithmetic lesson. This might have seemed like a bonus at the time, but perhaps explains why I still struggle with long division. Happily smart phones have proved teachers’ prophecies were wrong and we do, indeed, have calculators with us all the time.
Then there was the Glasgow telephone directory. We were the last name in the book and found ourselves the target of pranksters and ill-informed bigots. Not understanding that our name had a Polish origin, I was mystified by the semi-regular calls from morons suggesting that we should “go back to Pakistan where you belong.” Oh yes.
Between school and college, I had a brief period of “signing on” for unemployment benefit. It’s not something I tend to boast about and I didn’t back then. So imagine my embarrassment when lining up at the local dole office to discover the counters had been delineated, not just alphabetically, but by the use of surname. As I waited patiently in the ‘MACDONALD to ZYCINSKI’ queue, as indicated by the huge makeshift poster above the front desk, I doubted that anyone seeing the name MacDonald would automatically connect it with a particular individual (except maybe Ronald) but the Zycinski clue tended to narrow the field.
Names beginning with Z are fairly uncommon in Scotland, so much so that in the days of paper address books, people regularly used that page for noting shopping lists or for doodling. This must surely explain why no one called me much or invited me to parties. Even now, when checking into a hotel, receptionists assume that the first ‘Z’ they spot on their computer terminal is likely to be me. That’s why, last Thursday, I found myself checked in to Mister Zarwan’s room at the Holiday Inn in Glasgow. Luckily he had secured a much cheaper rate than I had and, when the mistake was spotted, the hotel kindly allowed me to keep that lower tariff. What happened to poor Mister Zarwan, I never found out.
But back to books and my advice to any would-be authors out there. Do consider an alphabetically advantageous nom de plume. Put it this way, Isaac Asimov and Agatha Christie are still being talked about, but J.K. Rowling? Ah, maybe that’s where my theory falls down. So, I’ll stick to my spot on the bottom shelf. I’ll just tell everyone that people have bent over backwards to get my book. Or forwards. Whatever.