My middle name "Kasmin"

Sometimes people ask me about my middle name "Kasmin".

I was named after an art dealer called John Kasmin. Wikipedia has an article on him. Linked from that article are other articles such as Kasmin is a small man with a big name as a dealer in contemporary art, and John Kasmin: the rogue and his gallery. (If you want to read this article, to bypass the Financial Times' paywall, do a Google search for the article title, and then click the link.)

Here is a clip of John Kasmin in the 1970s, talking to artist David Hockney:

Although I know that my parents named me after him, I have no idea why. I have never met John Kasmin. I have no recollection of my parents meeting him. They never told me anything about him except a few things which turned out to be wildly incorrect, and they never described what kind of friendship they had with him.

My mother, Phoebe, who'd been an art teacher at the Redmaids school in Bristol, died in 1988. From early childhood onwards, she more or less refused to talk to me, or show interest in what I was doing. All attempts at conversation ended on a sour note. I didn't realise how very abnormal it was for her to be endlessly snapping at me until much later, when I visited friends and saw them interacting normally with their parents. My mother's refusal to pay attention to me extended so far as to refuse to do things like teaching me to tie my shoelaces, and as a child I would go around with my shoelaces undone, not knowing how to tie them. Eventually one of my sister's friends actually taught me.

Looking back on it now, it is a bit difficult to understand why she so very pointedly refused to give me any attention. For example, although she did not play the piano herself, she bought a piano, had it installed, had it tuned, and paid for my piano lessons with an elderly neighbour called Mrs Connolly, and drove me to grade examinations, but much to my chagrin she would not listen to a single note that I played. As she was an art teacher, she asked me to take Art O-level. At my school we had to choose either Latin or Art in the third year, so I had to give up Latin. Then, after I'd given up Latin, which I was quite good at, and annoyed the Latin teacher Mr Fance after coming nearly top in the Latin exam at the end of the third year, my mother utterly refused to take even the slightest shred of interest in what I was doing at school, for the whole two years until my exam.

Mr Black, circled in purple, and Mr Fance, circled in orange. Image from "".

The rather bizarre art teacher at Bristol Cathedral School, Mr Black, had odd ideas about teaching. His teaching method involved him going into his room at the start of the class, and leaving us to chat about television programmes like "The Fall Guy" for two hours, and then emerging from his room at the very end of the class. Although many of the people doing Art O-level were people who couldn't do Latin for one reason or another, surprisingly, some extremely talented people emerged, so perhaps his "free-range" method of teaching worked for some motivated people. But his instructions on art history consisted of telling us to "write about a page" of text on some painting or another, and one of my friends would merely write a page of complete gibberish, which Mr Black would duly tick as satisfactory. My mother had about 300 books on art history and taught O-level art to the girls at Redmaids, but she would not give me any help whatsoever, but simply repeated about how Mr Black had had a hard life due to his daughters' fatal disease. I felt quite resentful that after having chosen art O-level just to please my mother, she didn't seem at all pleased, or even slightly interested.

Although I asked my mother several times about my middle name, it ended up in the same downward spiral into sour remarks and misery that all other conversations with her did. She was also prone to outbursts of explosive anger. A large problem as a child was working out how not to set my mother off on a torrent of rage. In fact I do not think that she, even once, asked me to do anything in a normal tone of voice. Sometimes she would scream at us so hard that her face would go bright red. At one time she was committed to a mental hospital after threatening my sister with a kitchen knife.

When I was a small child, with no clear idea even of the differences between men and women, let alone women's role in society, she would read books on feminism such as "The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan, then work herself into a frothing rage against me due to what she claimed were my sexist attitudes. She would endlessly drone on and on about her "deprived childhood", and insist on using all the family money on expensive holidays for herself to compensate her for this.

In the 1970s, we often went on long car journeys to see her relatives who lived in various parts of England. On one journey, on the way home in pouring rain, the windscreen wipers on the car broke, and we stopped in a small town to get the wipers repaired. My mother exited the car, then came back a few minutes later, in a state of great agitation, and declared that we could not stay in that town because "It's just like the fifties". I was unable to dissuade her from driving home in the dark and pouring rain with no windscreen wipers because of the repeated claim that the small town was "just like the fifties". I'm not sure what happened to my mother in the 1950s, but I really do think she needed some kind of help.

Even worse than this, during my teenage years my mother developed an extremely unwelcome sexual fixation on me and started a range of extraordinary behaviours including masturbating in front of me.

She told me once that John Kasmin was Polish, and the name was Polish in origin. The above newspaper articles say that Kasmin was born in London, with the name Kaye, and that he had changed the name himself when he was living in New Zealand, perhaps because he didn't like his father. Poles I've asked have told me that it is not a Polish surname. Since my mother didn't even know the origin of the name, or whether or not he was Polish, I wonder how well she knew John Kasmin.

My mother was a terrible name-dropper who claimed to "know" people she'd only really met once or twice. She would claim to know the actress who played Mavis on Coronation Street, or David McCallum, because he had briefly dated a friend of hers in the 1950s. Because my mother "knew" David McCallum, in other words she'd met him a couple of times, we had to watch every single television appearance of him, including such turkeys as "The Invisible Man" and "Sapphire and Steel" with Joanna Lumley.

I don't think my mother had anything more than a very casual acquaintance with these people, but she relentlessly name-dropped them, so that when staying in a hospital she would tell all the women at the hospital watching Coronation Street that she "knew" the woman who played Mavis, although I'm sure she never once met this actress after their initial acquaintance. I assume that the friendship with John Kasmin was the same sort of thing.

My father, Douglas Bullock, a retired shopkeeper, is still alive, now in his eighties, but my parents separated when I was about four or five, and later divorced, and I and my sister remained with my mother, seeing him only on Sunday. Like my mother, it was pretty difficult to talk to him. Douglas was fairly incoherent and extraordinarily tetchy, a person who was so easily offended that he probably thought the speaking clock was saying something offensive about him.

In the 1970s there was a shop on Whiteladies Road called "PETS AND BASKETS", here, with an oddly hand-painted sign where the K in "BASKETS" resembled an H. We would often walk past it, and Douglas, instead of just telling me that it said "basket" rather than "bashet", completely refused to answer when I asked him what a "bashet" was. Another time, we were sitting in a cafe and he started talking about the "Unimog", which he claimed was a vehicle which could go either on roads or train tracks, and he got upset and stopped talking to me when I asked him whether it had rubber tyres or steel train wheels.

As a small boy I'd been fascinated with submarines and declared that when I grew up I wanted to be a "submarine technician". Douglas took me to a Royal Navy exhibit and got me a lot of posters about the Royal Navy, but as I was only six years old, I didn't realise that the Royal Navy was the organisation which had the submarines, and Douglas didn't think that piece of information was worth providing to me, so I ended up rather baffled.

Trying to talk to Douglas often seemed like a minefield. For example, the word "funny" was sure to elicit the endlessly-repeated query of "Was it funny peculiar or funny ha-ha?", no matter how obvious it should have been which one was meant. I think if I had said that I'd watched a comedy programme on the television and it was very funny, that Douglas would have said "Was it funny peculiar or funny haha?"

One of the most difficult topics was my older sister. Douglas had decided that she was among the world's greatest living talents, and nothing could persuade him otherwise. He bought her something called a John Bull printing set, and then remarked repeatedly on how adept she was using it. I'd been sitting next to her and it was absolutely obvious to me that she had very little interest. She only made the words "Rachel Bullock" with the set then got bored with the thing, but she seemed to have joined the ranks of the World's Greatest Living Exponents of Rubber Lettering according to my father. He went on to buy her a printing press costing 500 pounds, for which a whole room in our house, previously rented to a university student, was then dedicated. The printing press sat idle for about two years, while my sister, the World's Greatest Living Exponent of Printing, so incredibly talented that she didn't have to do any mundane things like putting ink or pieces of paper in the printing press, or setting up the type, sat chatting with her friend. I'm not sure the number of pieces of paper which went through that printing press ever got into double figures.

Similar to the printing escapades, my sister miraculously joined the ranks of the World's Greatest Living Artists without actually creating any works of art. Living with my sister from childhood, I never noticed her to be at all interested in creating works of art, but for some reason my father was convinced that we had a major artistic talent on our hands. My sister didn't have to do anything beyond writing a few letters on a page for it to be seized on by my father as evidence that we were among the greatest of them all, a latter-day Van Gogh or Rembrandt in the making. For whatever reason, my sister went along with the notion that she was one of the World's Greatest Living Artists, and even attended Camberwell Art School in London, although her artworks seemed to consist of a few moments of dabbling with a paintbrush, and her interest in art seemed fairly casual. After leaving the art school, my sister did various jobs, and at one point she opened a shop, which promptly failed due to mismanagement. According to my father, she was convinced that she was among the World's Leading Exponents of Shopkeeping since she "came from a retailing family", although apparently she didn't know basic things about accounting. Even after this, my father would still keep on and on about how incredibly talented she was, and he'd become very hurt if anyone suggested otherwise.

Even more galling than my sister's bizarre narcissism was that my father would let her get away with almost any kind of bad behaviour. For example she would steal things from his shop and although I'm sure he noticed, he would say nothing to her. Later on in life, there were extremely serious problems with actual theft of large sums of money and fraud. I think it would have been much more useful and beneficial for my sister if my father had told her to stop stealing things as a child, rather than encourage her into being a raging narcissistic loonie.

He'd been involved with a series of women all of whom, like my mother, seemed to be at best extremely eccentric. Before I was born he'd had a relationship with a Jewish woman who, from what I've heard about her, was completely barmy, resulting in a half-brother I've never met who was adopted, and he left my mother for a woman who had a large collection of snakes. At one point the upper floors of the Kitchens shop building were filled with aquarium-like glass cases containing snakes. After that, he remarried a woman who was prescribed to take large quantities of tranquilizers, and he was trying to persuade her to cut down on them with the help of books like "Anti-Psychiatry" by R.D. Laing.

Even more than my sister, the topic which really got my father's knickers in a twist was my mother, so I never got a shred of sense out of him about my middle name. The only thing he ever mentioned, which I overheard him saying to someone else rather than directly to me, was that John Kasmin had been a friend of theirs at the time I was born, but apparently was no longer a friend after that.

So, my parents, for reasons I do not know, seem to have named me after a casual acquaintance whom they fell out of touch with.

Considering how barmy the selection of my middle name seems to have been, why use it in my email address? Around the 1990s, searching for my own name, I chanced upon "Ben's page of babes" by one Ben Bullock. I once got some hate email from someone who thought I was a police officer called Ben Bullock associated with the investigation of Stephen Lawrence's killers.

When I also found that email addresses or other user identities such as "benbullock" were already taken, at last I had a use for this very unusual middle name, as part of my email address or otherwise as a self-identifier.

However, I don't really use this name for other purposes, although it's recorded on my passport, birth certificate, etc. Because it's my "official name", it's ended up also being transliterated into my Japanese identity papers and bank account name and so on.

Coincidentally there is a Japanese name Kasumi, meaning "mist", which is similar to the Japanese transcription of my name, Kasumin, and Japanese people have asked me if this name is related to Japan in some way. The Japanese rendering of the name, カスミン (Kasumin), was not decided by me, but by a woman official at the Oho city hall (大穂市役所) in Tsukuba in 1994, when I first did my Alien Registration. From what I can find on Google, such as the Japanese Wikipedia article on David Hockney, John Kasmin's name also seems to be rendered as カスミン in Japan, so this is probably the closest rendition in Japanese.

Since Japanese people do not have middle names, this can become a nuisance, and, possibly because it comes last in my list of names when they're ordered Japanese fashion, some Japanese people call me "Kasmin", which I don't like. I also sometimes get turned in to "Benkasmin" by some very annoying software glitches. The worst example of all was that I was turned into Bullockben Kasmin by a software glitch at a credit card company, of all things.

Incidentally, my older sister was named "Rachel Anna", so only I got the eccentric naming.

Acknowledgements The "John Bull" printing set photo above is from John Bell, used under this Creative Commons licence. The picture of David McCallum is copyright-free from Wikipedia. The picture of the Unimog is also from Wikipedia, used under a Creative Commons licence.

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