The Man Behind The Name

A lot of people ask where I got my name Nemo James from so here is the spooky story behind the name.

In 1991, at a time when I was starting to promote myself as a singer songwriter rather than a session musician I knew I had to change my name to something more catchy. Although my songwriting had become prolific I couldn’t for the life of me think of a stage name. Then one day I was chatting to my father who is not the most creative of men but he surprised me as parents so often do:

“Why not use Nemo. That was your grandfather’s nickname.”

I loved the name and the idea of finally inheriting something from my grandfather but I was still stuck for a surname when a few seconds later the name James came into my head. I didn’t know anyone called James and hadn’t been watching a TV program about one, it just came out of nowhere but I knew instantly it was the name I wanted. The spooky bit came when a couple of weeks later my father said:

“Do you know your grandfather was one of eight children and the eldest was called James … and he was poet.”

If that wasn’t spooky enough a few months later someone pointed out what Nemo spelt backwards. After that I wanted to know more about my grandfather as he died many years before I was born and was rarely talked about in my family, so I started interrogating my father and aunt.

Grandfather Nemo (real name Herbert Edwin Newark) was born into a wealthy family and his father owned a thriving bookbinding shop. He had a very strict upbringing and every night when he was young he was made to stand outside the dining room with his seven brothers and sisters and sing hymns while his parents ate their dinner. This was strange enough in itself but more so because his parents weren’t in the least bit religious. It was because of this authoritarian upbringing that my grandfather  developed an intense dislike for authority and rejected convention of any kind although being a man who hated conflict the closest he got to rattling the establishment was to make a loud cock a doodle do sound every time he left the house.

All he ever asked for from life was to remain anonymous and play cards and that is exactly what he did. Every afternoon he went to a whist drive and then straight onto a solo drive at night. Whist is like bridge without the bidding and solo is like bridge with the bidding except you don’t play in pairs. No I don’t understand either. An entrance fee was paid and the winners took whatever was in the pot. With his desire to remain anonymous he always gave his name as Nemo and in the working class environment of those places no one would have known that Nemo was Latin for nobody. At the end of every night he returned home to eat a raw onion and a piece of cheese and then go to bed.

Nemo inherited the bookbinding shop from his father and was himself a highly skilled bookbinder but he only ever did just enough to pay for his card playing. Even that became too much for him after a while so slowly he started selling the stock until he got to the point where even if someone gave him a book to repair he was unable to do it because of a lack of materials. He gave very little to his wife to bring up their five children and so my father was brought up in a slum. He didn’t drink but he did chain smoke and developed the ability to open a new packet of cigarettes while they were still in his pocket, take out a cigarette and light it while no one was looking so he didn’t have to offer them around. With all the stock gone and his shop closed down he spent the rest of his life waiting for small legacies from wealthy relatives and the occasional win at a whist drive. My grandmother got by with some help from her parents and a small income from restoring old prams. You might wonder how Nemo was able to pay the general household bills and the answer to that is that he didn’t. His favourite saying when anyone from authority approached him was “lock me up” and that is what they did. Every couple of years he would get a demand for unpaid property tax which he refused to pay so they put him in prison for a few weeks. He referred to those periods as his visits to the health farm as while there he was unable to smoke, ate much better food than he did at home and still got to play cards all day. When he was released, his debt was written off. His only concession to responsibility was when things were desperate he went to the local charity to collect a box of food. His only real worry in life was if he didn’t have enough money to pay his entrance fee to a whist drive and on those occasions his daughter Doris was happy to give it to him despite having none herself.

He was a very attractive man and there was always women chasing him although he was never interested as it would have been far too much effort to respond. When he first met my grandmother she was already engaged but she dumped her fiancé to marry him and spent the rest of their married life telling him what a big mistake she had made. He was infamous for his bad habits although my father could only tell me two of them. One was spitting into the fire (which he frequently missed) and the other was that he seemed to be incapable of closing his trouser fly. It is not surprised that eventually my grandmother kicked him out so his son Cyril built him a shed in the garden where he lived for years in the hope of my grandmother taking him back but she never did.

Towards the end of his life he was fortunate in being offered a job by a rich Jewish man called Mr Dent who owned an extensive book collection and had an apartment above a dairy in the Strand, London. If anyone has information about this Mr Dent I would love to hear it. It was Nemo’s job to restore precious old books and make others appear older than they really were in return for living at the unoccupied apartment rent free.

In 1937 Nemo died at age of 70 with the cause on the death certificate being bronchitis and pneumonia, no doubt caused by his chain smoking. Ironically the only family heirloom that has been handed down from him is a battered old cigarette case which still smells of tobacco.

One thing that surprises me is that none of his children seemed to hold any resentment towards him for depriving them of what should have been a healthy inheritance. In fact my father always talks about him with great affection and admiration of his free spirit. I also suspect that considering Nemo was an extremely popular character in the area, my father might actually have been proud of that popularity. They all went to the funeral and it was his elderly son that made up the rhyme “he died as he lived the poor old sod, even his funeral was on the nod”  (on the nod meaning on credit.) The funeral was arranged by his daughter Doris who in honour of her father’s memory never paid the bill. I am happy to say my father inherited none of Nemo’s character flaws but developed a strong work ethic and sense of responsibility ensuring that his family was always safe and secure. The only good character trait my father inherited was Nemo’s razor sharp wit.

So at the age of 91 my father has always considered his father as being a likable but selfish and  irresponsible waster who avoided life and conflict of any kind but last year I heard something about Nemo which just shows we never really know anyone. A distant cousin of mine living in Canada is an expert in genealogy and purely by chance came across a court case in which Grandfather Nemo appeared as a witness in 1898 in a murder case at the Old Bailey. In his evidence he said he heard gunshots and saw a man running away from the scene with a gun in his hand. He chased the gunman down the street until he caught him, threw him to the floor and held him while bystanders seized the gun and during the struggle two more shots were fired. When I told this to my father he refused to believe it even though I showed him the Official Old Bailey Court Transcripts where several other witness collaborated Nemo’s evidence. You would think like most fathers, Nemo would have spent the rest of his life telling his children how he wrestled a desperate gunman to the floor but it seems he kept the whole thing to himself as no one in the family ever knew about it.

Now the final irony is having spent his life in anonymity, 81 years after Granddad Nemo’s death I am putting his short biography on the internet for the whole world to see. I have a feeling if he is up there somewhere reading this his only reaction would be to shrug his shoulder and say “lock me up.”

Herbert Edwin Newark aka  “Nemo”

September 2011