I answered quite happily to the name Michael until I was about thirteen when I decided I’d prefer to be known as Mike. If nothing else it was quicker to write and easier to spell. My parents never really got used to it, and while my siblings grew accustomed to the idea over the years they still often slip back to the old form.
It occasionally causes problems even now. Just recently I had to pay a cheque into the bank. A rare occurrence these days when most such transactions are made by bank transfer. Anyway, the friend who wrote the cheque knows me as Mike, but the cashier (doing things by the book as he was instructing a trainee) noticed that my account knows me as M A Roden. So off he goes to check with the manager leaving me to wonder irritably about shortening my first name by deed poll.
These days sensible parents cut out the middleman and go straight for the short version of their favoured name, and Sam, Tom, Ben or Jack, is what appears on their birth certificate.
Even the royal family is not immune to this practice. Princess Diana thought Harry was good enough for her second son (can you really imagine him as a Henry or Harold?) and now Harry and Meghan’s first born has been named Archie.
A curious choice to those of us of a certain age since that name will always conjure up Educating Archie, a radio show which attracted up to 15 million listeners and had a children’s fan club with around 250,000 members. Such a weird idea, a radio sitcom starring a wooden dummy.
Not that Peter Brough – the ventriloquist who provided Archie’s voice – suffered from not being seen. His inability to stop his lips from moving was legendary and he never did quite so well on television. If you missed out on the dubious pleasure of hearing Archie/Brough there are a few shows which survived being wiped by the BBC which occasionally turn up on Radio 4 Extra. Morecambe and Wise fans may now practise saying “Gottle of geer!” without moving your lips.
But to return to where I started which was my dissatisfaction with the name my parents gave me. Some people of course choose to drop their first name and use their second. In my case I had no intention of calling myself Alan, though I suppose I could have followed the example of the person who (at the time of writing) claims to be the Prime Minister. He may choose to call himself Boris now, but throughout his childhood he was known as Al (short for Alexander).
As Peter Wilby reminded us in a recent New Statesman piece four out of the six Labour prime ministers chose to drop their first name in favour of their second. Ramsay MacDonald, Harold Wilson and Gordon Brown had all started out life as James. On the other hand James Callaghan had started out as Leonard.
‘Traditional’ names are disappearing fast. These days you won’t find many babies called Craig, Lee, Shaun, Jodie or Gemma wailing as the vicar splashes water over their heads. At the moment the fastest-rising boy’s name is apparently Jaxon, which is as popular now as Mark was in 1996, while for girls it is Aria, chosen as regularly as Hayley was 23 years ago. How long they’ll remain in vogue remains to be seen.
I can’t resist letting Alan Bennett have the last elegaic word on this subject.