You know what the real problem with Nigel Farage is? It’s not his politics, for they are a matter of personal taste. No, it’s something more objective. His name. And not that improbable surname, either, the one that makes him sound like a Bond villain. It’s the Nigel.
There’s a passage in Julian Barnes’s novel Talking It Over which summarises the problem nicely. One of the characters, Oliver, used to be called Nigel until he changed his name by deed poll. ‘You can’t go through the whole of your life being called Nigel, can you?’ he explains. ‘You can’t even go through a whole book being called Nigel. Some names simply aren’t appropriate after a while.’
How true. Would John Taylor, bass guitarist of Duran Duran have had the same success as a rock star if he had stuck to the name he grew up with? Nigel? Nigel Taylor? I suspect not.
It’s partly because Nigel is a comedy name. When Monty Python wanted an easy laugh they often called a character Nigel. In the ‘upper class twit of the year’ sketch, for example, John Cleese played a character called Nigel Incubator-Jones. And in This is Spinal Tap the preposterous character played by Christopher Guest — the one whose amplifier goes ‘all the way up to 11’ — is called Nigel Tufnel.
When everyone was betting on a name for Prince William’s first born, you couldn’t even get odds on a Prince Nigel, it is that ridiculous. Another good test of the ridiculousness of a name is whether you could imagine a dog being called it. Can you imagine a dog called Nigel? No, of course not.
You might think, given all this, that it is a modern name. One of those modern names, indeed, which recent research has shown can hold you back at work, in the same way that baldness does. Wayne and Kayleigh are the worst modern names to have, apparently. If you are going for a job interview you are much better off with a solid Biblical name such as John or Rachel.
But actually the name Nigel comes from the Latin nigellus and has been around since the Middle Ages. In was at its most popular in the Regency period, as reflected in Sir Walter Scott’s 1822 novel The Fortunes of Nigel. But it fell out of favour after that and when it trickled back briefly in the 1950s and 1960s it became associated with the smell of freshly clipped suburban lawns. The soundtrack to my schooldays in the 1970s was ‘We’re only making plans for Nigel’ by XTC, the new-wave band from Swindon. Nigel has a future in British Steel, they sang.
But at best it’s a hairdresser’s name, as I am always reminded when I visit Rock in north Cornwall. There is a hairdresser there who advertises all over the place with green sandwich boards upon which is written in gold lettering: ‘Hair at Nigels’. That there is a missing apostrophe from Nigel’s signs makes the indignity complete.
And it’s a name people take liberties with, much worse than Davids becoming Daves. People think just because you are a Nigel they can call you Nige. Big Nige in my case.
As it happens, I am exactly the same age as Nigel Farage. What were our parents thinking? Who looks at a baby boy and thinks: yes, he’s definitely a Nigel. Baby Nigel. Back in 1964 when Nigel Farage and I were born, there weren’t even any famous Nigels around to inspire our parents. It came out of nowhere, like the ebola virus. There have been a handful since: the louche gossip columnist Nigel Dempster, the oleaginous actor Nigel Havers and the football-scarf-wearing mockney violinist Nigel Kennedy. I rest my case.
I met Nigel Farage once and we compared notes on what it was like growing up in the 1970s with the unfortunate initials NF, which were sprayed on walls everywhere, the two letters merging to form one sharp-angled symbol of prejudice. There’s someone else in our rather exclusive club: Niall Ferguson, who was also born in 1964. He has a much better name, though, because no one is sure how to pronounce it (Neil).
I suppose Nigel Farage might get away with it. There has, after all, been one successful Nigel in politics, and I’m not thinking of Nigel Evans, the Deputy Speaker who resigned this week while he fights sexual assault charges. I’m thinking of Nigel Lawson, who liked his name so much he named his daughter Nigella. But Nigel Lawson is a bruiser, a big beast. He could be called Shirley and get away with it. (Shirley Lawson, I quite like that.) He glowers, whereas Nigel Farage has that manic, toothy grin that makes him look like Wallace, of Wallace & Gromit.
It’s no good, Nigel. The Nigel has to go. How about changing it to Samuel? Samuel Farage. Prime Minister Samuel Farage…
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