First there was Dominic Grieve. Then there was Dominic Cummings. And now there is Dominic Raab. The rise of the Dominics can no longer be ignored.
It’s not a typical English name. Monks aside, Dominics are not noted for their presence in British history, though Dom Perignon has made a substantial indirect contribution. Yet suddenly we’re all over the place. In the spirit of St Dominic, who was accused of having inspired the Inquisition but may well have known nothing about it, I’ve made some historical enquiries.
The current dominance of the Dominics was conceived, like most social ills, in the Sixties. It helps to have been born around 1970, and to socially ambitious parents. ‘Dominic’ is definitely a posh English name, or was, until people like me started using it. It evokes Catholic aristocracy, Brideshead Revisited, and people more likely to show you their priest hole than their golf clubs. In the class-inversion fantasy of The Italian Job, Michael Caine’s Cockney rogue recruits a ludicrously posh Dominic as a getaway driver.
Middle-class aspiration may explain a high incidence of Dominics in John Betjeman’s ‘Metroland’, the country-commuter towns northwest of London. I was born in Watford in 1970. Raab, born in 1974, grew up in nearby Gerrards Cross. Grieve was the early adopter – born in London in 1956 – and after years of wandering found his spiritual home as MP for Beaconsfield. I have yet to establish Cummings’ connection to the Dominican terrain of the Chiltern foothills. Perhaps he might consider retiring there.
Dominics like an audience. Are we natural show-offs and idlers, or does our slightly silly name turn us into arty crowd-pleasers?
My cohort, 1969-1970, are Peak Dominic. At my Metroland public school, there were six of us in the 120 boys in my cohort. We were second only to the Johns. I suspect that similar nominal dominance will be familiar to Dominic West the actor (b. 1969), Dominic Holland the comedian (b. 1971), Dominic Cork the cricketer (b. 1971), and Dominic Glover the jazz trumpeter (b. 1972). Note the professions. Dominics like an audience. Are we natural show-offs and idlers, or does our slightly silly name turn us into arty crowd-pleasers?
In 1972, the American cartoonist and sculptor William Steig published a children’s novel called Dominic, about a dog who must discover his fate alone. That privilege has been denied to me by the privilege I did have. Dominics have walked with me on the road of middle-class life like the Doomsday Gang in Steig’s canine picaresque. They’re everywhere in the arts and media, in sports and the middle-class professions, and especially in disreputable professions like politics.
I asked my mother, an actress, what she and my late father had been thinking of when they named me. ‘I liked it,’ she said, evasively. Under interrogation, she confessed that a fellow actress had also delivered a boy in the same ward, so she had ‘borrowed’ the name. For quite a while, as it turned out. More alarmingly, she added that I had played with this other Dominic as a child, without knowing about the name-napping.
This slightly macabre, Daphne du Maurier-like tale explains much about my parents, but less about the Sixties’ vogue for Dominics. I suspect that part of the aspirational Dominic craze derives from the middle-class adoption of Mediterranean holidays and Mediterranean cookery, and perhaps even from those heady days when joining the European Community promised to finally make England part of Europe. Who knows how many of us were inspired by handsome waiters called Domenico and Domingo, if not sired by them?
Shakespeare was quite wrong when he wrote that ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’. Names matter, and perceptions count. We won’t be seeing a revival of Strife, John Galsworthy’s hit drama of 1909, anytime soon, so long as one of the characters is called Mr. Wanklin.
I suspect that my name has shaped my life in all kinds of ways, and mostly for the better. For a start, people think you’re posh, which is always useful. And the name is a tremendous ice-breaker at parties, though you have to be careful with the formalities. Almost all Dominics go by ‘Dom’, as in Perignon, but we make sure to introduce ourselves with the full three syllables. If you’re shouting into the ear of a young woman in a noisy pub or nightclub, your chances will not be augmented by her thinking whether she wants to spend the rest of her life with a Don.
If the Doms of Old England are suburban social-climbers, the Doms of America are a rougher, louder and more democratic breed. Where I live, in Boston, Massachusetts, all the other Doms are from the Irish and Italian aristocracies of labour. No wiring, piping, painting, plastering or boiler-service is complete without the ethno-religious dialogue that Van Morrison would call ‘St. Dominic’s Preview’.
When Pat or Mike hears my name, he nods in benediction and leaves it at that. But when Angelo or Tony comes into the kitchen, I put the kettle on.
‘Dominic? They have Dominics in England?’ His eyes moisten. ‘You Italian?’
‘Jewish, actually,’ I jump ahead. ‘They liked the name.’
Nothing human is alien to a man who spends half his life in other people’s basements, so we proceed to the crucial question of spelling. All of us dislike the French unisex ‘Dominique’: mention of this sordid variation never fails to produce grimaces and slow shakes of the head. And of course, we share a worldly appreciation of the Spanish ‘Domingo’ and the Greek ‘Domenikos’, which was El Greco’s real name. But my American cognate-cousin is often unaware of the English ‘Dominic’. This is because he’s usually ‘Dominick’, especially if he’s Italian.
The class associations of American ‘are the opposite of those of English ‘Dominic’. Take Dominick Santoro, who runs a mob with his brother Nicky in Martin Scorcese’s Casino. After a small disagreement with other members of the Italian-American business community, the Santoro brothers are beaten half to death with baseball bats, then buried alive in quicklime. It’s hard to imagine their fate being visited on Dominic Grieve. But not impossible.
The Dominick in my kitchen issues instructions about fuse boxes and pipe pressures. I stand there, legs slightly apart, hands on hip, nodding in manly fashion until my wife cannot contain her disgust any longer and advises him that I have no idea what he’s on about and he should address the organ grinder, not the monkey. Truly, Dominic is a classy name, whichever class you’re dealing with.
In such moments of intimacy, Italian-Americans sometimes shorten my name to ‘Nick’ or ‘Nicky’. I have only encountered this once in Britain, and hope that social isolation will prevent it from infecting the general population.
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