Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Touch of Class

"It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him." - George Bernard Shaw

In a recent post about Waterstone's, I made a casual remark about the former managing director and his Estuary accent, unwittingly implying that he was a "bit common" to be leading Britain's largest bookshop chain.

John Self was quick to spot my woolly thinking (it's his job) and asked me exactly what I meant. I began to write what I thought was a coherent, reasonable explanation, but soon realised that I had begun to dig a hole. I deleted my reply and wrote another considered, reasonable response. The hole grew even bigger.

I knew that I was on the wrong track when my wife (who rarely reads this blog), spotted the exchange and said "I don't know what you're on about, but I agree with John Self".

At this point I started to question myself. Why did I have such a negative attitude towards a particular regional accent? I toyed with the idea of constructing an argument based on the aesthetic qualities of Estuary - but I knew that it would be avoiding the issue.

The unpalatable truth is that I harbour a prejudice - one that has its origins in early childhood.

My parents were both working class, but aspired to move up the social ladder and focused their aspirations on me. As a young child I wasn't allowed to play with the "rough boys" and whenever we walked past Teddington Social Club, my mother would point to the women inside playing Bingo and tell me how "common" they were.

At first I spoke with a Laahndun accent, but was constantly upbraided for saying "Sa-urday" and "Man Uni-ed" until I developed what my mother still refers to as a "nice speaking voice" ("Joan says you could read the news."). The accent was a mixed blessing. I didn't know any middle-class people and my peers mocked me for being posh.

It would be unfair to imply that my parents brutally crushed any signs of a working-class identity. I was a willing participant. From an early age I made it clear that I prefered Earl Grey and Camembert to PG Tips and Cheddar. Indeed, my nickname in those days was "Little Lord Fauntleroy".

By my teens, I started to mix with middle-class kids and was amazed to find houses full of books and original paintings. It was a revelation. At one friend's house, the room where we played snooker contained the complete Thames and Hudson World of Art series and, much to my friend's annoyance, I was more concerned with discovering what Fauvism and Cubism were.

Suddenly everything - the BBC accent, my interest in the arts and penchant for foreign cheeses - clicked into place. I was middle class. My parents' experiment has succeeded, almost.

So where does the Estuary accent comment come into all of this?

It's complicated, but I think that my parents' obsession with making me speak "properly" left me with a deep-rooted prejudice about the local accent. During my teens I successfully rejected my parents views on race, gender and politics and came to regard myself as a liberal (with a small "l").

Little did I realise that beneath my enlightened exterior, there lurked a bigot!

In the past, there was no such thing as received pronunciation. We know this, because before spelling was standardised, people wrote phonetically. Then, in the Victorian age, accents began to be linked to social background and that's where all the trouble began.

John Self mischievously asked where he stood with his Belfast accent. Could he be bookish? All I can say is that my irrational prejudice doesn't extend to other regions. I reserve my wrath purely for my neighbours. Indeed, I actively like accents from other regions and countries, as they all seem much pleasanter than Estuary (with the possible exception of the South African accent).

It's all very silly. Does any of this matter? No, of course it doesn't, and now that I'm aware of my prejudice I will work hard to expunge it from my psyche. I'll no longer wince when someone says "toe" for "two" or drops the "g" from the "ing" words.

Accents are changing all the time. BBC English is a relatively modern construct, rather than the heir of some apostolic succession from a golden age and even the BBC rarely employ it these days.

I am already an anachronism.


Lucille said...

I had two accents and moved seamlessly between them. One for home and one for school. I picked up the school accent pretty quickly and was told by one girl with casual frankness that she didn't used to like me because I spoke posh but now I was alright. Unfortunately my accent still swerves slightly to accommodate whoever is speaking to me. I can't help it. I am generally more averse to impoverished language than to any specific accent.

Brett said...

You remind me of Professor Higgins in "My Fair Lady": "Why can't the English learn how to speak?" I think also of Alan Sillitoe.

Like Lucille, I move between two accents, my mother's Midwestern, college accent, (An American equivalent to your BBC accent), and my father's Alabama country doctor accent, as the situation demands. Language coaching came with table manners at supper. Don't say "graveyard", my father would correct me, "say cemetery."

When a workman came to look at our central air unit this week, I could hear myself sounding more like Jed Clampett by the minute as I spoke with him.

I think of myself as being about as "bookish" as they come, having spent my life in the trade as a bookseller and a librarian. But when I read John Self's blog, I feel like a fraud. I have to plead that my background is in history, not literature.

Librarians, unlike authors, book reviewers and English professors, do not have to account for themselves.

Grey Area said...


My parents tried everything to engineer myself and my siblings into perfect, middle class versions of themselves - it was their way of escaping the working class environment they felt they didn't deserve and had failed to escape from, 'we' dressed better - had better manners and spoke better than all the other kids - but forgot the most important part - they failed to give middle class 'aspirations' - it worked with my brother, he has a big house - a holiday home - cars and everything is 'nice', but I've never been interested in any of those things. The traditional 'middle class' of old - reading, appreciation of art, understanding political dialogue etc - they are - I'm probably nieve enough to believe - now universal luxuries available to all - and despite the fact I have a 'middle class' career - I still think of myself as 'just' working class.

Because I'm from that specific point in the North West where Liverpool, Manchester and North Wales collide - my accent could have gone any way - to my parents relief I have the, flat, atonal drawl of John Peel or the old style Lancastrian like John Lennon, and not the phlemy scouse screech of our neighbours ( my sister speaks Welsh ) - and I've always loved regional accents - it's not the sound of the voice that bothers me, it's the content - I was brought up to speak 'properly', and I can't abide lazy, poorly constructed written or spoken language - don't get me started on 'upspeak' or Australian Dipthong.

Mind you - I absolutly cannot read anything that's written to mirror regional speech patterns - it's just nonsense to me and makes me angry.

Anonymous said...

I have a mixed accent that has become steadily more mixed as I've got older. I'm Glaswegian, but with English parents. When I was very young I had a perfect RP accent but I picked up more Glasgow as I went. I think that was a reaction to kids at school who thought that English automatically equated to posh, and I tried to fit in.

Now I live in England, with my Scottish fiance. When I'm at work I sound English. At home I sound Scottish. It's not even a conscious switch, and I only really notice when people remark on hearing me speak to my fiance on the phone.

Unknown said...

To be fair to you though, the gentleman in question does have a very particular way of speaking. I don't think it is the estuary accent that is wrong (Paul Merton for instance is a pleasure to listen to) rather it is the pitch, tone and delivery that clangs.

(By the way, when I updated my blog to the gorgeous retro theme it is now I lost all my links and have only just seen I inadvertently left you off when I replaced them. I've been reading you in my google reader so hadn't noticed. Have rectified now!)

on site said...

well, being from western Canada we don't have accents of course, although I was pilloried for my insufferable 'English' accent in Texas and am asked where in the States I am from everywhere else.

I thought that Estuary English referred to a craven attempt to lay a populist accent over some version of RP, rather than any accent spoken in estuary land, thus the original post about Gerry Johnson's accent indicated to me that there was a certain inauthenticity about his interest in the book business -- rather more business than book.

It must be agony to be British, as every time one opens one's mouth three generations of class embarrassment leaps out.

Steerforth said...

It is agony, although I'd say that the pain was English rather than British.

Reading the comments above, it's interesting to note how both Lucille and Brett naturally change their accents depending on who they're talking to. I caught myself doing the same thing in the warehouse this afternoon, talking to the "lads" (I can never quite bring myself to say "mate" though).

I'm glad that Depesando has the Peel/Lennon accent, which always makes people sound as if they have a deadpan humour and highly developed sense of irony (that's a compliment, by the way). Scouse isn't nice. Add that to South African and Estuary.

Does Paul Merton have a nice accent? I think people like him and have positive associations with the voice.

Kirsty - I think everyone likes a Scottish accent, whether it's Morningside or the Gorbals.

On site - I sympathize with your plight. I remember being in Los Angeles when a sleazball complimented a girl on her lovely British accent. She replied "That's really nice, but I'm Australian."

I think Estuary is a halfway house between RP and the full-blown Bob Hoskins Laaaahhhndun accent. I don't like compromises.

If I had to put my cards on the table, these are the voices that I regard as aesthetically pleasing:

Paul Schofield
Gore Vidal
Tom Paulin
Ken Stott
Kirsty Wark
Jack Hawkins
Charlton Heston
Alec Guinness
Jenny Agutter
Trevor Eve
Barry Humphries
Eve Myles
Peter O'Toole
Rowan Williams
Burt Lancaster
Penelope Wilton

Annabel Gaskell said...

There are some interesting voices in your list - there are two that really grate on me, but I'm not going to let on which!

I hail from the Surrey/Greater London borderland that is Croydon. I tend towards the Sarf Lunn'n, but can go a bit Surrey if needed. My Mum's from Belfast, and there's not much left of her native accent these days, but when I was little I was always amazed at her RP telephone voice.

Bev said...

Good honest post, Mr Steerforth. You're not the only one with accent 'issues'.

Luke Dunn said...

This is a really interesting thread, thank you to everyone. I learned to talk as a toddler in Australia but then on returning home was brought up speaking rp. I have tended to be a people pleaser and now I can't control what has become a hotch-potch with a bit of all the accents of everyone I've known.

I think if everyone did this it would be better since it levels ad counteracts all the sociological boundaries that separate english speakers.

Steerforth said...

Luke - I'm torn between a desire to break down barriers and a love of diversity of accents. Ideally, we'd keep the accents but remove the negative associations with some of them.