Thursday, 24 September 2009

Teed Off

When I was at school I had such a pronounced accent (a sort of car-crash of Hertfordshire and Cockney) that my own teachers would mock me, in that ironically barbed way that school teachers used to deploy. My German teacher once remarked that, in stark contrast with my English, I spoke German with the accent and clarity of an aristocrat. The same man was determined to cast me and my equally incomprehensible friend Alan as the gravediggers in the school production of Hamlet. I later discovered that I was notorious in the staff room for always trying to divert the class onto "woider isshoos."

Now, northerners like Tony Harrison seem to have cornered the market in tales of "how my teachers worked class upon me," but all deviations from Received Pronunciation were once regarded as a strong marker of lack of intelligence and/or ambition. At one extreme, this led to the sort of suburban gentility that is so mockable ( "The cake h-which you gave to he and I"); at another, it led to the ruthless self-extirpation of any trace of class (though not necessarily regionality) once you stepped through the door of a university.

However, as Shaw wrote, "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him." Once you stepped out of your "natural" accent, you were in a social minefield. A pick'n'mix approach to RP (a bit of BBC, a bit of thespian, a bit of Oxford) simply alerted the native speakers that, although you were unlikely to steal the silver, you didn't really belong. The snobbery of the Bloomsbury set was hardly unique, merely very well documented.

This process had started to stop by the 1970s. At university I felt no obligation whatsoever to work on my vowels, though I had already had my cockneyfied glottal stops forcibly removed by my parents, anxious that anyone asking for a "glarssa waw'ah" was doomed to be a dustman. Indeed, the process had begun to go into reverse. I encountered privately-educated contemporaries who -- especially in the context of radical politics -- had consciously taken the edge off their "natural" public school accent by rubbing away some random consonants here and deflating some vowels there, and in a few extreme cases had actually gone to the extent of taking de-elocution lessons. This put the boot on the other foot: you can no more adopt a pick'n'mix working class accent than you could fool Virginia Woolf about the drawer out of h-which you had come. Think Dick Van Dyke. Worse, think Dick Van Dyke trying to sell you a copy of Socialist Worker at the factory gate.

In the last decade, we've seen the rise of a new breed of politician, many of them my contemporaries (like Tony Blair, ptah! and Peter Mandelson, double ptah!), people who have learned to adapt to new realities like chameleons. It seems that voters cannot be commanded or convinced now, but must be won over subliminally by a species of branding campaign. New Labour was the first conduit to power for this new image-aware breed, but the Lib Dems and Tories have them, too. Voice and accent play an important part in this permanent revolution, sorry, makeover of the political class.

The old political parties were unashamedly class-based but, in all parties, an unreconstructed working-class accent was once perceived as an obstacle to power. Consider the CVs of Roy Jenkins or Ted Heath, men of humble origins who acquired preposterously fake voices at Oxford, though nowhere near as preposterous or as fake as the vocal mannerisms of Margaret Thatcher. But that has changed, and now that yesterday's radicals are today's government ministers or opposition shadows, carefully class-neutral voices are to be heard all over the radio and TV, and I have to say some of them do sound very familiar.

All this is a preamble to this simple comment: every time I hear a politician like Ed Balls or Nick Clegg or David Cameron on the media carefully inserting random glottal stops into each sentence I want to scream, "Stop it! You're not fooling anybody!! Everyone knows you were educated at a private school!!" It started a few years ago with Tony Blair, and now everyone's doing it. Even the bloody heir to the bloody throne has started doing it. It drives me mad.

Guys, listen: a glottal stop is not just a substitute for any old "t", and you get no credit for putting one in the wrong place in the wrong words. It's patronising. Just stop it.


Bronislaus Janulis said...

Oooohh! Picture frames!

What were you saying?


Mike C. said...

Ha! I was half waiting for you to comment on those frames... There are some very fancy gilded mouldings around the library, and I may just put some more up if I can get the light. Watch this space.


Bronislaus Janulis said...

I will.