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A neo-Londoner, who silently longs for his native countryside. Beau, beau, beau et con à la fois.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Accents, poshness, and the 'distinct filter'

Earlier this week, I pounced on a new colleague’s use of the hard northern ‘a’ vowel in a shop when buying ‘plasters’. In the spirit of Northern Solidarity, I asked her, ‘Where are you from, originally?’ She replied with a defensive, ‘Oh no, is it that obvious...?! I’m from Manchester’. The energy in her voice diminished as the sentence reached its end:  the name of one of our greatest cities. I would hesitate to label the concluding tone as ‘shame’ or ‘embarrassment’ (because I have no knowledge of her feelings towards the mother North) yet, in the grand hierarchy of accented localities, Manchester didn’t seem to fair too well in her eyes.

What was it fairing against? Who were its competitors in the accent stakes? Well, we then spoke more about the accents of our office, a Southwark-based think tank. Apart from those of Swedish extraction, and one from Middlesbrough, we all speak with a generic London / home-counties / ‘middle class’ English accent, myself included.

What is it about the British and their accents? Why are we one of the only nations where accent is what is used to label? And the labels that come with accents are the dirtiest ones – class, wealth, success. So often it is not what we say but how we say it that is used to analyse our merits and achievements. And even if the great institutions of the UK don’t discriminate based on accent, those stereotypes remain deeply embedded, and affect how we operate. I certainly don’t remember deciding to start speaking like a southerner, but I’m sure that strong sociological and institutional forces were acting upon me when my voice started to change. On some level, I decided that the way I said things mattered. Maybe it was because of the way power, wealth and happiness were disproportionally shared amongst southern-accented gentlemen on the television?

My accent has always been a talking point. I was born in Grimsby in North Lincolnshire, and raised near a town called Louth. Both of these places have distinctive local accents. Grimsby is a mixture of Mancunian and Hull, best identified by the words ‘car park’. To make that phrase jump from the screen, say outloud ‘waaa waaa’ as if imitating a baby crying, then add a ‘c’ to the first one and sandwich the second with ‘p’ and ‘ck’. Caaaaaaaaaa Paaaaaaaaak. Gorgeous.

The accent of Louth and the Lincolnshire Wolds is a bit of an anomaly, and somewhere between rural west-country and Geordie. Take the following phrase that was often spoken to me when I answered my parent’s phone:
“Now then mate, is Michael there?”
‘Naaaww then’, a generic greeting, colours a conversation with an amount of suspicion. It implies something having occurred that might need commenting on. To me, it belongs more to an all-knowing drag queen than a painfully shy farmer. ‘Mate’, to sound Lincs, should be split into two vowels – ‘me’ and ‘at’. The ‘my’ of Michael, should be the baby cry from Grimsby again.

It’s a big shame for me that I’m not marked by either of these accents. I spent 18 years of my life in a countryside village, well above the Watford Gap, and nobody believes me. Reasons for this lack of accent are complex. First, my sister and I had a ‘correct’ way of speaking drummed into us: no dropped consonants or an over-reliance on vernacular phrases. My mother held up less intelligent children as examples of ‘bad’ speaking, and as a result I think I attached my voice with my brain (my major success and status giver as a child).

Secondly, I’m worried that the label of ‘posh’ that I gained very young thanks to a ‘correct’ way of speaking encouraged me to let my voice slip into southern vowels, even at school. I think I saw ‘poshness’ as a way of increasing and maintaining that status. For whatever reason, southern vowels (which I began to link to my being clever) came with a high status. It was easier to talk to the lady who ran the music festivals if I mirrored her affected twang, for example. Quite upsetting to think that a recording of my Cambridge interview, if such a thing existed, would certainly reveal a 17 year old without any hint of short vowels.

When people ask me why I don’t have a Lincolnshire accent, I excuse it on 3 years in Cambridge and 5 in London. If I’m honest (as I will try to be here) that accent began to fade the moment I began to associate a neutral, long-vowelled accent with status, success, and the high-flying world (a long way from Louth) that I wanted to inhabit.

Now I am stuck with an accent that detaches me from my origins. I’m also grouped in with the southern hegemony of the policy world, which has its own problems. For a start, it’s hard to play the Northern Lad Done Good card with vowels like mine. More importantly, when I talk about the tremendous social and economic problems in North Lincolnshire, I don’t yet think I’m convincing listeners of my commitment to the cause, nor of my understanding of it. The insecurity (what else?) that led to a change of voice in my mid-teens has in turn, ten years later, led to a whole other set of misconceptions – I’m posh, privileged, ignorant of struggle, patronising, out of touch. In politics, as I’m beginning to understand, these labels can be as damaging and limiting as any other.

How terrible that some people should feel an automatic hierarchical inferiority as a result of their accent. How equally terrible that others are said not to have true understanding of life’s struggles because they speak with southern vowels! What a stain on our national identity.

In the UK, your accent forms part of a kind of ever-present, distinct filter through which your words and actions are analysed and judged. Some will choose to repress this filter, or try and shape it – change their accent; adopt more masculine mannerisms; wear shoulder-pads. However, I have learned that there are great benefits to the ‘distinct filter’. I now know that if I aim to be ‘impressive’ by layering intelligence and wit on top of what makes up me (including my origins, my tastes, my sexuality, and my ambitions) the pay off is much greater. In fact, I almost go out of the way to tie what I say to who I am. Perhaps to make up for too many years of insecurity, what I say and what I do must come through the distinct filter of a gay, Wagner-loving, coffee-drinking feminist from Louth, or it has no power for me.

Nowadays, if I ever succeed at something (professionally or otherwise) I know for certain that who I am didn’t get in the way. In fact, it probably helped. At the very least, my success exists right next to those aspects of my person that society has shaped to be more challenging. People may think this a bizarre route to self-confidence, but it has worked for me. Even within the last couple of years I have tried to speak from a less genuine platform, and it did nothing but increase a latent insecurity about the person beneath.

Not to sound too Oprah about it, but for many people, the most difficult relationship to navigate is that between ourselves and ourselves.  Between me, myself and I. For the royal us (Thomas and his pals Thomas and Thomas) that relationship is made functional by thundering honesty. I believe that, for example, my origins and sexuality are two key elements to my identity. I realise that I’m making quite sweeping statements about the nature of identity, which are wide open to easy critique, but it’s late and you’ll be wanting to get to the end of this. We’ll just have to save that discussion for another day.

From my perspective, how great it must be for Lord Prescott to know that all that he is contributed towards him becoming one of the most powerful men in the country (despite the constant stream of prejudice directed at his accent and origins). Indeed, how much easier would that internal relationship have been for David Laws had he become Chief Secretary to the Treasury knowing that his being gay (something that society cultures us to see as a hindrance and a matter of concern) had sat alongside his rise to political power?

We’ll never know. 

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