"Art is not a mirror with which to reflect the world; it is a hammer with which to shape it"

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Keep Talking

So, now we’ve all been put out of our misery, well, those of us who live in the PIRW*, the only part of England worth living in** and congratulations must go to Patrick Evans. Right so, not the end of the world… there’ll be other opportunities, other schemes and so on. Mind, I don’t want to scare anybody but SW got 129 entries and RP have had nigh on 2,000. I’m pinning my hopes on everybody else being monumentally bad… possibly illiterate… or probably Jack Torrance…

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
-Samuel Beckett

Such is life.

However, as I mentioned I went down to Bristol the other day to make sure that the Digital Shorts proposals made it in because the Mail was still looking ‘shaky’. In passing, I met other people handing their works in and was reminded of something. Accents. Or rather… a lack of accents.

I made a rather cack-handed attempt^ at the start of my last post to write closer to my native accent- though not very successfully I’m afraid! This was because I’d been genuinely surprised that for a place like Bristol, which has its own distinctive accent, in a wider area with another distinctive accent, neither the staff at South West Screen (who I have absolutely no quarrel with) nor all the people delivering their works while I was there displayed any accent. I mentioned this to someone a couple of days later and they said that accents were disappearing across the board. I’m not sure that’s really true: when I’ve been in Yorkshire, Lancashire or Wales I can hear very clear and distinct accents. I suspect it’s the West Country, in particular, which is losing the distinctive accent. I think there are several reasons for this, including but not exclusively:
-the influx of incomers buying second-homes which they only live in 2 days a week while displacing the younger members of the local community,
-the relatively dispersed populace of a wide area (a million people in Liverpool while there are under 5 million in the whole of the ‘six counties’^^),
-the lack of the accent to be heard in the media,
-the reinforcement of negative West Country (‘Mummerset’) stereotypes.

At this point you’re probably shouting what is the point of this diatribe?

So, how about some context. I was born in the West Country, I was brought up there and still live there. Consequently, I have quite a bit of an accent. Depending on who I’m talking depends on how strongly it comes out: with my relatives it becomes far stronger but when I was at University it was pulled back; of course, at times of stress it reared its head to much hilarity. When I was younger I was told by a careers advisor that I was ‘clearly intelligent but if I ever wanted to get anywhere I had to lose the horrible accent’. That sort of thing tends to stick in the mind. At the time I was only mildly miffed but now when I look back I realise that this ‘person’ wouldn’t have dreamt of saying similar to a Yorkshireman or a Scot. So why was my accent so off-putting? It served my family well for centuries (well, apart from the Irish and Welsh ones who presumably had Irish and Welsh accents!).

When you consider the accents on British TV there is clearly a wide variety and of those represented nobody would dream of removing them. Liverpool is memorably heard in Brookside and Boys From The Blackstuff; Manchester in Cracker and Life On Mars; Glasgow in Taggart; Edinburgh in Rebus and London is impossible to avoid from Eastenders through to Mockney. Would anybody dream of removing these accents?

On the other hand you have the West Country. And I should also mention Wales and East Anglia. Holby City and Casualty are set in a fictionalized Bristol-Gloucestershire and when the show started the cast attempted to get the accents right (particularly noteworthy was Cathy Shipton) and yet within a couple of series there had been a conscious decision to remove them leaving them solely to farmers with manglewurzle based injuries and council estates; Midsomer Murder is said to be set in the East of the West Country and amongst the concoction of accents it’s only the stupider types who get the local accent; the recent Murphy’s Law was set in Norfolk and mainly the accents came out as Mummerset (stage school ‘rural’) rather than the far flatter Fens accent. Only Doc Marten, set in Cornwall, tries hard and mainly succeeds; possibly Martin Clunes is nervous that he’ll return to his Cornish home one day and find a giant Wicker Man waiting for him!

The late great Ronnie Barker summed up the majority attitude quite well when discussing the ‘Two Yokels’ characters. Why did he choose yokels? Because he wanted someone readily identifiable as ‘thick’ and because ‘you can poke fun at yokels as nobody sees themselves as being one’. However, the accent was instantly geographically identifiable and reinforced a negative stereotype. How many media people in perceived positions of authority (newsreaders, weather presenters, current affairs presenters, etc.) have a West Country, Fens or Welsh accent (honourable exceptions: Huw Edwards and Phil Harding of Time Team)? The common consensus is that West Country is stupid, is uneducated, is for the ‘serfs’. Is it any wonder people chose to discard it? Ironically, Shakespeare is now thought to have had something akin to the West Country bur meaning that two of the four books every home should have were written with the accent: William Tyndale, translator of the Bible into English was from Gloucestershire (as were J.K. Rowling and perhaps the greatest British TV writer, Dennis Potter).

So, does any of this miscellaneous ranting actually matter? Obviously, I’d say yes but I’m terribly biased. I think it matters because, firstly, if the British can’t even respect the diversity of their own country how can there be real respect for those who have more recently chosen to call it home? Secondly, accents are an integral part of the culture of a country, a living history as valid as the exhibits in a museum; they are a living document not only informing us of where we have come from but also colouring the way we reference the works of the past. Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, Burns’ poetry or Potter’s screenplays would sound very different without the author’s native accent. Lastly, why does accent matter? Because it’s part of your voice, part of your style, it’s honesty and its part of you…

If anybody out there in the Scribosphere from the West Country (and a lot of you seem to be) or not, accented or not, has an opinion I’d be very interested to hear in the comments. Is the accent dying out? Should they die out? Does it matter? Should people feel ashamed of where they’re from?

“It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”
-Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw, 1913

*PIRW= the People’s Independent Republic of Wessex (or the West Country) which is part of my master plan to gain independence from the rest of England similar to Wales and Scotland.
**Or am I joking?
^Originally a West Country dialect word.
^^ Six Counties, an alternate name for the West Country, being Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Cornwall.


Oli said...

I'm from Cornwall, but I sound a bit like John Craven as a result of watching too much children's TV.

I don't think the Westcountry accent is particularly charming, if I'm honest.

Generally (and this is a sweeeeeeeeeeeping generalisation, so please don't kill me) the stronger your Cornish accent, the less (*chooses words CAREFULLY*) academic you're likely to be, as the accent goes hand in hand with a dialect that buggers the living hell out of my inner Grammar Nazi.

Jon Peacey said...

I've heard mixed reactions to the accent: some like the warmth of the 'bur' while others write you off on hearing it.

The intriguing question arises as to whether the more academically inclined Cornish actively strip the accent from their speech patterns or are brought up without it (i.e. from 'better' backgrounds- now I'm choosing my words carefully!).

Strangely, at University in Leeds the majority were Yorshiremen and it was noticeable that a couple wrote the 'action lines' with the mixed tense-work that they spoke with, yet Yorkshire accents are not used as a signifier of ignorance. Surveys have shown that Yorkshire accents are synonymous with 'bluff honesty'.

My embarassment comes when I actively try and pull my accent back: I either sound slightly posh or I sound as if I'm putting on a faux Irish accent... but it's purely accidental! And one day it's going to get me thumped!

martin said...

i bain't from round here, but I was surprised when I moved down (to Dorset) how few people actually speak with a Dorset accent. I don't think I've ever met anyone under 30 who even has a hint of an accent.

I don't know if this is true across the board (but I suspect it is - even say Yorks and Lancs the younger people seem to have "softer" accents) but it's certianly true of the rest of southern England, accents are getting homogenised.

Oli said...

I don't consciously strip mine back, but subconsciously maybe. I was raised around the accent; both my parents have it. Perhaps it's just an easy one to lose.

The only accent that seems to stick with people no matter what is Geordie.

Jon Peacey said...

The Liverpool one (certainly on the News and in drama) also still seems to be there (Danielle Lloyd?).

My sister moved across the border (*sharp intake of breath* which only Gloucestershire people will understand) to Wales a few years ago and the accent is so strong that the whole family were using it within a couple of years.

As I mentioned I was at University in Leeds and the Yorkshire accent also seemed to be going strong across the generations- although as noted, it is softening. It's clearly strong enough that (presumably recently immigrant) Asian Taxi Drivers have already assimilated it quickly into their speech. This led to some peculiar situations where I couldn't understand their thick Yorkshire-Asian accents and they could understand my West Country accent having never come across it before!!!

So, is the loss of regional accents to be regretted or is a homogeneity to be welcomed?

Jon Peacey said...

I'd just like to make it quite clear that my previous remark should not be construed as having any racist overtone...