My seven year old son is currently spending every waking minute (including many which ought, by rights, to be sleeping minutes) chain-reading the Harry Potter series. I made the mistake, when I was waiting for my conservatively-booked train home from London at the weekend (at some point I have turned into my mother and need a clear hour before any departure to allow for every eventuality) of taking a photo of platform 9 and 3/4 at King’s Cross and texting it home so that daddy had an extra layer of hysteria to deal with at bedtime.
It was a mistake because it has now blurred even further the lines between fact and fiction in my son’s head; as I remember pleading with my own mum to send me to Malory Towers (just as well she didn’t; I would never have been hearty enough for that lot) so now he remains unconvinced that Hogwarts really is just pretend. It’s ironic, really, because London and its doings are what I spend much of my own time reading about, and it’s taken on an other-wordliness which actually going there does little to dispel.
I probably shouldn’t admit it, but London increasingly freaks me out. It’s too big, too busy, there are too many shops and bars and people. It’s exhilarating , but it also feels slightly unreal, and I have to remind myself that, actually, this is the real world for most of the people who form opinions and make decisions in this country.
On the train coming down, I read another of the many articles which highlight the widening North-South divide in Britain. Doubtless this is something which a chippy northerner would say, but it feels as though alongside the gap is an increasing weight given to all things southern; a corresponding disregard for all else. In a conversation with someone in London, I happened to mention that I live in the North East. The woman I spoke to did a kind of double take, then, when I confirmed that yes, actually, I’m also from the North East, pretty much congratulated me on not sounding as though I am. It surprised me slightly at the time, but since then I’ve been thinking more and more about it, and wondering why it left me uncomfortable and rather annoyed.
Regional accents, and their associations, are a very British preoccupation. My own accent is what I tend to think of as posh Geordie: generically Northern, RP-lite, with a flat refusal to countenance adding an “r” to any word which doesn’t have one and the propensity to speak too fast (especially after wine). I never had a full-blown Geordie accent anyway, and after twenty years of living away from Newcastle, several of them studying other languages altogether, and with a magpie-like habit of picking up the intonation of whomever I’m speaking with, I daresay I never shall. Which is perhaps a shame, since everyone loves a Geordie, except that I can’t think of anywhere beyond light entertainment or call centres that you hear much of it on a national level.
While my youngest is currently sporting an inexplicable Somerset twang (“this is moy foyre engine”), the older two are developing fine local accents of their own (think Vic Reeves, but higher-pitched). I nearly drove into a lamppost a couple of weeks ago when the five year old, spotting a (real) fire engine extinguishing a small blaze in a neighbour’s garage, announced excitedly that there was “waaaaaaaaater aaaal over the flaaaaaaaaar”. Having righted the steering wheel just in time, I launched without thinking into full Henry Higgins mode, probably making the firefighters wonder why the harrassed-looking woman in the people carrier seemed to be pulling funny faces at them through the windscreen.
Though I hate myself for doing it, I find myself correcting some words that the children say, and now I’m starting to wonder why. Is it because they’re developing an accent which is still a little bit alien to me? I don’t think anything less of the people around me who speak with that same accent, although it isn’t the prettiest in the world. My own father is a singer who has a sideline in folk songs from Durham and Northumberland, and I’ve always loved the richness of the local language and its history. I’m proud of where I’m from and where I live, and yet the fact remains that at a national level much of what is heard about this area is negative.
Is it, then, that I want my children when they speak not to be associated with those tales of economic depression, disadvantage and underachievement? Am I afraid that whatever they say will automatically be discounted on grounds of cuteness or quaintness? Or is it just that I was never that keen on Vic Reeves anyway?
To stick with Harry Potter, for example, the only distinctive accent I can think of is Hagrid. He’s a larger than life character in every way, but perhaps that’s the point. Regional accents are “character”, they add something beyond what is actually being said, so that at its worst, it’s the accent itself rather than the speaker which is heard. I feel a bit of a traitor and a hypocrite for buying into and reinforcing this belief that speaking “well” (i.e. a poshed up Estuary English) should be the default, the neutral, any deviation from which merits comment and distinction, and yet I do.
What’s more, I bet I’m not the only one.