The Common Touch

What is it about Prague and the nasty habit of falling out of a window?  It was the Defenestration of Prague that started the Thirty Years War.  Then in 1948 Jan Masaryk the Czechoslovakian Foreign Minister was found dead in a courtyard beneath a window.  You can read about it in Marcia Davenport’s Memoir Too Strong for Fantasy.  Fell or was pushed?  Hold that thought.

I was in the dressing room of my local gym in Stirling the other day eavesdropping on a lively conversation between two local worthies.  The topic, I think, was football.  If I’m a little uncertain, it’s because the Scottish urban central belt patois was so idiomatic, so rough and so fast, that for all I knew they might have been speaking Serbo-Croat.  And mind, I’m a Glasgow boy.  Yet I kid you not, I didn’t understand a word.  As I left the dressing room one of them paused to address me.  He only said something like, “Cheers mate. See you next time.”  But I realise he had courteously altered his register in order to communicate with me.  I fell to wondering how universal was this ability to alter one’s register to the occasion, and whether such alteration is to be applauded.

Is it an affectation to “walk with kings – nor lose the common touch”?  Should we be the same to all men and women?  I dare say most people adjust their mode of speech to suit the occasion.  When I was young a regional accent was a social disadvantage.  If you wanted to get ahead certainly in any professional field, you needed to acquire some sort of approximation of BBC Received Pronunciation.  That is not to say that, even then, you could not use your natural accent to advantage.  A doctor, for example, with a cultured Scottish accent, might yet sound extremely erudite and authoritative.  But the accent is on “cultured”.  If the accent was Glasgow, and working class Glasgow, say from Partick or the Gorbals, people, including people from Partick and the Gorbals, would cringe.

This is why parents sent their children to elocution classes.  Elocution classes taught you to “talk proper”.  Do they exist now?  I have no idea.  These parents were doing their best to give their children a social advantage.  I guess the ultimate expression of this was seen in Gaels from the Highlands who migrated to Glasgow and made a point of not talking Gaelic at home in case their children picked it up.  Gaelic was low class.  It would hinder their off-springs’ progress.  The irony of course is that now, middle-class parents in Glasgow clamour to get their children into Gaelic medium schools because the advantages of a bilingual upbringing is now recognised, and these schools perform extremely well across the board in the academic league tables.

Nowadays, a regional accent can no longer be considered an impediment.  Much of this has to do with the rise of popular culture.  The Beatles spoke Liverpuddlian unapologetically and, crucially, the Americans could understand them.  Around the same time, Sean Connery gave James Bond a Scottish accent.  Ian Fleming was initially sceptical about the choice of Connery for the role, but he was reassured when an American woman told him Connery had “it”.  Nowadays, if you hear a Scottish actor like James McAvoy expounding on Graeme Norton’s couch you almost have the sense he is hamming his Scottishness up because it’s such an asset.

It’s really because of these powerful icons of entertainment that the upper classes have felt the need to modify their fruity accents.  It’s most obvious in the Etonians’ use of the glottal stop.  Not entirely convincing to a man from Glasgow, home of the glo’’al stop.  Sometimes when I hear a member of the establishment saying something which I suspect might be fatuous, I subject the suspect statement to what I call “the stairheid patois” test.  I translate the statement into Glaswegian, repeat it, and see if it stands up.  You can use any urban working-class accent to effect this test – Liverpool, Newcastle, east-end London.  In fact I think Peter Cook and Dudley Moore invented this test in the Pete and Dud sketches when two geezers discussed High Art over their beer.  Peter Cook was so dead pan that he would make Dudley Moore corpse with laughter.  I was thinking of them the other day when my hugely entertaining barber and I had our usual barrack room lawyer conversation (scissors flashing in front of my eyes) and solved the problems of the world.

“Novichok onna doorknob?  Talk aboot Smersh!  Wurld’s gaun bananas!  And as for the Donald!”  He produced a noise approximating a thermonuclear explosion.  “Story’s endi’, pal.”

I thought it safer to change the subject.  “Any holidays lined up?”

“Well, ah thought of Prague, but the missus didnae fancy it so that’s oot the windae.”


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