Let’s kick off today with an old chestnut from the late John Pepper. It involves a rural child addressing its mother.
Child: Ma, the yo has lambed.
Mother: It’s not yo, it’s ewe.
Child: No, it’s not me, ma, it’s the yo.
It used to be here, in the not too distant past, that a certain kind of upwardly mobile parent, usually the mother, would place great importance in packing the kids off to an elocutionist to learn how to talk proper, and in particular to efface the Norn Iron accent. Only ten years back I used to work alongside perfectly ordinary women who would happily subject their daughters to the Professor Higgins treatment. So fashionable was it that I imagined there being somewhere, possibly in Holywood, a twilight home for distressed elocutionists, who had been driven out of their wits by years of listening to Belfast kids reciting High Nigh Brine Cie.
I started thinking on these lines some time ago, when I happened to notice some wench reading the BBC news. She looked vaguely familiar, and I seemed to detect a faint trace of a Belfast accent. Suddenly a caption flashed up, informing the broad masses that this was Annita McVeigh. Jesus, I thought, she didn’t sound like that when she was on Radio Ulster. A shortish sojourn in London, and the accent has almost vanished. Mind you, not a few of our local personalities have gone some way to shedding theirs.
Sometimes you can see the process caught midway. Christine Bleakley is still recognisably Norn Iron in her speech, but the vowels are quite a bit rounder than they used to be. This, I suppose, is why I like Zoë Salmon – because she talks like me, and because despite years on the telly she hasn’t knocked off the rough edges or shown much sign of trying to. (Is this a Blue Peter thing, I wonder? The late Caron Keating had wonderful enunciation.)
Which brings me, in a roundabout fashion, to George Osborne, whose class mobility has been wondrous to behold. He may be the son of a seventeenth baronet, but to a particular type of toff the salient factor remains that his family made their money in wallpaper, and can therefore be classed as “trade”. No wonder his nickname at the Bullingdon was “Oiky”. One gets the feeling Evelyn Waugh wouldn’t have seen him as epitomising the aristocratic virtues.
And yet, he does have this habit of cultivating oikiness. It is of course well known that at the precocious age of thirteen he adopted the more blokish George in place of his given name of Gideon, apparently because even then he harboured political ambitions and was canny enough to realise that his progress could be scuppered by his bearing too close a resemblance to a minor Wodehouse character. And, right enough, despite his deplorable lack of spats he does have that air of having just stepped out of the Drones Club’s smoking room.
That’s why, although I was tickled, I wasn’t particularly surprised by this story, about Osborne going to a voice coach in order to sound less posh. And he does have precedent on his side, in that Mrs Thatcher famously did the same. You can see the logic, too, with the Tory Party effectively being run by Lord Snooty and his chums, with a dozen or more Etonians in the Shadow Cabinet. Remember those far-off days of 1990 when the genuinely distinguished Douglas Hurd was reckoned a non-runner for the Tory leadership because he’d been to Eton, while John Major (evidently in his Marxist-Leninist phase) was promising a classless society? It all seems so long ago, doesn’t it? And now, what we’ve got is lightweight Etonians pretending to be ordinary men on the street. You wouldn’t have thought the real John Major was such a stellar leader that we’d feel the need for a lot of synthetic John Majors.