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Sunday, 2 November 2014

Accentuate the positive

I can never quite place Joanne's accent. It has a nomadic feel to it and a slight sense of strain, like a hat a half size too small for her. Nothing as obvious as the public school politician's glottal stop. Just a sense of something external and artificial. 

It makes me slightly uncomfortable around her. Your speech is such a huge part of your identity that discarding it seems like putting others' opinions ahead of your sense of self, like changing your name when you get married, which I wouldn't do either, so don't ask me to.

"Where are you from?" I say, over a cappuccino and rocky road in the College Club at the Uni. "Originally, I mean."

She hesitates as if unsure herself at this stage in her life. "Cornwall," she says. "I 'ated school. My love as a girl were 'orses."

"That explains it, I guess," I say. 

"What?" she says. 

"The feeling I get sometimes that you're not quite the genuine article."

It sounds harsher than I meant and her face tells me she thinks so too. "Listen, Mister Authentic," she snaps. "We're all actors, even you."

"I worked in England for years," I say, dragged into a disagreement I didn't intend, but forced to defend my corner. "I never lost my accent. Moderated it slightly, I guess. But that was so they could understand me. Not so they'd accept me as one of their own."

"That's fine with your accent," she says. "To English ears Scots sounds classless and attractive. I bet when you were down there you got daft women in pubs going, 'Oo, I just love your Scottish accent.' Didn't you?'"

"No, what I got was, 'I have no idea what you just said to me and take your hand off my leg, you pervert.'"

"Well if you can't get women in England with a Scots accent you must be an idiot," she says.

"Never mind me," I say. "We're not talking about me. We're talking about you disowning your background and becoming a big phoney, just so people will accept you."

"Oh, for heaven's sake," she says. "Grow up. If you want to get taken seriously there are some accents, even nowadays, that you can't speak with. West Country is one of them. We sound like yokels even to ourselves."

I spoon cinnamon froth from my coffee into my mouth, lean back in the armchair and wait for the tension to ease. Joanne is quick to get annoyed with me, but she comes down just as fast. She doesn't hold a grudge. Which is unusual in women, I find. Most love nursing their wrath to keep it warm. 

I try a smile and there's a flicker of response, so I relax. "How's the decision-theory manhunting going?" I say. 

"I'll have tell you next time," she says, placing her empty cup soundlessly in the saucer and brushing a crumb from the side of her lips. "I've got a lecture to give now."

She stands up and I wait for the parting shot. "Why would you want folk to pigeonhole you, as soon as you open your mouth anyway?" she says. "If you say two words to a stranger in Scotland they've got you down as working-class Ayrshire, with middle-class aspirations." 

She bends down fast and swoops up the last piece of chocolate biscuit that I was really looking forward to. 

"Which failed," she says, and disappears through the door for another week.

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