One consequence of living in London is that travelling on public transport reminds you we live in a small and shrinking world. It is easy to note the many skin tones suggesting an ancestry away from the shores of the Atlantic, the variety of clothes that are redolent of nations and beliefs from far and wide. All are, for me, part of the charm of this place.
The voices too, speaking more languages than there are countries recognised by the UN – I can smile and let the writer in me dream of stories untold that have brought these people here, to the seat next to me. The individual tales of heroism or shabby expedience, the holiday maker and the refugee, the clock maker and shape shifter. All characters in their own dramas…
You see, what I make a conscious effort to avoid is any sort of stereotyping. Which, frankly, in the case of some accents, is easier said than done. And that is because personal experience can colour ones outlook so easily.
I just shut my eyes and there they are, the Irish dentist, the French waitress and the Italian vendor of footwear.
I suppose there might be easier stereotypes to fear. I mean, how likely are you to be comfortable if, when giving blood your sanguination extraction facilitator has an east European accent, a deathly pale skin, a widow’s peak and is orthodontically designed to mimic the Alps? You’d be a touch nervous without any real reason, wouldn’t you?
I once had an Irish dentist. He was full of good cheer but convinced that I must be capable of coping with even a minor level of discomfort. ‘That’s nothing’, he’d say, sounding like Ian Paisley chastising an errant puppy. His disappointment, expressed in a brogue that became more impenetrable with each plea for anaesthetic has stuck with me. If I hear that accent now, that deep guttural Belfastian growl, I quail as my teeth seek the shelter of my spleen.
Ordering a steak should be a joy for someone who has yet to abolish all carnivorous tendencies such as myself but if the waitress (why it should have to be a woman, I know not) is clearly French I know it isn’t on. Whatever I order, however I want it done, whatever sauce I might ask to accompany it, whether it is with or without frites and haricot vert, I know the disappointment I will hear in her voice. Stupid Ros-boeufs, she says subliminally, while plastering her face with the sort of smile that De Gaulle must have worn when he said ‘Non’ to Harold Wilson*. Even hearing that disappointed French voice in other contexts empties my soul of hope quicker than Dog’s bowel if he indulges in one of his quixotic dietary binges.
I once ventured to replace my worn brogues and chose a discreet cobbling establishment. I asked to see something from the window and the man, it has to be a man, let his shoulders slump so far that they nestled in his trouser pockets. ‘Does sir think so?’ he said in an Italian accent. In that instant we both knew ‘sir’ was a footwear ignoramus and with those feet and, especially those socks, it was highly unlikely ‘sir’ would want ‘those shoes’. And whatever ‘sir’ suggested just increased the depression. If I now hear that voice, I look at my feet and worry for their future.
I hate to stereotype but there’s something in these accents that brings back these memories and ensures inevitable disaster. They bring on immediate sweats. It’s like I’ve triggered a burst of national disappointment. I’ve reminded them of another national stereotype – the English tooth coward, the overcooked food moron, the disrespecter of quality footwear.
They aren’t the only ones. I rarely order porridge when I’m out in case the purveyor is Scottish – the look on their face would be the same if you asked Alex Salmond to sing ‘The sun has got his hat on’ at George Osborne’s birthday party.
But the worst, most immediately depressive accent I know is one so ubiquitous in London that it is impoosibke to avoid. The upbeat over-buoyant interrogative of the Australian. It is a sound that chisels me out from the the inside. It speaks of years of sporting humiliation and worse, understanding and sympathy. In the week when all of England is on tenterhooks that its footballers may be about to do something pretty much unheard of, I cannot risk meeting an Australian and have that small soupçon of dreaming taken away.
As John Cleese’s character in the film Clockwise so presciently put it:
“It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.” ~ Brian Stimpson, Clockwise
* I realise this is perhaps an obscure allusion. In 1967, Prime Minister Wilson asked that Britain be allowed to join the European Community – then the EEC. President De Gaulle of France was apparently delighted to say ‘Non’. Maybe we should have listened and avoided you know what….