Friday, January 5, 2018

Accent on the why

Recently on Facebook, I befriended someone I met at primary school in England over 50 years ago. It was not love at first sight with Kim and me. She was the target of the only physical retaliation I remember ever taking for being teased. I pushed her into a paper towel dispenser when she made fun of my northern accent. Our family had just returned from two years in Lancashire during which my birthright Essex vowels must have become contaminated. No doubt to her ears I sounded ‘as daft as a brush’. Within a few weeks we became firm friends, alternating the roles of villains in school plays (both being show offs), spinning out painting a picture of Elizabeth I to avoid our regular lessons by giving it so many coats of paint it cracked, even composing a Christmas carol together to a tune highly derivative of the theme from a popular police drama.  We sang in the choir together, went on nature rambles in the woods together and both made it to the same selective high school.  My last photo from England is of the two of us with some of our classmates, waiting for the school ‘bus’ (actually a council van with no real seating or seatbelts). Kim holds a duffle bag, much trendier in the 60s than a satchel, and I have a bag that looks like a strange choice for an 11 year old starting high school – it is the carry-all I would need for our flight to Australia 5 weeks later.

 Centre: Kim with duffle bag; me with carry on baggage.

A pommy accent was a pommy accent in the Shire where we landed.  Whether I sounded more like a Liver bird or Maggie Smith did not signify. I was teased for how I spoke, how I dressed, my chubby person and the hair ties Mum bought for me in San Francisco on the way over. Brightly coloured plastic spheres attached to elastic, I think were officially called ‘Bobbles’ but earned me the nickname ‘Balls’ from the young yobs. Incredible as it may sound, I had no idea that my pony tail tie was the inspiration for a witty double entendre on the part of my school fellows, but the sniggering clearly hinted at something.  The music teacher at Caringbah High adored my accent and told me to apply to ABC radio for a job immediately on graduation.  A fan of received pronunciation and out of touch with both the real politick of the labour market and the appetite for G&S of Shire denizens, he cast me as Buttercup in a production of HMAS Pinafore he planned until God spoke to him in a dream and told him to abandon it.  Personally I think ‘God’ may have been acting on behalf of Deputy Head R.J. Kelly in that instance. 

Another chance to employ my supposedly superior diction on stage came when Cronulla Arts Theatre was looking for a timid, plain patrician-sounding Philippa Loxfield for J.B. Priestley’s They Came To a City. I was heaven–sent and delivered a performance completely in keeping with those of the rest of the cast (inexperience being no object). The Irishman playing Fred Cudworth was permanently blotto and to the great amusement of the cast (and I suspect, of  the audience as well) he fluffed the line ‘There are no flies on Fred Cudworth’ night after night. It variously came out as ‘There are no Freds on Fly Cudworth’ and ‘There are no cuds on Fly Fredworth’ and so on. Occasionally he got the line correct but that was so rare we were all still in stitches. If I had any lingering uncertainty about portions of the male anatomy that resembled bobbles it would have been banished the night he gave me a lift home and by way of a parting gesture beckoned me towards his lap. Incredible as it may sound, (seriously, I led quite a sheltered life) I had no idea what he was suggesting but was very glad to see the last of the flies on Fred Cudworth!

Promotional photograph for Cronulla Arts Theatre's dynamic production of They Came to a City by J.B. Priestley. If you look closely you will notice the flies on Fred Cudworth. I am centre looking heavenwards pleadingly.

Being and sounding English was not a problem at Sydney Uni or at the Department of Social Security.  If by the 1980s ABC radio wasn’t looking for announcers with plummy accents any more, anglo-celtic heritage still correlated highly with progression in academia and the Commonwealth Public Service.  Statistics showing that fact helped fuel my involvement in implementing the new-fangled equal employment opportunity legislation. My naivety about testicles was history but when it came to testosterone-driven popular culture it flourished.  Male clerks at Social Security alternated playing touch footy with having a few beers at lunch times, backed the horses, mimed bowling between the nests of desks and frequently gave each other playful shoves and punches. My total ignorance of Aussie sporting lore tripped me up more than once.  In those pre call centre days social security ‘beneficiaries’  came to head office when they had queries. Someone from the counter would call up with the person’s name, we would pull the file, take it down to the ground floor and try to answer their questions. I once spent over ten minutes frantically searching in the bays only to have one of the guys ask whose file I was looking for and see him and his mates all roll about when I said “Grant Kenny’s”*

Grant Kenny who apparently had  a few questions about his student allowance. Photo Gold Coast Bulletin.

Another incident showed a more flagrant disregard for the sanctity of Aussie sporting ritual. It was a halcyon time of generous investment in staff development and if you were going to be a trainer you did a 5 day course called ‘Basic Skills for Instructors’. You gave ten minute videoed presentations on Day 2 and 5 of the course to demonstrate what you had learnt and to track your improvement.  My first presentation was scheduled for 3 – 3.10 pm on Tuesday 5 November (which also happened to be my birthday).  Neil, who was running the course, was borrowed from Social Security Tasmania, the relevance of which will become apparent.  My audience’s lack of engagement mortified me from the outset. Was it my choice of topic, the diverse range of finches found in the Galapagos Islands, surely fascinating to one and all? Was it my lack of skill in questioning techniques? The quality of my hand-drawn overhead transparencies? My confusing delivery style?  They sat impassive and I was sure I caught a glimpse of pure hatred in the camera operator Peter’s eyes. As I stumbled to a close and the video camera stopped whirring, Peter fixed me with an icy stare and spat out: ‘You talked right through the Cup’.  

He referred of course to the Melbourne Cup. I was oblivious to the social norms of my peer group as I had been on the only other occasion that ‘the Cup’ had impinged on my consciousness, when   I wrote this poem about it  in 2nd form:

The Melbourne Cup

Millions of dollars are spent
Each year on THE event
The Melbourne Cup!
We care little for conservation,
Or for nature’s preservation
In the intoxicating joy of winning
Amongst all the gossip and glory
It is easy to forget - without regret
The problems with which we are faced,
The problems of the HUMAN RACE!

Yes, I know it doesn’t scan and that ‘conservation’ and ‘nature’s preservation’ are practically the same thing and I didn’t work in angles about cruelty to horses  and over consumption of alcohol but the hot political issues were different in 1970 and that play on the word ‘race’ is pretty cool for a 13 year old, don’t you think? My verse found favour with another teacher of faith who, before God could stop him, got me to read it out to an English class indignant at its sanctimonious tone and my ‘pet’ status.

So, back to ‘Basic Skills for Instructors’ some 7 years later. That time slot was a big un-birthday present! The conflict didn’t register with me and it didn’t register with our course leader.  The Melbourne Cup is not a big deal in Tassie, in fact they have a public holiday, festively named Northern Tasmanian Recreation Day, on the first Monday of November.  Neil had already nobly sacrificed his day off and gave not a thought to the eastern mainland states’ obsession with the race that stops some, but clearly not all, of the nation.

Over the years I have frequently attributed my feeling of separateness from Australian mainstream culture to my Englishness and to our family’s transplantation at a critical time in my life.  I have found refuge in the company of other eccentrics, in pursuing less popular/populist pursuits and in seeing and celebrating life’s absurdity. Then along comes later life and the move to Wagga Wagga and I am struggling with integration and understanding all over again. After three years I still haven’t been asked to coffee with the other women in my aquarobics class. At Vinnie’s this champion of equity was chided for questioning the capacity of a client to act as a volunteer. I didn’t last at a women’s welfare/activist organisation because ‘we weren’t a good fit’.  I was bowled over, believing myself a card-carrying feminist!

My accent is not an issue here, the place is overrun with poms. Am I too aloof or too ‘out there’ as someone suggested? The Riverina returned a high pro marriage equality vote but is its conservatism of another sort? I recently mentioned that people don’t seem to go out for a meal or drinks here in the evenings and the response was that young people do.  So is age a factor in the equation now?
It is a truism that we mostly make our friends and meet our partners through work or common interest groups.  I have had six workplaces in the last 3 years. My most consistent group membership has been through aquarobics, with writers’ group and book group more intermittent or recent.  Many locals have known each other since school and I must seem quite the newbie like the woman who told me she was a ‘recent arrival’, having only been here 23 years! Perhaps it is no surprise that, via the ‘net, I am now rekindling friendships from my own school days. 

I often wonder what the precocious child I was when Kim and I took our turns as the Wicked Witch, Captain Hook and King Herod would have become without my family’s move. The impetus to write has endured, seeing wallabies on our walks rather than squirrels delights me now and I have to content myself with visiting and photographing Gothic revival churches rather than their 600 year old prototypes.  I have discovered the history, art and culture of the earliest Australians and can’t get enough of the Riverina’s twisting gums. While Elizabeth I still holds my interest as much, whether portrayed by Cate Blanchett or Glenda Jackson, I am a staunch Australian Republican. 

The question of my sporting ignorance remains. One friend quipped when they knew I was moving to the Riverina it was obviously because of the region's over the odds sporting prowess. Maybe I have committed some huge social faux pas in the sporting arena. I did consistently refer to the annual Gumi Boat Race by pronouncing it ‘gummy’ as in ‘Gummi Bears’, until I was corrected to the  more Lancashire-like ‘goomy’. Could it have been that? I have also failed to attend the prestigious Gold Cup Racing Carnival at the Murrumbidgee Turf Club, the race that fills The Advertiser, for three years in a row and was a tiny bit facetious when it prevented me using our usual caterers for a work function and at the sight of patrons teetering in stilettos across the unsealed road to reach the race track gates.

I think I am onto something, I am perhaps  a value-driven lefty elitist who sounds and dresses like a middle class urbanite, who loves leaping about in chlorinated water, has taken over 1000 pictures of gum trees and heritage buildings in the past 3 years and has a compulsion to make irreverent quips about almost everything.  Like the thirteen species of finch in the Galapagos Islands there is something for everyone there. 

Thirteen distinct varieties of finch which have evolved on the Galapagos Islands. Photo

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really like what you've written here... It beems critical intelligence and sound reflection that align with many things that I also just do not understand.... Mark S.