Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Elocution lessons

Around the time I was ten or so, Mrs C. at No. 9 mentioned to my parents that my accent was a bit, well, cockney. This led directly to my enrollment in Mrs. Watson's elocution school; lessons were held in the church hall at St James's Church (C of E) on St James's Road, West Ealing.

Some thirty or so children with socially-anxious parents would be taught ever week how to speak the Queen's English, beginning with limbering up and breathing exercises. We would say "In my right eye, I've a tiny fly" and try to lose for ever more our normal propensity to pronounce the rhyme "In mah rah['] aah, aah'v a tahnee flaah" or "In moy royt oy, oy'v a toyny floy" (depending on which side of the Irish Sea your parents hailed from; in other words, whether you went to Oaklands or St. Joseph's primary school).

The church hall itself smelt of the gas [BOOMF! Suddenly I'm totally there]; I can see the stackable tubular metal framed chairs stretched with canvas, the beige exercise books we used with a faux-posh navy-blue crest and clear plastic covers that have tears and scratches on them; in the toilets the was a sign pasted to the tiled walls saying "WASH YOUR HANDS AFTER EVERY BOWEL MOVEMENT". My brother recalls a billiard table in the church hall, which somehow escaped my unprompted memory of the place.

The church is still standing. The cast-iron fencing has been torn down and replaced by more friendly lower wooden slats; the 19th century wooden pews have no doubt replaced by bean-bags; Tallis and Byrd and the Anglican Hymnal at Evensong replaced by happy-clappy "What a friend we have in Jesus". (If I'm wrong, please let me know!)

We would learn poems by Hilaire Belloc, Robert Louis Stevenson, A.A. Milne, and prepare for speech competitions in Isleworth (reciting poems in front of children from other elocution schools with similarly socially-anxious parents). Before such recitals, we would go to Mrs Watson's house on Coldershaw Road, which my brother recalls as being Victorian inside, not even Edwardian(and these were the Swinging Sixties) for extra coaching.

Was it worth it? Well yes. What else would have we been doing? Watching telly or playing with Lego (there was no homework set in state primary schools). Something different, not really enjoyable, something you'd be told to do, and would do, not questioning it at the time. And 'limbering up exercises' - rotating one's neck, arms, etc., still helps with suppleness and fluid movement. But did it change my accent? No. I still naturally have a Middlesex accent, full of glottal stops and lazy vowels, instantly betraying me to any keen-eared English person of the higher social orders as being an upper-lower-middle class, state-school educated, grammar school interlecktual.

Such is the nature of British society. In Poland, accent reflects neither geographic nor social origin; a tram driver from Bydgoszcz will speak with the same accent as a professor from Warsaw or a factory worker from Rzeszów (naturally, vocabulary will differ). Whether England or Poland is the poorer for it, well, that's another long, long discourse.

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