No G-Men – Frank McNally on the politics of English accents

An Irishman’s Diary

Dorothy L Sayers’s fictional detective Lord Peter Wimsey. “Despite being an Oxford-educated gentleman of the early 20th century, he was always goin’ places, seein’ people, and solvin’ murders.”

Dorothy L Sayers’s fictional detective Lord Peter Wimsey. “Despite being an Oxford-educated gentleman of the early 20th century, he was always goin’ places, seein’ people, and solvin’ murders.”

 

Fans of the fictional detective Lord Peter Wimsey will know that he had a habit of finding himself in the vicinity of suspiciously dead bodies. A lesser mystery concerned the whereabouts of a certain consonant at the end of many of the words he used in speech. Despite being an Oxford-educated gentleman of the early 20th century, he was always goin’ places, seein’ people, and solvin’ murders. The whereabouts of his missing Gs was never resolved.

But it turns out that when his creator Dorothy L Sayers first introduced him to readers in 1923, she knew exactly what she was doin’.

It was the fashion then among Britain’s upper classes to sound less posh than they were, something to which dropping Gs was vital. Not even the highest echelons of society were immune from the pretence. There was for a time an English accent known as “Duke of Windsor Cockney”. And among the people accused of having occasional outbreaks of it was a man otherwise famously devoid of affectation, George Orwell.

Mind you, Orwell’s accent seems to have been considered odd everywhere he went, including Eton and Oxford. It must have been a product of the empire-governing classes of which he was briefly a member before resigning to become a misfit in other walks of life instead.  

There was also a marked difference between his voice before 1936 and the one he came back from the Spanish Civil War with, after a Fascist bullet through the neck had redesigned his vocal chords.

Even then, however, he retained the ability to modify his accent when circumstances demanded.

When, while working in BBC, he once reassured an Asian contributor about the irrelevance of their racial differences, a colleague approximated the sound as follows: “The fack that you’re black and I’m white has nudding woddever to do wiv it.”

Anyway, this 20th-century fad for aristocratic cockney may explain Oscar Wilde’s suggestion that, a few decades earlier, the same English classes were rolling their Rs, a mystery I was wondering about here last week.

That too may have been a passing fashion.

If so, in both cases, orthodoxy has been long restored in polite society. Hence, for example, the criticism that Beth Rigby, Sky TV’s political correspondent - who has a Wimsey-like habit of droppin’ her Gs but, unlike Wimsey, is not just pretendin’ – now receives online from the English speech police.

Getting back to Orwell, the need he felt to muffle his Etonian tones on occasion was at odds with some of his own pronouncements on the subject, in which he suggested that accents were often irrelevant to the way others saw you.

“To begin with”, he wrote once, “many people have no ear for accent and judge you entirely by your clothes.”

He was speaking then of his time as a tramp, documented in “Down and Out in Paris and London”. There was no need to dumb down his accent, he claimed, because his fellow vagrants were from so many different places and backgrounds – some just as posh as his –– that nobody paid any notice.

Besides, “a man from, say, Cardiff or Durham or Dublin does not necessarily know which of the South English accents is an ‘educated’ one.”

Even so, the subject continued to interest Orwell all his life. He was still thinking about it on April 17th, 1949, in one of the last entries he made in his diaries or notebooks.

In fact, the only later entry in the published collection is a sample schedule from his daily routine in the hospital where he was being treated for TB, in September.

So the April entry was his last recorded comment about British life in general. He was a patient then in the expensive section of a Gloucestershire sanitorium (the NHS had been founded a year earlier but you could still go private), and it was Easter Sunday. Thus, eavesdropping on visitors, he notices “large numbers of upper-class English voices”. Which was suddenly very strange, after years in Scotland, where his ears had been retuned. Now he was hearing these voices as if for the first time.

“And what voices!” he wrote in disgust. “A sort of over-fedness, a fatuous self-confidence, a constant bah-bahing of laughter about nothing, above all a sort of heaviness & richness combined with a fundamental ill-will – people who, one instinctively feels, without even being able to see them, are the enemies of anything intelligent or sensitive or beautiful.”

Then came this, which according to his diaries was the very last reflection of an English patriot, intellectual, and one of the greatest writers of the 20th century: “No wonder everyone hates us so.”

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