Left: Age 9, Barton Primary School, Bedfordshire, 1961. Right: Age 13, Bedford School, 1965.
THE CALL OF THE SIREN
How English is spoken can change one’s life profoundly
I stood up in class and answered a question. I got it right, but I said it wrong. “Boy!” thundered the Reverend Drake-Brockman, my geography master, “That is NOT how one pronounces ‘mountain’!” Such trite reproach, but the humiliation cut to the quick. I had been othered amongst my peers, branded by my common speech. Later, I came across the explanation in George Bernard Shaw’s introduction to Pygmalion: “One Englishman can’t open his mouth without another detesting him,” locating the animus of the British class system in the subtle distinctions of native accent.
My mother was to blame. Although a middle class professional, her origins as a South Londoner occasionally surfaced in conversation, betraying her. “Moun-tayne,” she would say (and I), not the “moun-tin” of Received Pronunciation or the quite acceptable “moun-ten”. I had grown up in Barton-in-the-Clay, a small village in the Bedfordshire countryside sixty miles north of London, going to the local primary school, where I no doubt picked up some farm-boy talk too.
At age ten I was fast-tracked, winning a scholarship to a big public school in the county town. Every day, six days a week, much to the amusement of the local lads suddenly my ex-friends, I wore the uniform of Bedford Lower School with, regrettably, very little pride, more in the nature of embarrassment—a mid-grey suit, grey shirt with black tie, grey socks, black leather shoes, and a funny little cap embroidered with the school crest, perched on the back of my head—and took the 142 double-decker bus that wound its way through country lanes the 14 miles to Bedford. OK, I admit it, I was awfully cute in that outfit, with brown leather satchel and National Health glasses, a model Harry Potter.
It was a challenge to be so abruptly uprooted and transplanted, made overwhelming by the sheer size of the school (1,000 pupils), its imposing neo-gothic architecture and begowned masters such as the redoubtable Drake-Brockman, relic of the 19th century. A veritable Hogwarts—but unfortunately without girls.
My new classmates were mostly boarders, a year older, not the swot that I was, with their fees paid for by their wealthy parents. The situation was designed to crush my spirit, it seemed, the academic privilege of going to a Top School blinding my parents and teachers to the social stress I endured. Yet I was not without allies, other day-boys from villages around the town, and we were totally obsessed with pop music. You know, my life was saved by rock and roll. It was 1964 and the Beat Boom was on, a cultural revolution in the making. Of a weekend, we’d bicycle over to one or other’s homes and play the latest 7-inch singles, A and B sides, over and over. That was the thing, because the B sides were never on the radio. Pop music was the brightest light in life, the greatest joy, the most engrossing fascination. Apart from the opposite sex, that is.
How should I speak? The posh accent was de rigueur in class and a mark of respectability in society at large, but my heroes spoke Scouse (John Lennon, of the Beatles) and Mockney (Mick Jagger, of the Rolling Stones). In fact I didn’t say much. Shy boy, I recoiled from the sound of English, identifying with neither posh nor common. But there was one English accent, far, far away from home, that was balm to my ears: Young American, a siren call from the gentle harmonies of the Byrds, the Beach Boys and the Mamas and Papas.
Long pre-Cowell, there was a BBC TV show in which a panel of entertainment mavens passed judgement on new record releases: Juke Box Jury. New singles were played—on a real juke box!—then after the panelists had pontificated they voted, and the host hit his dinger (hit) or klaxon (miss) to declare the verdict. It was one of the few programs, on British radio or TV, that played pop music, and I was an avid viewer. To this day the intro of “Monday Monday” triggers an echo of the awesome chill that overcame me when I first heard Mamas Cass and Michelle sing “ba da, ba da da da” on Juke Box Jury. I was fourteen and smittten with the lovely Michelle—and her Young American accent.
Karey and Nick, earliest known photo together, Leeds, 1975.
Nine years later, at art school in Leeds in the north of England, one of the other students, Karey Asselstine, happened to be from Winnipeg. Why fate had brought her there, so far from home, who knows, but she had that accent. We bonded over old Hollywood movies, graduated, and settled between Leeds and Winnipeg, in Toronto.
Fresh off the plane, I went to work on sounding Canadian. Substituting maul for mal was easy enough, and I managed to avoid old Ontario’s hoose for house, but the general effect was forced and theatrical, fraught with self-consciousness. I eased up and pivoted, focusing on vocabulary (washroom, not toilet or lavatory) and contemporary idiom (no worries, right?). Eventually, I began to feel at home and lost awareness of how I spoke, under the impression that it was just like everybody else. But the natives know better, the Britishness persists. However, on visits to the old country, real Brits don’t think so, pegging me for American or, go figure, Aussie. I suspect I’ve become an amalgam of sorts, mid-Atlantic.
Karey and Nick, Orangeville, 2024.