Yesterday I  described the hothouse of a Highlands residential biology course in 1968, where every participant aged 17 had sex on the brain, and the subject we were there to study became a kind of sexual ecology, which as far as I know has never been recognised as a bona fide field of study, but certainly should be. One thing I omitted to say, which I still find passing strange, is that a kind of linguistic supremacy established itself over that week when there were 6 West Cumbrian and maybe 14 sixth formers from the Newcastle area. Sheer numbers might have had something to do with it, but after 3 days it was baffling to observe that all the West Cumbrians had acquired very strong North East aka Geordie accents, and could not renounce them, even with an effort. By contrast none of the Geordies had succumbed to West Cumbrian supremacy. As soon as the course was finished, and we Brothel on the Hill students, were on the train back to Carlisle and beyond, the foreign accents vanished like a puff of magician’s smoke. 47 years later, I muse on the irony that the West Cumbrian intonation is very strong, abrasive and dissonant, while the Geordie one is mostly gentle and musical and euphonious. Which is at least one reason why in the mid 70s BBC TV was saturated up to the neck with singsong often sentimental Geordie dramas, like the famous When The Boat Comes In, as penned in 1976 by Alex Glasgow. Do you remember the lilting lyrics, sung without a blush. You shall get a fishie in a little dishie? Doesn’t it make you want to cheerfully nay ecstatically throw up, and be glad that you’re a hopeless bloody old West Cumbrian after all, because at least you can manage to say very demanding words like ‘fish’ and ‘dish’, and not the cute diminutives?

So the point is a strong and raw and abrasive accent, should have surely taken precedence over a gentle and lilting one, but in this case it didn’t. The Geordies even joked about our linguistic subjugation at the time, and told us we talked like real civilised people at last, instead of like savages from the primitive Cumbrian coast. Bizarre to relate, I took this enigma with me to Oxford in mid December 1968, when I went for interview at my first choice of Queen’s College. The college has connections with Cumbrian schools and several ‘closed’ scholarships, a charmless and appalling designation if ever there was. They might as well say We Take Freemasons Only, or No Irish, Blacks or Dogs. Not everyone has watched Charles Sturridge’s TV adaptation of  Brideshead Revisited, so not all of us know the drill here, and for the uninitiated there are three grades of Oxford student, who in descending order are either a Scholar, an Exhibitioner or a Commoner. The Scholar may wear a full gown with the cloth right down to his hands, the Exhibitioner less full and altogether shorter in the arm, and the luckless Commoner, bless him, in the single sex colleges of 1969, had no sleeves at all, so he looked like a halfwit of a page boy with lopped off arms. Scholars and exhibitioners got their own rooms, while commoners invariably had to double up. All of the students however, commoners included, had a personal servant to wake them up (morning sar, quarter to eight sar), make their bed and wash their cups and saucers. These servants were called Scouts and mine was an elderly Irishwoman with a foul temper and  an explosive drink problem, meaning she would drunkenly rant and bellow in the quadrangle at times, and I think if I had had her job at £11 a week for antisocial multiple split shifts in 1969, I would have hit the bottle and shouted my Co. Cork head off too.

For the interview I was put up at Queen’s in a dismal and remote garret at the arctic arse end of the college. As bleak as something out of Dickens or Gissing, I didn’t reflect on it then, but now imagine it was not student accommodation at all, but for the few come and go live-in skivvies they occasionally were obliged to host at Queen’s. The dining hall where they gave us breakfast and a buffet lunch, despite all the paintings and the baroquely fluted ceiling, had a sombre and somnolent feel about it, and I realised as I stared about me that so far I didn’t actually like Queen’s College, because it had a kind of overgrown schoolboy’s flavour about it. The interviewees, as well as the few students hanging about out of term, all had short hair and heavy specs, were mostly remarkably bullish and ugly, and seemed as dull as heavy drizzle. I overheard one lad with severe acne and a sort of slicked down tonsure, that would have suited a man 3 times his age, saying that his hobby was taking photos of canals and longboats and locks, and I also heard mention of Wigan Pier but not in the George Orwell context. Looking at him and his glorious hobby I felt myself age a century, in both directions, meaning into the future as well as experiencing a queasy retro-senility. One thing I was unaware of, as quite simply no one either at my school or at college reception told me, was that you had literally all the time to keep your eyes on the college notice board, where they pinned up the lists of candidates and interview times. Now of course, I realise that the other boys had been coached in the minutiae of interview protocol by their teachers, who had long-established aka closed links with the colleges. My Brothel on the Hill having nil links to speak of, did not know anything about anything. It was this ignorance of mine that meant at the very last ditch, I saw my name and the room where I was to be interviewed in less than 5 minutes time. I had been about to go round the town to buy some jazz LPs and it was the merest fluke that I noticed it.

In the ante room,  I was an 18 year-old bag of nerves. I felt hot and still had the lingering aftermath of having been put in what felt like the outcast’s garret for the night.  Once inside the arena, I was surrounded by four kindly and tolerant men in tweed jackets, all in their early 30s, all looking  uncritically at this blushing Grammar School specimen from the far north. In 1969 there was still a rank preponderance of public school products in all the colleges, and in some like Christ Church it was almost total, meaning they were like Oxonian Etons and Harrows ands Reptons and Haileyburys for overgrown adolescents in their early 20s. I was applying to do Psychology, so they gently asked me about my interest in the subject, which was then never taught in schools.  I relaxed enough to drop a few names and mentioned a few subjects (Eye Contact, Attention, Semantic Satiation) about which, had I been honest with them and myself, I was monumentally uninterested. They were pleased enough by  that, but instead of being content with my more than passable impression, I decided like a fool to show off, and reveal to them things they knew nothing about, Oxbridge brainboxes notwithstanding. Inspired, even reckless, I hauled out my anecdote about the Field Course of a year ago in the Highlands, where the 2 sets of students in close proximity for a week, demonstrated a kind of linguistic hierarchy, as the West Cumbrians ended up talking exactly like the Geordies, and not the other way about. I even  dropped the term Psycholinguistics, just to show them what I was about.

If it had been anywhere but Oxford they would have been happy to hear the anecdote and that would have been it. They would not have wished to subject it to science, and to empirical investigation, and to experimental controls and mensuration. Instead, one of them with an oddly angelic expression, as if he had for long been a choir boy, smiled and asked me:

“How would you investigate possible linguistic dominance? How would you take your suspicions further?”

Suspicions? Further? I wasn’t suspicious about anything, apart from folk like him who asked me did I have the bastards. I stared at him in glassy horror, disguised as a frozen if acquiescent smile, and struggled hard not to say, oh fuck. I felt my face melt with the sheer ignorance that lay behind my insincere visage. I had tried to treat them to something outside their ken, as assuredly none of them would know one northern accent from the language of the Martians or the Venusians, and it had all blown up in my complacent young face.

He prodded me helpfully. “How many variables are there in this situation you describe?”

That was better. I still felt overheated and underperforming. But I also felt that my brain was still my own.

“Well, one variable is the numbers. There were 6 Cumbrians and 14 students from the North East, over twice as many. So I could try to have say 6 of each, stuck in a room talking together for a week. And see if that changed the dynamic.”

He grinned. “You’d have to pay them handsomely, to stay in a room chatting for a week. Some of them might find it an endurance test, I suppose. But if you had equal numbers of participants, what do you think might change? Would there be nil influence either way,  or might it still be a dominance by the ‘Geordies’.”

This choir boy grown to adulthood, really did put the word between  jovial quote marks, as if he was being  a forthright wag by being so colloquial.

“With equal numbers?” I paused and for once in my life I decided to use my brain with honesty, rather than be compliant and simply to please others. I thought this college was a wan and lacklustre bolthole anyway, and I couldn’t remotely imagine why I’d want to spend 3 years here. Listening to dreary guys in thick-rimmed specs, with state of the art skin complaints, talking about longboats and cuts and barges and British canals?

I said, “I’m tempted to be purely scientific. And to say with equal numbers, no one would imitate anyone. Meaning no one would adopt the other’s accent. But then, I’m even more tempted to trust my intuition…”

All the tweed suits raised their eyebrows, and one of them even frowned. I hesitated, blushed and said:

“Even with equal numbers, I think the Cumbrians would inevitably imitate the North East group. It’s to do with charisma. They have all the charisma over there, and the Cumbrians have none. You imitate what impresses you, as well as what intimidates you. The Cumbrians have nothing. They haven’t had for the last 100 years, and they never will again. The West Cumbrians especially, where there has been a serious industrial recession for so many years. Cumbrians don’t have any big cities like Newcastle or Durham or Sunderland or Middlesbrough. They don’t have a university, or even a polytechnic. I guess what I’m saying is, the number or variables is inscrutable and colossal, and some of them can’t ever be explained or accommodated by the subtlest and most ingenious of  experimental design.”

A silence ensued, and then some sonorous placatory murmurs about my intriguing scepticism re the limitations of the empirical method. And then I was ushered out. One hour later there was another notice pinned up, telling me I had an interview at my second choice of University College just over the road. There they asked me about my biology reading outside of A levels and I told them about Buddenbrock’s The Love Life of Animals, and I spouted as much ethology = animal behaviour,  as I could remember. They all seemed to love it, me talking about the love life of animals, that is, and that, meaning University College, was where I was destined to spend the first three years of the next unending decade.

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