HE REALLY THOUGHT I WAS SALMAN RUSHDIE
I am going to be very busy with non-blog matters for the next 2 weeks, and there will be no new blog post until Thursday 5th November. I do hope you are all having a good autumn, or fthinoporo as it is in the Greek. You can always write to me about anything, at email@example.com. NB. If you are wondering why you have 2 posts today, it’s because a Lavrio boat has been cancelled for tomorrow and I have to leave Kythnos a day earlier
As you know, I come from West Cumbria, the industrial part of a large and mostly rural county in the north of England. Since about 1920, it has been an ailing industrial heartland, and it had no fast road connections till as late as 1974, so getting there, and even worse getting out of it, was a palaver you might say, and patience was the name of the game. Mostly because of the massive nuclear energy facility at Sellafield, a dozen miles below Whitehaven, it has long had very good rail connections, but the diesels unfortunately stop at every lamp post, and you could easily read War and Peace in 44 different languages, in the time it takes to travel from the county capital Carlisle to tribute band Soviet bloc city aka Barrow-in-Furness, in the far south. It’s very tempting, but I shall soberly refrain from exaggerating the county’s remoteness, even though I have a friend Susan now 66 from the obscurest rural NE about a mile from Scotland, who had no electricity, no running water, and definitely no telly reception, up in her borders forestry smallholding as a child. The rest of Cumbria had the TV option early on in the 50s, whereas e.g. the Isle of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides didn’t get the goggle box until 1976. There is by the way an apocryphal story that cars were so rare on the Isle of Tiree in the Inner Isles pre about 1960, that when an old man saw one coming towards him one day in 1948 he leapt into the ditch in terror, mistaking it for an outsize animal. It’s a good and very touching story, but as discussed a few days ago, along with William Wordsworth’s greasy bacon slices used as nifty bookmarks by ST Coleridge it simply isn’t true.
Nor is the name on my boat ticket to Lavrio tomorrow. I wrote it down clearly for the guy in the Kythnos travel agents and he transcribed it as Mr J Mukraj. It makes me sound like an Indian nabob (q.v. fictional Billy Bunter’s school pal Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, ‘the dusky[sic] nabob of Bhanipur’) and I guess I feel flattered on that score. It is also not the first time someone has assumed that I am Indian, given my overall thinness, and my permanent Greek suntan, and the perennially sallow complexion I enjoyed back in old Blighty (maybe who knows, they also clairvoyantly sense that I studied Sanskrit at university a mere 42 years ago). The other quaint context deserves an entire post in itself, but in a nutshell when we lived in Susan’s childhood playground, the Debatable Lands of N Cumbria, in 1990, a posh old retiree from Bucks who had moved into a converted barn below our 17th C farmhouse, got it into his head that I must be Salman Rushdie in hiding from the fatwa! His evidence was that I was sallow-skinned, thin like Rushdie, and that our farmhouse was so inaccessible it was just the ticket for someone in hiding from assassins. It just shows what his stockbroker years and his public school education did for him, eh? Even a 6 year-old would know you are more anonymous, hence safer, in a Birmingham or London basement, than you are stuck up a bloody great fell in Blennerbuggery, NE Cumbria, and, what’s more forever conspicuously pushing your 1 year-old daughter Ione round in a pushchair with a mongrel dog Bill in tow. In that connection and I may be wrong about this, but I somehow feel Rushdie is not all that crazy about dogs.
But Indian or not, it is fair to say that the West Cumbria of my childhood was a UK Third World of a sort. Wages were very low, workers were very tractable as a result (e.g. the Cumbrian branch of the National Union of Miners who rarely went on strike) and shall we say the impenetrable local dialect didn’t help matters. There are a string of small towns in the west: Maryport, Aspatria, Cockermouth, Wigton, plus all their many satellite villages and hamlets, where the dialect still survives in defiant strength. Here the hereditary Scandinavian/ Viking vowels in e.g. the innocent verb ‘to do’, turn into the frequently much elongated dyeeeeeeeuh, or sometimes div or sometimes dee, and they all mean the same (you’ll notice much larger Workington is omitted from the list, and that is because of the massive number of immigrant steelworkers to the town in the 19th C from Dronfield near Sheffield. In essence ‘the Dronnies’ heavily Yorkshirised i.e. neutralised the Wukiton twang. Ditto the megalopolis of Whitehaven’s ‘asser marra’ argot, which is strongly affected by the huge number of immigrant 19th C Irish) Philology excursus aside, time and again, even in 2015, you meet foreign tourists as well as anyone from London or Reigate or Uttoxeter, holidaying in West Cumbria, who confess they haven’t a clue what that old local guy has just said to them in the greengrocers. They aren’t even sure it is English, maybe it is Polish given the current Cumbrian sociology that now includes many hardworking East Europeans. The local phrase is that if you talk strong dialect you ‘talk broad’, and ambitious Cumbrians seeking a rosy future would always do their best to shake off all dialect both in themselves and their kids. Hence in the 50s and early 60s, certain elderly and notionally genteel Cumbrian ladies would make regular pin money by giving lessons in Elocution specifically designed to iron out these hideous Maryport, Wigton, and Spyatri/Aspatria accents.
A friend of mine called May went along to one of these ladies of refinement finishing schools, when she was 6 and I was 8 in 1959. May who could barely read at the time, and believed in Father Christmas till she was at least 12, told me that she had to practice the following excellent declaration:
Can yew shew me the weigh tah a caar park? Ah wish tah park mah caar. Mah caar is a Chagwar, ha,ha!
This PG Wodehouse comedy of manners came vividly into focus in 1969, when I went up to University College, Oxford. They were still single sex colleges then, and Univ was definitely not as bad as snobbish Christchurch where northern Grammar school lads were miraculously thin on the ground. There were a fair few shambling Yorkshire blokes with greasy hair and skin problems, who true to type were studying mostly chemistry, and whose hobbies tended to be photographing canal boats and/or bawling on the sidelines at a rugby game, where their muscly mate was scrum half. There was however a conspicuous moiety of public school boys, some with posh accents and some without, some of them guilty about their privilege, and others who nostalgically relished it. One of these whose accent was far from posh, became a close friend, in part because his public school had been close to Cumbria and he knew my area well. He was to loathe his private education for evermore, and especially because in his day it had for decades sanctioned boys(prefects) ritually beating other boys across the backside, and to parody Field Marshal Montgomery from my piece yesterday, had encouraged a disgusting Perverts’ Charter, no less.
No one ever actually laughed at my funny accent, though a few kind souls asked me if I were from Newcastle or Liverpool, or even if I were Scottish or Welsh or Irish. One bright spark when I said I was from Cumbria/Cumberland, was 100% convinced it was part of Scotland, and take note, any of you with chips on your shoulders about your deficient education, he was doing a degree in bloody old Geography and he was doing it at the bloody old University of Oxford…