Things We Wish People Wouldn’t Say, #14
“You don’t sound Northern…”
So, I’m Northern.
No, look, I know it’s confusing. Hang on. I’ll explain.
I was born in the North, to parents resident of same. I went to nursery in the North, then on to infant, primary and secondary school, where I had teachers and made friends of similarly Northern origin. After eighteen years of this carry-on I considered myself sufficiently armoured against the insidious ways of the Southerner to venture down-country for university; I spent four happy years amongst the barbarians, graduated without noticeable incident and promptly sorted myself out with a job and a flat in the North. My colleagues are Northern. My friends are Northern. My boyfriend is Northern. I might as well have the Tyne Bridge tattooed on my forehead.
However, for no particularly interesting reason, I don’t sound it. I never have. I say ‘grass’ and ‘bastard’ instead of ‘gr-arse’ and ‘barrr-stard’ because I am not a preening tosspot, but other than that my origins have left relatively little trace on my vocal chords. That’s all. I wouldn’t mind explaining this banal non-story for those who really feel they have to know, but I go through the same bloody rigmarole with everybody I meet.
It all goes swimmingly until they ask me where I’m from.
I tell them I’m from here.
You know—here. Here. This location where we are. Here as opposed to elsewhere.
“You’re from here?”
“You’re from the North?!”
And here it comes, right on time, galloping into view alongside Death and Taxes to herald the Apocalypse of the Crushingly Inevitable:
“But—but you don’t sound Northern!”
Oh, you’ve noticed, have you. Goody fucking gum-drops.
If it were simply an observation then that would be fine. If you liked you could build on your success with some other scintillating and trenchant remarks, such as ‘You’re taller than some girls’ or ‘That top looks black but is actually very very very dark blue’. It’s not an observation. It’s an incredulous, oddly indignant Basil Fawlty-ism that comes as standard with a pop-eyed, accusing stare and an unspoken dot-dot-dot-question-mark. I never really know how to react.
‘Oh, don’t I?’ is too disingenuous. I know I don’t. People keep fucking telling me. ‘No, I don’t,’ whilst agreeable, lacks a certain something. Some people say it with an Aha! sort of flourish, as if I’m going to exclaim ‘Curses, foiled again!’ and rip off my face to reveal Jason Statham in a handlebar moustache. Others seem to be expecting ‘I’m sorry.’ Sorry for being Northern or sorry for not sounding it, I don’t know, but either way they can take a long walk off a short go fuck yourself.
(More often than not it’s followed up with a disconcertingly parachronistic enquiry as to where I went to university. I find myself expecting to be asked what side Sir dresses to and whether I’ll be joining the family for Mass.)
The thing is that, to my Southern friends, I do sound Northern. Posh Northern, sure, but still definitely Northern. In the geographical fish/fowl dichotomy I’m bloody surf-and-turf.
For such a linguistically ugly duckling there’s really only one course available. A-questing I shall go, with a hey-nonny-nonny all down in the valley and so forth. Various numinous topographical features will offer unhelpfully cryptic advice. An old woman will grant me three wishes in return for some form of unpaid domestic labour. Trials, hardships, etc. I expect I’ll lose a shoe at some point. Don’t worry. I’ve read this story before. I know where I’m going.
Somewhere between North and South there’s a village without a name, unmarked on any map. Any post that arrives is addressed simply ‘the Middle’, but there’s never much. Outsiders don’t go there, and those who leave find their way back, in time.
I arrive at the nameless village just as night falls.
Footsore and heartsick, I seek shelter at the inn. I take an unobtrusive seat in the corner, and as I listen to the general talk a strange sense of familiarity begins to grow. What is this place? Why do I feel I know these people? I’m straining my ears for a clue when the realisation knocks me breathless. It’s the voices! The vowels, the dipthongs, the intonation—they’re all mine! These people sound like me!
Suddenly there’s a lull in the chatter. The company have noticed me. After a moment’s conference I am invited to sit with them; I pull up a chair, introductions are made and drinks are poured and then, as the conversation revives, somebody asks me where I’m from.
Here, I say. I’m from here.