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Once, in a debate with Derek Hatton in his prime, the Liverpudlian politician with militant tendencies mimicked my accent — to which my sharp response was that with my received English I could be understood by any English-speaking Peruvian or Papuan, while he’d be incomprehensible in Peterloo and Petersfield.We should cherish local accents — they are archaeologically intriguing — but in denigrating and abandoning received pronunciation, we have impoverished and imperilled national and international English. It used to be the bastion of correct pronunciation: ‘How do they say it on the wireless? ’ of place-names, proper names and long and difficult words; but now it is no longer the authority for anything and has become a source of confusion. The physicist-cum-pop star Brian Cox is now a favourite, not for his knowledge, but for the improbable accent in which he delivers it and the poet Simon Armitage would not be so much on the box if he were a southerner.English has been the instrument of great literature, great drama and great oratory.We have for centuries been awed by its beauty in these arts, a beauty mightily enhanced, or reduced to ridicule, by the human voice.’ — to which her reply was: ‘Something you’ll never need, darling.’I raise the point only because Julian Fellowes, the dear old uppity genius of Downton Abbey, lately made a lord, has suddenly come to the conclusion that we English are prejudiced against everyone we perceive to be a toff and has coined for it the term ‘Poshism’ (though surely it should be Anti-Poshism? I had a tougher time by far than the guttural German-Jewish boys for whom English was a second and new language. Only in the Army as a National Serviceman — where I secured a commission ahead of far more able men ruled out because of their strong regional accents — did my speech bring me a benefit.
It is no longer devoted to that once beautiful instrument of education with which the most recalcitrant soul might be pierced, but has actively contributed to its demise by promoting deadly alternatives.The prejudice is against a perceived upper class, but, far worse, it is most damaging to the nation in that it is against all who have had old-fashioned educations not geared to the foundation of careers.These are educations that open innumerable cultural doors, make us observant and articulate, nourish our leisure rather than our work, and give us command of a wonderful language that allows us, in turn, to share the benefit. To become a British politician Bevan, a leader of Welsh miners, tamed his accent, but never lost it, always using it to distinguish himself from the grandees of Chatsworth and Westminster; and J. Priestley, a steadying hand on the BBC radio throughout World War II, did much the same with his Yorkshire brogue.Together with a raft of educated Scots, these, in my boyhood, made the point that regional accents need indicate nothing more than a place of origin; they were not necessarily, as they are now, indications of low class or wretched education, they did not signal that barbarians were at the gates of civilisation.