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From snobbery to slobbery

The Queen's accent is getting less and less posh, claim Australian scientists. Why is everyone, even ER, slumming it?

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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According to scientists in Australia, the Queen’s English is drifting down the social hierarchy. After trawling through archives of Her Majesty’s annual Christmas messages since 1952, the scientists based at Sydney’s Macquarie University concluded that the royal accent is becoming less ‘posh’; they believe the vowel sounds of Queen Elizabeth II have been influenced by subjects who are of ‘lower social standing’ (1).

Well, the researchers don’t have to look too far down the ladder. Perhaps the Queen’s accent has been influenced by her grandson Prince William, who may have popped over to visit her dressed in an Ali G tracksuit from bargain shop Poundstretchers. (Who can forget William’s Ali G impression during his gap year?) And with his nights out down the Mecca bingo hall, the prince has probably perfected glottal stops and staccato slang. Like some over-eager Johnny-cum-lately, it seems the House of Windsor is keen to show that it is, at last, ‘cool’.

In the recent past, it was the insecure middle classes who would often affect the ‘common touch’. When Britain was an outwardly meritocratic society, and the working classes had some real clout, it was de rigeur for, say, art-school fops like The Who to cultivate mockney accents and geezer charm. Sounding like you were born with a plastic spoon in your mouth, as Roger Daltrey sang on The Who’s Substitute, was a surefire way to earning a crust and some credibility.

These days, however, dropping your aitches and cranking up aggression is no longer good enough. For Tory colonel’s son Pete Doherty, a full-blown smack habit, assault charges and regular stints inside were required for him to achieve roughneck status. Pop music’s ephemeral nature means it has long equated rootsy ‘authenticity’ with substance and even ‘spiritual’ meaning. No self-respecting indie band can get through an NME interview without swapping the perfectly legible ‘I’m going to’ for the faux-moronic ‘I’m gonner’.

Trouble is, everyone else is getting in on the act, too. Novelist Stewart Holmes, installation artist Damien Hirst and gravely-voiced actor Keith Allen have variously affected the mannerisms of a Dickensian vagabond (albeit from the safety of a Soho members-only bar). In the case of Allen, his privately educated daughter Lily is following in the family footsteps. Her public persona is a stage-school version of adolescent delinquency, knowwhatImean? Then there is Russell Brand, irritating Channel 4 ‘comic’, who has not only adopted the lingo of a Dickensian chancer but tries to dress like one, too.

Meanwhile, in The Big Wine Adventure on BBC 2, wine buff Oz Clarke tries to get Top Gear presenter and all-round petrolhead James May to appreciate fine wine. May’s belligerent response to Clarke’s efforts is supposedly a manly cheer for the joys of cheap lager and unwashed T-shirts over good wine and decent attire. It is clearly contrived, as May tries to distance himself publicly from anything ‘posh’ or ostentatious. When asked to cook for their rather fragrant French hostess, May opts for a dish that will be familiar to those who lived through wartime rationing or to crackheads: spam and beans. As when Vic Reeves ordered egg on toast at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant, this is supposed to be a blow against puffed-up food snobs everywhere. In fact, it smacks of petulant, bumbling adolescents unable and unwilling to grapple with grown-up settings. ‘This is all getting too poncy for me’, said May at one point (ironically he said it in a voice more commonly heard cheering on Tim Henman or commentating for the Chelsea Flower Show).

It is one thing for pop musicians, artists and TV presenters to feign bloke-ish bonhomie for the press and the cameras. It’s another thing entirely when both UK prime minister Tony Blair and leader of the Opposition David Cameron do the same. Previously, former Eton and Oxbridge students would battle in parliament over whose ideas could provide the most effective stewardship of Britain. Now they seem to battle over who can display the most affecting ‘common touch’. Blair has been way ahead in this field for a good 10 years. Cameron is trying to catch up, declaring a lifelong adoration for fellow conservative Morrissey and revealing to anyone who asks what is on his iPod. Where Blair invited the Britpop roadshow briefly to decamp at No.10, Cameron has to make do with waving at the YouTube generation from behind his computer screen (see A blog-standard leader, by Neil Davenport).

In New Elites: A Career in the Masses, George Walden points out how this debased process, this ‘ingratiation to populism’, is not a clumsy attempt at ‘democratisation’ but rather is a rehashing of the elites’ old habit of condescending to the masses. ‘Hey, we’re just like you – honestly.’ There is nothing wrong with popular culture, but a populist impulse is rather different. It suggests a lowest-common-denominator measurement falsely projected on to what the masses are supposedly interested in. As with those well-educated journalists behind the Sun and the News of the World, there’s a sniggering and real belief that the masses can’t possibly understand anything more than the dumbed-down and the flimsy – can they?

And yet, there is more going on here than old-fashioned snobbery dressed up as new populism. There is also a genuine, palpable sense that the elites are no longer overly enamoured with highbrow culture. For them, it has become an awkward reminder of their isolation from wider society and an apparent barrier to connecting with and running the country. As those Australian academics point out about the Queen’s changing accent, ‘It demonstrates that the monarchy, at least as far as the spoken accent is concerned, isn’t isolated from the rest of the community’ (2).

Ironically enough, it was precisely older elites’ knowledge of Latin and Greek, classical music and fine art that partly endowed them with the moral authority to rule. Even such paternalistic displays as the building of museums, galleries and concert halls were designed to showcase their leadership and authority – particularly against those with competing ambitions to run society. Today, in the absence of social and political alternatives banging on their mansion doors, there is no longer a pressing need for the elites to show off about their demanding and superior culture.

Instead, inertia, laziness and self-justified slobbery has taken the place of self-satisfied snobbery. Whether the Queen will be high-fiving ‘Yo! Blair’, however, remains to be seen.

Neil Davenport is a writer and lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

(1) The Queen is becoming less posh, BBC News, 4 December 2006

(2) The Queen is becoming less posh, BBC News, 4 December 2006

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Topics Politics

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