A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Hooptedoodle #277 - Lunch with Sir Henry

This is really about the tricky little matter of accents - or ahxents, or excents, or....

A long, long time ago, when the world still had a little hope left, I was busily engaged at work on a hefty project which was installing new system development methods and tools. As it happens, the firm which employed me was successful and highly respected, and the project - which was a joint effort between Our Lot and an American specialist software house - became a bit of a flagship in the industry for a while. As a consequence, around about 1991 I found myself presenting a series of lectures at conferences - something of a road show, explaining what we were doing, and why everyone else should spend all their money on doing the same things. I was the tame customer expert, a rare and highly prized life form, and the software company shipped me off, with my lecture slides, to London, Paris, Stockholm, Atlanta, Lisbon and - erm - Glasgow.

In the middle of this period, I was invited to have lunch with my company's chairman, Sir Henry. This was not in recognition of my fine work, you understand, nor did it indicate that Sir Henry might just possibly give a rat's about what we were doing. He had recently been criticised in the business press for being almost invisible - in fact, I think the word "almost" was absent from the criticism. Accordingly, a very expensive PR consultancy was now doing a job on him, and one of the Great Steps Forward was that he should host occasional lunches, attended by randomly selected groups of plebs from his firm, so that he could keep up to date on their skills and their efforts to make him even wealthier, and they could come to see what a warm, caring, avuncular old bugger he really was.

It was, of course, a complete charade, not to say an irritating waste of time and money, but he had to be seen to be trying, at least (and he was, I promise you, very trying), and this was really just a small drop in a vast ocean of waste, anyway.

I had hoped that I would be somewhere down at the shallow end of the table for lunch, where I could nod earnestly and make vague, sycophantic "rhubarb" noises as the brighter little sparklers jostled to catch the Knight's eye. Alas (lucky white heather), I was seated at Sir Henry's right hand, and as the soup arrived he was already asking me what I did, and what I was involved in at present.

Taking care to swallow my (deliberately very small) mouthful of crusty roll before I replied, I spoke slowly and clearly, with what I hoped was a well-judged balance between calm enthusiasm and boring technicality, and with absolutely no inappropriate nervous jokes or hints of self-deprecation. It all seemed to be going quite well until I caught sight of Sir Henry's facial expression, which really put me rather badly off my stride.

Sir Henry was peering at me, blinking, as a man might try to peer into a severe gale from the deckhouse of a fishing boat. His back was hunched, his mouth hung open in a grimace of very obvious pain. This remarkable pantomime was evidently something he had perfected in the past, and the very clear message was:

"I can hear that you are speaking, and I recognise some of the words you use, but I fear you have an accent which is unfamiliar to me, and this is something of a problem; it is necessary for me to make a show of putting up with this for a minute or two, but you appear to come from a background which is outside my comfort zone, so keep it brief, will you?"

You see, I am a little challenged in the accent department. I was born and schooled in Liverpool, though my father's own accent belonged more to rural Lancashire, his ancestors being farming people from the Warrington area. At the age of 18 I went to University in Edinburgh (which is in Scotland, by the way) and I have lived in Central and Southern Scotland ever since. Thus my normal speaking voice has evolved over the years - it was probably a bit of a hotch-potch to start with, and then the need to make myself understood (to get fed, for example) required me to modify my vowel sounds and the figures of speech I used over an extended period, so that I am now instantly recognisable, wherever I go, as Someone from Somewhere Else. The Universal Foreigner.

My former schoolmates and my (very few) remaining family members in Liverpool will, without hesitation, identify that I now have a Scottish accent, a suggestion which would astonish my friends and relatives in Scotland, who think I probably sound as if I come from the North of England, though they might not be quite sure where. If I hear recordings of myself speaking, I would say I maybe sound a little like Michael Palin, or maybe Melvyn Bragg - that sort of thing, anyway - fairly vanilla, educated North of England, right enough. Nothing particularly memorable, nor likely to conjure up images of (say) George Formby, or Yosser Hughes. Nothing (I hope) that suggests I might be incapable of joined-up thinking, or might have a tendency to steal the wheels off your car.



However, it seems Sir Henry remembered our brief chat, and subsequently his secretary sent a message to the head of my Division of the company, asking him was he quite happy that someone with my accent should be acting as a spokesman for our fine organisation. My Director, bless him, said that yes, he was quite happy, though he also made sure that I got the message about Sir Henry's discomfort, so we'll give him only a qualified blessing.

So what on earth was all that? Sir Henry had no idea what I was talking about, partly because it was below his horizon but also because he was too frigging dumb. However, he unerringly managed to pick up on the fact that I might not be one of the Chaps. I filed the incident away - I was a little indignant, I guess, but I was quite a tough fellow in those days. I did not propose to be mortally wounded by a posh old tosser like Sir Henry, and I forgot about it all very quickly.

Now, having remembered him, I checked to see what Sir Henry is up to. Perhaps, I pondered, he is no more? - certainly he has, once again, become invisible. A friend and former work colleague confirmed that he is still alive, but, alas, is not keeping very well. The old fellow is now in his mid-eighties, suffered a major stroke some years ago, is confined to a wheelchair, and has great difficulty with speech.

I find that very sad. I was hardly a close friend, obviously, but it is always tragic to witness the downfall of the mighty. One can only hope that he is still wealthy enough to ensure that all the people who care for him and look after his needs do not have regional or Eastern European accents - at his stage of life he most surely does not need the strain of having to pull that face again.


  1. Oh, I know that expression well. My previous job involved contact with the 'Great and the Good' of the county. Some were fine but others clearly tolerated my local Yorkshire accent (tinged with a bit of Ayrshire dialect, by marriage, admittedly) rather than actually understood it. You wonder if these people ever actually go out. Certainly not outside their own circle.

    1. One of the things which brought this long-dead incident to mind was a re-run of the famous recent(ish) clip of the Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons attempting to introduce a session to discuss the budget - constantly interrupted by the Braying Jeremies mocking his Chorley accent. We've also seen the disgraceful harrassment of the young lady who is now MP for South Shields in the House, Emma Lewell-Buck, who is subject to all kinds of abuse because of her accent. If they really want a North vs South civil war, I guess it might yet happen - London can become independent at long last - they'll probably get a good trade agreement with West Sussex. Or Sweet Rockall.

      I had a boss once who was very challenged by this sort of thing. I made reference to someone who I thought came from Manchester, and Michael said, with a very disapproving face, that he was aware that the chap had some sort of an accent, but he wasn't very good at that sort of thing, since "these people" all sounded the same to him. I had an interesting chat with Michael about the fact that, though his own parents came from Belfast, his dad had been an itinerant bank manager (people could still talk about such shame in those days), and Michael had been committed to a Third Division boarding school in Devon - my point in the discussion was merely that the Mancunian's accent was an inheritance of where he came from, his real roots, whereas Michael's was merely a monument to his family's pretensions.

      Yes, I was out of order, and yes, it was a silly argument, but sometimes you have to go for it. I've had an email from Martin B, who pointed out that Yosser Hughes would just have stuck the head on Sir Henry, and he might have had a point, at that.

    2. My experience is that the top people are fine, it's some of the pretentious buggers in the middle that aren't. I suppose they are the ones with something to prove, emphasising their remoteness from the hoi-polloi who drop aitches.
      As the aristocrat said: "I'm not posh, but my butler is."
      I'm all for independence for London, by the way, or even just Westminster. The new UK capital should be York, of course.

    3. Advice for Admiral's Inspection: you can ignore the Admiral, but keep your eye on the Flag Lieutenant. Never saw this contradicted once.