Thursday, May 26, 2011

How far can a Geordie go?

How lovely to see President Obama enjoying a barbecue at Downing Street (I'm sure they timed their visit in late May to get the best chance of reasonably good weather). I like how "the special relationship" has been redefined as "the essential relationship". It's almost like the two countries reluctantly saying, "well, we're stuck with each other because there's nothing better going", reminding me of a very late-night hook-up in a rather dowdy singles bar.

I always like to see photos of Michelle Obama towering over our Queen, and yesterday's news was full of how she's so inspirational, telling young girls from a range of backgrounds who are trying to get into Oxford University that “success is not about the background you’re from but the effort you put in".

This made me smile, because it reminded me of my own "journey" to university, which began, back in 1989 when I was filling in application forms. Neither me, nor any of my friends at my working-class A Level college, even considered going to a university. Instead we accepted low offers from local polytechnics. We didn't consider the reputations of different places. I picked one place because my aunty lived there, and another because it was close to Blackpool where I'd been on holiday. We had low expectations - most of us were the first in our families to consider higher education, and the lecturers at my 6th form college didn't really seem that knowledgable either (with hindsight, some of them should have been sacked for being rubbish at their jobs).

One of my friends was even courted by one of the universities after she got better-than-expected grades, and she turned it down, preferring to go to her original choice of poly - even though they were both in the same city.

I went to an even worse poly and it was only after getting into the system and then falling in with a set of older and more socially savvy gay men that I even considered that I'd be good enough to go to a university to do a postgraduate degree. It was sex that moved me up in the world. Hard work was not enough. And at the end of my second year I moved out of my damp, messy, ugly student house and into a proper grown-up flat, which had pictures in frames rather than blu-tacked on the walls. The first time I went shopping with my fella, some 8 years older than me in years, and 80 years older in social years, I put a 4-pack of "micro(wave) chips" in the trolley. He put it back on the shelf: "You're not eating that muck," he said. It wasn't the first time my "common" food choices were ridiculed by my new social set of aspirational queens. A few months earlier, I'd mentioned in passing how I'd had Findus Crispy Pancakes for lunch. "Oh Paul," sighed Julian (I don't need to describe him any further - he was called Julian). "I wish you'd get a class-lift".

Really, if it wasn't for the fact that I attracted (and wanted) the attention of certain older men, I'd probably be working in some numbing middle-management job, getting paid half as much and still eating Findus Crispy Pancakes. Although I wasn't really aware of it at the time, being a gay teenager gave me a leg-up, helping to cancel out the unfortunate circumstance of being born in one of the least fashionable parts of the UK (the eastern part of County Durham where all the pits used to be until they got closed down in the 1980s - think Billy Elliot) to parents who were loving but had little knowledge of the world beyond the end of their street.

Two decades later, someone told me last week that I sound like Ricky Gervais. A southerner! My north-eastern cadence vanished at some point in the mid-1990s, and is now only vaguely there, like an echo. I still say "bath" rather than "barth" but that's about it.

And I wonder, just how far can you go with a Geordie accent these days? Look at Cheryl Cole who has been "axed" from the US X-factor. Before she was axed, I'd read articles about how she might have to have training to reduce her accent. The Guardian article says "There had also been concerns how American viewers would take to Cole's Geordie accent." New York magazine asks "Was Cheryl's Geordie accent too difficult to understand, or did something else go down behind the scenes?"

It's hard to know whether the accent was the problem, or whether she upset someone important or just didn't want the job. I'd bet that the accent was a factor though. And I do wonder if Michelle Obama's point about "success is not about the background you’re from but the effort you put in" perhaps needs to be modified somewhat: "success is not about the background you’re from but the effort you put in to hide it".

And if you need any further evidence, here's a clip of new MTV show Geordie Shore. It takes the most stereotypically awful specimens of Geordies you can find, throws them altogether and confirms everyone's prejudices.

Obsessed with the size of their breasts (both male and female), buying clothes, promiscuous sex, and banal chatter, the only degree that these dullards have is in "pulling women". They make Ant and Dec look like Noel Coward.

So, the depressing message seems to be that if you're from a part of the world where the stereotype is that you're uncultured, and you want to make more money you should either, play it up and get on a reality show, or play it right down - use whatever assets you have, but change your voice and stop eating Findus Crispy Pancakes. Cos if you don't, like Cheryl, you'll be sent right back home.


Adrian said...

Gays called Julian make me shudder.

Your writing here reminded me a little of David Sedaris (that's a good thing, in my book).

ukjarry said...

There’s a book by the academic and sf writer Samuel Delany “Times Square Red Time Square Blue” which discusses how homosexuality can be an escape out of class. The book is mostly a memoir about Delany’s years frequenting sex cinemas in New York City and his quite voracious sexual appetites. But one of the things he goes to great lengths to stress is that through his sexual encounters he met a vast network of people he wouldn’t have otherwise: Labourers, academics, suburbanites, people with leaning difficulties, the homeless. Homosexuality was a means of breaking down these social barriers, even if only temporarily, during the come-down after a good blow-job.