Monthly Archives: May 2010

It’s all down hill from here

One thing that I think should always be cherished about the UK is the number of regional accents that co-exist within such a remarkably small place. Given that we’re talking about a country which could practically fit within New York State, it’s pretty astonishing that you can get as diverse range of styles of speech as Brummie (Birmingham), Cockney (London), Geordie (Newcastle), Scouse (Liverpool) and so on. And that’s before you even think about Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Ask a random Brit to identify which part of the country I come from, and I think most of them would probably struggle. Of course, part of that assumption comes from everybody’s belief that they “don’t really have an accent”. Even when that person speaks like someone rejected at the auditions for “Liverpool: The Musical” for being too unintelligible. But really any unambiguous accent I might once upon a time have had has been beaten out of me by years of school, ten years in London, and my current sojourn in New York.

My desire for belonging, however, is such that whenever I make a trip back home (as I did this weekend), my native accent ratchets up a few notches, until I’m sounding a little like Liam Gallagher from Oasis on occasions. It’s an experience that is particularly odd given that I don’t even come from Manchester.

In part, it’s probably a reaction to my abject terror of ever being thought of as having an American accent. Every time I head home, I’ll be part way through a conversation and somebody will inevitably pipe up with “glad to hear that you haven’t lost your British accent”, as if they’ve been expecting me to come back talking like Janice from Friends. Little do they realise that I employ the services of a small Filipino lady who once lived in Chiswick, to follow me around and attach electrodes to my testicles in the event of me saying a-loo-min-um.

Sadly I couldn’t afford the plane ticket for Juanita to join me in the UK this weekend. And while I managed to get through with my reputation largely unscathed, I now have to concede that I am unable to pronounce one particular word in the way that language experts (also known as ‘the English’) intended.

Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.

Three times during the course of the weekend, I attempted to use the word that has come to represent the 26th letter of the alphabet. Yet whether I was trying to get from A-Z, or was considering the implications of x, y and z, my brain reached into its well thumbed dictionary and provided me with the word ‘zee’.

Each time it happened, I looked at the person I was talking to in order to gauge whether they had noticed. And each time my head dropped as the listener recoiled in horror at the z-bomb that I had just dropped into conversation.

Sure, I attempted to explain that I had been talking about a conversation with an American, or that I had been referencing something that happened to me in New York. And people nodded understandingly. But we all knew that the game was up. After many years of good service, zed is packing up its bags and saying goodbye to its vocabulary chums. It’s a dark day.

One down, 19,999 to go.

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I don’t really talk about personal things on this blog, certainly not in specifics. But I can’t really write about being in the UK this weekend without saying why I was there.

Long-time readers might recall a character within these pages called The Beancounter. His real name is Jonny, and he’s been a great friend to me since we were both 11. And just to be fair to him, the only beans he counts these days are the baked variety that he shovels into his mouth.

On May 4, Jonny’s lovely wife Jo passed away at the all too young age of 32. I spent a few months living with the two of them a few years ago when Jonny and Jo were looking for a new place to live. While they both thought that they were a burden to be taking up a room in my house, little did they realise that I was gutted to see them leave, such were the happy times we’d shared while they were there. What was clear then, and what was clear from the words of the packed church at the service to celebrate her life, is that Jo had a huge impact on everybody that she came into contact with. She was kind, compassionate, funny, smart and great company. Frankly, the world’s a less well-off place without her in it.

Words can’t really do justice to anyone who leaves us far too early, but I couldn’t let Jo’s passing go unmentioned. She will truly be missed.

A need for speed – electorally speaking

For a relatively relaxed person like myself, everything in New York is just slightly too fast-paced. Easing yourself into a day is a practical impossibility. Everywhere you look there are people acting as if they’re starring in a bus-less version of the movie Speed, and that if they slow down below 50 mph, they’ll spontaneously combust. Rather like Sandra Bullock’s marriage and Keanu Reeves’ career, to be honest.

Everything has to be done at high pace. Order coffee, and you’ve got bitter black liquid in your mouth before you can spit out the words “…and don’t put any of that whipped cream crap in there”. Push your accelerator even half a second after the green light has flicked on, and you’ll be greeted with the kind of felicitations offered to John TerryTiki Barber at the World Feminist Council’s Annual General Meeting. And don’t even think about walking down the street with anything less than industrial springs in your step, unless being trampled to death is what butters your proverbial crumpet.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. The subway to Coney Island, for instance, is required to take at least three times longer than federal authorities have deemed ‘strictly necessary’. Post office staff are not allowed to serve any customers whatsoever until there are more than 19 people in the queueline. And the immigration procedure in the US was recently the winner of the Ballon D’Or at the International Festival of Snail-Like Slow, held annually in Luxembourg.

If you really want slow though, then the UK is the place for you. British Sunday drivers go so slowly that it took a £3.2m study to determine whether they were actually moving at all. We cut the crusts off cucumber sandwiches, as otherwise we have to move our teeth too quickly. And the newspapers regularly feature stories about how a postcard sent by a woman in Falmouth in 1932 has just turned up in Birmingham. That’s not an anomaly, by the way, that’s just second-class mail UK-style.

One place where the UK bucks the trend though is the election process to find a new government. On April 6, Gordon Brown (or, as Americans call him, ‘Who?”) announced that he was calling an election. Twenty nine days later, and Britain is currently going to the polls. Like the young lady who gave into the smooth-talking charms of the well-groomed man from the Home Counties (only to wake up the next day and find herself in bed with an ill-mannered oik who holds her head under the covers as he farts), the country is almost certainly going to make a frankly regrettable decision and not even be able to blame it on too many shots of Jagermeister. But you can’t say fairer than an election campaign that lasts less than a month.

Here in the US, the election campaign for president appears to kick off two months before the previous election is completed. Given that Americans have eschewed the ‘put a cross in a box’ method of voting in favour of a complicated series of buttons, pulleys, levers and chads, it can take almost four years for that vote to be registered. If I ever get to vote in an election, it’ll be unclear whether I’m voting to bring Obama’s successor into office, or to try to keep Nixon out of office.

This is my first UK election living in the US, and the brilliance of it is that I can watch the whole thing unfold in primetime. No more waiting up until 5am to see the smile wiped off the face of this year’s Michael Portillo, and no poking myself in the eye in a bid to stay awake during John Prescott’s ramblings.

Still, it does mean that I will need to explain the Sunderland South phenomena to The Special One. After all, sometimes speed really is of the essence.