I was in a charity shop today, and totally unaware of having said anything to anyone apart from, “Where shall I put this?” when a woman came up to me quite shyly and said, “You have the most beautiful speaking voice, how can I learn to speak like you? Your accent is so good, it’s like the queen’s.”
Well, I was quite taken aback. First by the compliment, then the request and lastly by the comparison. I don’t think I sound anything like Her Maj at all. (Better, if I am to be absolutely honest!) That’s modesty for you!
But it wasn’t always so complimentary. Years ago, I used to work in a boys’ school, Ealing Green, which had a wide variety of teachers and students. For a while I was a support teacher, which was very convenient as I lived across the road at the time, and most of the time I was decidedly bored – either I didn’t know what was going on in the lesson, or the boys knew and didn’t really need me very much. And anyway, I like to be in charge, and here I definitely was not. But convenience ruled and I did what I was told. Yet there was one lesson I used to really look forward to and that was History. The teacher, Brian Ellis, was brilliant. He made the boys act everything out, he entertained them and explained and made sure we all understood. I loved going in to that classroom. I tried to ask him for some guidance on how to support him better but he more or less ignored me. I bit my tongue and went on my way.
A few weeks later a school trip was organised for the year 8s. The whole year group was let loose in the British Museum and told to report back at certain times. The staff repaired to the local hostelry (those were the days) and bonded over a beverage or two. Me included. I would have preferred being in the museum, but it wasn’t expected of me! So, for several hours we were regaled by Brian’s stories – even better than the classroom ones – and then he suddenly turned on me and said, “You’ll never get on with that f**king Radio 4 voice!” His dislike of me was palpable, and extremely embarrassing. I endeavoured not to rile him again by speaking to him, and tried to avoid him at all costs.
Nevertheless, it was a small school and our paths crossed often. He must have got used to me and I to him, because we were having a little chat in the staff room. And then the vitriol rose again and he accused me this time of having a f**king Radio 3 voice. Ah ha, this is better, I thought, I’m obviously a notch less obnoxious. When will I have an acceptable Radio 1 voice, whatever that is? I wondered to myself.
And so, it came to pass that we somehow became good friends. And then he admitted, that once he had got over his first impressions of my R4 voice, my received pronunciation, etc, he actually liked it – and me. Now he is sadly no longer with us, but the thought of him berating me for my way of speaking still makes me laugh. I even told the woman in the shop about it, because it was such a different reaction from hers.
Another instance of when my voice caused a stir was when I was team teaching in Walford with a drama teacher, Mandy. I came a bit late to the classroom and she was in full flow, teaching about the witches in Macbeth, and I was eager to join in. I said something relevant and pertinent, no doubt, and then she spoke. Very oddly. I was a bit surprised, but carried on. She said something and asked a question to the class, in the same sort of weird voice. A child answered. Using the same sort of tone. And another one. What was going on? I screwed my courage to the sticking place and asked. Then they all burst out laughing. We were trying to speak like you, Miss! I of course had no idea what I sounded like, but I surely hope it was not exactly like their version!
There have been other occasions that my way of speaking has discombobulated people. I went to a party in Farnham Royal when I was still at University – where someone – Stanley Baxter’s daughter, I believe, accused me of putting my accent on: “People will find out, you know!” she warned me.
Goodness me. Why do people feel the need to tell me? Why do they bother? It’s very nice when they like it, but there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. I can’t change my accent, I don’t know how to put on any voices or accents. It’s just the way I am. It’s not like a haircut which I can change or buy a wig.
More on that another time!

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