No, there isn’t one. And there probably never will be in this world, though I could imagine an alternative Earth in which there was. Probably in a Ken MacLeod book.
Down to Worthing for my aunt Peggy’s funeral. A quiet affair, less then twenty people there and a few drinks suplied by my cousin back at his Mum’s flat. Some stressful things, and some buried bits of the past, mostly not talked about. It must have been a hard nut for the minister who took the service to crack, and I think he chewed it or even sucked at it more than he cracked it. Lots of unresolved old disputes and rivalries, most of which I have no idea of the source of, and most of which will now never be resolved because most of those involved are now dead.
OK, this isn’t an emo blog, or even a political one. Its about places and a bit about language and random encounters. And I’m not about to plaster rumours about my family history all over the internet.
So I’m wondering about accents again. Where they come from, how fast they change. My Dad’s parents generation all had strong South Tyneside accents when I was a child, even the nine or ten of them who had moved to the south coast forty years before I was born (which is why Jarrow or Hebburn sound like home to me – people speak in the voices of the aunts and cousins who used to babysit me and my brother when we were chldren). Yet that accent itself was probably only about a generation old when they learned it. My generation of our Brighton family mostly speak in a rather typical south-eastern urban accent, (what might now be called “Estuary English”, a term I hate), which sounds to most people a bit like a London accent. And our children are mostly posher than us, tending towards RP (but not quite getting there).
I wonder where and when that urban Brighton accent came in. Did anyone speak it in the 19th century? Or would Brighton people have had Sussex accents? As far as I can remember most people I knew in Brighton of my parent’s generation spoke it when I was a child, and at least some older ones (though it is hard to be sure after all these years). The “Estuary English” scare in the newspapers of about a decade ago seemed completely to miss the mark to me. Prescriptivists attacked urban south-eastern English as if it was some new-fangled slang threatening to overwhelm RP and kill off the real local or rural accents. But from my point of view they were talking about the accent I was brought up with. (I don’t think my Dad said “innit” but we did, and we said it in the 1960s) If anything the trend was the other way – older Brightonians sounded more “cockney” and more working-class than many of the younger ones. (But that is anecdotal and depends on our own class trajectory of course) Real Sussex accents seemed vanishingly rare in Brighton even in the 1960s (though I have overheard people using them at Plumpton races only an afternoon’s walk away)
I think I used to think of accents as diverging like a tree. But now itseems more like the way the sea sorts out the pebbles on Brighton beach. A wave of economic and social change passes over a city or a county or a country generating new accents and dialects in its wash, mixing people and speech together, and when it has passed it leaves them stranded as heaps or ridges of shingle, similar but different to the ones there before, arranged in new combinations whuich might last for hours or days or weeks or years or centuries.
I took the opportunity today to try listen to the voices of P and J, brothers, distant cousins of mine, just about the oldest surviving of the Brighton-born in our family. They have rather different accents from each other. One posher (though nowhere near RP), the other could easily pass for South London or urban north Kent. But I think I can hear the ghost of a Sussex accent in them, a little bit of the voice of their father, a man from rural Sussex. Their mother, who died recently, still sounded more Jarrow than Hebburn or Shields when she was in her eighties. She moved three hundred miles from home, her accent never moved even three miles in sixty years.
She was probably the last living person with any memory of my grandfather who I never met, and as far as I can tell almost no-one liked. I don’t even know what he looked like. Though I think I can guess. I saw a photo today of my uncle Joe (who died many years ago) and he looked astonishingly like my cousin Kevin. Both of them look quite like my Dad and his brother Fran (Kevin’s Dad) and also my own brother. Presumably they all got that look from somewhere, and I guess it must be their common ancestors, our grandfather and grandmother I never met. (Though I don’t look like that – I more resemble Mum apart from eyecolour and waistline and find myself reflected in all sorts of cousins in Scotland)
And afterwards in a car through Lancing and Shoreham to Brighton for a nostalgic drive along the seafront and a walk along the Palace Pier (the only one still more or less standing) taking in some bits of personal and family history on the way. The road goes all along the long lagoon of the River Adur and you can tell which part of the urban coastal strip you are in by the uses made of the lagoon. At the Worthing end it is filled in and made into a lawn. There are some beach huts and park furniture until a few huge vaguely gothicky-Arts-and_Crafts fake-timbered houses with pre-distressed rooflines and hanging tiles announce the begining of Lancing Beach. Norman Shaw come down to the coast and pupped with Arthur Rackham. Then a combination of unimaginitive recent blocks of flats and slighly less huge barn-like houses that seem to be an incongruous mixture of Swiss chalets and clap-boarded fishermen’s cottages. We try and fail to remember which one my aunt Vera kept a guest house in many years ago. The lagoon behind is now the Widewater, brackish and teeming.
Over the mouth of the Adur and past Shoreham Beach, which is marked by the sudden proliferation of houseboats, dingys and old leftovers from the pre-war plotlands, along with some much more imaginative modern blocks. Drive past a few very strange pubs I remember from years ago an lots of smallish 1950s and 1960s warehouses converted into either flats or furniture showrooms. Across the county boundary to East Sussex, which is at this point one of the most egregiously misplaced county boundaries in the country, cutting through both the port and continuously urban western extremities of Brighton, Whatever they say, Shoreham is a suburb of Brighton,
Then all of a sudden what remains of real industry, incongruously separating (for those who don’t know Brighton) horeham from Hove. Yes, there still are small coastal oil tankers, I saw one drawn up by the old Texaco oil terminal, it up by bright lights and with a huge NO SMOKING sign over the front of the superstructure, and ramifying manifolds of red-painted pipework and plumbing over the deck. And the timber yards are still where they were when I was a child, if a little smaller. And there is only one metal chimney on the new power station, not the two old brick ones I remember. We are passing Portslade.
The exact location of Southwick, Fishersgate, and Aldringon, is a matter for the Wise.
The start of Hove seafront is marked by beach huts and paddling pools on one side (the lagoon filled in yet again) and Edwardian “villas” Regency terraces, whitewashed flat-rooved portholed liner-style “modern” blocks of flats from between the wars, and small blocky 1960s hotels. The very last gasp of the old lagoon, the gap between the shingle and the mud, is occupied by the King Alfred centre, one of the most ugliest buildings in Britain. Swimming pool, bowlng alley and cheap cafes. Shiny and tempting when I was a kid, grey and falling apart now.
You can tell when you cross the border into Brighton. the shops are still open, the cafes full, and people don’t walk in the bike lanes. Though they do fight in the streets. The ruins of the West Pier are beautiful in the sunset, an unlooked-for unwanted glorious sculpture of tangled rust rising from the sea. There are people who want to preserve it as a ruin and I can see their point.
Park up in the darkness below the Promenade and terrace that covers the beginings of the cliffs where the South Downs meet the sea – no bare chalk till Black Rock, one of the greatest enineering triumphs of the early twentieth century, gicing the seafront a sort of three-dimensional feel no-where else quite has.
Then some fish and chips from one of the overpriced cafes near the bottom of East street (very authentic Brighton experience!)
And we drive our Mum back to where she is staying in Hurstpierpoint (“Hurst” the rather rah-rah locals call it), at the extremity of MegaVillage One. The last couple of miles are on the old road, one of those Wealden sunken lanes with a tunnel of trees, that are possibly the oldest human artefacts still in use in the British Isles. The houses by the side of the road are from the 1960s but the roas itself is perhapse three thousand years old or older. Our field boundaries are our history. the lines of the straight Roman roads were expunged centuries ago, but the landscape the people before the Romans knew – more likely the ones before them – is carved into the landscape by successive generations who walked the obvious way and wore their paths deep into the ground.
Got back to London just in time for last orders at the local
Sometimes pubs just work. And sometimes they don’t. Today was pub fail. I could have done with a lively chatty party feel. I could have coped with a quiet drink in the corner thinking to myself. What I found was a pub with only about eight or nine customers in it. A small gaggle of incoherently pissed blokes playing pool loudly – and ordering a minicab and then sending it away again because they’d either changed their minds about where they were going or were too drunk to have made up their minds in the first place – which must have pissed off the driver and certainly pissed off the barmaid because the mpore that happens the more reluctant the minicabs are to come when asked, and reliable cab numbers are a vital resource for a pub in London – the pubs and the minicabs have a symbiotic relationship and can’t afford to annoy each other.
And to one side of me D. and R., after an obviously bad day, sharing a tedious racist rant along “send them all back home” lines with passing digs at just about every ethnic minority they could think of – even the Spanish. Though mostly against black people. And at one point “I’d rather clean toilets than pay a black to clean them for me”. I didn’t feel up to saying “well bloody well do it then”.
And to the other side M., just back from a visit home to Northern Ireland, going on about how everything is more friendly there and how shit the English in general and Londoners in particular are, and how antisocial and unfriendly we are and how everyone treats her badly here and positively gloating about having been present for the thirtieth anniversary of the Warrenpoint ambush (which killed more British soldiers in one action than any war since has) and the murder of Mountbatten at Mullaghmore on the same day. It was grotesque and boring at the same time. If there was ever a moment I could have become an Ulster Unionist, that was it. And at the same time trying to make friendly conversation by asking all sorts of personal questions about my family which I didn’t feel at all like talking about. And she wonders why some people didn’t seem to like her and talk aggressively to her. And I wasn’t really capable of coping politely with that sort of conversation, speajing ill of the dead, so I popped out the back for a fag.
And heard another strange piece of found speech: “I’m leaking like a bitch” – from a drunk man who needed to go to the toilet a lot.
As for the title of this post – well some of Peggy’s family were over from Northern Ireland. Ballymeena and a bit of Portrush I think. I never knew I had a relative by marriage who was at school with Ian Paisley and actually knows him. Lets call her “T”. A strange feeling. Like most British lefties I was brought up with sympathies on the other side. I am told, though I didn’t hear it myself, that at dinner the night before T was complaining about about Belfast City Airport, now renamed George Best Airport (once upon a time it was called Sydenham Airport which sounds odd to an inhabitant of South East London). She hated the name. She said that George Best was an alcoholic, a drunkard, a waster, a violent man, whose liver transplant wasted an organ that might have saved a life, and a bad example of and to the people of Northern Ireland. She didn’t want to be associated with him. Why not, she suggested, name the airport after a decent family man? Someone who represented the best of Ulster life and Ulster values?
Who might that be? someone asked.
Ian Paisley of course.
It is reported that everyone else tried to change the subject after that.