I’m not blessed with the clearest of speech. I stutter when I’m not speaking at volume and it seems that people (by which I mean southerners) find the accent initially hard to assimilate. It’s like flat Geordie or Yorkshire spoken by a Liverpudlian. My grandmother, late of Tyneside, moved to Teesside in 1930 and would accept none of it. She suppressed her native Geordie and sent my mother to elocution lessons to inflate her vowels. Cash which could, frankly, have been put to better use.
My childhood didn’t require me to learn Received Pronunciation and I met few who spoke it. I didn’t have to reflect much on the matter until I went to London and mixed with some posh types. One of those, ironically set to welcome new undergraduates, looked over my head at another second-year and said ‘You know, I can’t understand a word this girl says’. I’d won trophies for debating and reading aloud and have never been backward in coming forward but I didn’t say what was clearly required: ‘I beg your pardon? How rude.’ Still today, I see blank incomprehension wash across the faces of people who expect that someone like me will speak something like them and have to resign themselves to actually listening.
I can place a northeastern accent pretty accurately, for what it’s worth, from beautifully-moderated Northumbrian and exuberant Geordie through light Wearside to the guttural tones of the Boro. Educated, grammatical, precise, accented: clearly comprehensible, music to my ears. I overheard some experienced gents in the staff briefing discussing a common heritage in the dialects of Staffordshire, placing different tones in different towns.
These both are of limited utility in south-east London, which is probably a good thing. While adult accents here are rich and varied, the melting-pot tones of the young when talking to each other are joyously similar. Far from decrying the common estuarine-isation of future generations it rather fills me with hope. Perhaps if we all spoke alike we’d find common cause more easily, another barrier broken down. We couldn’t make crass judgments about class, wealth or character, as if they’re linked, as soon as someone opens their mouth.
Why is this on my mind? The tragedy of Fishmongers’ Hall has been painful in so many ways. People killed while serving others. Political capital being made against the explicit will of a family. Shallow reactions in ludicrous lurid headlines blaming impossible causes. Such events are reported in the way these things are, but I’m also troubled by what might seem an insignificant detail. Both of the principled young people killed have been endlessly described as ‘Cambridge graduates’. So they were, both having done an excellent further degree which helped them in their dream of saving the lost. They were, however, also a Manchester graduate and an Anglia Ruskin graduate - so why the emphasis on Cambridge? Outrage that even people from ancient universities aren’t safe from wickedness? Surprise that such people might find themselves in danger? An attempt unhelpfully to tribalise? Is a Cambridge graduate assumed to be worth more in memory than another? I’m pretty sure Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt didn’t think that.
The new PISA report tells us that ‘life satisfaction’ of 15-year-olds across the UK has fallen faster than in any other country with comparable data over the last three years. Students in the UK were also much less likely to report a ‘sense of meaning in life’ than their peers. The report notes a correlation between life satisfaction and 15-year-olds’ fear of failing is stronger for the UK than the OECD average. In fact, its stronger than almost every other country. One proffered explanation is that UK young people take PISA tests in the build-up to high-stakes GCSE exams. When else could they take them? Almost any point in schooling is now part of a run-up to high-stakes exams.
And so our commodification of the young obliterates their innate value. They worry, they lose hope, they feel their life has little meaning and even in tragic death are described by the educational brand still stamped on them. Jack and Saskia had a vision for a better society, in which a person’s quality might be judged by their ability to change, to learn, to start again and to endure. Anything we put in the way of that, any crass, shallow, populist, elitist, cheap or divisive measurement makes our children miserable and undermines our collective future. Let our national memorial to these two principled people be society based on equality, understanding and hope.