Friday 17th July 2009. Berwick was damp, grey and drizzly when we got there just after eleven in the morning. The M1 had been a nightmare. Visibility barely reaching beyond the windscreen at times. Miles and miles of the wet North Country disappearing in a silver haze. Wed stopped off at Holy Island and stared at the low marshy hillock from the wrong side of the tide. A pale slate sky and a bright green line on the horizon struggling to raise itself up from the dark water. We knew the crossing wouldnt be possible at that time after checking the internet the night before but felt we had to make the detour and gawp into historical space as it was so close. We gazed for a minute or so, soaked in the atmosphere of illuminated manuscripts and Viking raiders, then I did a quick three-pointer in the rising water and we headed back to the main road. I felt much better for it, somehow.
Berwicks reached from the South by a non-descript roundabout off the A1*. Past a tree-lined industrial estate, under the solid Victorian certainty of Brunels rail bridge and through a canyon of strangely incongruous rows of utilitarian terraced houses raised up from the road. Another inconsequential, suburban mini-roundabout and youre on the long road bridge over the cosy, twisty-sounding Tweed that takes you into the fortified town, with the rail bridge reappearing on your left shoulder and the awe inspiring cold, brooding mass of the North Sea on your right.
We parked the car near the harbour with its thick defensive walls. The rain started coming down heavily again. Lashing the brown stone walls and the blue slate roofs and running in the gutters. We speed-walked up to the town centre and into the café under the town croft. The Doolally. Hot Chocolate in a big mug. Some calories and a break from the driving on my 690 mile round trip.
Sat in the café contemplating a big slab of soggy chocolate cake, it was then that Id been surprised to hear the Scots accents. Theyd snuck up on me like the Highland charge at Prestonpans. Shock and awe. Everyone spoke with a Caledonian twang. The tidy waitress in her white blouse and black pants, the old people gathering for a chat, the bickering teens whod congregated to discuss spots and cider. Och aye, the noo! Were still in England, surely? Fair enough, only two and a half miles inside England, but in England nonetheless. Despite what some members of the Scottish National Party might want or suggest. Despite the town looking like a cover from The Peoples Friend. Berwick is in England. Just. Yet here was everyone talking like theyve got a gob full of Shortbread and Irn-bru and would be going home that night to play Rod Stewarts back catalogue on the bagpipes and tuck into a tea of haggis and deep fried Mars bar followed by a dozen cans of Special Brew. And a fight. I didnt hear anyone that sounded even vaguely English. There was not even the ubiquitous posh bloke speaking beige Received Pronunciation with his rolled up copy of The Guardian under one arm. Berwick-on-Tweed has been fought over for centuries; as the pages of The Dandy will testify. And here I was living inside The Jocks and the Geordies comic strip. Except there didnt seem to be any Geordies. It struck me oddly. How far back South into Northumbria would I have to travel before the local accent became recognizably English again? I considered running an experiment. Jumping back into the car, pulling off the A1 into some bypassed village, storming into a pub and demanding the locals describe what they see when I show them a photograph of Janette Tough dressed as Jimmy Crankie. Och, thats the wee laddie, oor Jimmy! Fandabidozy! Two miles South Its that bloody Scots dwarf that dresses up like a school boy for her husband. Fucking weirdos! Method, results, conclusion.
Looked at more widely, where is the demarcation line for accents drawn? Are there invisible borders pegged into the landscape? Are indigenous accents the products of geography and microclimates? Is it all about the adenoids and the damps or otherwise affect on the vocal chords? I supped hot chocolate and considered. I resisted cake and thought about it. When do the flat, blunt vowels of Yorkshire turn into the fruity half-witted burr of Lancashire? Where does the English accent of the satellite villages of Marches towns like Shrewsbury and Ludlow acquire the singsong vocal traits of Wales? And how does an accent affect your identity? How does it colour your personality? The way we speak becomes a verbal shorthand. Words and letters missed out to enable us to speak quicker. Im goin tpub. Human beings will always find a short cut. Look at the evolution of text messaging in the past decade. Look at any grassy square with straight paths around the side. Then there is a sense of local identity and local pride in a dropped aitch or a wobbly diphthong. And the feeling, not always natural, of fitting in with those that surround you. Human beings are imitators. Thats how we learn most of our skills as children. Monkey see, monkey do. Thats how we acquire skills and ways of understanding that we often never really question later in life. We do things and say things without truly appreciating them. Our speech and sayings are indicative of this. Its like place names that we accept at face value simply as names devoid of meaning without understanding their origins. The Anglo-Saxon suffixes, the Norse surnames, the Norman impositions. But will the turns of expression that we litter our speech with affect our thought processes? And how are the thought processes of our brain linked together with words? Do we think with a region accent? Will our accents and familiar sayings engender preconceptions? Does an accent colour our thoughts as heavily as it does our ability to say book to rhyme with duke, and pronouncing there so it sounds like dare? Will you pass me dat dare bewk?
But in the modern world how long can all this last? Regional identity is under threat. Regional identity makes us more difficult to govern. Pronouncing right to rhyme with weight is morally divisive. Surely it cant be allowed to go on. Perhaps eventually we will all be indoctrinated with some form of Newspeak. Blandness and homogeny programmed into us, all individuality routed out. How now, brown cow. The rain in Spain. The water in Majorca How now, brown cow. The rain in Spain. The water in Majorca How now, brown cow. The rain in Spain. The water in Majorca How now, brown cow. The rain in Spain. The water in Majorca How now, brown cow. The rain in Spain. The water in Majorca How now, brown cow. The rain in Spain. The water in Majorca How now, brown cow. The rain in Spain. The water in Majorca How now, brown cow. The rain in Spain. The water in Majorca How now, brown cow. The rain in Spain. The water in Majorca How now, brown cow. The rain in Spain. The water in Majorca How now, brown cow. The rain in Spain. The water in Majorca How now, brown cow. The rain in Spain. The water in Majorca Say it again and again and again until we all sound exactly the same. Until Received Pronunciation is stamped into your physiology and branded onto your psyche. Until we all speak beautiful and totally sterile English. Perhaps then we will all be more obliging with what we think and believe. Perhaps then we will have less to argue about. Less to disagree with. When all the differences between us will be removed. Our local, shared identities beaten out and obliterated until were all shiny and smooth. This following on from the programme of house building which has seen housing estates the length and breadth of the country drawn meticulously from the selfsame blueprints. The United Kingdom of Barratt homes. This following the programme of ASDA/Sainsburys Tesconomy that rules the land and has brought the same products in exactly the same looking stores all over the country. You lucky affluent bastards.
As we made our way back down from the town centre to the car we walked parallel with a kid with ginger hair wearing an England football shirt. He was speaking to a friend and saying he was out to buy some wee tatties for his bonnie bairn and expressing his hopes about Englands chances in the upcoming friendly with Holland. This, I thought, was what Coca-cola and the New Seekers were hoping for. A world of rich harmony and smiling multi-culturalism. A world for us all to share. A world where borders meant nothing.
Sean Connery, are you listening? You porridge munching twat.
* Equally from the North by another non-descript roundabout, this time with a Morrisons supermarket plonked on the side.