Strangers from the North

I have a very vivid memory of my first few hours in Oxford.

There I was, enjoying a nervous cigarette outside the JCR, when a second year student engaged me in conversation. Upon hearing my voice, he posed a question which I found rather perplexing: “Wow, are you Australian?!” he said, whilst crushing out the remains of his Dunhill under a chestnut loafer.

I had anticipated some level of initial social difficulty with my Manchester accent due to my experiences at interview, where the line “Llaaaaayd, I’ve never heard that name before!”, became crushingly repetitive.

However, it had never crossed my mind that a fellow student would place my accent upon another continent. So, as became the trend in fresher’s week, I sheepishly denied my suspected Aussie/Scottish/Irish roots and tried in my best telephone voice to make awkward Smalltalk.

What this represents is something that is rife in Oxford: not necessarily hatred or disrespect, but a complete ignorance of the North of England. Things didn’t get better. Over a drink in second week the topic of my accent returned to the conversation. I was assured by a peer that I shouldn’t worry because in time I would lose it, which was apparently a good thing because it would prove to be “a setback in the future.”

Needless to say, I was offended indeed.

Some people seem to think that the north is a gloomy ditch filled with contestants from the Jeremy Kyle Show. I hastened to remind my peers that, shockingly, many an accented individual lead very fulfilling and happy existences. And, in fact, that some of them manage to become (dare I say it) successful.

Still, the attitude is hard for some to shake. The same individual struck again a few nights later, advising some French tourists in the street not to bother visiting the north of England during their stay, because it is “dull, boring and full of poor people.” Charming.

What adds insult to injury is the hybrid accent a southern education produces. No-one likes a Mule, and neither the donkeyish adorability of a broad twang nor the regal quality of the RP horse is maintained in an aural cross between Brideshead Revisited and Shameless. After a year at Oxford, you find your home friends take the piss out of your vocal defection, whilst your university friends still think you’re as common as ever. I once made the inadvisable mistake of referring to the lawn as “grarse” in front of a friend from home. He looked as though I had punched him in the face.

Yet my pronunciation of names and places is still a source of hilarity amongst university friends. Spare a thought for those in language limbo. It appears a ridiculous oxymoron that so many students at Oxford have travelled the world, yet seemingly few have travelled their own country.

A standard Londoner appears more likely to have been to Thailand than to have ventured further than the Home Counties. It would surprise some to know that things really are not all that different. Sure, there are dodgy places here and there, but is there a region of the world where this is not the case?

The North is not a land of shell suits and Pukka pies set to the backdrop of The Full Monty. In fact, you will find just as many ponces as you would anywhere else. In Cheshire, for example, you can’t walk for five minutes without getting hit by a shiny new Chelsea Tractor or catching a whiff of an all-butter croissant.

My college offers a handbook to students from other countries in order to acquaint them with the ways of England, offering such essential social gems as “invite them to your room and offer them a biscuit.” Perhaps such a pamphlet should be constructed for students hailing from anywhere above Birmingham. “Avoid conversations about which school you went to, as they will end in confusion. In social situations for the next three years you will be expected to offer a quirky salt-of-the earth commentary to the daily life of you and your fellow students. ‘Chips and gravy is not considered a normal post-night-out snack down here, choose anything with humus and you won’t go far wrong. Oh, and avoid vowels whenever possible”.

I, for one, am sick of being pitied for where I grew up. Why? Because it wasn’t half as grim as people would like to believe. In fact, Manchester is great, and I love everything about it, and most other fellow northerners love their home towns as well.

London is not the centre of the universe. There are a million other places to go, see and enjoy. So tolerate an accent here and there. Maybe even go exploring. These places may not be on the Tube map, but remember: the world extends a little farther than High Barnet.