‘Are you embarrassed about my accent?’

Anna and Mark are both artists based in St. John’s Wood. Anna grew up in King’s Cross and Finchley. She is a playwright and actor who is ‘very good at accents’ and uses them in her performances. Mark is from Greenwich, works in advertising and has often cast actors with accents for the TV commercials he has directed. Both say they have strong London accents, which have made them feel conflicted at times.

Anna’s grandparents were all Italian and lived in Clerkenwell, where both her parents also grew up. She is very familiar with the Italian-London accent in this particular area. ‘I can do you a fantastic impersonation of an Italian cafĂ© owner in Clerkenwell!’, she says. Her own accent, however, is a ‘North London Cockney’.

Mark grew up in Greenwich and has ‘a South London accent’, similar to Cockney and ‘north of the river’ but not as ‘nasal’. Anna tells me: ‘When we met, we knew our accents were slightly different, but we both knew we were common. We would call it ‘common’ – and that would be derogatory’.

Anna says she speaks with a stronger accent than anyone in her family did. ‘My mum wanted to give me elocution lessons’, as she didn’t like the accent spoken by the kids Anna played with in the streets. Even her brothers used to say to her: ‘it’s one, two, three – not free.’ She goes on: ‘Having this conversation now, I’m thinking: Why have I stayed with this common accent? Why do I still speak with it? There is something about that that makes me a bit sad sometimes.’

Mark replies: ‘I’m more troubled by the idea of me losing the accent.’ His father had a scrapyard in Peckham and all his family spoke with strong accents. ‘My mum used to use Cockney rhyming slang all the time, but she didn’t even know what it meant. She said ‘taters’ when it’s cold, ‘taters in the mold’ – cold’. ‘I wish I had recorded it before she died because she had lots of phrases. I would just like to start building it back into the way I talk. I feel I am losing my accent and some turns of phrases.’

The couple have noticed that none of the kids they hear have traditional London accents anymore. Anna says about her daughter, ‘you wouldn’t believe how posh she sounds!’, and Mark says he’s mourning the fact that ‘I don’t hear the voices I grew up with anymore’. Their mutual artistic energy has sparked ideas for an exhibition about the death of Cockney. ‘I want to shine a spotlight on it. It’s going to be like a murder scene or a funeral parlour’.

When Mark started work in advertising, ‘I was very self-conscious about my accent , because I thought it was all posh people with university degrees. My very first boss said: you’ll never get on talking like that’. Like Anna’s mother, he tried to give Mark elocution lessons in the lunch breaks but ‘he struggled, obviously, because I haven’t lost me accent’. When Mark gives talks or performs on stage now, ‘I really relax and I really embrace the way that I talk. I realise, as time goes on, I’m unusual. It feels a more unique thing to live in London and have a London accent.’

Towards the end our interview, Anna tells me, ‘this is making me feel things like how much I love that accent and what affinity I have with it. But also questioning why I’m slightly still embarrassed by my accent’. She remembers that when she was younger and auditioning for theatre roles, some directors told her she’d be better off playing ‘a gangster’s moll’. ‘So even if I looked sophisticated or a bit classy, soon as I opened my mouth, everyone knew I wasn’t’.

Mark replies: ‘I didn’t even know that! So given that you’ve got a little inkling of embarrassment about your own accent. Are you embarrassed about my accent?’

Anna laughs: ‘No! I love your accent. That’s what I was drawn to!’

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