Ahh, these halcyon days of high summer. With one eye on the television, one on my lunch and neither on my dissertation reading, the long weeks of the long-awaited long vacation stretch out before me. A single blight blots my otherwise blissful relaxation. I refer of course to the "and how are you getting on at University" conversation. I long to give a subtle and suitable answer to this, to somehow do justice to three terms of the kind of life experiences with friends that used to form the backbone of Tory cabinets. To explain without repetition, hesitation or deviation, the calibre of this formative year, perhaps to quote a little of Tennyson's Ulysses at the end to give it the kind of gravitas it deserves. However, the conversation invariably goes like this instead:
"Jill! How's university going?"
"Yeah, it's really good."
"How's your course going? Do you like it?"
"Yeah, it's really good. I like it."
"What are the people like? Are they nice?"
"Yeah, they're really nice."
However, every so often, my interlocutor will ask something really pertinent, really probing, really quite regrettably detailed about what exactly it is that I do (or they won't and I'll decide to tell them anyway). This then leads to a little monologue that I've developed for just such an occasion called "Rings in Shakespearean Problem Plays". Lasting between four and six minutes in length, this speech takes a captive audience through the stages of choosing material, close-reading, analysis, brain-wracking, typing and inevitable disappointment which accompany such an essay title. After I've finished this little set-piece and sat back in my chair, cheeks slightly aflame, I am quite often told that I sound a bit, well, "posh".
No. I am not posh.
This little spell is not evidence that I am posh. Evidence that I'm a show-off? Maybe. Evidence that I'm a pretentious prat? Probably. It might even be evidence that I'm a bit good at writing essays on "Rings in Shakespearean Problem Plays". Evidence that I have managed a feat of social climbing which would make Becky Sharp damp-eyed with admiration? Certainly not.
Feats of knowledge, particularly smooth oratory or matriculation into certain universities, often inspire the reaction that the speaker must be "posh". This is not the case. Evidence of intelligence or education must be treated as just that, rather than assuming that it points towards social class. The mental association between "posh" and "clever" is such that we tend to think if someone sounds like they're forcing their words out through a mouthful of marbles, that they're being very clever. Or indeed, that if they're making obscure and scatty references to schoolboy Greek, that they're being very clever (step forward Boris Johnston). They're not. They're making their claim to a certain social set or background. There's a sharp distinction to be made. The way in which words are pronounced should not affect how seriously we listen to them.
Posh and clever are not the same and mixing them up can have serious implications.
If we think that being posh is the same as being clever, we'll let idiots govern us because they've got nice accents. A plummy vowel is not the same as a well-educated brain. There is nothing wrong with having some of the best-educated people in the country in charge of it, but these people are not necessarily the ones with the most honeyed accents. There is everything wrong with giving people privileged positions because they speak nicely and we therefore assume them capable. I don't know where this mass sense of being vaguely inferior to people who sound like they've stepped out of a Noel Coward play came from, but it's real and we need to stop it.
This works in the other direction as well. We shouldn't think that people who do not have these accents are less worthy of being listened to. Sense spoken in a Brummie accent as thick as pea soup should be given far more weight than burble brayed loudly from a Surrey boy. We shouldn't dismiss the contributions of people who speak in regional accents, just because their vocal cords aren't made of cut glass.
The easy association of intelligence with poshness leads to both a sense of entitlement on the part of those who have such voices and a sense of inferiority on the part of those who do not. Being well-spoken, sharp and educated, is not the preserve of the country's social elite and we should not treat it as such.