Regional Accents: Written on 25 January 2009
This week 49 years ago saw the beginning of a major change in my life when I was selected for officer training with a view to a commission. After two years flying as a sergeant air signaller on anti-submarine Shackletons with No 18 Squadron in Malta, I left that island and moved to another: the Isle of Man, home of the Officer Cadet Training Unit at RAF Jurby.
Back in 1953 while awaiting call up for National Service I’d been encouraged by an enthusiastic recruiting officer at the RAF Office in Cookridge Street, Leeds, to go to the Aircrew Selection Centre at Hornchurch and spend five days at the RAF’s expense. I’d never been to London, so I accepted the offer. I thought I had done quite well during my five-day stay, but I was not selected for training as a pilot or any other aircrew category. To be honest I wasn’t unduly disappointed when the rejection letter arrived at home. Most of my fellow candidates had been from public schools, had rich parents, and lived in the Home Counties. I hadn’t felt at home in that company.
Nearly 40 years later, in 1992 to be precise whilst working at RAF Scampton as the Public Relations Officer for the Red Arrows, I had sneaky access to my RAF personal file and found that the very first enclosure on a very fat file was the fading top copy of the report written on me at the end of my stay at Hornchurch. It referred in disparaging terms to my ‘working class upbringing’ and my ‘broad Northern accent’ and concluded that I was ‘unlikely ever to become fit for commissioned service in the RAF’.
My Flight Commander at Jurby in 1960 must have read that 1953 report because he sent me for private lessons with the Education Officer so that I could improve my speech. The rest of the students officers on my course thought this was hilarious because there were many regional accents amongst my fellow cadets and none of them was offered speech therapy! The Education Officer (always known as ‘Schoolie’) got me to read a lengthy passage into one of the new-fangled recording machines. After listening to the playback together, he told me what I already knew - traces of my Yorkshire accent still remained. He then asked if I realised that I never pronounced the final ‘g’ on ‘-ing’ words (eatin', drinkin', etc.) No-one had ever told me that before and so I started practising every day on my fellows and that caused even more amusement.
In spite of everything, I thrived at Jurby and, towards the end of the course, I was appointed Senior Student and winner of the Sword of Merit, which meant that I would be the Parade Commander on the Passing Out Parade (Image above). One of the disadvantages of being the Sword of Merit cadet was that I had to pay for copious quantities of real champagne and draught Guinness which, when mixed in equal quantities, creates the original Black Velvet cocktail - and I was tee-total! I had to take out a bank loan to pay for that and my officer’s uniforms and other expenses. The Black Velvet party took place just two days before graduation. I woke the following morning with the worst hangover I’ve ever had and I couldn’t even get out of bed for several hours. The flight commander came to sympathise with me - and managed to look quite concerned!!
How things have changed in the last 49 years! No-one ever mentions regional accents in the RAF these days.