Tuesday, 25 June 2013

One of the last Victorians has died

I see from the Daily Telegraph obituaries, read on my telephone in a swelteringly hot Turkish restaurant in the back streets of Bucharest, where I eat every day, that my former boss, James Stuart-Smith, Q.C. Emeritus, known to me as the JAG, to rhyme with hag, has died.

I worked at the JAG's office in 1988, at a time when most traditions seemed to be dead (they do in every era) but when in fact (as in every era) the hearts of a lot of traditions were still beating.

Nancy Mitford said that the 'Victorians did not talk like us.' She meant of course the Victorians of her class, the ones who, in Evelyn Waugh's phrase, 'came to the front door'. 

For example, they put a 'eey' sound after the letter 'm'. When they said of someone that 'He is not a marrying man', a phrase in those days pregnant with meaning, they pronounced it 'meey - arrying meey-an'.
The JAG, who had an extraordinarily old fashioned and terribly smart accent, was the only man I ever knew who kept up this pronunciation of the letter 'm'. None of the peers in the House of Lords, where I worked before the JAG's office, did so, as far as I noticed. 

I remember once borrowing an old, unwanted audio tape from the office to record something and it had by chance one of the JAG's summings up on it. I found myself unable to stop listening to it with wrapt attention, admiring his curious diction. He was summing up in a case involving a soldier and - I forget the details of the case - a well-known type of sweets called Murray Mints, which the JAG had to refer to over and over again. He always did so, very carefully, as if gingerly handling a vase of great value, with the pronunciation of the upper middle classes of Mr. Gladstone's day.

The defendant said he put down the Meey-urray meeynt...

And so on. 

I suspect that people who went to Eton like Mr. Gladstone and Lord Curzon might have spoken differently. Curzon always used a short Derbyshire 'a' and considered  a long 'a' middle class and we know that Gladstone retained the short 'a ' of his native Lancashire because he famously said

 All the world over I back the masses against the classes

which does not work if you pronounce 'classes' with a long 'a', as required by Received Pronunciation nowadays. 

(Does Received Pronunciation as a phrase still exist? I don't want to get in a sneer at modern living in everything I write, which I am in danger of doing, I know, but it sounds very ('frightfully' is the word the JAG would have used) inegalitarian and undiverse for our compulsorily egalitarian and diverse age.


  1. Yes dyear. This attitude toward myo-dornity could
    easily go fron snyeer to smee-year. The Last of the Victyor-ians, Goodbye.

    1. mya-dernity

    2. That does not sound exactly right - I wonder if the meey sound came in between 'm' and 'o' or not.

    3. No it doesn't sound right atall.
      You may have noticed that I misspelled modernity which
      was unhelpful. But does this sound right, Meeyod-dernity as in Meey-urray and meeynt? Or this, Myuh-dernity ? Will you please write the word as Stuart-Smith would speak it, modernity. ?

  2. Oh yes. I share your at-ti-tuood.

  3. Well, I did a bad job of it. I think I can do better. But guess I'll leave it. Enjoyed the Post.

  4. We shall not see his like...

  5. Take him for all in all, we shall not look upon his like again…

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Where I live (or, rather, with whom I live) Received Pronunciation is called "RP" (by colonial me, "Arrr Pee"). As a colonial, I feel none of the native embarrassment in having preferences among the voices I hear around me. I very much like the accent associated with Edinburgh's Morningside, for example, where as I loathe "Cockney Posh." I cannot listen to "The Archers" without a pain akin to the pain I felt as a child hearing chalk squeak on a blackboard. I much prefer my husband's musical, well-trained voice to my flat one. I suppose it's nice people can "get ahead" now (if they can) without having to have elocution lessons, but it didn't do much for aesthetics.

  8. I'm an American so can't really join in. I do know something about RP. I read a book about it. And I do know that the Queen
    would never go round dropping her t's. Thank Heaven.