The Rain in Spain and all that

In April 1962, fresh off the boat from New Zealand, I stood on a railway platform in Southampton, on England’s south coast. All around me the sound of voices, English voices. In notes written a few days later, and saved in my old black filing cabinet, I wrote:

Railway platform – probably much the same as those in NZ, but had a sense of Englishness about it – hard to define, but probably due to the language spoken – correct English accents as if they were the most normal thing – this takes a bit of getting used to. … Here on the Southampton platform we heard the ‘jolly hockey sticks’ manner of speech for the first time. In all cases, it is difficult to distinguish in the mind between the real thing and the caricature which up to now is all we have known. The same with men in bowler hats and umbrellas.

Man in bowler hat

A businessman wearing a bowler hat, London, 1950s.

Reading these notes fifty-three years later, I see in them the ambivalences and ambiguities that filled my formative years.  Europeans had been in New Zealand for scarcely a hundred years. From the industrial ferment of 19th century Britain, the English, Irish and Scots immigrants brought a legacy of radical socialism, and from the obduracy of the land they grew a people that glorified the strong men, the rough, the plain-spoken, and left to its women the care of the arts and the domestic hearth. For my father and his friends, a man was considered useless unless he was good at working with his hands. An Englishman, especially if he had a “posh” accent, was teased about being a “Pom” and eyed with suspicion until he could prove himself as one of the blokes.


A teacup like the set in my mother’s china cabinet.

On the other hand, well-spoken Englishwomen dominated the social life of the resort town where I grew up. English bone china teacups clinked in parlors where pictures of thatched cottages might grace the walls, and genteel conversation was made about making the trip “Home” to the old country.

Prejudices about accent can cut both ways. The longer I stayed in England, the more I realized that how one speaks was critically important in that class-bound society. I quickly dropped all the Kiwi slang I ever knew. But, unlike Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady,” I could not get my tongue around the inflections and tonalities that signified “proper” English.  My accent slotted me into a pigeonhole labeled Colonial, from which I could escape only by leaving.


10 Responses to “The Rain in Spain and all that”

  • Kate:

    Especially love this: “From the industrial ferment of 19th century Britain, the English, Irish and Scots immigrants brought a legacy of radical socialism, and from the obduracy of the land they grew a people that glorified the strong men, the rough, the plain-spoken, and left to its women the care of the arts and the domestic hearth.”

  • I’d forgotten that wonderful, typical story, Miriam. Thanks for sharing.

  • We’ve been known to murmur “We’re originally from New Zealand” at times/places where U.S. citizenship was embarrassing, so can sympathize.

  • Jewels:

    I spent the summer of ’75 in Britain and Europe, but it was Britain and Wales and Scotland that stole my heart. It wasn’t so much the castles and old (really old) architecture that caught my fancy. It was the dialects. Clipped words and incomprehensible sentences that made me wonder about meaning and intent. Oddly enough they didn’t hear my New Jersey accent. I had only been in California a year and since then have yet to shake it all. They kept asking me what Texas was like. Ronald Reagan was president and in my embarrassment I told everyone I was Canadian.

  • Maxine Binning:

    Hi Maureen,
    My Grandparents were always very English having come out to NZ, to Christchurch, then to South Africa and Mozambique where my Grandfather was the engineer in the building of the Zambezi bridge, and to the South Pole with Robert Falcon Scott. All their working lives were with UK- English speaking people. So when they settled in Tauranga even my children used to say,”Why do Grandma and Grandpa speak differently?”
    I have to say that when I finally went to the UK, I realised there were more dialects and more ways to speak than I had imagined. London itself, was a glorious mixture of sounds – I even tried to fathom out what was being said at the Spitlefields Markets without looking at the produce being sold! Impossible.
    There were differences within NZ also, from north and south and in the South Island where there had been Scottish and Yorkshire influences in the 1800’s there were noticeable differences.
    Now here in Australia or should I say Oz, I am trying to retain some of my NZ accent!!

  • Karen:

    Fascinating! I love the kiwi-isms and oz-isms and think that language diversity is like so much heart-stirring bird-song. The more various, the better. Always so self-conscious of my own “California” accent wherever traveling in the world. Stood out as the “Yank” while working in London, a category so vast, class differences were blurred. I wonder if things are shifting now in the 21st Century, or still in the grips of colonialism, etc.

    An “accent” tells of a journey. . . a story. Thank you for sharing.

  • Miriam Frances:

    You have probably heard this story before, but your friends may be interested. When Robert and I and ten-month old daughter Miriam arrived dazedly, by train at Kings Cross in London, from Southampton, in 1960, a gent with furled umbrella swept by plunging it at the slender and hipless Robert asking, “I say old chap, do you realise your shirt is hanging out?”

    A wonderful introduction to English life! As was the unexpected presence of my father’s sister, whom we had never met, with the unmistakable presence and accent of a Geordie, cum Londoner, who was totally unfazed by the apparition of this representative of a different ‘class’. I must say I enjoyed the puzzlement as it was finally concluded that one was a ‘colonial’ and therefore more free of expectations and allowed to be eccentric.

  • Very interesting in so many ways Maureen, especially as life’s path took us both in similar directions and I have always had a great interest in accents, since I’m often asked about mine. My usual reply is that I grew up and lived in different countries – Malaysia, India, Australia, England, Ireland, Singapore, New Zealand and now USA. A little bit of each has rubbed off into my complete accent I guess. I usually say (tongue in cheek) that it is a CULTURED accent. When I’m in public places and lifts especially and I hear people talk, I try to pin down the accent to place and am often right. However, in England there are (like China) so many dialects from different states and places that it’s hard to just say English, or for that matter Chinese, as it is too generalised.

    Thanks for all your musings, I thoroughly enjoy them, as we do have much in common in our past lives.

    Best, Esmé

  • Joan Hansen:

    Way back in 1962 eh? My paternal grandfather was born in London in 1871. He was awarded medals by Queen Victoria and by President William McKinley for his
    heroism in both the English and the United States Army. He never lost his accent.

  • Barbara:

    Proper is as proper does…to paraphrase Forrest Gump’s mother.

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