Dialogue at my new school seemed to consist solely of two phrases: "What you skennin' at?" and "Amma gait". The latter translates roughly as "so I said..." Whole loops of playground conversation followed this pattern: "Amma gait, what you skennin' at? And shizza gait, At you, you soft get. Amma gait, come here and say that..." Such a dialogue had only one possible climax: the removal, on both sides, of clumpy platform shoes which would soon thump girlish skulls with the regularity of a clapper hitting Big Ben at midnight.
I admit I was a pretty sappy kid; not too long before this, someone had given me a long speech about the terrible power of the F-word and I had thought they were talking about "Flip". Evidently I needed to preserve the bloom of my innocence from these strange schoolmates with their harsh ways and rough speech; accordingly, on Monday evenings my friend and I would trot round to Mrs O's to eat cakes, drink tea and do our vocal exercises. Elocution teachers are very big on vowel sounds, stretching them out like melted mozzarella. Our "out" rhymed with nowt until Mrs O got us cooing "Ah-ooo, as in ahhh-oooot" If it's not your diphthongs, then it's your consonants: "Two toads, totally tired, trying to trot to Tetbury" we chanted, unconsciously prefiguring Valley speech.
Each week we'd get something to memorise from the LAMDA book. This featured graded passages of prose and poetry culled from obscure children's books (usually featuring regrettably anthropomorphised mice) and poems chosen solely for the beauty of their vowel sounds. There was one that built up to a huge pitch of excitement, ending on the ringing climax "I saw Nijinsky dance at Covent Garden!" Not a sentiment that exactly resounded to a child of the Seventies wearing Brutus jeans with smiley patches on the bum pocket. Then there was the Vernon Scannell poem about hide and seek that ended with the existential question: "Yes. Here you are; but where are they who sought you?" Oh, the plangent loveliness of those vowels: "ear oo ar - air ar ay oo or oo?"
Soon Mrs O's hearthrug was entirely too small an arena for our ambitions: we started entering for speech exams. This involved spending a Saturday lurking in some school corridor trying desperately to remember "Ozymandias" while feverishly going through your "unseen". You got two minutes to read it to yourself and then you had to go in and declaim it like with all the enthusiasm of a tampon voice-over. They were always trying to catch you out, too. Lurking like an unexploded bomb in the middle of one unseen was the strange word "brusquely". "Brooskly", I bellowed, and that seemed to suffice. The examiner was a steel-haired lady much venerated by us youngsters because she was the mother of Babs from Pan's People.
When we weren't doing exams we were on the festival circuit. This was the era of Junior Showtime on the telly, when Bonnie Langford was spoken of in tones of awe. So we traipsed round the North West performing duologues amongst tap-dancing youngsters and small magicians. We at least dressed our age, unlike the girls who turned up in ankle socks, ringlets and freckles applied with a Rimmel stick. In her Marc Bolan period my fashionable friend would stop the show with her heartrending Hermia from A Midsummer Night's Dream: beginning prone and asleep ("Ay me! What a dream was here!"), she would leap up fearfully and start running around an imaginary forest in her rainbow wedgies.
We also did a cracking Gwendolen and Cecily from The Importance of Being Earnest although since we both wanted to be Gwendolen this caused some tension and led to a furious showdown on stage. We'd bickered and swapped and played each part so often that we both knew all the lines. Halfway through I answered myself and cued my friend with her own line, thus forcing her to switch characters. Sassy Gwen suddenly became prim Cess to the palpable confusion of the audience as Mrs O wrung her hands in the stalls.
I ended up being a bit of a protegee of Mrs O's and started spending long rainy afternoons being Lady Macbeth in her parlour before breaking off for scones. It's no wonder I like still poetry so much: for me it's synonymous with showing off. Long before the talking book was invented I was terrorising people in cars by demanding to read to them. No Christmas is complete without at least one chapter of "A Christmas Carol": "If he is going to die, then he had better do it, and reduce the surplus population!" I hiss mercilessly, while all around me sob with frustration over the walnuts.Reuse content