Racism, sexism, now scouseism

Liverpudlians claim they suffer real discrimination because of their accent. Can they be serious?
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In the Sixties there was nothing cooler; but has the Liverpool Sound become a great big millstone around the city's neck?

That thick scouse accent has turned into a social affliction and a real disadvantage at work in other parts of Britain, and some Merseysiders are not joking when they refer to the scourge they call "scouseism". They believe this spreading prejudice singles them out for a discrimination not encountered by the natives of Britain's other major cities.

Liverpool performance poet Jegsy Dodd writes on this page about the discrimination he encountered in the South. His experience reflects that of Shelagh Coleman, who heads a research team at Liverpool Hope University. She recalls a similar confrontation in the Houses of Parliament, where she had gone to hear a debate in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster.

"We were stopped for a routine security check," she said. "They immediately recognised my Liverpool accent and one of them said, 'Look out, lock up the silver, the scousers are in the House'. It was offensive in the extreme and to my mind revealed a deep-rooted prejudice."

Social historians accept that Liverpool's long multi-racial past and strong Irish-immigrant sub-culture are responsible for both the local accent and the sense of detachment from the rest of the country.

"Liverpool is clearly seen as being somehow outside of England," said Ms Coleman. "In the past the English have marginalised the Irish and other ethnic groups and I perceive this prejudice against our accent as a continuation of that process of marginalisation. It is a really serious problem, and I am conscious of it whenever I address conferences in London.

"Some people I know have tried to modify their accent, but I don't believe that this is the way forward. The people of this city have got to overcome the prejudice by forcing people to listen beyond the accent to what we are actually saying."

The writer and musicologist Fritz Spiegl has lived in Liverpool for 50 years. In the Sixties he wrote a four-volume series called Learn Yourself Scouse. He said: "It was perceived as all very charming then - I think it reminded people of the Beatles - but it is different now. I would say that a man with a pronounced scouse accent applying for a job over the telephone would run into a greater wall of prejudice than a man with a West Indian accent.

"It is almost impossible to put your finger on a specific event that changed the wider attitude to the broad Liverpool accent, but I personally feel that Alan Bleasdale has a lot to answer for. His hit television series Boys from the Black Stuff has virtually turned him into a millionaire but I would argue that those characters were based on a series of misconceptions."

Best-selling author Beryl Bainbridge is a spirited defender of her home town. "I grew up in Liverpool in the 1940s and there was a tremendous attention to how you spoke - you had to have elocution lessons if you went for a job as a clerk in a bank, for heavens sake. I go back to Liverpool a great deal and can honestly say that among the over-35 age group you will not find a brighter, more articulate group anywhere in the country.

"But this incredibly thick scouse accent can be off-putting. Accents are powerful things - for example, if someone swore at you in an upper- class English accent it would not be half so intimidating as someone using an accent like scouse. Paul McCartney speaks in what I would call a normal Liverpool accent today. The young people with the heaviest accents are, I believe, subconsciously reflecting the image of the scouse scally they see on the TV so much."

Liverpudlian Frank Boyce began his writing career scripting plots for Brookside, the Merseyside soap-opera, and now writes for the cinema. "Yes, I am aware of a certain prejudice, but I have never felt uncomfortable about it, to be honest," he said. "So much has been written about Liverpool since the Beatles and the whole Sixties phenomenon that people here can get a very heightened sense of self-perception. This in turn can lead to some of them getting a chip on the shoulder. That may be responsible for some people exaggerating their accent and others taking exception to it.

"It is wrong to think that things are particularly tough here - other places are worse off. I could not imagine living anywhere else."

Sir Trevor Jones, former leader of Liverpool council, said: "I speak the same English as everyone else. If people want to say I've got a scouse accent that is all right by me. Some folk may well be a bit reticent when they first hear a stranger speaking with a broad Liverpool accent, but Liverpudlians are for the most part blessed with a great sense of wit and humour, and they can normally overcome it.

"Scallys were not invented in Liverpool. You can find them in any city in the country."

Broadcaster and journalist Anne Robinson grew up in Liverpool. She said: "My mother must have spent a small fortune on elocution lessons but when I arrived in London for the first time in the 1960s everyone wanted to talk with a scouse accent. Now when I hear one I brighten up because I know the speaker is going to be brighter and probably a lot more entertaining, in a witty way, than the rest.

"I remember attending a public forum organised by the BBC at Liverpool's wonderful Adelphi Hotel when a feisty woman stood up and asked Alan Yentob: 'Why do you continue to depict all Liverpool people as claiming social security and running Jaguar cars?' She was referring to the series Bread but the same goes for Boys from the Black Stuff and I could see her point."

Liverpudlian comedian Ken Dodd commented: "Surely people are not so influenced by the television? Series like Bread and the Black Stuff are only fiction, for goodness sake. We all used to laugh at Alf Garnett but no one seriously suggested that all Londoners were like that.

"How you are received in the world depends largely on how you present yourself. Any slovenly accent tends to put people off - it's the same with broad Cockney or Geordie. If we give in to this attitude we will just shoot ourselves in the foot."