Country Life: Mistaken in the Metropolis

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The Independent Online

One morning, not long after we left London to live in Herefordshire, I picked up a hitch-hiker on the A44. I've written about this encounter before. He was a bright guy of about 25, seriously down on his luck, jobless and about to become homeless. Still, at least he wasn't a heroin addict unlike, he told me, most of the people he'd been at school with. We talked awhile about the social and economic problems afflicting rural England and then he sniffed the air in my Volvo and asked me if I was a chicken farmer.

One morning, not long after we left London to live in Herefordshire, I picked up a hitch-hiker on the A44. I've written about this encounter before. He was a bright guy of about 25, seriously down on his luck, jobless and about to become homeless. Still, at least he wasn't a heroin addict unlike, he told me, most of the people he'd been at school with. We talked awhile about the social and economic problems afflicting rural England and then he sniffed the air in my Volvo and asked me if I was a chicken farmer.

Astonished, I asked what gave him that idea. He could smell chickenfeed, he explained. I laughed and said that we only had a few bantams. "Oh," he said gloomily. "Because if you had been a chicken farmer, I was going to ask you for some labouring work." Dispiriting as this exchange was, it was also rather exhilarating for me to be mistaken by a Herefordshire native for a chicken farmer. I still felt very much like a townie, so to carry a fowl smell seemed, in a way, like assimilation.

Two years on, a similar thing has happened to me in reverse. Jane and I went to London the weekend before last, for a party. It was our first time back in the metropolis on our own, and an extremely rare overnight excursion anywhere without the kids. So we decided not to stay with friends but to treat ourselves to a night in a hotel.

We chose a cool hotel in Notting Hill. The act of booking a London hotel and being horrified at how bloody expensive they all are made me feel as though I had finally shrugged off my status as a townie. A small room set us back £200, inclusive of continental breakfast but precious little else - not even a smile from the sturdy Eastern European woman who checked us in. She was a graduate of the Rosa Kleb charm school; evidently nobody had told her that hoteliers, if they can't manage welcoming, are at least supposed to be accommodating.

Perhaps she had been cast into a black mood by the American couple who were checking out as we checked in, politely explaining that although they'd only just arrived, they were leaving because the man couldn't fit into the shower. In London, £200 buys very little square footage. I had been told that our room boasted a bath next to the bed, as though this were the height of delicious Notting Hill eccentricity. In fact, it turned out to be the height of practicality: there was no room for it in the bathroom.

That said, the bed was comfortable, there was plenty of hot water and nice fluffy towels, and the rest of the staff were perfectly friendly. Another receptionist, a fashionable young woman, made Jane's entire weekend by admiring her top as we were leaving for the party, and asking where she had bought it. "Hereford," said Jane, with pride and a slight note of defiance. She, like me, has become irretrievably countrified; we don't have metropolitan mindsets any more.

Anyway, being an incurable romantic, I spent an hour on this precious trip away with my dear wife sitting in my car outside our hotel, listening to Birmingham City v Everton on Radio Five Live. When a funky-looking couple emerged from the hotel, I glanced at them and smiled. They smiled back. I focused again on the match, in which Everton had just taken the lead. And so wrapped up was I in the football that I didn't notice said funky-looking couple climbing into the back of my Volvo - the same Volvo in which I was once taken for a chicken-farmer. Suddenly, there they were, filling my rear-view mirror, waiting to be whisked off to the West End and doubtless wondering why a self-respecting minicab driver should have quite so many Chewits wrappers on the floor of his car.

They were aghast when I pointed out their mistake, and in her haste to get out, the woman snagged her funky bejewelled coat on the door handle. I, however, was thrilled to be mistaken for a streetwise minicab driver. Apart from anything else, it was nice to get that assimilation feeling again.

The taming of Shrewsbury

Speaking of assimilation, there is nothing like the incorrect pronunciation of place names to make a person feel like an outsider. Conversely, there is nothing like correctly pronouncing a place name to make one feel one has taken a small initial step towards belonging. Our first important lesson, on arriving in north Herefordshire, was that Leominster is pronounced not as it is spelt, nor as Lem-inster, but, unequivocally, as Lemster.

No such certainty attends the pronunciation of Shrewsbury. Posher people seem to go for Shro, others for Shroo. But which is it? Last week, I had an hour there between trains, so I popped into the library and put the burning question to three friendly female librarians.

"It was originally spelt Shrozebury," said one, "so there's your answer."

"But I came here from Lewes," said the second, "which local people pronounce Looze. So I did some research because I wanted to get it right, and most people round here say Shrooze."

The third woman smiled. "There is actually another way of pronouncing it," she said, "which is said to be just as valid, and that's Shoozebury."

I departed for my train as befuddled as ever.

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