Why do we instinctively trust a Geordie accent?

A Liverpudlian, a cockney or an Irishman, would have the door slammed in his face
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The Independent Online

One of the more successful and long-running scams in the greater London area, and perhaps elsewhere, involves frozen fish and a bunch of cheery lads from the North-east of England.

It works like this. A young bloke with a breezy, outdoor manner and a Geordie accent knocks on your door and tells you he has just driven down from North Shields with yesterday's catch. Would you be interested in buying some fish, fresh from the boat? Unlike most unscheduled visits from the outside world, there is something refreshing about this interruption, a healthy whiff of sea air. Yes, of course you'll have some of his catch.

Only after he has gone does it occur to you that the fish you have bought is in frozen slabs and has cost you considerably more than you would have paid at the local supermarket. You've been had - done up like a kipper.

The key to this scam, which has taken in even the most worldly suburbanite, seems to lie only partly in the product - an Essex man touting fish, or a Liverpudlian, a cockney or an Irishman, would have the door slammed in his face. The accent does the trick and lowers the defences, the sing-song Geordie tones redolent of folk songs, the crashing of waves, a sharp easterly coming from the sea, When the Boat Comes In.

Anyone who doubts that regional snobbery is ingrained in the British character might usefully study findings just published by the communications consultancy firm called the Aziz Corporation. Having interviewed directors from 100 companies, the survey discovered that a mere 15 per cent of those questioned assumed that someone with a Liverpudlian accent was successful, 9 per cent thought he was likely to be hardworking, while 92 per cent saw him as potentially or actually dishonest.

Among the British, the Scots did best out of this geographical bias, achieving a 43 per cent success rate - second only to people with an American accent who, such is our national inferiority complex, came top of the poll with 47 per cent.

Only a fool or a bigot would honestly believe that someone who happened to be born north of the border was almost three times as likely to be a high achiever than someone born in Liverpool, yet our instinctive response to accent causes us to make that assumption. It explains why North-eastern accents are favoured by advertising agents on voice-overs for commercials, or why there is such a bewildering and inexplicable preponderance of Scottish voices among high-achieving politicians or broadcasters. It may even have contributed towards the widely accepted view that Gordon Brown - bluff, Scottish, rigid with integrity - is to be trusted so much more than smooth, English, opportunistic Tony Blair.

A perfect representative of this in-built regional bias will shortly be riding high in the bestseller lists. Following up the biography of her husband Billy Connolly that was a huge success a couple of years ago, Pamela Stephenson will shortly release a book called Bravemouth - Living with Billy Connolly. Serialised extracts suggest that it will be a lightweight, amiable domestic documentary, an extended family postcard for public viewing.

There is an account of Billy going snorkelling (he's in a wetsuit and wants to pee) and flying to Africa on behalf of Comic Relief (he's in a small plane and wants to pee). On a family skiing holiday in America, Billy would "giggle uncontrollably" when he saw people falling over - a long way from the back streets of Glasgow where, as a young lad, he would slide on a shovel under the horse of Tam Hughes, the coal man. "Like most of his working-class friends, he never graduated to a pair of skis, and is as likely to head for the Scottish ski-centre of Aviemore as pick up a croquet stick."

There is something faintly bogus about the way this account combines travel anecdotes of the Michael Palin variety with a few sobering insights into an impoverished childhood worthy of Angela's Ashes. Billy Connolly may or may not pick up a croquet stick but he does like to hang out around polo lawns and he lives the life of a laird in a Scottish castle.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying the benefits of success and, if Mr and Mrs Connolly can finesse a bestseller out of what they did on their holidays, good luck to them. But it is worth considering whether an English or Welsh comedian who combined name-dropping and a toff lifestyle with tearful reminders of his working-class credibility would be treated quite as indulgently as this national treasure.

Would it be outrageous to suggest that, if you happen to come from certain parts of the UK, an unspoken bias works in your favour? Like the frozen fish men from South Shields, Billy and his Bravemouth remind us that, even in a country where a man can be born in poverty and end up in a castle, some old snobberies are still firmly in place.

terblacker@aol.com

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