The Diary: I bet Johnson spoke clearly, teeth or not

Share
Related Topics
On Tuesday of last week I went to the Liberal Club to attend a splendid luncheon given by W H Smith on the occasion of its 1999 book awards. I had a very merry time and ended up being presented with a cheque for pounds 10,000 for Master Georgie.

I can only suppose, judging by the events of the next 24 hours, that I was a little too merry, for I seem to have offended a great many people - particularly the citizens of my native Liverpool - by some chance remarks flung out while in a state of euphoria. In what context they were said escapes me, but six hours later the telephone rang and an irate voice on the answering machine shouted that hanging was too good for me. Apparently I had called for the compulsory teaching of elocution in schools and the wiping-out of all regional accents. After much soul-searching as to how and why I came up with such a sensible proposition, I can only suppose that, it being Tuesday, I was looking forward to the midweek episode of Brookside. It has long been my contention that the reason the children of the Farnhams - a middle-class family unaccountably residing in the Close - had to die so tragically was that their parents were ashamed of the way they spoke. And who could blame them?

For what it's worth, I shall repeat what I have been saying on the radio over and over for the last two days. I am not against the accents of the Scotch, the Welsh, the Irish and the Lancastrian, for such speech is music to the ear. On the other hand, the mangled language spoken by some citizens of Birmingham and Liverpool is a disgrace, and a relatively recent one. One has only to listen to the voices of Tommy Handley, Ted Ray, Ken Dodd and the Beatles to hear the difference between the past and now. By the way, the great Dr. Johnson came from the Midlands and spoke with an accent, though I bet it wasn't the one now in use.

I am not in favour of talking posh, simply in favour of correct grammar and fluency.

WEDNESDAY LUNCHTIME, in flight from the telephone and various camera crews - I had been up at six to go to the studio of the Today programme - I met my friends Margaret and Lynn at Waterloo and embarked for Aldershot. We couldn't find a smoking compartment except in first class, and when the collector came round we all proffered money to pay the excess fare, only to be told we were nicely spoken ladies and we needn't bother. I mention this merely to emphasise what happened later. We were met at Aldershot by Major Vincent Ward. "Birmingham's out for your blood," he announced, as I got into the car.

Several months back I wrote something or other about teeth, in particular the possible lack of them in 18th- century England. I was interested in how actors of the day, Garrick etc, and Dr Johnson for that matter, managed to speak clearly without their molars. Most people had either a few rotten pegs or had lost the lot by the time they were 25. Hence the use of fans by ladies - they were needed to waft away bad breath as much as to hide the mouth. Molten lead was sometimes used as a filling, but only if you were rich. Until at least 1800, barbers combined hair-cutting with both tooth-extraction and blood-letting. Here are a nice few lines on one such chap: Lin'd with red rags to look like blood,/ Did well his threefold trade explain,/ Who shav'd, drew teeth, and breath'd a vein.

My article on the subject was read by Major Ward who wrote and kindly offered to show me over the historical museum of the Royal Army Dental Corps. And what a wonderful place it turned out to be, full of treasures showing the connection between dentistry and the Army from 1660 to the present day. I was particularly taken with the death mask of Himmler, who committed suicide before they could hang him by secreting a cyanide tablet in a back molar. And did you know that in order to use the flintlock musket soldiers had to have their front teeth scaled to preserve them? It has something to do with the need to bite the top off the bullet thingie when loading, and you couldn't do that if your front teeth had dropped out.

The first false teeth were made out of hippopotamus horn. The very earliest instruments for pulling teeth were corkscrews, and after looking at these and photographs of dental operations on hideously shattered jaws, Margaret, Lynn and I all developed toothache which lasted all the way home. Oh, yes, halfway through our tour a gentleman in shorts ran in and said Sky Television was looking for me, but we told him to say we'd gone for battle training.

IT'S CURIOUS how people differ in their reaction to the way one speaks. On our return journey, this time seated in a second-class smoking compartment, we were roundly ticked off by the ticket collector. There was some confusion on our part as to what class we were sitting in, which led us to confess that we'd travelled two hours before in the posher part of the train, whereupon we were immediately asked to show our excess whatsits. What a carry-on! Our explanation was dismissed out of hand. "I am surprised," he said, looking extremely censorious, "that ladies such as yourselves should stoop to lying." Lyn went bright red and Margaret got the giggles. "He was very tall," I stuttered, endeavouring to describe the previous ticket man, "and he wore glasses." "That," said our accuser - and he had a point - "could he said of many men in railway employ."

I think if I'd answered him in a Scouse accent he might have let the matter drop; instead, he went and sat two seats down and kept an eye on us all the way to Waterloo. It meant we didn't dare rip up the upholstery or scratch lines on the window.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Service and Installation Engineer

£22000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: SEO / Outreach Executive

£20000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is a global marketin...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Estimator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Negotiator - OTE £24,000

£22000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An enthusiastic individual is r...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Newspaper stands have been criticised by the Child Eyes campaign  

There were more reader complaints this year – but, then again, there were more readers

Will Gore
 

People drink to shut out pain and stress – arresting them won’t help

Deborah Coughlin
A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?