Funny how a song can prompt a thought-stream. I just caught Sting’s An Englishman in New York on the radio and I couldn’t help but laugh knowingly. Being me, I mentally upped the ante:. I wanted to tell Sting: be a browned skinned Englishman in Boston.
This post is a bit off topic for the subject of this blog. It’s about me, so I don’t feel too badly about that. And for a Friday, I hope it makes you either smile, laugh out loud – or both.
I’m lucky to be a dual national American-Brit. I think I inherited the best of both worlds. My American-instilled “I can do anything I set my mind to doing” attitude served me very, very well in the UK. It enabled me to carve out quite the career in the British entertainment industry. Here in the US, I have that unquantifiable thing called “Englishness” which serves me quite well. Call it manners, bearing, that British sense of fair play – whatever it is -it’s something that makes me stick out in people’s memories (in a positive way) on this side of the Pond.
And my accent. Oh, blimey, there’s my accent.
My accent is pure Home Counties British. Not quite what the British would call “posh”…but something like posh’s next door neighbour. In American terminology, I speak “well”. But it’s mostly just the accent and the vocabulary. It causes no manner of confusion in my adopted home of Boston. And when you have someone who looks like me – cue the brown skinned bit – well, it’s a show stopper. Brows wrinkle. Head’s tilt in that way that they do when people try to comprehend the incomprehensible. There are looks of confusion, from vague to downright comical. It’s like witnessing reality taking a holiday or finding yourself in an episode of the Twilight Zone. You’d be forgiven for thinking that I’d just shown them a picture of Queen Elizabeth sporting a Mohawk. It hits my funny bone, hard, every time. There’s no malice in this. It is genuinely funny. And rest assured that the British half of me takes over and I don’t laugh, for that would be impolite. It’s just not the done thing.
This, I hasten to add, is pan-racial. By that I mean the reaction is universal…the exception being the other Europeans and Brits I’ve met in Boston.
I was in Home Depot yesterday discussing the merits of galvanized deck nails and the man I was speaking with blurted out “You sound just like Downton Abbey”. This time I did laugh. He caught me off guard. All I could say was “Until I’m annoyed or angry, then I sound like I should be on Eastenders.” He didn’t quite get the analogy so I let rip with a bit of pure Walthamstow (that is to say, a very, very East End accent). He then asked the inevitable. “Do all, you know, black people in England -?”
“No,” I replied. And I know myself well enough to know there was something of a twinkle of mischievousness in my eyes. “Some have West Country accents, you know, they talk like pirates. Others have Liverpudian accents, then there’s Glaswegian accents, Ulster accents, while others have hardcore Essex accents.” I couldn’t resist. I went on to say if he really wanted his mind blown he should go to a Chinese takeout anywhere in Scotland and hear what accent a Scottish person of Chinese descent had.
Then, of course, there’s the UK to US English translation. Car boots, notes, lifts, braces, jumpers, shopping trollies, cash tills, ground floors, trainers, pants, spanners, aubergines, courgettes, settees, sitting rooms, loos, a score (money) – these, and many more, are a regular part of my vocabulary. I will, eventually, learn how to call these things by their American counterpart. For now it just adds more humour to an already funny situation.
Using cockney rhyming slang is an admittedly bad habit. But it is second nature. So cockney slang like “I’ll have a cup of rosy lee” (translation: ” I’ll have a cup of tea, ta”) just takes it to a whole other planet. Asking for builders’ tea (cue, tea that’s as strong as you can make it) is gold dust.
In the right hands, there’s comedic TV gold here somewhere. Channel 4 or E4, thank you. The Beeb would just make it too polite and, well, Middle England. The lead writers for the original British Misfits TV series would have a field day.
In the meantime, this particular brown-skinned British-American bloke with a somewhat posh UK accent will continue to astound and amaze Bostonians. And no doubt other Americans when I start travelling around the US more. Honestly? I wouldn’t have it any other way.