The Absolute Speaker

From A Sofa in the Forties by Seamus Heaney

We entered history and ignorance
Under the wireless shelf. Yippie-i-ay
Sang The Riders on The Range. HERE IS THE NEWS

Said the absolute speaker. Between him and us
A great gulf was fixed where pronunciation
Reigned tyrannically.

My friend Graham lives in Australia now, but when I knew him he lived in London, his birthplace. He was very good fun, in part because he subscribed to certain notions of Englishness more completely than anyone else I’ve known. During the 1992 general election, in which the Conservative party was crushed outside the rich south, he stood as a Tory candidate in fierce, working-class Barnsley. He conducted his campaign wearing a double-breasted pin-striped suit with a red rose in his buttonhole. The rose was designed to make the locals think he was in fact the Labour candidate, which seemed improbable given his plummy southern accent.
   “And do you know, all those people ever asked me was ‘When are you going to ‘ang that Myra ‘indley?’ (She was one of the notorious Moors Murderers, and has been in jail in Yorkshire for over thirty years.)

Graham was a Catholic, of the angst-ridden variety only English converts produce. He was fervent in his admiration for the class system, and sometimes fretted that his own first name betrayed him as not exactly top-drawer. He wore his grandfather’s handmade shoes, which he polished every day, and leather trousers, which he thought very daring indeed. He had been a public school English master, and had worked for Debrett’s but by the time I met him he was an announcer for the BBC World Service.
   “Can you imagine?” he would say with glee, “I read the news on the BBC World Service“—this with reverence—”whilst wearing leathah trousahs!” His enjoyment of the frisson was delightful.

When I went to stay at his little flat in Pimlico, he would make scones and summer pudding, and have me take tea with his grandmother, to whom he was devoted. She didn’t like the Irish much, and at 96 she was entitled to her opinions.
   “My grandfather had a spot of bother in the post office in Dublin in 1916, you know,” Graham explained with a winking reference to an independence uprising. She was kind to me in spite of this, and told him I was a perfectly nice girl for an Irish.

Graham’s fervour for England was of the kind that only ever exists among slight outsiders. He had been a scholarship boy at St. Paul’s, an excellent English public school. That was where he had picked up his cut-glass accent, as well as his anxiety about the name that betrayed him. He had learned the accent so well (imagine 1930’s Noel Coward recordings) that he had received a memo from the higher-ups at BBC’s Bush House insisting that he modify slightly. He treasured this, and showed it to me in self-parody.

‘Dear Graham,

Please do remember that that word ‘power’ has two syllables.


   ‘Well, how else would you say it?’ I asked.
   ‘Pah! Pah!’ he exclaimed, ‘As in, British Empah!’

I thought fondly of Graham as I learned more about the transliteration of placenames in colonial Burma. Take ‘Bamar’, for example. These days, you’d have to conjure David Niven, Leslie Howard, or my friend Graham, to decide to write it in English as ‘Burma’.

One thought on “The Absolute Speaker”

  1. I was working on (read: playing at) a sketch based on the poem named in this post and while doing an internet seach I was brought to your post here. Here is what the sketch looks like. enjoy


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