oh no, brown cow
It might have been my love of reading that persuaded my mum to sign me up for elocution lessons when I was ten. Then again it could have been the fact that, while my elder sisters were excelling at the piano, I was more interested in kicking Heidi, our teacher Miss Hartman’s poodle, for licking my legs during the few lessons I had. Or simply that, in an effort to fit in at our frankly bloody awful school, I was starting to flirt with the Gloucestershire vernacular, saying ‘gurt’ for ‘great’ and ‘Ow bist?’ for ‘How are you?’…
Whatever the reason, for a while my younger sister Helen and I spent an hour a week with Mrs Cheatle, an intimidating grey-haired elocution teacher based in Marshfield, Glos, studying articulation, modulation, pitch and performance. I remember skipping down the country lanes in my homemade1 blue and white checked flares and polyester tank top, declaiming the fairy’s speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon’s sphere…
(God, how I struggled with the extra syllable that Mrs Cheatle insisted I insert into “moon’s” ie moon’es…)
Before we’d moved onto Shakespeare we’d practised rounded vowel sounds, repeating ‘How now brown cow’. In this nonsense phrase, each ‘ow’ sound represents an individual dipthong, or gliding vowel, and to reach the two separate targets required by the vowel sound your tongue has to do a funny little dance.
My friend Hazel reminded me of these elocution lessons when she reminisced about her father learning English. Wenzel Valentine Spatschek (otherwise known as Fred) spent the last part of WWII at a POW camp in Cheshire, and the English lessons were part of his rehabilitation. Like me, he was taught the phrase ‘How now, brown cow,’ in order to round out his vowel sounds but he misheard it and forever afterwards used ‘Oh no, brown cow!’ as an exclamation of disapproval.
Fred’s thick Czech accent meant that his children weren’t always clear about what he was saying and as a result their favourite swearword, used with their peers, was ‘Ishmishmaria’, their rendition of their father’s phrase ‘Santa Maria!’, which he used rather than swearing in front of Hazel and her brother.
1. ‘my homemade blue and white checked flares’: for reasons of economy, Mum used to make most of our clothes, including the matching mini dresses my sister Sue & I are wearing in this photo. Perhaps she ran out of fabric, or perhaps I just had a growth spurt between being measured up for it, and Mum finishing it.