Monday, October 25, 2010

Dialects and Accents

Barbara & I accompanied daughter Kristin to the theater in Denver recently. Kristin subscribes to plays at the Performing Arts Center, and normally attends with two women friends. She was out of town for her regular Tuesday night performance, as she had been at Jalapa, in Nicaragua, attending a 25th anniversary celebration of the opening of a school building she had designed "pro bono" for the youngest children, using inexpensive "vernacular" materials. This was part of Jalapa's "sister city" association with Boulder. Kristin and her friend Susan, the mayor of Boulder, had been invited to attend the celebration (at their own expense, of course--Jalapa is a very poor city, close to the border with Honduras). So Kristin had changed her performance date, and invited us to accompany her.

The play was a 1990 adaptation of Bram Stoker's ever-popular novel Dracula. Kristin would not have chosen such a play, any more than we would, but when you buy a season subscription, you end up with the theatrical equivalent of a table d'hote meal.  I had never read the book, nor had I chosen to see any movie or TV version of the story. I did remember that Count Dracula was a vampire, living in Transylvania; I had heard about the use of garlic and a small wooden cross to ward off the Evil One; and the need to drive a wooden stake through the heart of an "Un-Dead" victim, as well as that of the Count himself. The play was fun, but that's not the subject of the musings.

As I thumbed through the program, I noted that the production had used a "dialect coach". I also noticed that much of the action took place away from Transylvania, in England and elsewhere in Continental Europe. Among the characters were seamen and working class Londoners: hence the "dialect coach", I assumed. I did not think that the English "gentry" in the cast would need such training. Evidently, I was wrong.

Unlike most New York and West Coast actors, the Colorado actors apparently hadn't been trained to speak in "stage English", so necessary for an authentic performance of the plays of Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, or Noel Coward. It appeared that the dialect coach had tried to teach some of the performers to speak like upper-middle class English men and women. As far as the men were concerned, they failed, in this harsh critic's judgment. They sound phony, with exaggerated vowel sounds.

Now, I have modified my own speech during half a century in the US; I have never tried to sound like a man born in the US. My basic speech was "BBC English", as it used to be called before regional voices were acceptable for reading the news in the UK. It was also known as "U" speech, as opposed to "Non-U", with the letter "U" allegedly standing for "upper class". Sometimes this way of speaking was called "Public School" English--as opposed to the"Grammar School" version.

Some of these class distinctions have disappeared by now. When I hear younger British members of my sons' generation, and even those younger still, they use a more blended accent. (When you listen to the recorded voice of the Queen, you hear authentic old-style BBC English.) 

This is not about "dialect", of course: it is about accents. In my day, we didn't think we had an "accent": we spoke proper English. I remember the very mixed feelings I had, many years ago, when an older woman, who clearly enjoyed hearing me speak, told me "I just love your brogue".(Irish has a word "barrog", from which we derive the word "brogue", meaning a strongly accented way of speaking.) The idea that I spoke with a "brogue" seemed hilarious, rather than insulting, and I knew she thought she was paying me a compliment.

Monday, October 18, 2010


"Vegemite" is an extract of yeast, marketed by Kraft in Australia. Several years ago, a friend brought several jars, correctly guessing that I would enjoy it. When freshly opened, Vegemite can be easily spread on buttered bread. If there's a difference between Marmite and Vegemite, I don't know it. My guess is that the name "Marmite" has been trademarked, but that the extraction process is "in the public domain".

A few years ago, Marmite developed a witty advertising campaign, on the theme "Marmite--you either love it or hate it". I was shown some of the commercials, probably displayed on YouTube. For any readers who don't know about Marmite, it is a sticky brown paste, usually spread on bread, toast, or a plain cracker, with a salty, tangy taste.

As a child, I used to see two brands of meat extract, Oxo and Bovril. As their names imply. these were made from beef . They looked rather similar to their vegetarian cousins, and were mainly used to make "beef tea", a warm drink for cold weather, essentially just the beef extract dissolved in hot water. I seldom saw beef tea, apart from when we were spending days on long sea voyages. On cold nights in later years, keeping watch as a Naval officer, i learned to prefer the strong cocoa we called "Ki", made from dissolved bars of solid chocolate.

The other common usage for Oxo or Bovril was to add flavor and body to soups and stews. In 1951, I learned how these meat extracts were a byproduct of the beef trade between Argentina and the U.K. I took passage in a ship which picked up a cargo of chilled beef in the busy port of La Plata, south of Buenos Aires. A prize-winning article of mine (Meat Boat) about that trade was published in the Spectator later that year.

At our Colorado house, I recently finished my last jar of Vegemite, which had dried up since it was opened many moons ago. I was able to scrape out most of what was left, and even (with difficulty) spread some on an English muffin. Delicious! But there were several lumps that I was able to enjoy, much as I would suck what Brits call a "boiled sweet" and we call "hard candy". I washed out the almost-empty pot and recycled it.

Farewell, Vegemite! Now I can start the little jar of Marmite, awaiting me in the pantry!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mary, Mayhem, and The Rotten Husband (cont.)


I was sitting in my car, the red Acura, at the edge of a large parking area at the end of a driveway. It was

neatly covered with a fine yellowish-brown sandy gravel. I was looking at a large country house. It was
somewhere on the Peninsula, perhaps in Hillsborough or Atherton. There were lights in the windows,
clearly visible behind the drapes. It was about 9pm on a clear evening.

Then, from the left, came the sounds of a marching band. There weren’t “76 trombones”, but it was
certainly a large band, although the uniforms and instruments were not very distinct. Somehow, I knew
that I had organized this band, and that they were there to serenade someone at the house. (The very
idea is absurd: one guitar or a gypsy violinist would do a much better job than blaring out one’s feelings
to the entire neighborhood, even in an area of huge park-like estates!)

I locked the car door, and walked over to the house. After a while, the front door opened, and I was
greeted by a man and his wife, probably in their late forties. Although it was the type of house that
would need servants to be run efficiently, I don’t recall having seen a butler or parlormaid.

The evidently wealthy couple who had let me in were contemporaries of mine. [In the dream I felt as if I
were (say) forty-five.] They treated me as an equal, and said something along the lines of “I expect you’d
like to see Mary. She’s out, but we expect her back very soon.” (Actually, the name has no significance.
If I had known the young women’s name in my dream, I had forgotten it by the time that I awoke in the
morning.) The parents were informally dressed. They did not seem surprised to see me, nor did they
comment on the music.

I have no sense of time delay, for very soon three or four people entered the room. They were young
people, but I only had eyes for one. She had medium-length black hair, a pale complexion, and bright
red lips. She was wearing a white blouse with a black skirt. She stood out, a strikingly self-possessed,
even charismatic, figure. She was very beautiful. I knew that I wanted to be her friend, and to be seen in
her company, but my feelings were of admiration, not inflamed desire.

The parents excused themselves, and left the room, together with the shadowy figures who had come
in with Mary. As soon as they had gone, she turned on me, and berated me for calling on her in this
conspicuous fashion. I was aware that I was a married man, although it wasn’t specifically to Barbara
of whom I was thinking, I just had the knowledge that I was married to another woman, and yet had a
considerable interest in Mary.

Mary said that she was very angry with me: how dare I come and attempt to woo her again with sweet
words and gifts of books? It was as if I had had one previous meeting with Mary, and had moved her to
care for me. Apparently, this had happened some weeks or months previously. For all that her parents
knew, I was a suitor, and by no means an unwelcome one. Mary was single, in her early twenties, and
given considerable freedom by her parents. Even while she was expressing her anger I felt immensely
drawn to this striking and intelligent young woman.

Mary then suggested that my interest in her was in part due to snobbishness. I knew that she was
closely related to some noble family, whose surname differed from the family title. My interest in her

was for her family connections, not for herself, she suggested. I protested at this calumny, but I was
aware that her family’s name impressed me.

Although the scene could have played in the United Kingdom, it was certainly taking place in California.

I have no specific memory of Mary leaving the room, but I have a recall of her returning and throwing
down in front of me some miscellaneous objects, which at first I had presumed to be some things that
I had given her on a previous visit, and which she was now rejecting. I also recall that there was at least
one piece of rubber – or plastic-coated wire.

Somewhat taken aback at my reception, I walked out to my car. To my amazement, I found that a front
window had been smashed, and that a lot of damage had been done to the instrument panel. Various
dials and wires leading to them had been pulled out. Mary had done a thorough job of trashing my car!
There seemed to be no way that I could drive the car, and I also noted that the hand brake appeared to
have been disconnected. I remember being concerned that even if I could get the car to start; there was
no way that I wanted to drive it off without having effective brakes.

At this point, I remember a number of other people coming to the car, expressing amazement at the
destruction, and some puzzled sympathy. I don’t think there was any doubt in anyone’s mind who was
responsible for the damage. The next thing I recall was that some family members, including at least two
males, one of whom was Mary’s father, had somehow done a miraculous repair job on the car, so that I
could drive it away.

It was at this point that I awoke for the first time, becoming aware that I had just come out of a
significant dream. I was amazed at the vividness, and the manner in which I had evidently angered Mary
because I had come a-courting. Her anger had in no way been directed at me on the grounds I was a
married man, and it is not clear to me whether in the dream I had revealed this to her. It is also not clear
that her anger was in any way affected by our age differential. We seemed very evenly matched. The
anger seemed to be a combination of her accusations that I was motivated by snobbishness, rather than
by love of her as a person, and because of the ostentation of my serenading her, catching her off guard,
and identifying me (to anyone who was watching) as her suitor. And then I fell asleep again.


There was Mary again, as striking as ever, but in an entirely different mood. She was extremely contrite
about the mayhem she had created in her rage, and she acknowledged that it wasn’t really justified. In
fact, she was very glad to see me, and she loved me.

In a few moments we were touching, laughing, kissing, and playfully happy. Mary had apologized
and I had forgiven her. That’s as far as things went in the dream, and I awoke again. Darn it!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Mary, Mayhem, and the Rotten Husband: An Unusual Dream

April 14, 1993

Mary, Mayhem, and the Rotten Husband:
An Unusual Dream
By Nigel A. Renton


I often have amusing dreams, and on several occasions I have awoken from a dream, and later fallen back to sleep, finding myself starting another chapter of the same story. In this dream I played the part of a rotten husband, had my car trashed as a result of chasing after a younger woman, and then – but let’s not spoil the ending.

My dreams remain very vivid in my memory immediately after I awake. Since this is usually in the middle of the night, it is rare for me to relate the dream (which would mean waking my wife) or to go upstairs and dictate the details while they are fresh in my mind. If I don’t do this, it is all too easy to forget the details. On this occasion they remained with me, and I felt impelled to record them. Barbara was out of town.


It is often easy to relate my dreams to events in my waking life. Very often there are a number of different happenings which affect my dreams. It is as if I take a little piece from many different parts of my waking life, including plays, movies, and the TV screen, and put them into a kaleidoscope. Then my brain shakes them all up while I sleep, and turns them out as marvelously complex and fascinating dreams.

There also seems to be some correlation between my having eaten cheese and having vivid dreams. I was told about this as a child, but this “old wives’ tale” may have some basis in fact. On the evening of April 13/14, 1993, I had liberally sprinkled a large salad with parmesan, before realizing that a similar amount would improve the flavor of the left-over spaghetti, which was the main course of my supper.

I had been talking to or thinking of women all day, but not with “evil thoughts”. That morning, I had had an intense conversation with AL. I had then arranged with my young friend from church, MB, to be my guest at the forthcoming DRA theater evening. I had also had good reasons to think about JK and MS, young women friends, and of RC and KL, women priests.

I had later been to the doctor, (the only man in this account), where there had been talk about a relatively minor operation for the removal of toenails, deferred until a possible future date: and of possible future urethral or prostate surgery. I had then gone up to a blood-drawing station, only to find that it was closed for the afternoon, and I would need to return the following morning.
During the evening, I had a phone conversation with Barbara in Colorado, where I plan to join her for the coming weekend. The call was more in the nature of passing on messages than a lovers’ chat. I should add that Barbara had worn a white blouse and black pants when I last saw her.

We also discussed whether Barbara would take Kate Learson to Rocky Mountain National Park on the day of my arrival, or whether we should spend part of my precious few hours in Colorado amid those glorious snow-capped peaks. (Kate is the daughter of the former chairman of IBM, and I vividly remembered how we had been drawn to each other’s company at the outset of the trip Barbara and I made to the Antarctic. Kate was unaccompanied: I remembered how I had come to terms with the realization that to maintain this friendship it was important that she and Barbara becomes friends, which they did very easily, while I worked through my feelings about this glamorous and intelligent younger woman who had found me a good companion. At the time, Kate had confided in me, and later to us both, her complex feelings about her lover, who subsequently became her husband. John won’t be with Kate in Colorado, so the three of us will be reunited, as we were for a couple of delightful days in New England last fall.)

On my rides to and from the office and for part of the evening, I had been listening to a wonderful recorded book about the Borgias, and the passionate involvement of male clergy, of all ranks and including the Pope, in licentious affairs, sometimes involving incest. A few days before, I had re-viewed the scene where Orson Welles as Citizen Kane trashes his mistress’s room in a violent rage.l

Then, after supper, I had watched Steel Magnolias, a movie I had recorded earlier. The main theme concerns a young woman (Julia Roberts), as a severe diabetic who rejects the advice of doctors and her own mother to avoid becoming pregnant. She wants to have her own child, and gives birth to the son and heir ardently sought by her husband. As a result of this, she had kidney failure and in due course, the kidney transplant from her own mother is rejected, and she dies. The movie is much more about middle-class white society in a small town in Louisiana, not too far from Shreveport, than it is about death, which comes at the end of the movie. It is generally upbeat and funny, and also stars Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, and Darryl Hannah. These are the strong Southern women of the title, each very different, involved to some extent with men who are felonious, foolish, out of work, or pathetic. This affected me, because the mother of my own sons had also been a severe diabetic. We were not warned to avoid having children because of potential danger to a diabetic mother. Had I unwittingly put Lola into a life-threatening situation – twice? Had she deliberately – or unwittingly – downplayed the dangers to her own health?

Then, somewhere on the news, I saw a picture of a car that had been broken into, with bits of window glass on the floor. And so, to my dream …

to be continued in next week's post ...