Jane Jane made a chain
Of daisies for her sister Kate.
She stayed out in the hail and rain
To make that dainty daisy chain.
And Kate said ‘Jane, I’ve told Elaine
You’ve made a lovely daisy chain!’
Wordsworth it ain’t, but the foregoing is no trivial nursery rhyme, no inconsequential piece of playground doggerel for team-picking or tic-tac-toe. Unbelievable as it may seem to those young enough to have been indoctrinated in the modern orthodoxy that elitism is the cardinal sin, that little ditty was composed with the sole and serious purpose of forcing little Aussies to pronounce their ‘a’s not as little Aussies naturally would, but in imitation of the accent of the British ruling class!
I know, I know. The very idea beggars belief in an age when senior statesmen of the land can say ‘strenth’ and ‘anythink’ and the appropriate response is ‘so what?’ When ‘haitch’ is no longer a knuckle-rapping offence against the English language but a happy reminder of the abundance of Englishes we now know ourselves to be lucky enough to celebrate. (An age, indeed, in which the knuckle-rapping of children is itself an enormity only marginally less serious than serial murder.)
I’m probably a remnant of the last generation to have been taught formal elocution at school. Every week we were visited by Miss Kellalea, a formidable grande dame with a magnificently cantilevered bosom and a mission: to extirpate our flat nasal vowels and replace them with the exquisitely refained tones of a Julie Andrews or a Petula Clark, or even, I suspect, the Queen. This was never articulated, mind, but there was that expression at the time, was there not? – ‘the Queen’s English’ – the standard, the benchmark: what would undoubtedly be referred to today as ‘current international best practice’.
I think we may have sensed, the way kids do, that in the world we were about to inherit we would have little use for this old-fashioned aesthetic, for though Miss Kellalea told us frankly our accents were hideous, we did not acquiesce in having her genteel sensibilities thrust upon us. She was every inch the arrogant Henry Higgins, albeit a female one, to a classroomful of sniggering, recalcitrant Liza Doolittles who missed no opportunity to mock her bombast.
She would warm us up for the strenuous vowel-shaping to come with a deep-breathing exercise in which she stood before us like a female colossus, uninhibitedly inhaling and exhaling as she followed the motion of lungs and diaphragm up and down her chest with her hands, bidding us follow her example. This naturally led to the kids in the back rows describing hugely exaggerated arcs in front of skinny adolescent torsos, in grotesque caricature of her matronly form.
Then came pronunciation drill, starting with vowels and diphthongs, and I can still remember the ditties that accompanied them:
Father’s car is a Jaguar, and Pa drives rather fast.
Castles, farms and draughty barns we go charging past.
Arthur’s cart is far less smart and can’t go half as far
But I’d rather ride in Arthur’s cart than in my Papa’s fast car.
My papa, for heaven’s sake? In a Jaguar? Not pygmalion likely for us little vegemites! We’d expect to be ferried about by our dads to beaches and swimming-pools in second-hand Holdens, with nary a castle in sight. Mind you, behind all the wealth and privilege and British upper-class certainty implicit in that twee little quatrain, do I detect a certain levelling sentiment? A wavering of class-consciousness perhaps in the narrator’s preference for the peasant’s cart over the Jag? Or is it just the well-known propensity of the British aristocracy for occasional eccentricities such as hippification or left-wing politics?
Fascinating social documents, really, these elocution verses. You get some marvellous insights, for instance, into the impending social upheavals that would, in years to come, engulf the Royal Family:
My sister Jill who’s rather thin
Spills the milk for dinner.
She spills the milk we ought to drink,
Tips it down the kitchen sink,
And Jill is shrinking to bones and skin
While we are getting thinner.
What’s that if not a poetic snapshot of a budding bulimic? Princess Diana herself might have inspired it!