It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth
without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.
George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion (preface)
When I was a little kid growing up in rural Australia, my accent, strange though this may seem, was the subject of some curiosity. While other kids at seventies dinner parties might have amused their parents’ guests by playing the piano or pouring the perfect martini, I was most often called upon to intone the phrase, “How now brown cow.” The Englishness of my rounded vowels, which would have been enough to make Henry Higgins himself blush with pride, delighted my parents. Being Dutch immigrants, they themselves did not take credit for my apparently aristocratic turn of phrase, but they were none the less thrilled by it, especially my mum, from whom the words, “You sound so Australian”, were to be taken as a terrible insult.
Many years later, when I’d been living in London for three years and was having some sort of twenty-something crisis, I was talking on the phone with my sister, Pinky. “God, what I am doing living here?” I asked her. “What do you mean?” she replied. “You were destined to live there from the moment you how-nowed your first brown cow.” Pinky was probably right (and she was funny), and yet…
When I turned 40 I was able to draw a very neat line down the centre of my life; the first half had been spent in my home country and the second half away from it. Like everyone, I’d done some stuff in those 40 years, accumulated some experiences and seen some sights. And my brain, it seemed, had placed the memories of all those things in two quite separate categories. Sometimes it seems like there’s one big filing cabinet in my head marked Australia and another marked Everything Else. And to push the analogy just a little bit further, one of those filing cabinets seems occasionally to get jammed into a corner behind the other and become less accessible. For example, my brother told me, when I was home in Australia a few years ago, that he was working with the husband of my primary one school teacher, and that she wanted to catch up with me while I was there. I had absolutely no recollection of who my primary one school teacher was. Mrs Gregory, my brother said. You must remember her. She actually taught you in grade two as well. I had no recollection. But then Big Bro arranged for us to meet at a party and as soon as I saw her face, which hadn’t changed at all in 30-odd years, it all came rushing back. The lovely Mrs Gregory! Of course I remembered her!
I sometimes wonder, when looking back over my life so far, whether my personality hasn’t become just as compartmentalised, through my various travels, as my memories have. I think I’m pretty much the same person from one context to another, but as it’s rarely tested it’s difficult to be sure.
During the four wonderful weeks that I spent with my dad this summer we had conversations, as one would expect, about all manner of things. During one of the many hours we spent chatting under the parasol in the garden, Dad expressed surprise that I, his Little Michellie, have ended up living in different countries and seeing a bit of the world. Of all my six kids, he said, you were always the one who needed the extra hug and to be reassured that she was loved. (He seems to think that I’ve since grown out of that. Word to the wise – I haven’t.) He’d never imagined that I’d be capable of gathering the requisite confidence to live and work away from the people who knew me best.
I think in a way, though, that it requires far greater bravery to stay within visiting distance of your own tribe. When I’m abroad, I can portray myself in whatever way I choose to have people see me. I can appear confident, self-assured and completely sorted, even when I’m not actually feeling any of those things. My online presence is an even more self-conscious construct; I am WA Woman to World. My Linked In status says that I’m a writer, researcher, reporter and subtitling consultant. Twitter has me down as a Yeasayer, eternal expat, constant reader and occasional writer. When Dad was here recently, though, I was reminded that I’m still just his Little Michellie, the fifth of six kids, Dad’s favourite second youngest daughter, the one who spent her childhood either laughing hysterically or crying hysterically. When I’m with my family I can’t hide behind who I’ve chosen to become. I just am who I am.
When that little Aussie kid with the alien English accent realised that the way she spoke was setting her apart from her peers, she rapidly reverted to her best interpretation of Australianness and left Henry Higgins cursing in the corner. Then 20 years of living in England gave the good professor a reason to wipe away the tears again.
But if you really want to know who I am behind the faux-British accent, just be around when I’m with my family. Didn’t know I had a soft side, did you?