not what it sounds like

welsh poppy centre

I’ve been thinking about Lady Mondegreen again this week. And also about music lessons, elocution, and other after-school classes from my childhood.

When I was a little girl, like so many little girls of my generation I wanted to be a ballerina. My best friend at school had ballet lessons but, for some reason, my parents decided to send me to piano lessons, instead.

I didn’t want to learn to play the piano and, as I usually managed to get an hour’s practice over and done with in about 20 minutes, the fact is that I never did learn. The highlight of the weekly lessons was when the teacher – a little dark-haired woman with clunky rings on her plump fingers and scarlet painted nails – let me play not the piano, but the virginals, a harpsichord-like instrument that had a scene featuring the god Pan painted on the inside of the lid.

Perhaps ballet and music have little to do with elocution, but they are linked in my memory as after-school classes of the era. Elocution lessons were another thing that my parents thought unnecessary for me. I have a vague recollection, though, of my older sister heading out once a week to classes that I imagined comprising an on-going discussion of the rain in Spain, or perhaps a series of stately promenades with a dictionary on her head as she intoned “How now, brown cow?”, deportment and elocution being close – and very genteel – cousins in my infant brain.

“What has all this got to do with that elusive heroine Lady Mondegreen?”, you may ask. Well, I’m beginning to think that I really would have benefitted more from elocution lessons than from my attempts to avoid learning to play the piano.

Severn estuary

It was pointed out to me years ago that after a few drinks my accent slips towards a different estuary from the one in the photo, but I’ve never been self-conscious about it. But recently I recorded a new online course and, when it was done, I stopped to watch the captions that had been generated automatically. Suddenly, I’ve discovered that my speech is completely incomprehensible.

I was so horrified at the captions that I rushed to correct them without preserving the errors, and lost some utter gems of misunderstanding. There are a few highlights I noted, though: I’m not surprised that my name caused problems, but I had never realised how often I swallow whole phrases at the start of a sentence. I know that the stress-timing of English can turn the act of listening into a fill-in-the-blanks puzzle, but it’s a puzzle that was beyond the comprehension of the software. So on numerous occasions the captions just started my sentences half-way through and when I went back to listen and check what was missing I admit I found only a few gargled consonants to imply meaning.

The course is about setting up a writers’ group, and, however close to the truth, it was never my intention to claim that over the years “I have attended gropes of all sorts.” Nor did I want to suggest the goal was to find a group “the worse for you” – in fact the course aims to help students set up a writing group that works for them.

I also talk quite a bit about “genre”, which was one of the most misunderstood terms I used. During the course I mention the difference between a genre-specific group and a mixed-genre group, and there must have been a dozen different interpretations of the phrases, none of them accurate.

In an unintentional #metoo allusion, the captions had me asking students to consider what they wanted to achieve from “a right to grope,” but I decided against calling this post mixed Johns and the right to grope as I felt it might attract the wrong readership.

As a child, I was proud to read the lesson at school assembly or at the Christmas carol service; now I regularly read at open mikes, and I’ve never thought twice about how I sound on the radio: essentially, I’ve blithely leapt at the chance to read or speak on radio or stage pretty much any time I’ve been asked.

Now, though, I am wondering whether it’s time to give up speaking in public until I’ve had some remedial elocution lessons.

welsh poppy

On the subject of pronunciation and accents, here’s a brief fragment I jotted down many years ago when travelling to London on a coach from South Wales. (The yellow flowers that illustrate the post are Welsh poppies.)

This must have been back in the 80s or early 90s, when coaches had a tiny kitchen on board and a steward or stewardess who served sandwiches, soup and hot drinks, as I remember sitting very near the front of the vehicle and listening to the marvellous rich accents of the driver and the steward; I have no idea what they said but, even now, I remember the impression their voices made on me.


They speak with the deep brown vowels
of the valleys. The wide sounds
of a land exposed to Heaven
roll between them thick as cloud
and thunder echoes in their throats.


Incidentally, if you would like to sign up for the course How to set up a writers’ group that works, it’s available on Udemy. As a special launch offer you can sign up free until Monday night, using that link or the coupon code WIC_LAUNCH_01. Included in the course is a free PDF of my book Writing in Circles: a writers’ group handbook, so it’s definitely worth taking advantage of the offer now. (If you do, and find it useful, I’d really appreciate a review: thank you!)

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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