I think I’m getting to know Cambridge a bit better. I’ve started seeing the bits of the city that attracts the tourists; I have had some nice walks along the river and have eaten a sandwich or two on a bench in the parks. I know where I can get chips or a kebab, the nearest post office, and which newsagents are thieving bastards. I have also noted the housing estates to avoid. As yet, I haven’t found a good’n’cheap greasy spoon with a flirty chick behind the counter, but I’m looking.
I’m beginning to understand why people like Cambridge. It is a charming place; filled with contrasting buildings, varied languages, plenty of history and lots of things to see. It is a city, but it feels very cultured and cerebral: there’s graffiti, but it is written in Latin.
So I can understand newcomers truly throwing themselves into the place, and trying to get in the Cambridge “vibe”. However, there is a difference between merely enjoying a new city, and pretending like you’ve been here for years and are so “local” you could compete in the rowing finals.
I’m a people watcher. I pay attention to their mannerisms, to their body language, and to their accent. And I can usually tell when such a trait is genuine, or whether they’re putting it on.
I went to see a possible room to rent last week, in quite a nice part of Cambridge. I met the landlady, whose Cambridge accent was very strong … but was also quite obviously genuine. She had an air of one who was very posh, but couldn’t care less what you thought of her.
She showed me to the room, just as the current occupant was vacating it and loading her bags into her car. The landlady introduces us: “This is Naaaaaahdia. She has her new job and flat now, so she’s moving out.”.
Clearly her name was the rather shorter “Nadia”, but this is Cambridge after all.
We make some polite chitchat; I ask about her new job. She simpers: “Oh, I’m a Legal Consultant for a major multinational company with offices Right Here in Cambridge.”, putting undue emphasis on certain words and forcing capital letters where there shouldn’t be any. She exudes more than a little smugness about this news, though I’m not sure why. Personally, my feelings for the legal profession are roughly equivalent to my feelings about big, squishy dogturds.
Her accent doesn’t sound quite right. She’s putting it on. No-one holds their mouth that tightly when they speak, unless they’ve been sucking lemons or recently undergone major facial surgery. I find myself laying on my Derbyshire accent a bit thicker to compensate, as I ask her where she’s from originally.
She falters slightly. I see a chink in her facade, just for a moment. “Newcastle” she admits, before changing the subject.
Newcastle! She’s regional enough that she could watch Auf Wiedersehen, Pet without subtitles and translate it for the rest of us. But she’s been in Cambridge for six months and already she’s trying to pass herself off as a University Challenge teammember.
What’s odd is that I have been in Cambridge for three weeks now, and this has not been an isolated incident. This “Cambridge Accent” thing seems to be a highly contagious disease! I wonder who Patient Zero is? I suspect Stephen Fry.
It seems a curiously common phenomenon: student arrives in Cambridge with whatever (perfectly reasonable) regional accent they grew up with … but within a few short months they’re speaking like they can’t move their jaws more than a few millimetres, and claiming they’re best friends with Jeremy Paxman.
You’ll be pleased to know that in my own uniquely billigerent manner, I am pushing the Derbyshire Yokel accent as far as I possibly can whilst in Cambridge; wearing wellies and chewing a bit of straw. If I could find some, I’d drive a herd of cows through John Lewis.