Wednesday 13 November 2019

She talks the talk, so why is it people hate Rachel for doing so?

People tell Rachel Allen they hate her voice, but it's her poshness that really bothers, says Sarah Caden

Rachel Allen and her fired calamari recipe
Rachel Allen and her fired calamari recipe

What exactly is wrong with Rachel Allen's accent? What is it about the way the Ballymaloe TV chef talks that has people coming up to her in the street telling her they hate her for it?

Most answers to those questions will involve an impersonation of the ways in which the Ballymaloe celebrity chef says certain words. These will range from 'bahtter' through 'ivven' to 'nits', the last of which are not the creatures you find in your school-going child's hair, but almonds and suchlike.

Even people well disposed to Rachel will be able to itemise the way she says things like 'foold', 'Lindin' and 'lahvely'. Rachel has a sometimes unique way of pronouncing certain words. And, to some ears, these pronunciations are irksome.

But it's not Rachel's pronunciation that drives people mad, it's what they perceive as her accent. Which is a different matter entirely.

We all have pronunciation quirks, as a people and as individuals. Half the country has a problem pronouncing 'comparable', almost no one pronounces the second month of the year correctly, and the 'th' is a national stumbling block, no matter how posh you are. And how posh you are is at the heart of this.

As a people, we're not keen on posh; but wannabe posh really gets our goat. And people take Rachel Allen as wannabe posh. Any conversation about her accent will include the words 'fake' and 'phoney' and it is because of this that people feel free to send her hate mail singling out the way she speaks.

It's also why, as Rachel said in an interview last week, people feel free to walk up to her in the street and tell her they hate her, specifically because of the way she talks. It's because they think she's faking it, and faking it because she wants to be better than the rest of us.

Jesus, we hate that.

That's why it's an insult to accuse anyone of being from D4 or sounding like they do. To have a Dort accent or even a Southside (Dublin or Cork) accent is only marginally better. But D4 remains the pejorative to beat all.

We dislike anyone sounding posh much like we hate anyone thinking they're great. It's hard to prove that anyone thinks they're great, though, while a posh accent is there for all to hear. And if it's a posh accent that we suspect is far from that which you were reared with, well, we hate that most of all.

Of course, you could say that people with working-class accents are characterised far more cruelly for the way they speak, typecast as crooks and criminals, and categorised as gougers.

But every posh, or worse, upwardly mobile character in an Irish ad, TV programme or film is invariably a painful prig who needs taking down a peg or two. And the 'fake' accusations levelled at Rachel Allen, online, in print and to her face on the street are all about suggesting that she's deliberately poshing up her accent; that she thinks she's better than us. We hate that.

She's not really Rachel Allen, of course. She was born Rachel O'Neill, you know? This is trotted out as if it proves something, and not something good. This is taken to suggest that when she married Isaac Allen, son of Darina and Tim and scion of the Ballymaloe empire, she married up to the accent. And that, you'll find, is the worst of the worst because that's not just going posh, that's going proddy. Quaker, specifically, in the case of the Allens, but who's hair-splitting about Protestants and dissenters when it comes to inverted snobbery?

Rachel and her mother-in-law, O'Connell-born Darina, sure neither of them were born with those accents. They're Ballymaloe accents. They're proof that pair didn't just go to Ballymaloe and take the soup. They married the soup. Hell, they went and made the soup.

When Rachel Allen talked last week about the bashing she takes for her accent, she also discussed how you can't allow the criticism to hurt you or make you hard. It's hard not to be hurt, she said, but it's important to remain open and friendly, and, probably, to smile in response to a face-to-face hate-filled street encounter.

I know Rachel Allen a bit. I've interviewed her a few times over the years and I've met her socially and she's never anything other than friendly and warm and funny. She chats about the ordinary stuff of life - children, holidays, work - and it's not self-centred celebrity stuff, nor is she boastful or pompous or puffed-up. Or, for that matter, affected. If there is one thing Rachel Allen has never seemed to me, it's a fake or a phoney.

There may be many reasons for Rachel Allen's quirks of pronunciation. As she explained to George Hook on the radio last week, her father went to an English school, so he has elements of an English accent. Her mother, then, is Icelandic, which would influence her spoken English, and Rachel went to Alexandra College as a schoolgirl.

And the more Rachel explained, the more uncomfortable it felt.

Why should she explain? Why should she have to? What do people expect her to prove? If she proves that her entitlement to a posh accent is valid, then those who slag her for her voice won't like her any more than they do now.

And if she comes up short in the posh stakes, and reveals herself to be a vocal social climber, then they'll hate her all the more.

Of course, Rachel can console herself with the fact that if they know they hate her voice, then at least they're watching her. And she shouldn't change a thing. Because they'd hate that the most.

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