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Sussex Yokels

I. B. Wuneram

Turn your computer sound ON and hear snatches of real Sussex accent!

THE furious pace of change in the 20th century effectively exterminated a once common sub-species of homo sapiens that existed in the more remote parts of Sussex. I refer to homo sapiens rustica sussexii otherwise known as the Sussex Yokel. These denizens of the Sussex hinterland were already a dying breed by the time of Darwin, but the effects of the railways, roads, motor vehicles, TV and radio together with the influx of Londoners have changed rural Sussex for ever. In the fight for survival they have perished.

Remote clusters of these Sussex yokels were known to nineteenth century anthopologists but their existence was largely ignored, probably because there was some shame attached to acknowledging that they could be our ancestors, albeit an inferior breed. It is thought that the pure strain finally died out somewhen in the late 1940's. There are virtually no traces of them today, though there have been unattested sightings in Buxted, Barcombe, Burwash, Netherfield and Dallington from time to time.

The genotype is thought to be derived from a distant relation of Neandertal man that interbred with early settlers, probably the beaker people, about 2000 BC. They found a niche in the more remote parts of Sussex, a deeply forested area until the Norman conquest, where their descendants merged into the local population to form what are now called the Sussex Yokels. They were, by virtue of their isolation, a sturdy, self-reliant, one might even say bloody-minded bunch that did not suffer fools, foremen and faint-hearts gladly.

The Arms of the Sussex Yokel The heraldic arms of the Sussex Yokel are engrossed by the Herald Pursuivant Fitz-Norris Extraordinary as

Azure, bend or reticulatus, porcus gules couchant, fermier brun furieux, baton eleve, chief bleu-celeste, martlets or tierce, mot or "I wun't be druv!".

It symbolises the well-known reluctance of the Sussex yokel to be coerced into anything that he did not want to do. If there was one thing that they couldn't take, it was being ordered about. This independent streak did not endear them to their Norman masters, landed lords, and local gentry. It is no coincidence that Jack Cade, the leader of the Kentish peasant revolt in the 15th century was caught and killed in the wilder parts of Sussex near Heathfield. The Sussex peasant had no great love for Henry VI, but they could see that Cade was a "furinner" and potential problem. They soon sorted him out. Independent and stubborn they were: stupid they were not. The Sussex yokel had, over the centuries, evolved a low cunning that was a match for anyone in authority.

My Great Grandfather When I was a very young boy I knew several of them but did not realise at the time that they were a separate sub-species. They were mostly elderly farm workers, labourers, grooms, domestic servants and the like living out their twilight years in quiet backwaters of the Weald. They could easily be spotted by their dress and their strange way of talking. They had a very limited knowledge of the world beyond the nearest village. This lack of contact was the principal reason that they retained their own speech forms and dialect words most of which have now disappeared. A distant great aunt of mine, born in the late 1860s had lived in her village all her life except for one visit to Eastbourne as a young woman. This involved a walk of about seven miles to the railway and a journey of almost an hour. She found the experience so terrifying that she never went "abroad", as she referred to it, again.

She spoke one of the very oldest of the Sussex dialects similar to that studied by the Rev. W D Parish, vicar of Sedlescombe, and published in his "Dictionary of the Sussex Dialect" and Charles Fleet, author of "Glimpses of our Ancestors in Sussex". It was works of this type that led to the publication of several humourous poems and short stories using these words in the form of Sussex doggerel in late Victorian times. Unfortunately these cannot capture the true phonetic quality of the dialects when read because the end result depends to a large extent on the actual natural pronunciation of the speaker. It is a great shame that these Sussex dialects, in their true form, died out before the advent of high quality electronic recording.

One of these narrative poems I have in my possession - an early copy of " 'Tom Cladpole's Jurney to Lunnun' as told by himself and written in Pure Sussex Doggerel by his Uncle Tim".

The tale goes on for 152 verses setting out Tom's adventures walking to London and his misadventures among the supposedly sophisticated Londoners, who were no match for this crafty Sussex rustic. It uses many dialect words. However it is clearly written by an educated man, probably a clergyman, with no real ear for the natural speech of the locals; it uses too many constructions that they would not use. One day, when I have the time, I will submit the whole poem to the OL Webmaster for his consideration, if anyone is interested.

It was not until I arrived at LCGS that it began to dawn on me that I had inherited much of the Sussex yokel's dialect and speech forms. Nor was I the only one. Having arrived at LCGS from a small village school on a scholarship, I found I was one of several from a similar background in form 2A. Those that had come from the towns - Lewes, Newhaven, Seaford, - spoke a patois already contaminated with received pronunciation. Even more noticable were the fee-paying boys in form 2B who were mostly the sons of local business men, shop keepers, civil servants and the like. Some of these boys had been to small prep schools, of a type rarely found today, and they arrived at LCGS with affected accents picked up from public school prep-school masters.

The person who ruthlessly exposed this deficiency in our speech, for it was considered to be a distinct handicap, was the late Mr Auld, the French master, a man whose only known pleasures in life were smoking Woodbines and making life a misery for small boys. He was forever making sarcastic comments about the local yokels and their dreadful accents and speech forms. "Je suis tombe", he would say, "or as those of you from Piddenhoo say, ' Oi cum croppa' ".

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He was right, of course, our speech was very rough and ready when we arrive at LCGS, but it soon changed. We soon picked up the speech forms that were the norm for middle-class Lewes. The problem then stood on its head. Our village friends looked askance when we spoke and they began making comments about "snobby grammar school boys"! So we had to become bilingual. That was the first time that we learnt how to modulate our speech to suit the listener - a technique commonly used, often subconsciously, to oil the wheels of daily life. One tends to "have a chat with the vicar" in a different voice and tone than " 'avin a word with that bloke down the pub". What an awkward linguistic dilemma when the bloke down the pub is the vicar!

After the war I moved to the West Country and have stayed there ever since. Living well away from the influence of London in a quiet backwater, I have been able to retain elements of my Sussex accent. But on my now infrequent visits to Sussex I get funny looks from most of the locals who appear to be speaking with an unpleasant nasal twang that sounds, to my ears, like one continuous whinge. "Estuary English" I believe it is called. Ghastly. Would that I could hear the old soft tones of the true Sussex yokel as it was sixty years ago. I'll drink to that!

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