There is that moment in Donnie Darko when the English teacher at Donnie’s school, played by Drew Barrymore, notes how “cellar door” is — according to some unnamed linguist — the most beautiful phrase in the English language.
The phrase has had many admirers — Poe and Tolkein apparently amongst them — but I just don’t get it. It seems like a terrible example. As far as I can tell, the only reason the phrase is considered beautiful is that it is aesthetically French. It is beautiful in that it doesn’t sound English. That seems like more of an joke on the English language than a celebration of it…
I spent the weekend up in Sunderland attending my cousin’s wedding. Exploring the city’s beaches between the ceremony and the party, I was thinking about this awful scene in Donnie Darko and instead began to wonder about the phrases that don’t best exemplify a language as such but rather an accent.
“Cellar door” seems to resonate with the continental aspirations of a bourgeois class defined by its “Received Pronunciation“. It will sound different and perhaps far less poetic depending on whereabouts in the UK you hear it spoken. So what phrase, said in a particular accent, demonstrates the inherent beauty of that accent in itself?
In Sunderland, it is surely “Roker Park”. As many syllables as “Cellar Door” with its vowels in all the right places, it is a combination of vowels and consonants that roll off the Mackem tongue perfectly.
Rooted in the history of the city and its beloved football team, it is a phrase that most will associate with the city’s old football stadium since knocked down. Now it’s just the name of a normal park in Roker but a beautiful one nonetheless, with a tunnel carved into the cliffside leading down from the lush inner city park to the beach.
Although it is the name of a real place, it has become, through my own repetitions, a beautiful abstraction enclosed in its own context.
Between my cousin’s wedding ceremony and the evening party, we explored the coast, driving from our base — the Harbour View pub in Roker — up to Marsden Rock.
Both my parents are from Sunderland and it is a city I love. Although I’m rarely there, it has always felt like a second home. The accent, in particular, is an instant aural comfort. I love its history, lived vicariously through the generations on my Dad’s side of the family, heavily documented by my Nana Betty — my Dad’s Mum.
A few years ago, working on a photography project for university called “The Family Album” (which ultimately amounted to nothing), my Auntie Liz gave me some digital scans of my Nana’s old pictures.
Exploring Marsden Rock for the first time on Saturday, I couldn’t help thinking about the photographs of my Dad on my hard drive. He in his Jacques Cousteau red hat, with his Dad and my Uncle George, seafishing by that imposing monolith, the tower-block home of seagulls and cormorants.
Each arrival back in London after time away makes me wonder what I’m really here for. I want to live by the rock.