I grew up surrounded by lever arch files, foolscap folders, blocks of blank and lined paper, typewriter ribbons, bulldog clips, staplers and Tipp-ex. The smell of warm photocopying and manilla envelopes hung in the air. Some of my friends’ mums were solicitors, or lawyers or barristers.
I learnt how to head formal correspondence when I was in primary school. I knew where the addresses, dates and names went on a letter. I knew that “re.” was shorthand for “regarding” and that this was your one-shot at demanding attention. In the post office, I became familiar with second class, first class, tracked and signed – you wanted to guarantee your documents arrived: they might deny it, or ignore you, or say ‘prove it’, otherwise. Some of my friends’ mums were MPs and journalists.
I knew, at that age, that you had codes, reference numbers, accounts, labels that people used to work out who you were. If you could use your number, without letting your voice worry, then they might listen to you. If they made you cry, you might mask your hiccups by naming the ombudsman, local MP or a newspaper. They might listen then. My mum was neither solicitor nor lawyer, barrister nor MP.
My mum was teaching me to speak and understand another language. She survived single parenthood, income benefits, council housing, and environmental health services, (and plenty that I probably know nothing about), by learning other people’s trades. That is, the language of solicitors, politicians, civil servants, landlords, journalists. She did not have to speak the language but if she did not, our world was put on mute; her voice snuffed; her questions hung; her concerns ignored. Our existence diminished.
She learnt a language for the fight. We knew plenty of people who did not know the language so she shared her words. She would write letters, fill in applications, advise on legal aid to neighbours, shopkeepers, people in the library. I learnt a compendium of specialised, grown-up words. From protected tenancy, to legal duty, from contractual obligations, to court hearing.
I also learnt the emotions inspired by this language, in a household where its words were deadly weapons and our understanding of it taken in pure self-defence. I learnt that while you spoke the words you trembled, fearful some facade would be removed. For we were not solicitors, politicians or anything else, we were poor, and ill, and did not own our flat, we were different. Filed under the wrong categories. Like bastard, benefits, breasted. The prevalent feeling inspired by this language was fear: it was only ever needed under threat.
She spoke the words carefully, she over-prepared, because she was always more likely to be denied. We were in the wrong categories. Documents were photocopied multiple times to prepare for feigned ignorance, records were sent special delivery to confirm receipt, dates and times of telephone conversations recorded meticulously, sometimes even recorded on a cassette player. Speaking the language was humiliating not empowering. It took such an effort to learn it and still it was not guaranteed it would protect us.
The feeling of speaking a language is not something we always appreciate. When I slip into the sound of my Haringey childhood, I have the jubilant feeling of belonging. When I hear myself assume the parenthetic sentences and effete phrases of a privately schooled boss, I am ashamed. When I am faced with a legal document outside of work, I shrink. My rights are wrong, I think, I want to hide, I am scared.
This is historically significant. An individuals’ many tongues are contextualised by the verbal and written cultures of social, economic and political forces. How they feel about their languages depends on their experiences using them. When we talk about tone and meaning in a historical document (testimonial or not), can we identify what difference someone’s feelings made to its creation?