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Keith Skipper: 1962 classroom talk that changed my life

PUBLISHED: 08:02 19 November 2017

Eric Fowler: Much-loved EDP columnist under the pen-name 'Jonathan Mardle'.

Eric Fowler: Much-loved EDP columnist under the pen-name 'Jonathan Mardle'.

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Keith Skipper talks about the EDP great who inspired him to become a journalist.

A crusty old son of the Norfolk soil, cheerfully tolerated despite a cynical nature hewn out of too many days and nights on his own, used to remind me: “When one door shut, bor, there’s allus another riddy ter bang in yer fearce!”

Perhaps this was his main consolation prize from a hard life, an unflinching belief in a right to warn the rest of an ill-prepared world against overblown expectations. He would have made a useful banker or politician in our current troubled climate.

I replay his advice each time a significant mile on my Norfolk road draws to an end – but not just to alert those who would write me off as a freakish affront to his blunt rustic logic. After racking up 55 years of writing and talking about my home patch for a living and for pleasure, I know the difference between gratitude and smugness.

First big lucky break, alongside being bred, born, raised and educated in God’s Own County, came with a classroom treat in the summer of 1962. Eric Fowler, already one of the most celebrated figures in provincial journalism with articles for the Eastern Daily Press under his homespun pen-name of Jonathan Mardle, hit the road to Swaffham to enlighten grammar school sixth formers about joys of working on newspapers.

I fell for it, scoop, deadline and notebook, applied in proper joined-up writing, went to Norwich on my own for an interview and confounded home village critics by starting work in one of the country’s fastest-growing towns. Beeston’s contribution to Thetford expansion surely symbolised the dawning of a new Norfolk era.

Seventeen Pullet Surprise-winning years later (see, I picked up the odd literary trick) a full-time press career reached a final edition at my own behest. I had no firm plans beyond playing and watching more cricket, rediscovering pleasures of strawberry picking and reading some of the books piled up by my bed.

I kept journalistic instincts fresh by helping produce the Encore entertainment magazine for Dick Condon at Norwich Theatre Royal – his adventurous spirit was irresistible – and returning to one of my old reporting haunts for a stint with the Great Yarmouth Press Agency.

Then came a surprise telephone call from a former newspaper colleague with a finger on the “modern media” pulse. The BBC were setting up a local wireless station for Norfolk and the Waveney Valley and badly needed an indigenous remnant with an A-level in squit and an inbred capacity to cover the likes of Happisburgh, Hautbois, Ingoldisthorpe, Postwick and Wymondham.

I fell for it, mardle, music and microphone, applied with enough bravado to camouflage technological dyslexia and keep myself on air for 15 parochial-wave years. When my accumulator ran dry I had to hastily re-tune for a Norfolk VHF (Very Handy Friends) programme. Talented folk encountered on newspaper, radio and village hall rounds readily agreed to help me take local culture to new levels.

My Press Gang entertainers marched on shamelessly to complete 25 seasons without suffering one successful prosecution for political incorrectness. All Preachers Great and Small followed by Mardling and Music Evenings, reverent offshoots designed to fill pews and fundraising coffers with chuckles and applause in local churches, used “make ye a joyful noise” as the perfect text.

I have leaned heavily on long-established contacts betraying fresh enthusiasms to ignite many other creative ventures in print, on stage and on the recording scene. In short, you find out who your friends when you need them most.

The trendy description for my third career is “freelance all-rounder with penchant for local dialect and humour”. One loyal old chum, always ready and able to put matters on a less formal footing, says it’s more a case of “squit for purpose in these rum ole times”.

Familiarity, of course, can breed good-natured attempts to take a few liberties with little bits of history best left mouldering in the memory locker. I’m asked quite often for real reasons behind my expulsion from the Norwich City Football Club team bus on the way to Blackpool in the 1970s and to explain how I failed so spectacularly a series of driving tests in the 1980s.

Official memoirs in the 2020s should reveal all. Meanwhile, I keep looking for new doors to open. Even when an urgent message arrives addressed to “The Old Scribbler By The Sea”. That’s Norfolk fame of a very special kind.

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