Opinion: My dream birthday guest line-up - but if you could, who would you invite to yours?

Harold Davidson, Rector of Stiffkey. edp sun 23.06.07 Harold Davidson, Rector of Stiffkey. edp sun 23.06.07

Sunday, March 9, 2014
11:36 AM

With a milestone birthday just around the corner – and I’m too slow to find an alternative route – it’s time to line up a glittering Norfolk cast to grace the occasion.

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Allan Smethurst - the Singing Postman. Edp file pic.Allan Smethurst - the Singing Postman. Edp file pic.

I like to think there are enough good friends within range to make a healthy clinking noise and dispense bonhomie with that peculiar local mixture of admiration and admonition... “Cor blarst, you do look well – but I wouldn’t buy green bananas or take out any more library books!”

Still, to avoid too many back-handers like that, or accusations of leaving deserving cases out in the cold, I’m confining my dinner party guest list to fully paid-up members of The Great Mardling Club in the Sky bound to impress when invited to provide meaningful entertainment after the formalities.

Here I am most definitely spoilt for choice after countless years of bumping into characters with proud Norfolk roots or links. My selection in this case reflects my own passions to some degree but I’m trying to renew acquaintance with as wide a cross-section as possible.

The emphasis has to be on lively and stimulating conversation and homely offerings carrying a decidedly local flavour. Just the sort of performance to give credence to my long-held belief that a little bit of living in the past does no harm at all. Much cheaper for a start.

writer Mary Mann  submittedwriter Mary Mann submitted

My instant vote for master of ceremonies goes to Dick Bagnall-Oakeley, naturalist, teacher and Norfolk dialect expert able to find the perfect anecdote to suit each companion and use classroom experience in the name of genial lore and order.

Allan Smethurst, The Singing Postman, outsold the Beatles for a spell, at least in East Anglia, in the mid-1960s with what has become the unofficial Norfolk anthem, Hev Yew Gotta Loight, Boy? That makes a perfect starter and allows him to relax instead of seeking too much Dutch courage for a turn further down the bill.

Jem Mace, lucky enough to be born in the same village as me, moved on to become world heavyweight boxing champion. I never punched above paperweight. We can compare notes on Beeston past and present before Jem talks about his colourful career and shows musical prowess on the fiddle he played to raise a few bob as a wandering teenager.

If our gathering needs a stark challenge to nostalgic visions we may still harbour about “good old days” on the land, novelist Mary Mann is the ideal mawther to provide it. She will read a harrowing short story from her Fields of Dulditch collection published in 1902 to underline rural plight rather than drum up rustic charm.

New book about the life and work of Sidney Grapes, alias The Boy John.
Sydney Grapes dressed as The Boy John.
Picture; Sam Robbins
Copy; Richard Batson
Copyright EDPpics 2003 (01603) 772434New book about the life and work of Sidney Grapes, alias The Boy John. Sydney Grapes dressed as The Boy John. 10of11 Picture; Sam Robbins Copy; Richard Batson Copyright EDPpics 2003 (01603) 772434

Of course, the mood will need lightening after that... so step forward Sidney Grapes, alias the Boy John, with one of his evergreen dialect letters to the EDP, full of authentic village voices and humour drawn from the heart of Norfolk as communities pulled together after the second world war.

A whiff of scandal should never go amiss at a proper Norfolk get-together. Harold Davidson, Rector of Stiffkey and Morston for 26 years and still proud to be billed as the “Prostitutes’ Padre”, can divulge adventures related to saving fallen women in London and the sensational trial that followed before his ceremonial defrocking in Norwich Cathedral.

Another guest who fell foul of the odd authority will widen the debate a bit beyond Norfolk as he deals with big political issues and takes it for granted they are everybody’s to consider. Thomas Paine must find time to reflect on argumentative years at Thetford Grammar School before he joined the world’s overspill.

A magic lantern show presented by bird photography pioneer Emma Turner adds variety to our special occasion as she tells us about living aboard her houseboat Water Rail on Hickling Broad for weeks at a time. She took pictures of the first young bitterns known to have hatched in Norfolk after being exterminated as a breeder some 40 years previously.

A few ageless yarns from our master of ceremonies and then we prepare to haul for the shores of new Norfolk years with Winterton fisherman and traditional singer Sam Larner and The Shoals of Herring. Sam was “discovered” when nearly 80, an ideal reminder that it’s never too late to cast empty nets into uncharted waters.

My vote of thanks to the assembled company for such a birthday bonanza has to include the genuine hope such an event can become an annual fixture for at least the next 25 years. Even then, scores of worthy candidates in Norfolk’s hall of fame will continue to line up to take a bow.

Who would you invite to your birthday party if you could? Let us know in the comment section below.