Welcome to the 100 and 200 clubs in 2020
PUBLISHED: 08:58 12 January 2020 | UPDATED: 08:58 12 January 2020
There’s a quartet of 200th birthdays in 2020 and one much-loved broadcaster would have turned 100. Keith Skipper leads the celebrations
A candlelit supper built around appreciative nods towards local history tinged with international fame can bring charm and cheer as January wind, rain and sleet slap against my seaside window.
I scan mountains of Norfolk personality sketches early each year to draw up a suitable guest list for a cosy celebration of special anniversaries in as homely a climate as possible.
This latest get-together features a remarkably impressive quartet of outstanding characters all born in 1820 along with a suitably ebullient performer to keep them company on his own centenary outing.
I'm sure even the likes of Michael Parkinson and Graham Norton would forego any of today's ever-growing crop of celebrities to greet my chosen best-selling writer, intrepid news artist, gentle giant, world-famous singer and sparky television weatherman.
Anna Sewell, who penned Black Beauty, one of the world's most popular books, arrived first in her horse-drawn carriage. I spared her the obvious question as she graciously acknowledged the role her mother Elizabeth played in a short but massively influential writing career.
Born in Great Yarmouth, her home nestling in the shadow of the parish church, Anna produced her autobiography of a horse in the White House at Old Catton. A note at the back of all early editions recommended further reading "for those who wish to know more of the right treatment of horses on the road and in the stable".
A comparative stroll to north Norfolk for my next visitor born two centuries ago. Thomas Baines, from King's Lynn, became a war journalist, or news artist as he was more correctly termed.
He made sketches as battles raged. These were sent by runner and rider, by sailing ship and stage coach, to end up on pages of the Illustrated London News many weeks after the original conflict.
Wanderlust took him to South Africa where he turned his back on painting landscapes for elegant drawing-rooms and joined expeditions to explore unchartered hinterland. He made many more testing journeys including one to north west Australia in 1855.
There's no mistaking this king-sized figure ready to join our select company. Robert Hales, from West Somerton, a few miles from Great Yarmouth, grew into the biggest man known in the western world in his time.
He reached 7ft 6in tall and in his prime, measured 64in round the chest and waist and weighed 33 stone. His father, a farmer, stood 6ft 6in while his mother weighed 14 stone. Robert worked on a wherry as a growing lad until it wasn't big enough to hold him.
After joining the Navy, the fame of Norfolk's gentle giant spread. He was twice received at court by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and introduced to King Louis Phillipe on a trip to France. Robert went to America in 1848 to join Barnum and Bailey's Circus and a cast of what many saw as no more than a travelling freak show.
Strange to see our final member of the '200th Birthday Club', most famous opera singer of her era, arrive without clamour or crowds. Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, asks for a cup of tea and says she knows Norwich well. She founded the children's hospital bearing her name in the city in 1854.
Norwich had its share of Jenny Lind fever as she gave three concerts there, the first postponed from a Monday to Thursday because she had a cold. Her safe arrival was marked by a welcoming peal of bells at St Peter Mancroft Church.
This virtuous, high-minded and charitable superstar wrote in 1885: "Of all the money which God allowed me to give away when my poor throat could call an audience to listen to its production, none has borne a nobler or more genuine fruit than the Jenny Lind Hospital in Norwich".
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Finally, a guest of more modern vintage with a neat line in patter to bring the other quartet a bit up to date. Michael Hunt, with his trademark RAF moustache and distinctive style, was born in Monmouthshire a century ago and served as Anglia Television's weatherman for 22 years.
He presented more than 6,000 forecasts as head of the first weather department to be set up regionally by an independent television company.
He played an important part in promoting meteorology as a fascinating and developing science.
A memorable occasion packed with Norfolk memories and yarns. I hardly got a word in during five golden hours.
A research team, apparently led by a boffin called Al Truism, have come up with the "ground-breaking" theory that doing a good turn can make you feel better.
Well, pardon me if I don't trumpet that dramatic news from my secret eerie on Cromer clifftops. I got wind of such therapeutic benefits on offer many helping hands ago.
You know, in them good old days when we had proper winters, proper austerity, proper rationing and, in my little corner of post-war rural Norfolk, proper communities.
No, this isn't soppy nostalgia, simply a thankful nod to those who went out of their daily way to render "friends and neighbours" much more than a cosy catchphrase to smother obvious shortcomings of life in the country.
Yes, there were odd ripples of suspicion about certain "nosey-parkers" and "do-gooders". A lingering whiff of feudalism left some benefactors in the ruling classes short of genuine empathy when they provided annual treats for the workforce.
The good side of knowing everyone in your village - plus a fair number in parishes nearby - meant keeping a regular eye on elderly folk, especially those confined to barracks, and large families when flu epidemics and the like took hold.
It was often folk with least time and resource who led the charge when a local crisis flared. I was raised on heartwarming stories of wartime support for families without a breadwinner and daring missions to reach remote farms and cottages cut off by 1947 snowdrifts.
If caring souls to the fore felt a deep sense of wellbeing surging through them as a result of being kind and thoughtful, that's as much as most of them expected or wanted. Now, over 70 years on, scientists are tuning in to the same philosophy of doing well by doing good.
We're advised to shun painkillers because an act of kindness might do the job instead. One study shows a generous spirit makes you less susceptible to pain - and doctors ought to prescribe it.
Whatever next? A survey to prove talking face-to-face is far more beneficial to health and image than babbling on a mobile phone in the street? Or research into ways a smile can add to your face value?
I exaggerate, of course. But one good turn in bad habits deserves plenty of others
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