Doing the calls around my old newspaper buddies

PUBLISHED: 19:05 12 July 2020 | UPDATED: 19:38 12 July 2020

Chance to thank early mentors for expert guidance along the reporting trail at launch of Skip’s book Confessions of a Norfolk Newshound in 2006. Left to right:  Charles Sharp (Dereham) and Thetford office colleagues John Kitson and Jim Wilson

Chance to thank early mentors for expert guidance along the reporting trail at launch of Skip’s book Confessions of a Norfolk Newshound in 2006. Left to right: Charles Sharp (Dereham) and Thetford office colleagues John Kitson and Jim Wilson


Just like in the good old days, Keith Skipper’s being ‘doing the calls’ around his old colleagues

Norfolk patriots remain steadfast in their belief that the more things change the more they seem to stay the same, even during periods of startling upheaval.

That old adage has hit home with renewed force many times since our Cromer headquarters took on a bunker mentality in March. Suddenly, I hear constant echoes from my very first days as a cub press reporter in the autumn of 1962.

“Do the calls!” served as a sharp reminder to a shy village lad how the news-gathering system operated in one of the country’s fastest-growing towns. I’d never been to Thetford before but immediately realised we were made for each other when it came to drastic change.

My telephone-answering-routine bordered on the flimsy. “Hullo … thass me here … who’s that there?” betrayed a touching innocence from growing-up days when that big red box next to the village shop served as main contact with a world beyond, most notably the doctors’ surgery in next-door Litcham.

As my fresh communications skills blossomed beyond intelligible inquiries to ambulance, fire brigade and police, I was let loose to probe the soul of Thetford society. I rattled doors, sipped tea, scribbled notes and returned to compose paragraphs for the weekly journal.

There were instant perks to go with the role of chief church news gatherer – personal invitations to social events like coffee mornings, sales of work, musical evenings, annual bazaars and even welcoming or farewell services for ministers or other leading personalities.

There were less enticing calls now and again. Like attending funerals for folk you didn’t know after finding excuses for not wanting to see the dear departed’s body lying in state on the front room table.

I did learn, however, how a local reporter, even one still very damp around the ears, could provide a measure of solace in sad and tragic situations simply by offering a sympathetic ear and understanding smile.

My initial contact with a brave new world of overspill on Thetford’s tree-lined fringes could have been inspired by a short sermon I delivered in the press office concerning chopping off a chunk of capital sprawl and trying to attach it to a modest country town.

I was encouraged by senior colleagues Jim Wilson and John Kitson to go and see if this exciting social surgery might be working by asking some newcomers if they availed themselves of the Thetford and Watton Times or Eastern Daily Press on a regular basis.

An Alf Garnett soundalike wearing red braces but no shirt answered my gentle inquiry with a deafening thunder-and-spit reply: “Clear orff, mate. We ‘ave the bleedin; East ‘Am Gazette round ‘ere!” I took that as a possible no and decided missionary work might be more fun in the pub.

Doing the calls, especially as a lone ranger on weekend duty, remained an integral part of my 1960s reporting apprenticeship when I moved on to contrasting stints in Dereham and Yarmouth. “From the corner shop to giant supermarket” as Charles Sharp my main mid-Norfolk mentor, put it.

Checking in regularly either by phone or with personal visits built up valuable lists of contacts in both towns – and I’m proud to reflect on firm friendships resulting in meetings and messages still in vogue after all those years.

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Dereham was the nearest I had to a home town during early days in journalism. I often wonder if posting me as “foreign correspondent” in Thetford for a few months on leaving school might have been a canny exercise in making me truly grateful for being switched to more familiar territory!

Enough of this jovial jogging down memory lane. I have another host of calls to make, missives to send, letters to write and pleasantries to exchange from a strictly social distance on occasional outings to the outskirts of Normal for Norfolk.

Long-term confinement nurses a strong need to renew closer links with family, friends and those who appreciate a surprise blast from the past. A few get in first and shame you into hiding behind an over-enthusiastic yelp of “Oh, I thought you were dead!”

Some could see that as a slight improvement on “Hullo … thass me here .., who’s that there?”. Others of a certain age and disposition will surely interpret it as a time-honoured expression of true endearment.

At least a bevy of old colleagues in our news-gathering trade fully accept it’s just doing the calls.

Skip’s Aside: One of the firmest of Norfolk friendships forged during my fledgling news-hunting career has continued to flourish throughout our lockdown hiatus.

I receive regular reports from Colin Burleigh, pictured, on how he defies the years with tales, tunes and an unfading brand of sit-down humour. He may not be too nifty on his pins – but he can still manage a memorable turn!

We met at Dereham in the mid-1960s as I sniffed out stories around town and he showed perfect timing as performer, organiser and publicity chief on the flourishing trad jazz scene.

Naturally, we compared notes on our respective eras at Hamond’s Grammar School in Swaffham. We missed each other by several terms. Suffice to say he was well ahead of me through those hallowed gates.

We picked up threads of our mid-Norfolk partnership when he joined me on Radio Norfolk’s Dinnertime Show during the 1980s as “correspondent for East Dereham and the environs”.

An impish wit laced with dialect signposted a popular stand-up routine destined to become a cornerstone of Press Gang productions over 25 touring years. I dubbed him the Toff of Toftwood for a snazzy line in waistcoats.

Colin has served Friends Of Norfolk Dialect admirably as chairman, ambassador, regular contributor to the Merry Mawkin newsletter and key figure in panto productions as writer, narrator and filler of occasional lulls in script-following on stage,

Perhaps his love of entertaining in general and music in particular gave off the most satisfying of glows 25 years ago this month in the parish church of St Nicholas in Dereham, Colin brought together East Anglian Stompers trad jazz musicians as part of a special production for the Withburga Festival.

A full house savoured melody and mardling as we were joined by David Woodward as Parson James Woodforde from Weston Longville, and Brian Patrick, on “home” ground as the Rev Benjamin Armstrong, vicar in this town during Victorian times.

Both kept diaries and shared entries as the sun dipped beyond the glorious stained- glass window.

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