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Humour is perfect tonic for advancing through life

PUBLISHED: 18:06 20 September 2019 | UPDATED: 18:06 20 September 2019

“How often did you dress up and act silly before we were born, Dad?”.  A regular question from the Skipper lads .. and here’s an example of what they’re after from the early 1980s when father took to the Norwich Theatre Royal stage as a Norfolk Compo opposite the redoubtable  Nora Batty (Kathy Staff)  in the panto Mother  Goose

"How often did you dress up and act silly before we were born, Dad?". A regular question from the Skipper lads .. and here's an example of what they're after from the early 1980s when father took to the Norwich Theatre Royal stage as a Norfolk Compo opposite the redoubtable Nora Batty (Kathy Staff) in the panto Mother Goose

Archant

Elder son celebrates his 33rd birthday today. That makes one feel quite ancient, not least because I recall him dubbing me "Aged P" well before he broke into double figures.

My fault, of course, for introducing Charles Dickens along with one of my favourite books and black-and-white films, Great Expectations, to a highly impressionable young mind.

I informed him and the brother who followed three years later they were fortunate to have a father highly experienced in ways of a rum ole world with a penchant for finding a grain of humour in the most gloomy of topics.

They rewarded such broad-minded optimism by realising they could get away with a whole barrow-load of naughty antics and weak excuses if they made me laugh before I tried to tell them off. It's mighty hard to chastise while you're chuckling.

Naturally, I followed a similar escape route when tested by too many draconian instructions in a crowded household in those "do-as-you're told-or-else" years just after the war. (Okay, boys, I do mean the Second World War)

My favourite ploys included dressing up as an itinerant travelling minstrel with a dishcloth for a cap, Mum's apron as a smock, Dad's rubber boots to anchor me on the doorstep stage and a mouth organ for impromptu musical interludes when words ran dry.

Something like "Creative Nuisance" morphed into a definite "That boy needs seein' to!" as party pieces descended into even more bizarre examples of homespun method acting prompted by a sudden need to switch attention from my latest misdemeanour.

I transferred a modified version of all this domestic blurring of lines into village classroom and playground. Yes, it occasionally landed me in trouble as a disruptive influence, especially when teachers and fellow pupils merely sought a straight answer. 
But it got me out of a host of potentially nasty scrapes.

A scrawny frame and easy disposition made me a regular target for the bully brigade in early years at grammar school. I befuddled most of them with a potent mixture of dismissive grins and shrugs coupled with a volley of puns and fairly clever one-liners like "What's on your mind - if you'll forgive the overstatement?"

That must have been the first time I appreciated how Norfolk's "dew diffrunt" mantra could inspire in a crisis. I escaped unscathed by going for the funny-bone and a totally unexpected reaction to ugly threats. I wore my "Barmy from Beeston!" rosette with pride.

I was rebranded several times during a Norfolk era renowned for making meagre ends meet and always looking on the bright side despite silly interruptions from rest of the world. Particularly those bits anxious to make Norfolk just like them.

A multi-layered media career, blithely ignored by the likes of Kerry Packer, Rupert Murdoch and Michael Grade, began in fast-changing Thetford in 1962. I remember one of that town's progressive luminaries greeting me as a cub reporter and "natural successor to our great Thomas Paine".

I took that as a stirring endorsement while opening my pristine notebook and sharpening my brand new quill. After due reflection, however, I fear he was just hinting at better opportunities for troublemakers in France and America. Timely advice to those who make a career out of words.

"A pimple on the backside of progress" and "King Canute washed up in Cromer" are two more flattering labels stuck on me over years of some resistance to alterations for their own sake. I continue to wait for a few new examples of Norfolk fairplay and tolerance to come along and keep me company.

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Now I'm a grandfather, as well as "Aged P", it's surely commendable to keep any grey matter left in some sort of working order with a mixture of defiant optimism and pointed humour. The fact so many people can only see a joke by appointment must not reduce faith in the latter.

My favourite teachers, bosses, colleagues and real friends over the years have all found space for a good laugh, even during straightened times.

I'm proud to have won little wagers, including a bag of cream buns, a mint copy of Lolita and two pints of Watney Red Barrel, for forcing grins out of notoriously taciturn characters.

Best sniff of derision I collected came from a crusty old journalist who kept telling me hard work never killed anyone. "Maybe" I replied. "But why take the risk?"

SKIP'S ASIDE:

Paul Berry reaches for top branches when it comes to inspiration for his new book of vibrant verses, What Leaves May Know, weighing up family, place, loss and love with a strong nod towards proud local roots.

He sets the scene with a John Keats quote from a letter written two centuries ago: "If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all".

Paul, who lives near Kings Lynn, began his writing career in the lively small press scene of the 1970s and he still runs Centre Poets, a literature group he started during that era. This latest venture features selected poetry penned since his last collection appeared in 1989.

Before training as a teacher, he worked as a local newspaper reporter. On leaving college he found a role with Eastern Arts Visiting Writers, working with schools and community groups throughout the region.

Paul has also worked for Norfolk social services department as well as an NHS substance misuse service. He is co-author of a number of articles about drug education in schools.

I chatted to him on Radio Norfolk when he compiled the county's volume in The Poet's England series published in 1994.

"Yes, this fresh volume has roots in Norfolk but cuttings planted elsewhere have survived despite my haphazard husbandry, watering and nurturing" says Paul.

What Leaves May Know will help raise funds for the Walpole St Peter-based Robert Foot Leukaemia Fund. Paul's links go back to the 1980s when he visited Clenchwarton Primary School and met and worked with Robert during classroom creative writing sessions.

Robert, who went on to work for the Ministry of Defence and earned himself an OBE, died in 2002 aged 33 and the fund was set up by his parents to support young patients and families attending hospitals which treated Robert. His old mentor Paul is a trustee of the fund.

His new book can be ordered (£9 including postage and packing) by phoning Mike and Wendy Foot on 01945 7604668.

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