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I miss chewing the cud with Shrimp and other Cromer locals during coronavirus lockdown

PUBLISHED: 08:43 12 April 2020 | UPDATED: 08:43 12 April 2020

A glint in the eye and sting in the tale as he holds court  … Shrimp Davies was one of Cromer’s longest-serving lifeboat coxswains

A glint in the eye and sting in the tale as he holds court … Shrimp Davies was one of Cromer’s longest-serving lifeboat coxswains

Archant

It’s the little things that Keith Skipper is missing during these times of isolation and lockdown, like nattering to the the Cromer locals

One of the joys I miss most while keeping my enforced social distance from regular outdoor habits and haunts is exchanging banter with lively people in village, town and city.

At this time of year, from the tiny hamlet of Sap Rise to the ever-sprawling suburbs of Muckwash Superior, it would be customary to savour futility rites of Spring borne on a growing tide of anticipation for “all them furriners” heading our way for holiday delights.

Well, it looks like we’re in for a vastly different sort of summer, one largely devoid of tourism charabancs and dark mutterings from grumpy old Norfolk fundamentalists like me. It could be a case of arguing a bit more among ourselves and wondering how Southwold is coping.

Perhaps Nelson’s County is better suited than most for a prolonged period of self – retrospection. Geographical isolation has shaped a precious character and done much to protect it from an encroaching uniformity blighting other areas.

Those who genuinely care about Norfolk’s future can use part of our current incarceration and its inevitable follow-up terms of deep reflection and gradual recovery to think and look closely about where and how we live in what is still a much-admired corner.

A vibrant spirit of togetherness fashioned out of facing an unprecedented crisis must be carried over into a return of “normal” times with all its opportunities to show those caring qualities as perfectly natural ingredients of local life. Talking and listening to neighbours can lead the way.

We moved the Skipper family seat to Cromer in April 1988 and I spent a fair amount of that month mooching and mardling in town and along the seafront. A couple of veteran fishermen, aware of my glowing media credentials, lost no time in hinting I should keep my nose out of things that didn’t concern me.

I received a more enthusiastic welcome from Richard Davies, about halfway through his 23-year stint as Cromer lifeboat coxswain, although a nerve-numbing slap on the back was coupled with his own clear warning to stay clear of choppy local waters.

We had met several times before on my radio studio foreshore where he revelled in sailing as close as possible to puckish winds. A blissfully blunt response to all kind of questions marked him as an innovative and exciting if rather dangerous guest for a live interview.

Perhaps the closest I came to full-blooded Cromer cordiality with a distinctive salty edge came from Henry Thomas Davies, affectionately known as Shrimp, the nickname bestowed by legendary uncle Henry Blogg on welcoming him as a tiny baby.

Shrimp, a crab fisherman, was one of the town’s longest-serving lifeboat coxswains, taking over from Henry Blogg in 1947 and remaining at the helm until 1976. On the night before his retirement, Eamon Andrews surprised Shrimp with his Big Red Book and famous invitation to be the latest subject for television’s This is Your Life.

In his 45 years of lifeboat service, Shrimp took part in over 500 rescue missions. He continued to run the family deckchair business on Cromer beach, a familiar and chatty figure sought out by locals and visitors alike.

I was granted regular Sunday morning audiences on the promenade as he mixed stirring memories and character sketches with pithy comments on a wide range of topics, including merits or otherwise of councillors and their officials.

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A twinkling sense of humour to go with that no-nonsense Norfolk style merged perfectly as Shrimp greeted me to his home patch with: “Welcome to the coast, boy, and don’t go out there when the water’s lumpy!”

An expert at taking rough with the smooth on land and sea, Shrimp shared many a fruity yarn. My favourite from 14 years of meetings and musings before his death at 88 in the summer of 2002 gives full rein to his talent for the verbal comeback.

“This chap came up to me on Jetty Street th’uther day an ‘started slaggin’ orff our town” he announced one sun-blessed morning. “ He muttered: ‘Bloomin’ Cromer .. thass the backside of Norfolk!’

I played the feeder game as usual and asked Shrimp what he had made of such a slander on The Gem of the North Norfolk Coast. The old man of the waves tipped back his cap and said proudly: “I looked him straight in the eye an’ said, ‘Oh, yis … an’ are you jist passin’ through?’”

SKIP’S ASIDE:

I call them the comeback kings, a select band of Norfolk characters able to land a knockout blow against the sharpest of critics and inquisitors.

Newcomers, strangers, trippers and even well-heeled locals who consider themselves much smarter than country yokel types should beware a certain brand of native wit and wisdom.

A slow and deliberate dismissive response to barbed comments, mostly delivered in a self-assured style bordering on the downright smarmy, has to be one of the most satisfying means of cutting loud detractors down to size.

I recall a rather haughty woman with posh pretentions leaning over her down-to-earth neighbour’s fence and exclaiming: “ I note your potatoes are very much on the small side this year, George”. The old boy replied: “Ah, missus, but I grown ‘em to fit my mouth, not yours”

This same woman asked another village venerable rather sarcastically if he might possibly be in favour of any form of progress. “O, yis, my ole bewty,” he answered, “Jist as long as nobody change noffin’”

I got caught out myself during a Radio Norfolk Dinnertime Show feature involving a group of guests talking about their local roots and memories. I turned to the oldest mardler on parade and wondered if he’d lived in that same village all his life.

It seemed a perfectly reasonable question. His answer put me firmly in my place: “No, not yit, I hent! “ He beamed with satisfaction throughout rest of the live broadcast. I never made that mistake again.

One of the best put-downs in my collection concerns a jolly chap from the BBC TV documentary department making inquiries about Lord Nelson’s connections with a certain Norfolk community.

He spotted old Billy sipping his half of mild in the corner of the local pub. Silence reigned as the visitor approached and inquired with exaggerated bonhomie: “My good man, now what can you tell me about Horatio Nelson? You do remember him, pop, don’t you?”

Old Billy took a gentle swig, smacked his lips and looked up. “Yis, I remember Horry Nelson okay … but I still liked his father best”.


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