The Norfolk art of having a good old gossip

PUBLISHED: 17:02 28 June 2019 | UPDATED: 17:02 28 June 2019

A team of Norfolk sugar beet workers in the 1950s take a break for mardling and munching – spiced with a bit of gossip

A team of Norfolk sugar beet workers in the 1950s take a break for mardling and munching - spiced with a bit of gossip


Keith Skipper recalls the glory days when the Bush Telegraph sent tittle-tattle around his village

I don't like to repeat gossip. But, as rural sage Aunt Agatha still insists on asking, what else can you do with it?

She first posed that delightfully teasing rhetorical question as an amusing footnote to one of those evergreen Boy John Letters sent to this newspaper by Broadland garage proprietor and rustic comedian Sidney Grapes.

His intermittent epistles coated in dialect reflected the gentle but binding rhythms of Norfolk country life in those years of post-war austerity. Rationing, shortages and blunted ambitions drew weary sighs while community spirit took on fresh impetus in the drive for an uplifting brand of self-supporting satisfaction.

As a child of the 1950s, I recall with affection tinged by occasional embarrassment how the Bush Telegraph, an early form of social media, sent tittle-tattle around the village in no time - and well beyond if there was a whist drive, darts match, jumble sale or funeral in the locality that week.

Idle rumours could turn into sensational facts with the addition of extra layers of embellishment from experts whose confidential reporting usually began with the flagrantly disingenuous: "Now, as you know, I'm not one to gossip, but..."

Most inflated stories did colourful rounds more in the name of poking harmless fun than spreading deliberate nastiness. "Important" figures were regular targets when they dared to elevate themselves a cut above the rest.

I heard a local parson renowned for short pockets and long sermons labelled "the biggest bore outside South Africa's diamond mines" and a haughty woman dismissed as "no better than she ought to be".

Personal features and foibles were magnified to create verbal identikits easily recognised in small communities despite lack of a specific name. Today's politically correct police would turn apoplectic over such antics. Then, a lot of gossip really was the art of saying next to nothing in a way that left practically nothing unsaid.

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Platforms abounded, of course, with most parishes served by shop, pub, school, church, chapel, village hall and bus service into town. Farmyards and fields savoured their own little gossiping spreads with teams of workers reaching a crescendo during corn harvest and fruit picking seasons.

I garnered my first meaningful crop of rough-and-ready witticisms soaked in Norfolk dialect and humour among the barley sheaves and strawberry punnets of school holidays. A key ingredient had to be the comparatively subtle art of dishing out insults without giving too much offence.

"He dunt git no farther than Wednesday" and "If his brearns wuz dynamite, that wunt blow his cap orff!" were popular examples of describing someone a bit on the slow side, making the point without being too cruel. "Thrippence short of a shillin'" or "Light's on - but nowun's hoom" were other variations.

I heard several references to someone being called a "half-sixer", a derogatory term usually applied to a rather pretentious sort. I discovered years later it may have come from "half-past six", suggesting this individual would remain in bed for half-an-hour after the working man began his labours.

Resisting loud calls to press the red button or sign up for some dazzling new app the other evening, I dug up a few old notebooks from under my study desk and rediscovered firm favourites from a "Norfolk Gems" collection jotted down during working and social rounds.

I can't recall who was deemed worthy of such a tribute as "She's got a fearce like a paralysed pork cheese" but it may well have been inspired by references to village busybody Oul Mrs W …. In the Boy John Letters. She was at the heart of colourful gossip in many an instalment.

When introduced to readers in 1949, it was gleefully reported how at a village social she collected first prize for the woman pulling the ugliest face - "and she wunt even in the competishun!". Les Dawson, eat your heart out.

Plenty of waspish remarks aimed at the lads as well in my prize selection, including "He run on like a five-bob watch", "He's as much use as a yard of pump water", "He dunt know which way his backside hang" and 
"He's got a Player accent in a Woodbine packet."

Last words as ever from Aunt Agatha who has done so much to lift Norfolk culture into the top bracket - "There's only one thing wass than bein' torked about. Thass not bein' torked about".

Oscar Wilde took a fancy to that one.

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