Keith Skipper: Social distancing with Santa

A picture of Cromer Pier

Creamy waves at Cromer unfurl in honour of Santa’s annual visit for a chat on the pier. - Credit: Trevor Allen

My annual audience with Santa Claus over a bag of steaming chips had to be carefully trimmed with sociable distancing, festive beard coverings and the right tier for Cromer Pier.

I found the old boy strangely reflective rather than typically rumbustious. I put that down to a virus pandemic with several rounds to go, an economic catastrophe scarcely shrouded by current snatches of goodwill and a climate change crisis bound to get worse.

Or perhaps he was fed up with sharing those famous initials with the likes of Stockport County, Stormont Castle, Stewkey Cockles, Stowmarket Co-op, Sebastian Coe and Simon Cowell.

“Singularly Calamitous!” he shouted as if by way of explanation for such an unseasonable demeanour.  I knew it had to be merely the prelude to a sackful of misgivings. I hadn’t seen him like this since Rudolph and pulling partners threatened to strike over bonus payments in 1996.

My usual ploy of sprinkling his chips with salt, pepper and vinegar before passing on condiments of the season would have been the epitome of poor taste. So I trusted well-honed Norfolk instincts and asked why he looked as though he’d got up before he went anywhere.

“I expected much better of Norfolk!” sighed a clearly out-of-sorts Santa, unravelling a lengthy list from his pocket and daring  me to guess where it ended. He jabbed a finger at heavily underlined items, released a frown worthy of any hen-pecked husband trapped in a shopping crowd and repeated his opening line.

I felt bound to inquire in what way this fine old county had let him down. “It’s all these demands from people who simply don’t realise when they’re well off. That cannot be normal for Norfolk”.

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I sprouted little  horns and turned devil’s advocate “But we must move into the fast lane to claim our share of any spoils  going when the going gets tough”. A disdainful look escaped through a tangle of beard and whiskers. A withering put-down followed.

“That’s  not very convincing for someone with a track record  for wanting to single and then cobble the A11 highway”.  Santa had called my bluff and we both grimaced at the prospect of denouncing a wish-list seemingly built more on greed than gratitude.

He went first. “Take this lovely part of the world …”. Right on cue, an  icy blast jumped up from a lively sea, rattled his chip papers and ruffled his outfit. “One of those lazy old winds, boy, that comes straight from Scroby.  Where was I? Oh, yes. I get requests from tourism bosses to always make it busier next summer.

It’ll finish up with rationing if they’re not careful”.I pretended NDR still stood for Nature Demands Respect and Norfolk Defends Railways. He’d just floated over the priceless Bittern Line. I soon discovered Santa kept up to date and insisted all carbon footprints should be counted.

“You can’t bypass the Northern Distributor Road, boy. And just look at all l these urgent pleas from builders, estate agents, councillors, business leaders and various other movers and shakers for me to leave piles of what they call economic drivers under their beds.”

I wanted to nudge him towards the brighter side with a couple of recent thrilling surveys placing Nelson’s County on the poop-deck of the good ship HMS Quality of Life. “Bah, humbug!” came the predictable response with only a modicum of play-acting from someone able to spot unyielding traffic, ugly urban sprawl and unaffordable housing from a great height at any time of year.

Santa completed his evening meal as waves and winds turned bigger and stronger.  He patted that ample girth with exaggerated gentleness and set out in search of a waste-paper bin. He returned with a hearty chuckle.

“Found a good home for most things on that list, boy. Well, these are exceptionally difficult times. Folk have to understand how demands can outstrip resources. How did Great-Grandfather Claus put it? ‘What we want and what we need are two different things’ And then Great-Grandmother Claus reminded him how the cost of living is always about the same- all you’ve got”.

This was more like the Old Santa. I chipped in with ”It’s far better for us to like what we have than to have what we like”. I just caught his parting shot … “Pity we can’t live in the past boy. That’d be so much cheaper”.

Skip's Aside

Norfolk stands out proudly in this country’s history of traditional music and singing.

Sam Larner and Harry Cox are still taking regular bows as they feature together in a new book worthy of prolonged choruses of praise.

Their backgrounds, lives and legacies are microscopically explored by Bruce Lindsay in Two Bold Singermen and The English Folk Revival. I am proud to warrant a mention for an observation about one of them jotted down a half-century ago!

I was a young reporter on the Yarmouth Mercury when a senior colleague on the news trail in Winterton took me to meet village celebrity Sam, the cheerful old fisherman who had been “discovered” at nearly 80 years old. I dug out a tattered notebook to find those first impressions:

“He had a rare twinkle but I can understand why some found him a bit overpowering. He tended to assume you knew a fair bit about him. I felt as a late developer on the scene he was out to make the most of his fame. That must have jarred with some”.

Well, the book points to a tendency to exaggerate, especially about sales of his records, but there’s no questioning the merits of an enduringly rich repertoire drawn from a job too hard and too dangerous to love.

Farm labourer Harry Cox hailed from Barton Turf and like contemporary Sam fought in the Great War, worked through the Second World War and lived into old age and the Swinging Sixties. They never met despite living only a few miles apart.

Recordings continue to take these vibrant Norfolk voices to folk-singing enthusiasts all over the world. It is good to find Bruce Lindsay’s new volume emphasising how the songs Sam and Harry put over in their contrasting styles are still around, alongside many aspects of an English tradition that refuses to disappear.

“They sang the stories of adventurers, smugglers, pirates, poachers, maids, mothers ,jolly ploughboys and bold fishermen” … A Norfolk line-up to cherish.

Two Bold Singermen and the English Folk Revival by Bruce Lindsay is published in hardback by Equinox at £25 and on sale in local bookshops and online.

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