Keith Skipper is proper Norfolk.

Not prim-and-proper posh landed gentry Norfolk, but proper Norfolk through and through.

Bred and born (“That’s the right way round, you’re bred first and then born,” he says) in the heart of the county, one of five boys and five girls, Keith’s father was an agricultural labourer, a cow-man and a plough-man.

His mother was mainly occupied bringing up 10 children and when young Keith got a bit uppity he was sent next door, where he first encountered the Eastern Daily Press.

“She took the EDP every day and would put it out on her old stone floor so I could look at the pictures of horses,” said Keith.

Eastern Daily Press: Keith SkipperKeith Skipper (Image: Brittany Woodman)

Eastern Daily Press: Keith SkipperKeith Skipper (Image: Archant)

Soon little Keith learned to read and enjoyed the words too, and around the same time as he progressed from the village primary school in Beeston (near Dereham) to the grammar school in Swaffham, he joined his mum as local correspondent for the weekly Dereham and Fakenham Times.

Even then his career was not set in stone. Two distinguished speakers arrived to talk to the school’s sixth formers about careers – one was the Antarctic explorer (and Bishop of Norwich) Launcelot Fleming, the other was the editor of the EDP. And so the boy who had never left Norfolk, let alone considered trekking polar ice floes, decided on a career in journalism.

It was 1962 and he loved talking to people, writing, cricket, football, amateur dramatics and Norfolk. It has stood him in good stead for 60 years and counting.

He still remembers the names of the people he interviewed for his first stories, and the landladies in Thetford, Dereham and Great Yarmouth.

“I even went abroad, to Brandon in Suffolk,” said Keith.

Keith quickly got to know the people of his first patch, Thetford, perhaps a little too well, he thought, when a woman asked whether he’d like to pop in and see her husband, laid out for the undertakers.

He moved on to Yarmouth, and when summer arrived, his lodgings were needed for holidaymakers so he slept in the press photographer’s garden shed.

Eastern Daily Press: Keith Skipper in 1965 with the teddy bear he won while reporting on a Great Yarmouth feteKeith Skipper in 1965 with the teddy bear he won while reporting on a Great Yarmouth fete (Image: Submitted by Keith Skipper)

Eventually he arrived in the big city and, swapping news reporting for sport, finally began venturing out of Norfolk to cover Norwich City’s away games.

He travelled on the team coach, and the journalistic moment he is proudest of is being thrown off it by 1969-1973 manager Ron Saunders.

“He felt that reporters should be more like supporters, but people rely on reporters to give a fair account of what happened. Covering football is extremely difficult, to be impartial and fair; you got aggro from the manager, from the supporters, from the players...”

After one argument with Ron, (“I used to give him a lot of Norfolk dialect he couldn’t understand!”) Keith was asked to leave the team bus en-route to Blackpool.

“I hadn’t got a car but I managed to get to Blackpool before the coach and stood in the foyer and asked him whether he had a good journey. I really thought he was going to clock me! I think after that he quite admired me!” said Keith.

Eastern Daily Press: Keith Skipper in 1974Keith Skipper in 1974 (Image: Archant © 1974)

After 16 years with Eastern Counties Newspapers Keith decided to take a year off. “I picked strawberries and played cricket,” he said.

Perhaps he had become a little restless. At one point the boy who throughout his childhood had never left Norfolk or used a telephone, was offered a job in Derby. He even went for an interview in London with Radio 2, but realised mid-way through that he could not take the job. “How would I get back in time for rehearsals with the Rackheath Players?” he asked.

If Keith was not going to leave Norfolk to work in radio, then radio had to come to Norfolk. Radio Norfolk launched in 1980 with Keith on the staff. “I’m technologically dyslexic and haven’t a clue about microphones and sliders and faders but they needed someone who wouldn’t talk about Happy’s Burg or Why Moan Dom!” he said.

“They got their revenge by sending me to London for training where they said, ‘Don’t worry Keith, it’s just like driving your car.’”

Only Keith didn’t drive. He had taken, and failed, some tests – unlike the shorthand test he was supposed to have passed to become a journalist.

“My shorthand is outstanding!” he says, truthfully, explaining that when he was a trainee the big boss had checked everyone’s shorthand credentials and written “outstanding” against Keith’s name – not because of his brilliance but because there were no results to record.

Keith never took that shorthand exam but did go on to an outstanding career. The shining threads which run through all those articles, broadcasts, talks and stage shows of the past 60 years are his sense of humour and his deep love of Norfolk.

He loves Norfolk’s understated landscape, its history and people, and most of all its villages – and mourns both the sense of community and the countryside lost by the building of so many new roads and houses.

Keith and his wife Diane, a retired pharmacist, met at a disco in Dereham and despite it being a Friday 13th they went on to a happy marriage, two sons, Danny and Robin, and two grandsons.

Now 78, Keith has great hopes for five-year-old, Alfie. “He called me a ‘rum ole boy’ the other day,” he laughed. “He’s learning two languages, Norfolk and English.”

Keith is passionate about the preservation, and use, of Norfolk dialect, and founded The Friends of Norfolk Dialect in 1999. It aims to record the county’s traditional words, sayings, stories and songs. Members produce an annual pantomime in broad Norfolk and work with film and television producers to try and prevent upsetting manglings of the Norfolk accent.

Keith’s absolute favourite Norfolk word is ‘squit’ “It’s always been my favourite because it’s what life is about. It’s descriptive and adaptable and moves with the times - because I have been writing it all these years!” he said. “It’s a valuable commodity. You can talk squit, write squit, share squit.”

He believes the Norfolk dialect will survive. “It will adapt. People have read it the last rites so many times. I think there’s enough people who can do it properly and can put it into practice.”

He’s been doing his bit all his life, although (whisper it) his wife is originally from Leicester and one of his sons now lives in Cheltenham. “We took them about, even into Suffolk, so they didn’t grow up quite so parochial as me!” he laughs.

Keith and Diane have lived in Cromer since the children were small and their terraced house, a few streets back from the sea, is full of mementoes of family life. Pictures, photographs, ornaments, newspaper stories and lots and lots of books fill their home. There are EDP cartoons featuring Keith, graduation photos of both boys, favourite landscapes, pieces made by children and grandchildren over the years and Keith’s certificate from when he was made an MBE for services to Norfolk after 16 years as a Deputy Lieutenant.

Eastern Daily Press: Keith Skipper outside Buckingham Palace after being made an MBE by the QueenKeith Skipper outside Buckingham Palace after being made an MBE by the Queen (Image: PA)

Eastern Daily Press: Keith SkipperKeith Skipper (Image: Brittany Woodman/ Archant)

Eastern Daily Press: Keith Skipper with one of his books in 2006Keith Skipper with one of his books in 2006 (Image: Archant © 2006)

Eastern Daily Press: A picture of Keith and Diane on their wedding dayA picture of Keith and Diane on their wedding day (Image: Brittany Woodman)

Among that huge collection of books are some by Keith himself. He has had 45 books published including histories, anthologies, quiz-books and guides. Bestsellers including Larn Yourself Norfolk and a collection of Norfolk dialect writers called Come Yew On, Tergether!

Recently he and his son Danny, who lives in Upper Sheringham with his family, and runs a coffee shop in Holt, set up their own publishing company, Harnser Press.

Their next book will be Keith’s The Norfolk Navigator. “It’s a guide to Norfolk but it’s not your average guide. It’s not ‘Seven Things to do in Norfolk on a wet day.’ It’s how to keep Norfolk vibrant for people who live here and move here and visit here,” said Keith.

Much of his writing over his astonishing 60 years with the EDP sings with a love of Norfolk history, although he admitted: “I have never been very interested in looking up my family history for fear of what I might find! I think one or two branches might be on the huh!”

He is a natural comic – but what makes Keith laugh? “People make me laugh,” he said. “Everyone is funny in some way, not that they know it. And they aren’t always thrilled with you for pointing it out!”

His favourite comedians were Morecambe and Wise and he was thrilled to interview Eric when he came to the ABC in Yarmouth. “He told me he was born in a little village called Wedlock, well just outside. And I have used that at every dinner I have spoken at since!”

Years later Keith met Eric again at Norwich City Football Club. Eric joked that Keith hadn’t done much with his life. “He was a director of Luton Town so I was able to say it back to him!” said Keith.

Theatre is another strand of Keith’s irrepressibly busy life. He set up a newspaper for Norwich Theatre Royal with its much-loved manager Dick Condon and for 25 years led the Press Gang, a troupe of local entertainers who performed across Norfolk, raising money for charity, including many thousands of pounds for the EDP We Care appeal.

Eastern Daily Press: The Press Gang at North Creake Village Hall in 2008 - with Keith Skipper on the rightThe Press Gang at North Creake Village Hall in 2008 - with Keith Skipper on the right (Image: Archant © 2008)

When the curtain finally fell on the Press Gang, Keith led a group of talented friends in another charity show, All Preachers Great and Small. Over 15 summers it raised funds, applause and laughter at more than 100 Norfolk churches and chapels. Keith’s book, also All Preachers Great and Small, is packed with stories centred on Norfolk pews and pulpits and Keith has also recorded DVDs and CDs with a strong Norfolk flavour.

Keith had a mild stroke in 2020 and Diana has been unwell. But although it meant he stopped writing his daily diary he continued delighting EDP readers, as he has been doing since September 1962. It also meant he already has a New Year resolution ready to go – to resume the page-a-day diaries.

Eastern Daily Press: Keith Skipper pictured with his diaries in 2009Keith Skipper pictured with his diaries in 2009 (Image: Archant)

They give him a rich source of material for those pun-tastic, dialect-delighting, evergreen and ever-great EDP articles, roaming the lanes and villages, folklore and language of his beloved Norfolk. “I don’t live in the past but I remember it well, and learn from it,” said Keith. "The three Rs, reading, writing and ruminating. What a way to make a living!"

Read Keith Skipper’s column in the EDP every Saturday.