Proud to be bilingual: Keith Skipper on the Norfolk dialect

Keith Skipper.

Keith Skipper. - Credit: Archant

Tha's a rum 'un: Keith Skipper celebrates the Norfolk dialect

I am a proud member of the Bilingual Brigade, a long-established movement embracing those who relish the challenge of speaking and writing Broad Norfolk and the Queen's English with equal respect and pleasure.

While forces in favour of dull uniformity persist, especially when it comes to being 'phonetically modified', it is increasingly important for truly local heritage to shine even brighter through the gathering cobwebs of indifference and dust of derision.

Raised in a time and place when strong Norfolk accents gave full value to a colourful vernacular, I came under no pressure at grammar school to seek elocution improvement or dispense with a flair for 'squit' when certain lessons began to pall.

I could 'tork proper' when required, compose all kinds of essays in straightforward English and still find scope to entertain less-enlightened colleagues (and at least one master) by reading out loud the latest Boy John Letter coated in delicious humour and dialect in the Eastern Daily Press.

A career spanning well over half-a-century as scribe, broadcaster and entertainer in my native county has underlined the value of a dual approach, not just to offer variety on certain occasions but also to savour rich Norfolk roots and those special attributes they can inspire.

It came as both a chastening and cheering experience to discover I was nothing exceptional on the post-war Norfolk scene. Indeed, a roll call of far more illustrious names still resonating today shows how many top-class acts mere enthusiasts have been invited to follow.

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I was weaned on the evergreen Boy John Letters sent to the EDP by garage proprietor and comedian Sidney Grapes from 1946 until his death in 1958. I worked alongside Eric Fowler on this paper in the 1970s. He took the pen name of Jonathan Mardle to enchant a wide and devoted readership over 35 years with erudite and entertaining essays.

Eric was a leading authority on our local dialect, speaking and writing it with native resource and humour. His uplifting talk to my sixth form at the start of the 1960s, full of gentle wit and parochial power, told me it might be a good idea to haunt the mean streets of Norfolk as a fearless news reporter.

I encountered Methodist stalwarts Cyril Jolly and Colin Riches, highlighting their dialect gospel talents on my BBC Radio Norfolk Dinnertime Show throughout the 1980s. Colin's fresh versions of familiar Bible stories in collections Dew Yew Lissen Hare and Orl Bewtiful an' New still earn plaudits when I share them on my entertaining rounds.

Headmaster John Kett was another wireless natural after carving out a reputation as the county's most successful poet. Four volumes of Norfolk delights, Tha's a Rum 'un, Bor, Tha's a Rum 'un, Tew, Wotcher Bor! and A Year Go By, netted sales of over 30,000 – remarkable figures for poetic offerings carrying a quaint brogue supposed to be dying out fast.

Another schoolteacher as well as broadcaster, wildlife expert and master of countless other talents, Dick Bagnall-Oakeley died in 1974 – but his star still shines strongly as one of the most endearing local characters of the 20th century. He came to represent the flowering of parochial pride and passion in a less frenetic age before the rise of the five-minute celebrity.

Now, belatedly but so deservedly, widely-respected journalist Maurice Woods joins that elite parade with publication of a first volume of Harbert's News From Dumpton, dialect bulletins he wrote for the Norwich Mercury Series of weekly newspapers for the best part of 40 years.

I have penned an introduction to the book which also carries a revealing and heart-warming tribute to his mentor and colleague by Chris Fisher, who succeeded him as London editor of the Eastern Daily Press. Maurice held that post for 25 years. He died at the age of 99 in 2015.

His contrasting role as a rural correspondent began more by accident than design in 1951 when he was asked to find someone who could pen a dialect feature for the weekly papers to match popularity of the Boy John Letters in the EDP.

Maurice offered to do it himself -- and, after a trial run, carried on with about 1900 episodes to his name! Harbert must be ready for his spot in the Norfolk literary limelight.

Harbert's News from Dumpton by Maurice Woods is published in hardback at £14.95 by Mousehold Press and on sale in local bookshops