OPINION: Norfolk lost a duo of great contrasts 20 years ago

The Singing Postman, who died 20 years ago. Picture: Submitted

The Singing Postman, who died 20 years ago. Picture: Submitted - Credit: Archant

Keith Skipper remembers Alan Smethurst and Sir Malcolm Bradbury with great fondness

Sir Malcolm Bradbury, who died in November 2000. Picture: PA

Sir Malcolm Bradbury, who died in November 2000. Picture: PA - Credit: PA

It would be difficult to find a pair of hallowed Norfolk names carrying more contrasting cultural characteristics and personal qualities than academic and author Sir Malcolm Bradbury and unlikely pop star Allan Smethurst, The Singing Postman.

On the one hand, that most accessible and affable knight of creative writing during his glittering reign at the University of East Anglia. On the other, that painfully shy figure in horn-rimmed glasses pedalling steadily towards short-lived fame and fortune.

An outstanding reputation on the international literary stage alongside a cheerful and worthy little aberration in the unforgiving jungle of pop music. The History Man and Eating People is Wrong next to My Miss From Diss and Hev Yew Gotta Loight, Boy?

For all these marked differences, I can still feel a quiver of mutual respect towards them beyond fond salutes of remembrance. They left us within a few weeks of each other 20 years ago. Professor Bradbury died at 68 on November 27, 2000, and Allan Smethurst aged 73 a few days before Christmas.

They are both fondly remembered, albeit by followers from different branches of Norfolk’s admiration society. As one who loves it when scholarship runs into squit, I’ve found enough evidence to support a theory that such a collision could leave anybody one degree over.

I interviewed the erudite professor many times over my years on BBC Radio Norfolk and we met occasionally at literary and social events where shrill hyperbole flowed more freely than rustic banter and a pint with a good head on it.

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Malcolm invariably made tracks for the homespun humour department, seeking Norfolk yarns coated in dialect. “Creative talking” he called it as I handed in my homework. Yes, I did ask whether there might be any scope for setting up a school to help give it university status. He replied with a wink “Go for it !”

For me, his masterclass in mixing good literature with hearty laughs reached a peak in his adaptation of Cold Comfort Farm, one of my favourite books, for a new television production. It made me wish more than ever that Great Aunt Ada Doom and Co. had rich Norfolk accents to go with something nasty in the woodshed.

Bradbury also adapted a number of other novels, including Blott on the Landscape and Porterhouse Blue by his friend Tom Sharpe, and wrote extensively for television with series scripting another successful speciality.

Of course, his main legacy has to be inspirational work in setting up and developing the MA in Creative Writing Course at University of East Anglia in 1970, attracting the likes of Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro.

Allan Smethurst took the Norfolk Sound to places it had never been before with his catchy song, Hev Yew Gotta Loight, Boy?, now regarded by many as the county’s very own signature anthem. He made numerous live and promotional performance in the mid-1960s, including a gloriously incongruous outing on Top of the Pops..

As a young Yarmouth Mercury reporter, I interviewed him during a brief bill-topping stint at the Windmill Theatre on the resort’s Golden Mile. That summer season with veteran comedian Jimmy Wheeler was cut short by illness brought on by stage fright and excessive drinking.

“This will not affect his recording, radio and tv career …” was the official bulletin, but those who popped into his dressing-toom during that brief 1965 run in the spotlight knew life at the top would soon turn sour unless rations of Dutch courage were reduced dramatically.

He left the music industry in 1970, admitting he had a serious alcohol problem and was penniless. The Singing Postman spent his last years quietly in a Salvation Army hostel in Grimsby. Ironically, a performer seen by many as the quintessentially Norfolk icon, he was born in Walshaw, near Bury, in Lancashire.

Perhaps a gentle entertainer who didn’t fit into any obvious showbusiness niche encapsulates the dilemma let loose every time our dialect is up for debate. There are those all too eager to dismiss him as an embarrassing reinforcer of the yokel stereotype shuffling across a pantomime stage built on national misconceptions and cosy nostalgia.

Others, like me, feel his life and work, however flawed, add up to an intriguing and valuable chapter in our local history. He deserves hearty applause for putting his homely stamp on a national reminder that Norfolk is not wedged somewhere between Devon and Dorset.

Skip’s Aside: Another stirring example of how academic prowess can flourish easily alongside a few dollops of earthy home-grown squit is provided by the “Lord of Linguistics”

Professor Peter Trudgill, international expert in the dialect field and fiercely proud of his Norfolk roots, is always ready for a mardle about our sense of humour, the language that goes with it and chances of their survival.

A natural choice as president of Friends Of Norfolk Dialect (FOND) when I helped set up that organisations in 1999, he continues to foster pride and interest in a subject too often weighed down by snobbery and negative feelings, particularly among the young.

He still wants our schools to do more to counter such defeatism: “Teachers should be able to say what are main points of the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation of the dialect. And they should be able to encourage dialect in some form of written work, not just humorous forms.

“The Norfolk dialect is a vital means of helping preserve Norfolk values, culture, way of life. It is also important, more than many other dialects, since it is one of the last dialects in the south of England and especially the south-east of England, to remain relatively distinctive and relatively widely spoken”.

I recall a paper he presented at an academic conference in Helsinki with the catchy title of “Dedialectialisation and Norfolk Dialect Orthography”. Get past that, my bewties, and there is much to savour.

Starting point was a controversy in the Eastern Daily Press letters column over the correct spelling of “beautiful” in the Norfolk dialect. I lined up with the “bewtiful” (or “bew’ful”) brigade against “bootiful” voters in favour of the Bernard Matthews advertising variety. I was delighted when Professor Trudgill came out in favour of the former.

He also examined dialect literature with special reference to the Boy John Letters sent by Sidney Grapes, comedian and Potter Heigham garage owner, to this paper between 1946 and !958. Professor Trudgill described these evergreen epistles as “work of not a little genius”