Council carousel is still spinning for the ego trippers

The final meeting of Mitford & Launditch RDC jut before abolition in 1974

The final meeting of Mitford & Launditch RDC jut before abolition in 1974 - Credit: Archant

A homely epistle sent to this newspaper by a Broadland garage proprietor and published in May, 1952 carried a whimsical postscript destined to remain a potent warning to anyone keen on public service.

The letter from Norfolk comedian Sidney Grapes, who appeared on stage and in print as The Boy John, used our precious local dialect to furnish a favourite character with her customary dash of homespun philosophy.

It read : PS – Aunt Agatha, she say: “ If you want to keep friends wi’ the people in yar village, well, keep orf the parish council ”.

How topical is that right now with so many of our elected representatives and their officers embroiled in rows, resignations and occasional chaos, some of it clearly fanned by gleefully irresponsible use of social media platforms.

One of the most lurid examples of what Aunt Agatha might have seen on the horizon nearly half-a-century ago unfolded recently on a Zoom meeting of Handforth Parish Council in Cheshire. It descended into a virtual punch-up.

“Best television comedy since Vicar of Dibley!” chortled a national headline in the wake of such bizarre antics going viral. In fact, that wasn’t the best example considering how the show starring Dawn French failed to recognise any difference between parish council and parochial church council.

Surely the latter with its ecclesiastical connotations would never sanction so much bad behaviour and language – even if certain colourful individuals sat on the parish council as well. There has to be a limit when it comes to familiarity breeding contempt.

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To take a more serious stance over suggestions that various steps on the local government ladder should now carry a health warning for anyone wishing to join the fray, it’s clear Norfolk has a worrying share of current issues causing widespread concern.

Town councils, most notably at Attleborough, Dereham, Downham Market and Sheringham, have been riddled with resignations along with allegations of bullying, belittling, bitter arguments and threats of legal action.

Welcome talk about “rebuilding bridges” and “moving on” provides a bit of hope the worst may be over. But we all know how hard some people find it to forgive and forget, especially in smaller communities where certain traits and personalities stand out.

I can recall too many examples of bloated self-importance, cussed streaks and dogmatic creeds trampling all over the search for common good. You don’t have to look far to find unashamed ego trippers jumping on the council carousel just to get noticed.

My early adventures as a local press reporter in the early and mid-1960s taught me quite a bit about human nature, not least when it came to covering meetings of Dereham Urban District Council and Mitford & Launditch Rural District Council. Both bodies were abolished in 1974.

Perhaps the first important discovery in both chambers was how all representatives and their officers were different – but some were more different than others.

Keith Skipper: We don't get Norfolk characters like we used to

You could tell those likely to test your democratic right to be there and ability to provide a reasonable account for readers by the way they stared at the press bench as they held court.

My shorthand erred on the shaky side but I had a real flair for paraphrasing. 

I often covered myself by checking significant quotes and facts afterwards with those concerned. I tended to avoid eye contact with councillors riding high horses, clearly suggesting it would be a crime to ignore such powerful wisdom.

During one memorable week in 1964, I drew dramatically contrasting judgements from two characters constantly on their feet at town and district council meetings I had covered for both the EDP and Dereham and Fakenham Times.

The first complained bitterly my report had totally ignored vital threads running through an important speech. Eventually, I convinced him and my superiors how a rambling contribution overflowed with contradictions, irrelevancies and obvious misleading.

The second called in person at the press office to invite me and colleagues to join him at the Bull pub nearby for a pint apiece in honour of “putting in the paper correctly what I was trying to explain at Tuesday’s meeting”.

Just a small flavour of local government life in the old days. I suspect another of Aunt Agatha’s postscript gems suggests itself as we weigh up a current picture and wonder if this sort of advice might brighten it up:

“If people think you’re a fule, keep your mouth shut. Then they wunt know”.

Skip's Aside: The Boy John Letters, with Aunt Agatha’s priceless contributions, remain firm favourites for many fans of Norfolk dialect writing.

However, another “good ole gal” has a secure place on any list of outstanding characters on this enduring local literary scene.

I used to think Ida Fenn was a made up name. But the woman who wove so many colourful yarns out of her rural experiences had no need of a nom-de-plume after serving her Norfolk apprenticeship before marrying farm worker Harry Fenn.

Ida Fenn

Ida Fenn - Credit: Archant

Ida was born in London in 1899. Her father died when she was a baby and she moved to Weston Longville, a few miles from Norwich, to be raised by her grandparents at Top Farm. After working as a decorator and teaching in the village school, Ida wed and during the 1930s her husband was a farm steward at St Faiths.

With outbreak of war the land was requisitioned to become an aerodrome (later Norwich Airport). Ida and Harry lived on farms at Costessey and Winterton before buying Lyngate Farm at Hethersett. They were completing the deal when Harry died in 1955.

She decided to run the farm herself and from this experience she was able to pen a weekly farming column as well as continuing with her highly popular Tales of a Countryman.

Ida’s most regular contributions were to the Yarmouth Mercury where for over 20 years she supplied tales in dialect of the boy Jimma and his family.

I turn to these when I feel the need for a testing refresher dialect course. She wrote in the broad Norfolk of the Fleggs, a cluster of villages near Yarmouth with a special character and sound of their own.

Much of her writing was done while Ida farmed at Winterton and a collection of her best village stories starring the boy Jimma were first published in 1973. Eric Fowler – Jonathan Mardle of the EDP – praised them as the genuine article.

They still carry a rustic lyricism all their own.

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