OPINION: Glory days when eccentric traits were always on display

Banter and a drop of beer with fourses in the field during days when eccentric traits were commonly on display

Banter and a drop of beer with fourses in the field during days when eccentric traits were commonly on display - Credit: Keith Skipper Collection

We all like a grain or three of eccentricity in our lives – even if it’s mainly a case of relying on someone else to provide such delights.

Standing out from a crowd, or just rest of the family, classroom, office or local community, adds a bit of spice to a world all too often following monotonous, predictable and ultra-safe lines.

Of course, Norfolk’s traditional urge to “dew diffrunt” can lead to examples hovering on the outrageous. However, when liberally coated in our unique sense of humour, they can bring cheer to dullest of days.

I recall certain relatives acting totally out of character on occasions where drink, yarns and raucous banter flowed freely. 

One great uncle , normally an upright pillar of society, would break into a risqué party piece hardly suitable for a family gathering.

He got encores galore.

Village worthies, usually so circumspect in church, chapel or other settings where decorum was expected, could let slip more daring and entertaining personality traits especially in the pub or on the local sporting scene. Bad losers and gloating winners can be fun.

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Parish council meetings may still spark hilarious verbal riots between cussed indigenous remnants and know-all incomers. I covered several where arguments over whether the amendment should be taken first led to walk-outs, apoplectic antics and playground name-calling.

On a more cheerful note, a fair sprinkling of farm workers revelled in strange little rituals as they hoed eternal rows, harvested beet and corn, ploughed with horses and tractors, ate fourses under the hedge or stack and called up the dairy cows by  name

One chap shared the same two jokes throughout his pastoral career. If anyone asked for an odd job he would reply: “Go an’ milk the bull, thass an odd job”. 

And he loved to be informed Norwich City had drawn 0-0 .. “Oh yis – an’ what wuz the score at half-time?”

Another old boy always rode his bike up the steepest inclines – and then pushed his steed carefully downhill on the return journey. He also scanned the skies every morning before offering a comprehensive weather forecast “...Thas what they say on the wireless”.

Local preachers at our Methodist chapel induced various levels of pew-thumping and fervent cries of “Amen!” among older members of the congregation. 

Youngsters looked forward to a couple of regulars noisily unwrapping sweets or fiddling with a hearing aid if the sermon drifted on too long.

We had a postman who synchronised pedalling and whistling perfectly as he did his rounds and an accumulator man with a string of very bad impressions of characters on the radio. His Wilfred Pickles sounded more like Dick Barton - and vice-versa.

As my grammar school behaviour occasionally teetered towards the flippant, it was reassuring to find a master or two ready to ease restrictions on outlandish wordplay during history, English and French.

I camouflaged deepish pools of ignorance with a mixture of Chaucer, Broad Norfolk and The Goons to offer alternative views on subjects under scrutiny. 

The art was not to go on too long and to make sure the teacher in charge got a starring role in any instant productions.

Mr Davies spouting a saucy limerick about the Wife of Bath while I translated into our local vernacular and then led a rousing version with him of the Ying-Tong Song in Spike Milligan voices probably deserves top billing.

Constantly on the lookout for unusual items in Thetford, Dereham and Yarmouth during my early reporting stints, I unearthed a host of gems. They helped compensate for too many boring council meetings and court hearings.

Favourites included the fortune-teller who wasn’t expecting me, the rector’s wife whose maiden name was Miss Marple and Eric Morecambe welcoming me into his dressing-room with “Come in, young man, and take the weight off your notebook”.

Life on Radio Norfolk airwaves heralded countless colourful episodes. I asked a rural veteran live on air if he’d been in the same village all his life. “No, not bluddy yit, I hent! “ he replied. Perfect reply to a naïve question.

Top prize, however, for most eccentric reaction to an orthodox sort of inquiry must go to a Dereham couple celebrating their golden wedding.. I asked her if he’d developed any annoying habits over their years together.

“Yis” she snapped . “He snore backwards” – and instructed him to provide a short impression. Sounded straightforward enough to me.

Skip's Aside: I have worked alongside many colourful and talented characters throughout a long career as journalist, broadcaster and entertainer.

Ralph Eustace Sherwin White was chief reporter on the Yarmouth Mercury during my stint with the weekly paper in the mid-1960s. He must rank as the most endearingly eccentric of colleagues.

Eustace, as he was commonly known, regularly disappeared into a world of his own. This became most evident while composing his Scout column, a glorious mish-mash of anecdote, rumour, whimsy, fantasy and no-nonsense opinion, all tied up in extravagant similes by the yard.

We knew when a gem was coming. He’d rock back in his chair, clear his throat, exclaim loudly “Ah, yes!” with a self-satisfied smile and then transform his massive old typewriter into a machine gun spattering golden words all over the place.

Now and again we would be treated to an example of his creative powers – “Britannia Pier sat in a sparkling sea like Neptune’s frying pan waiting for a wash” – a little taster for the next big production.

Eustace, pictured above, occasionally forgot on which assignment he had embarked., usually dressed in blue beret, white mackintosh and brown sandals. His sou’wester and oilskin cape were reserved for wet days at any time of year.

We bumped into him one morning along busy Regent Road and inquired politely where he might be heading. “I am down to cover Flegg Magistrates Court” he replied.

We informed him that was next week in the Town Hall, completely in the opposite direction.

He thanked us profusely ,clicked his heels, swivelled sharply and expressed a fervent hope he would arrive in time to cover the first case.

I also recall him searching frantically through contents of a large dustbin outside the Halfway House pub in Gorleston, not far from his home. ”Give us a hand” he called as I strolled past on my way to work.

We couldn’t find his lost notebook, but he gave me a boiled sweet for helping. Eustace carefully returned all items to the dustbin and went home for breakfast.