What else can we do but laugh in the face of adversity?

Keith Skipper at Hempnall Village Hall with the South Norfolk WI

Squit and polish to the fore at a proper local gathering before lockdown blues. Skip joined members of the South Norfolk WI Group at Hempnall Village Hall for a cheerful evening in April, 2019. - Credit: Hempnall WI

Time for the official Norfolk relaunch of LAUGH – Life’s About Upholding  Good Humour.

Yes, I appreciate it’s a dodgy time to call for grins ahead of groans, chuckles before chagrin, mirth instead of misery. Even so, just remember what made this “dew diffrunt” empire how it is today. Be proud and join without delay or any kind of subscription. 

Analysing humour is like dissecting a frog – few people are interested and the frog dies – but even Jane Austen, darling of the throwaway line at breakfast, reminds us: “

For what do we live but to make sport of our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn”.

Or to put it the Norfolk way, you might as well take the juice out of yourself now and again because everyone else does. Add the two together and there’s a perfect survival package for at least a year of bobbing around in a leaky bathtub on a boiling sea of uncertainty.

No,  this isn’t a thin excuse to trot out a few more of my favourite local yarns. It’s a heartfelt plea for the county that gave the nation Nelson, Kett, Hansard, Walpole, Colman, proper dumplings and the Singing Postman to lead the way in laughing at the face of adversity.

What Norfolk does during the rest of 2021 might well dictate the shape and size of British resistance thereafter. We need a dash or two of that old Dunkirk spirit – and do remember there is a Dunkirk  located on the Norfolk coast as well.

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The precious currency of squit should be at the heart of any campaign to set a jocular example. While it remains a peculiarly Norfolk commodity unlikely to be cut or privatised by our present government, there will be times when those ordained  to look after our affairs will use it to their own advantage.

Of course, they won’t afford it the “squit” label. They’ll call it debating, debunking, prognosticating, compromising or just a full and frank exchange of ideas with a three-line whip. We should not be fooled by such euphemisms.

Nor should we be surprised by any hints of ignorance at Westminster. After all, there may be good solid voters at Weeting, Wicklewood and Winterton still mystified by a few of our most delightful dialect words and expressions.

The derivation is obscure.  Robert Forby’s precious Vocabulary of East Anglia, first published in 1830, says it’s a word of supreme contempt for a very diminutive person … “A paltry squit!”. Today’s Oxford Dictionary follows a similar track: “Small, insignificant person”. So easy to confuse it with “squirt”.

For all that, there is general acceptance that good ole Norfolk squit is simply nonsense, light-hearted banter, an unlikely story. Most pubs used to have at least one learned exponent ready to turn on the tap. Locals may have heard it all before but that hardly diminished enjoyment, especially if aimed at an unsuspecting stranger. The native can use squit as a territorial marker. It gives a sense of amiable superiority on his own ground for he knows it will take even the brightest of newcomers or visitors some time to work it out.

I ought to underline the double-edged properties of squit. It may emerge in a term of honest praise: “He allus give yer a fair bit o’ squit” will ring around the banqueting hall in the wake of an entertaining after-dinner speech. 

There’s also a derogatory side: “Dunt yew tearke no notice cors he dew tork a lot o’ ole squit!” has been heard at the end of many a political meeting, after-match inquest at Carrow Road and estate agents’ conference..

Squit has no easily-defined barriers. It can inspire or injure, delight or deflate, but to be fair to true Norfolk exponents, they can prick the balloon of pomposity without resorting to the javelin. They prefer to make their point with droll humour rather than hasty barbs.

When I wrote my first book on the subject 35 years ago I included examples from various facets of local life – the farmyard, honeycarts,  little shuds down the yard, church and chapel chuckles and medical yarns from Bedpan Alley.

A fast-changing Norfolk can still provide ample material for a new breed of squit merchants to lead  our laughter parade. Must be mileage  left in still planning to build  on flood-risk sites, chopping down healthy trees and increasing traffic and pollution on already-infested roads.

Skip's Aside: It was flattering to discover I had a little in common with that great Irish writer Seamus Heaney. My eyes fell eagerly on this heady recollection of farm life in Derry:

I spent time in the throat of an old willow tree at the end of the farmyard. It was a hollow tree with gnarled, spreading roots, a soft perishing bark and a pithy inside. Its mouth was like the fat and solid opening in a horse’s collar.

I found a similar refuge only a few hundred yards from my old Norfolk homestead – but a thousand miles from boring errands, bossy grown-ups and gangland disagreements.

My hiding place, my thinking corner, my safe house when village storms erupted, an old plastic sheet rescued from a nearby barn serving as makeshift roof for extra protection.

I kept this old hollow tree strictly to myself, and not just because it looked after my precious hoard of Woodbines and collections of songs snipped out of various music magazines.

This is where I didn’t want to be part of a group. I yearned for a solo career, to plough my own furrows, to pluck my own guitar, to revel in my own space.

I don’t know if Seamus Heaney enjoyed a good spit-and-cough and then cleared his throat before branching out into a one-boy medley of hits from John McCormack and Josef Locke. If he did, I hope his willow-tree concert hall had better acoustics than mine.

Earnest tributes to David Whitfield, Donald Peers and Dickie Valentine scarcely troubled any wildlife loitering around the roots of my countryside stage. If a breeze sprang up, it was easy to risk a burst or two of George Formby and Lonnie Donegan.

There were silent sessions while I sulked plotted and scribbled, prayed, seethed or just soaked up the peace. I nodded off more than once. I was always reluctant to leave its protective arms.

I spotted it still shuffling over the landscape on many a journey back to my home village. a gnarled sentry keeping an ancient eye on my boyhood years. Now I am tempted to drop in, hum an old tune and curl up with a volume of Seamus Heaney’s poems.

I’ll give the Woodbines a miss.