OPINION: Norfolk has a way of dealing with negative comments

Henry 'Shrimp' Davies

Former Cromer lifeboat coxswain Henry 'Shrimp' Davies always had a salty reply ready for those daring to take Norfolk's name in vain - Credit: Archant

If I had a ping and a pound for every insult coming Norfolk’s way during my lifetime, well, I’d be a millionaire with ringing ears living in the poshest part of Chelsea-not-on-Sea.

Of course, plenty joined in such banal baiting long before my generation realised a deadly mixture of envy, ignorance and malice oiled an ever-expanding publicity machine towards worst aspects of this social media age.

I won’t play the modern game and name current and recent perpetrators taking snide shots at my homeland. Cynical agents, television producers and scriptwriters behind a torrent of so-called celebrities know how deliberate provocation can spell bonus headlines.

Let me highlight instead the way Norfolk has long been obliged to learn how generalisations can be dangerous as well as dismissive. Charles II claimed the place was fit only to be carved up for roads for rest of the country. Some appear still to be travelling along those lines.

Horace Walpole pointed towards the “wilds of Norfolk” as districts to be shunned rather than sought out. Noel Coward didn’t waste dramatic feeling on his immortal line “Very flat, Norfolk”. He should have taken the well-heeled cast of Private Lives for a quick rehearsal up Beeston Bump.

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Ironically, many of those all too ready to confuse traditional caution with cultivated coldness, and comparative isolation with inbred traits, cannot camouflage their jealousy as they point accusing fingers at rustic dullards totally out of touch with the mainstream.

Growing hordes of the well--heeled and worldly-wise seeking sanctuary in coastal or rural hideaways merely underline the double-edged attitude towards spots like Norfolk. Nice place – but a real pity about the peasants, potholes and pungent smells!

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Some visitors can muster some sort of sensitive approach and so provide a more discerning commentary as they slow down, drink in the bracing air and wonder why it has taken so long to embark on this riveting journey of enlightenment.

When he went In Search of England in 1927, probably the last period when a metropolitan could visit his own country as he might a foreign land, HV Morton included “Land of the North Folk” on his tour.

He found an England that “warns us it is our duty to keep an eye on the old thatch because we may have to go back there some day, if not for the sake of our bodies, perhaps for the sake of our souls”.

If Morton was predicting a movement increasingly threatening the very dream that inspires its followers in the first place, he may also have foreseen the likely reaction of indigenous remnants

“Norfolk is the most suspicious county in England. In Devon and Somerset men hit you on the back cordially; in Norfolk they look as though they would like to hit you over the head – till they size you up.

“You see, for centuries the North Folk of East Anglia, were accustomed to meet stray Vikings on lonely roads who had just waded ashore from their long boats … you will gather that Norfolk’s suspicion of strangers is well grounded and should never annoy the traveller”.

I recall with relish a roll-call of home-grown champions ready to fight Norfolk’s corner during my decades of full-time work in the media, including the BBC, and on extensive entertaining and mardling rounds extolling virtues of my native patch.

That honours list includes Eric Fowler, who wrote with rare distinction for this newspaper as Jonathan Mardle, village schoolmaster and best-selling Norfolk poet John Kett and gifted teacher, naturalist and broadcaster Dick Bagnall-Oakeley.

How Hill marshman Eric Edwards also springs to mind, not least as eager ambassador for the Broads and passing on his enthusiasms and knowledge to generation of schoolchildren. Professor Peter Trudgill, world-renowned linguistics expert, remains a vibrant force in favour of preserving our precious dialects.

I saw and heard former Cromer lifeboat coxswain Henry “Shrimp” Davies sort out countless newcomers and visitors foolish enough to mock Norfolk in his presence. His immediate retorts brooked no comeback, especially as he plied his beach deckchair trade.

My favourite featured a brazen creature who stopped “Shrimp” in Jetty Street on a windswept morning and described Cromer as “ the backside of England”. Apparently, he didn’t employ the word “backside” – but one of the town’s finest got the general  idea.

“Oh, yes” smiled the old salt with his cap set at its usual jaunty angle. “And are you just passing through?”

Skip's Aside: At behest of the parson, the Revd. Albert “Wilson” Pickett, I duly attended Sunday morning worship at St Horry’-on-the-Huh.

I heard banging, thumping and stamping as I crossed the wide and lonely field to this small 14th century church on the outskirts of scattered parish Blackstalk Parva. The regular congregation were taking off muddy boots in the porch as I arrived.

All three shuddered as they embraced me. I walked past a font full of live bait and sat beneath a loudspeaker installed just above a damp patch bearing close resemblance to a map of Tasmania.

The trio skipped to their instruments. A short and portly woman fondled her sackbut. A tall, thin man organised his serpent. An elderly lady I recognised as Deidre Lambeth, harmonium player and chief flower arranger for services since 1949, hugged her lyre.

We sang an upbeat version of “Wake ,O Wake, For Time is Flying” although I made little musical headway with a tambourine thrust into my hands.

The door creaked open and Major and Mrs Stannickle-Hulver strode purposefully to their family pew as our chorus ended. They had returned to the fold.

The Major carried a large torch borrowed from his gamekeeper while his wife clutched a big rattle more at home on a football terrace.

They continued standing as a fanfare blared from the loudspeaker above the contour of Tasmania. The Revd. Albert “Wilson” Pickett emerged from the vestry. He punched the air, smiled broadly and waved to the couple who had come home.

“Put a strobe on the robe!” exclaimed the Major, letting his light so shine to dazzling effect.

“Try a reacher for the preacher!” enthused his wife as she extended her arms, creased her two-piece and twirled her rattle.

“Come alive with a tithe!” called the tall, thin man, pushing his serpent aside and picking up the collection plate with exaggerated fervour.

The Revd. Albert “Wilson” Pickett scoffed at “Corn-again Christians” who attended church only at harvest festival time and warned us to beware all politicians’ blandishments in the coming months.

“Bless thee, ole partner!” See you at the harvest festival!” he smiled as I left.

The rest of his faithful flock were singing and swaying beneath that map of Tasmania

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