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Keith Skipper

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In 'How to Survive in Norfolk' you quote James Wentworth Day: "If the rest of Britain sank beneath the waves, and Norfolk was left alone, islanded in the turmoil of the seas, it would, I think, survive without too much trouble". Are you proud of Norfolk's independent spirit?

That quote carries a bit more relevance right now in light of the controversy sparked by Natural England's proposals to surrender a large slice of the Broads to the sea! Of course, I admire and laud our sense of independence and individuality, so often dismissed as sheer cussedness by those who seek to impose on Norfolk what they think Norfolk ought to have - and be grateful for. I do not want this county to become a boring photostat of everywhere else. Many newcomers to Norfolk bring with them horror stories set in concrete of counties left behind. They make telling comparisons as much for our benefit as for their own. Greedy developers cry " Drawbridge Norfolk!" because they want to belittle legitimate opposition to ugly excesses. Real Norfolk will continue to " dew diffrunt" - a text picked up by the University of East Anglia when it opened - and those who genuinely care what the place looks and feels like will continue to be pilloried for having the audacity to ignore bandwagons.

 
Norfolk County Council Tourism are constantly trying to promote the county as a tourist destination. Do you think that, in doing so, they may well end up spoiling its unique character?

Tourism can be a useful servant - and a wicked master. A glance at some parts of the West Country, for example, betrays how desire to lure more visitors simply destroys the very things they come to enjoy. Our beautiful coastline, especially in North Norfolk, is often in danger of being "loved to death." It is hard to think of anywhere that has been improved as a result of mass tourism. Tourism moguls constantly produce figures to prove how much big money they generate and how many vital jobs they create. It is impossible to check if these figures bear any resemblance to the truth. In any case, there's never a mention of the downside - how many local lives are disrupted by congestion, traffic and people, at the height of the summer season. Living in a seaside town like Cromer, I fully accept certain changes when the sun beams down - but when it is hazardous to cross the road to get to the shops, and the seafront beyond, it is mighty hard to smile at all the visitors! Random parking in residential areas is another nasty bugbear as the season gathers pace. To be fair, there are still attractive corners of Norfolk unsullied by invasion - but it makes perfectly good sense to keep quiet about them. Look what happed to North Norfolk in Victorian times when Clement Scott uncovered Poppyland. He lived to regret all that flowery prose which persuaded so many to follow in his arty footsteps. The best summary of how Norfolk should cope with this dilemma came from an old boy who worked on the land  up to the early 1960s ... " I dunt mind sharin' our bewtiful county ..... but beggared if I'm gorter give it away!"

 
Do you think that the Norfolk dialect/accent will survive in the face of globalisation/internet/estuary English/text-speak/McDonalds etc etc?

Yes, I suffer from a fair degree of confidence that this precious strand of Norfolk life will continue to defy all the odds, although it will have to adapt here and there. I am heartened by the fact that the dialect's complete demise has been forecast countless times since Robert Forby put together his wonderful Vocabulary of East Anglia in the early 1800s. Board schools, railways and the BBC were supposed to spell the end .. but there are still people torkin proper!  Our schools must play a much bigger role in spreading the vernacular gospel as part of local heritage studies.

 
Were you aware that the Singing Postman is now on You Tube?

No - and I don't suppose he is aware of it either!

 
What is your favourite place in the county? And why?

I struggle here because I don't want the roads to paradise clogged. Suffice to say, I still love wandering the lanes in and around my home village of Beeston (the real Beeston, in the middle of the county between Dereham and Swaffham) and I have been known to make gentle pilgrimages to other parishes where the wheels of "progress" grind exceedingly slow, thank goodness. Cromer's clifftop  paths are best visited when most sensible folk are indoors keeping warm.

 
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Sid Grapes. I know that you have written a new introduction for the Boy John Letters. What, in your opinion, is the reason for their enduring appeal?

The Boy John Letters are unpretentious and genuinely amusing. They feature contrasting characters who could have cropped up in any Norfolk village in those years of austerity just after the second world war. They make you smile and think at the same time, especially when Aunt Agatha unleashes another of her philosophical gems  .... " Thass no good a'puttin' yar foot down if yew hent got a leg ter stand on." The dialect adds to the lasting appeal because it doesn't smother the humour but enhances it. Sidney Grapes was a master of both written and spoken Norfolk. The letters are meant to be read out loud and they still get plenty of airings. Yes, there is a whiff of nostalgia for the "good old days" of tight-knit communities - but that merely adds to the strength of these evergreen epistles.

 
Why do you think Norfolk has inspired so much literature? Which writer/s have most influenced you?

A subject worthy of several books on its own!  Some look up at big skies and get busy. Others listen to the waves breaking or the seagulls crying .. and that's another chapter in the bag. All, I would think, recognise Norfolk's power to stimulate and challenge because it is so different in so many ways. "On the road to nowhere" is a proud boast, not a lame admission. Writers can find immense variety here for backcloth material and there's always that glorious penchant for understatement among locals to spice the pages. Raw material abounds. Lilias Rider Haggard, daughter of the great Sir Henry  Rider Haggard, (King Solomon's Mines, She etc} wrote some of the best volumes on Norfolk life, before, during and after the second world war. I love the way she pinned all kinds of people on to enduring natural backgrounds to emphasise how we are fashioned by our surroundings - and how much we need to keep them intact.  Fenland chronicler Edward Storey (now ploughing fresh furrows in Wales),  Victorian novelist Mary Mann, who found humour and dignity in ugly rural deprivation, and Eric Fowler, who wrote with such style and meaning under the pen-name of Jonathan Mardle in the Eastern Daily Press, where I worked alongside him for a spell, are other important inspirations.

 
Is it true that F.O.N.D. was formed because of the appalling Norfolk accents in 'All the King's Men'? Ten years on, however, the accents in Kingdom are still dreadful. Do you think TV and film companies will ever do Norfolk dialect 'proplee'?

Yes, that fresh plague of "Mummerzet" among All The King's Men certainly hastened the birth of FOND - although plans were well advanced by that time. There had been countless outbreaks before that production raised more hackles. The malady lingers on despite the best efforts of  all those who cringe at the way national TV and radio productions continue to insult the Norfolk tongue. Yes, it is a hard accent to manage - but that is no excuse for the abominations we have to endure. There are professional dialect coaches employed to get somewhere close to the genuine article, but they clearly believe Norfolk is a little place wedged somewhere between Dorset and Devon. There are good Norfolk actors and actresses available, but all too often producers say they must have "names" to play main roles. Sadly, there seems no immediate prospect of Norfolk being sensibly portrayed on a national stage.

 
Talking of Kingdom, what did you think about it?

Not a sight. I am amazed that Stephen Fry, regularly billed as " a proud son of Norfolk", makes no obvious attempt to surround himself with proper Norfolk voices. He must know one when he hears one!  From the little I have seen - purely for research purposes -  it would seem the programme's idea of geography is about as good as the local accents. I fail to see why Swaffham gets so excited over daft suggestions that it has a beach and can sell sticks of rock. This is tatty tourism, too high a price to pay for a bit of exposure on the telly and a few quid in local coffers.

 
I believe you are based in Cromer. What do you like/dislike about the  town? I thought your recent joke about dog-walkers turning it into 'Poopyland' was very funny.

I shared some of my views in the question about tourism. I do prefer the place out of season, but there are still dog owners about to set a big winter challenge with obstacle courses on clifftop wanders as well as in town. I am angry about the way planners and developers, with the blessing of blinkered local councillors, have wrecked the Holt Road entrance into Cromer - an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty - with large, nasty developments. Trouble is, it was bound to be hard  to turn others away after the North Norfolk District Council gave itself permission to build new offices on the hill overlooking the Gem of the North Norfolk Coast. Still, Cromer still has charms in other corners  and a booming rail link, The Bittern Line, with the rest of the world. The pier and theatre still flourish but town centre shops need more support to fight off the threat of supermarket supremacy on the outskirts.

 
Norfolk has produced a string of top notch comedians who have made use of the Norfolk dialect/accent - including Sid Grapes, Sid Kipper and the Nimmo Twins. Do you think there is a uniquely Norfolk sense of humour? If so, how would you define it?

It is that lovely use of understatement which stands out as the key ingredient of Norfolk humour - proving you don't have to yell, jump up and down and make a proper tewl of yarself to git a larf!  An old Norfolk boy standing at the side of the road in driving rain gets a lift from a passing motorist. As he clambers aboard, water cascading  from his hat, boots squelching and his jacket immediately sticking to the seat, he turns slowly to the driver and remarks: "Slow ole dry owt ternite, marster." That says it all.

 
I understand that the Press Gang will be winding up this year. I bet that you have many fond (no pun intended) memories?

Bound to be after 25 years on the road with good friends who make me chuckle on and off stage. I recall with great affection how it began on Cromer Pier in the summer of 1984 when that twinkling Irishman Dick Condon invited me to organise and compere a night of Norfolk entertainment. A packed house suggested it might be a good idea to take the squit elsewhere - and our honeycart of happiness has been rolling ever since.  Perhaps the most outstanding memory concerns the night I fell off the stage at Broome Village Hall while trying to clear a path for one of our venerable performers. "Keep it in !" went up the cry, while comedian Boy Jimma strolled to the microphone, turned round to see if I had clambered back and confided to the audience; "He dunt normally dew that!". We have visited hundreds of village halls, theatres and other community meeting places - and relished the tag "old-fashioned". We have described ourselves as the perfect antidote to Saturday night television. Pride will mingle with sadness as we end the trail where it started, at the Pavilion Theatre on Cromer Pier

 
How did it feel to receive an MBE for "services to Norfolk"?

Well, it takes something special to get me out of Norfolk - and something truly special to get me into London! It was a wonderful occasion with my family at Buckingham Palace. The Queen told me she found dialect very hard to read. I informed her that was why I wrote it slowly. She smiled benevolently. She might have sent me to the Tower - but I reckon she knew I had to be back on familiar ground the following day. I am extremely grateful for all Norfolk has done for me. I am extremely proud to be honoured for giving a little in return.

 
Finally, without wishing to be morbid, what would you like your epitaph to be?

He wunt a bad ole boy - and he dint dew nowun no harm.

 

 

 
 

 

 

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