REVIEW: Brilliant local characters are real Norfolk celebrities

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Published:
5:00 p.m. October 2, 2022



I must not mention any sacred name. It would trigger an obvious risk of being tarred with the same dirty brush as Norfolk’s growing battalion of excitable celebrity watchers.

Either way, it can be a lot more fun to drop teasing little clues, a few extra juicy rumors and therefore deliberately confuse and mislead about what might be happening on and around Burnham Market’s glittering parade & Co.

That chef, that actress, and the other talented judge who thinks Walsingham Matilda is a real rap artist and Dick Barton Turf a likely host for a new series of Strictly Come Gardening…these are the easiest to spot in the crowd and to remain faithful to the album of passing notoriety.

Recognizing a chimney sweep from Brancaster Staithe, a blacksmith from Thornham and a retired mole hunter from the outskirts of Old Hunstanton requires a lot more attention to detail from those who find the other people interesting.

Typically, these local characters will preface most comments with “Cor, blast me!” and claim that they have no electricity in their adjoining cottages and therefore have no idea what constitutes popular culture these days. They hum the musical theme of Music While You Work as a sign of farewell.

Another useful pointer for those trying to sort healthy wheat from the chancy husk is the good old Oxo tooth held down by a giant rubber band. This receptacle of refreshments invariably contains Spam sandwiches, Norfolk shortcakes and coypu-flavored crisps, a real spread on the hoof for the natives who appreciate hard graft and good food when they see it.

Ironically, many refugees from various corners of the tinsel town experience sudden pangs of envy when they encounter colorful native remnants, much like capital city journalist Clement Scott in the 1880s as he watched the workers farmers gather to harvest corn.

No matter the pungent sweat, the long hours and the meager wages, “Laughter and song are heard throughout the country, louder than the wind which bends the corn which ripens or the sea which groans at the foot of the cliffs which are collapsing.” Poppyland or Chelsea-on-Sea, flowery images can bloom to vindicate the invaders and appease the invaded.

I remember a salutary story passed down by Norfolk Champion Dick Bagnall-Oakeley in the 1960s, shortly before the tourist influx cascaded. Even then, however, Dick realized that it was too easy for traditional lifestyles to be patronized or ridiculed.

A group of London friends informed the geography master, naturalist, all-around sportsman and dialect expert that they were on their way to darkest Norfolk for a few days and would very much like to hear some real characters locals in their natural environment.

Dick pointed out that he was not a cheap sideshow organizer or a keen ‘peasant shooter’, but could point the way to a country pub where a band of good old boys regularly held court .

In constant demand on the after-dinner conversation circuit, Dick went off to sing for his supper and arranged to meet his Metropolitan friends later that evening at his chosen pub. He was greeted with mystified looks and infuriating cries of, “We couldn’t understand a flipping word!”

Dick admitted that our dialect could offer a great challenge to the untrained ear, but could not accept that it was so inscrutable. He would go to the bar and order half a bitter and linger long enough to find out what they were talking about. He strolled, listened and laughed. “I’m not surprised you couldn’t make heads or tails of them,” Dick said. “Those country morons happen to be Polish!”

When I asked Dick if he had planted these visitors in this village hostelry to teach smart buddies a lesson, he simply flashed an enigmatic smile reserved for modest teachers and hinted that the world was getting smaller every day.

I have no doubt that he could have called on a number of retired chimney sweeps, blacksmiths and mole-cutters for the occasion. I know he preferred that the process of cultural blending be as natural and beneficial as possible.

Don’t forget that he taught students from all over the world during his 25 year career at Gresham’s School in Holt. Few have left without a handful of Norfolk dialect or at least an O level in the undiluted glories of the squit.

Perhaps it’s time to revive the Bagnall-Oakely primer or at least celebrate its uplifting spirit of sharing and enlightenment. To that end, I recommend a slight inversion of the rules. Let a new era of spiritual twinning between Nelson County and London begin with a parade of real tractors in Chelsea.

What a brave signal that would send mocking serial dealers like Jeremy Clarkson – and it should be followed by evening classes in Broad Norfolk for Hampstead chatter classes and the opening of Sinkers & Swimmers Dumplings Bar to help get Westminster through other recessions.

Well-heeled retired mole catchers on the outskirts of Old Hunstanton able to rent a linked flat in the capital could catch their breath at the Mayfair Mardling Club while Norwich City season ticket holders with spare capital could invest and swap yarns at Canary West, London’s largest store selling yellow and green wool.

Humble beginnings, perhaps, but such vital campaigns take time to bond.

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