The term “historic market town” is overused these days – it has frequently become just another way of saying “features at least one church and a Co-op built prior to 1998″, but Holt, four or so miles inland from Norfolk’s north coast, is the real deal. It is one of East Anglia’s prettiest small towns: a place whose unspoilt streets, smartly dressed retired people and lack of public displays of fast-food-eating come as a slight culture shock to someone like me, who lives in a less salubrious and fashionable part of the county.
In my local town, “quirky” means “has a man with lots of badges on his jacket who swears loudly at ducks”. In Holt, it means “has a post office that doubles as a record shop”. It’s lovely enough to find that Holt post office is holding strong in the face of recession; it’s even lovelier to discover that, while renewing your driving licence or passport, you can also purchase an original vinyl copy of the second album by Welsh progressive folk band Tír na nÓg, or Uriah Heep’s unfairly underrated 1970 debut, …Very ‘Eavy …Very ‘Umble.
The post office came in handy when I visited Holt with my dad recently. He was in a shop a few doors away, spending approximately 13 and a half hours trying to decide which suit to buy (an experience of such fraught deliberation that the shopkeeper would later admit to him on the phone that she “had to have a packet of ginger nuts and a lie down afterwards”).
Flicking through the album racks, I was unsurprised to find that Holt’s postmaster had in stock an album by Allan Smethurst, better known as The Singing Postman, whose 1965 hit single, Hev You Gotta Loight, Boy?, remains one of Norfolk’s rare, lasting contributions to popular music. After not a huge amount of deliberation, I decided to give 1966′s Fourth Delivery a miss, as I sensed Smethurst – a real Norfolk postman from the Sheringham area – was probably past his best, which hadn’t been all that great in the first place, by his fourth album. When I got home, though, I played Hev You Gotta Loight, Boy? to my girlfriend, who’d doubted the veracity of its existence, let alone Smethurst’s airing of it on Top Of The Pops.
As Smethhurst strummed away and, in an accent that was as pungent as an accent could be while still sounding fundamentally gentle, told his sentimentally grating story of his innocent capers with a chain-smoking girl from Wroxham, my girlfriend winced slightly. A fairly recent Norfolk transplant from Devon, she still finds the county’s dialect a mystery, tending to view it as a confusingly tepid and arguably inferior version of the accent she grew up with. Despite East Anglia and the West Country being on opposite sides of the same land mass, they share a certain twang, but there is sometimes the sense that Norfolk and Suffolk are not fully committing to it in the more rugged way that Devon and Cornwall do.
Ours is a more subtle sound, but the distinction can be confusing – which is why in, say, a series such the Norfolk-based ITV drama Kingdom, you would often find characters who were meant to be born and bred east of King’s Lynn speaking in an way that suggested they’d just arrived in the area for the first time from Barnstaple and needed a sit down.
After 11 and a half years living here, I can’t hear the Norfolk in my own accent, and when I am leaving someone’s house or a pub I do not yet say “I’m now goin’”, but I’ve been told by a couple of old friends that I’ve adopted a bit of that customary twang. If so, it’s not as if I stand to lose anything of great aural beauty. I grew up in north Nottinghamshire, which means my original accent sounds like nails scraping on the walls of Yorkshire, asking to be let in. This is arguably marginally better than having a straightforward Nottingham accent, which the brilliant Nottinghamshire-born writer Michael Bywater once summed up as: “an affronted, disgruntled, curled lip snarl that manages to sound simultaneously bellicose and simpering.”
For the first few years of my life, I went around believing I didn’t actually have an accent. My first moment of self-awareness arrived at the age of 10 when, after I’d greeted a dentist I was very fond of with the words “AYE UP, ME DUCK”, my mum had a quiet word with me. “Maybe it would be better if you just said ‘Hello’ to the dentist,” she suggested. “He’s not from around here, and speaks very softly.” I had long believed that by my late teens I’d started to enunciate much more clearly, but I recently watched a video of myself having a golf lesson from 1991, when I was 16, and I sound about as genteel as a 19th-century colliery worker from one of Worksop’s rougher surrounding villages.
Five years later, while writing for the NME, my penchant for the phrase “mard-arse” clearly confused some of the well-spoken southern editors there, since I would buy the paper on a Wednesday and find the phrase changed to “mad arse” (this was an era long before the Arctic Monkeys gave the word “mardy” a shove south with their song Mardy Bum). I still say “nesh” and “yonks” and “twitchell” now, and refuse to accept that they are not proper words that should be in use everywhere in Britain.
More than half of my family are from Liverpool, and for a month in the mid-80s, around the time I started comprehensive school, I decided that I’d quite like to be from there too. I adopted a subtle Scouse accent that went down pretty well during a period when Liverpool and Everton were battling it out at the top of the first division and Ziggy Greaves was the most popular character on Grange Hill.
I’m more at peace with my real accent than I’ve ever been now, though, and the thought that three years in London followed by over a decade in Norfolk has diluted it makes me feel wistful. I used to think the concept of calling someone “me duck” was ridiculous, but I kind of like it now. You’ve got to respect a dialect with the boldness to not only refer to a stranger to their face as a type of beaked animal, but to be affectionately possessive about it. Nobody calls anyone their duck here in Norfolk, possibly because there are a huge number of ducks, and everyone’s become absolutely clear what they look like as a species. As an additional guide, there are sometimes men wearing lots of badges shouting at them.
However, the Norfolk accent contains plenty of affectionate touches. Sitting outside a far less bohemian post office than Holt’s a few weeks ago and reading a guide to the local language issued by a local museum, I was struck by how many encouraging or positive phrases it contained: “Lovely job!”, “Mind how you go!”, “Are ya winnin’?”. Even the most threatening phrase listed – “Want a poke in the ear, booy?” – would hardly have given pause to a crack dealer from the mean streets of West Baltimore. I also learned that “aaah” is a local version of “arrrh” – which could be the most nuanced distinction of dialect I’ve ever witnessed.
As I read on, I overheard two men in their late 60s conversing about their friend, a man boasting the wonderfully Norfolkian name of Taffy Peacock. “I see him yisdee,” said one. “Over in Narwich. With that funny ol’ trailer of his. He’s a good ol’ boy.” I wondered if the Norfolk pensioners of 2043, or even 2033, would still be talking like this. I hoped so, and as I went about my business for the rest of the day, despite the fact that I’d gleaned relatively little information about him, I found myself wishing that I, too, could make the acquaintance of Taffy Peacock, and that funny ol’ trailer of his.
• Tom Cox’s latest book, Talk to the Tail, is out now in paperback. Follow him on Twitter @cox_tom.
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