Banned for speaking ‘Suffolk’

Waveney Valley man David Woodward has certainly done his bit over the years to keep local dialect in the public eye. Now he himself is the focus of attention. Steven Russell listens to a new biographical CD and talks to ‘Squibs’

David has since done a sterling job helping preserve memories of East Anglian dialect and the traditional way of life – through his writing, radio broadcasts and public recitals.

His book Larn Yarself Silly Suffolk, a comprehensive guide to the county’s dialect, had sold between 12,000 and 14,000 copies at the last count.

David was a stalwart of Keith Skipper’s Press Gang – which for 25 years from 1984 presented evenings of good-old-fashioned squit in hundreds of village halls and theatres – and up until recently took on the guise of Parson James Woodforde for the touring group All Preachers Great and Small. (In fact, he did one in Rumburgh this year.) Woodforde had a living north-west of Norwich in Georgian times, and David read extracts from his diaries.

Now he is himself recognised, as the third in the Suffolk Voices CD series from Halesworth-based Sounding Board Productions – an enterprise aiming to put oral history and dialect recordings before a wide audience. In Larn Yarself Waveney he takes a nostalgic walk around his home town of Beccles and talks about his life in agriculture. David, now 80 years old, also tells some of his favourite stories and recites some humorous poems.

One Christmas-time during the war, for instance, he and his pals left choir practice on a cold and windy night and went to buy chips by the market square. Suddenly they heard singing. Where the heck was that coming from?

After a while they noticed an army lorry. Inside were German prisoners who had been out working on one of the farms and were now singing Silent Night. The choirboys smiled and nodded, and then left.

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“I never hear Silent Night sung now without I think of that. I’ve often wondered where those young men eventually went to,” David says.

There’s country wisdom, too.

A poem talks about not knowing the difference between rooks and crows. The encyclopaedia says rooks are gregarious, but a young lad doesn’t know what that means. So, ask an old boy on the farm . . . “He said ‘You see an old rook on its own, well that’s a crow. But if you see a crowd of crows, well they’ll be rooks.’ Now why couldn’t they put it like that in them books?”

David explains he’s very much a Waveney Valley man, born just in Suffolk, almost on the banks of the river. His father, Jack – the son of a Beccles grocer – used to sing behind a screen as the cinema showed silent films. He’d be accompanied by a piano-player.

Jack was also a member of a concert party group called the Cerisians, which performed at events such as Masonic evenings, parish suppers and harvest horkeys. They were well-known in Beccles, Loddon and villages thereabouts.

David explains how the group one day landed a booking in sophisticated Southwold, where it had never before performed. The event was sold out, but some of the Cerisians’ more ribald offerings met with a stony silence. They didn’t hang about at the end of the show . . .

Jack’s wife, Olive, hailed from the Mistley/Manningtree area, on the Essex-Suffolk border. The way she spoke was different to her husband and his family. “What was so lovely was she never lost it,” says David. “Although she lived in the Waveney Valley for a lot of years, she still kept that Mistley sound.”

He tells the EADT: “I can’t for the life of me get that sound! If someone played a recording of my mother and said ‘You try and copy that,’ I couldn’t do it!”

Being in the choir as a boy was enjoyable, particularly when the church had a curate who regularly dispensed toffees during the service – one for each of the lessons!

David recalls the bitterly cold Christmas of 1940, when he was 10. Ink froze in the school inkwells. The shops had decorated windows and there was plenty of holly and mistletoe around, though not much tinsel. There were generally fewer material things compared to today, he reflects, but perhaps more in the way of goodwill.

He moved on to grammar school at Sir John Leman in Beccles and from an early age had his heart set on agriculture, much to his dad’s disappointment.

David worked on farms from the age of 12 or 13. He used to go on the weekend milk round, with pony and trap, and in the evenings after school would groom the ponies.

Friends gave him the nickname Squibs when he was young. It alludes to a firework. “Probably a little bit of sarcasm,” he chuckles. “Even as a youngster I was a bit slow and deliberate in what I was doing, and then could suddenly turn and be a bit fiery, they tell me.”

He spent three summer holidays toiling on farms and then had two years as a farm pupil over the border in the Gillingham and Aldeby area.

After national service in the Fleet Air Arm he was back on the land, at Ellough for a couple of years before becoming a fieldsman with the Co-operative Wholesale Society. After two or three years with an animal feed firm he had 20 or so in the civil service.

Much of the time he was interviewing people applying for legal aid. “I enjoyed that. My boss said ‘David’s all right. He’s yarning to people and getting paid for it!’ I suppose I do like talking to people. People fascinate me.”

He met wife Shirley through a mutual interest in the theatre. They began married life in Ballygate, Beccles, and son Michael was born there.

The view from the nearby church across the marshes “is unsurpassed by any other in the kingdom . . . I love the town. I love the people.”

He adored the Waveney Valley line, too, and its steam trains trundling across the marshes. A tenor in the church choir was an engine driver and each day in the summer used to take one choirboy on the footplate as a treat. You couldn’t do that now, with health and safety rules as they are, reflects David.

“I think that, probably, my generation have lived through some of the best times. I hope we haven’t spoiled it too much for the coming generation . . .”

Today, he and Shirley – who have three grown-up grandchildren – live in a village near Blythburgh, enjoying the local wildlife such as mallards, pheasants and moorhens, tits and finches.

It’s no surprise that David’s sensitivity for dialect came to the attention of radio producers. In the 1960s he was asked to do some readings for Radio 3. Years later he read for oral historian George Ewart Evans, whom he knew, but it was really regular appearances on Keith Skipper’s dinnertime show on BBC Radio Norfolk that brought this Waveney Man to a wider audience. Keith says there was always something in David’s voice that made you feel he was smiling.

“Years ago, in my 20s, I shared an allotment with a man who was a retired permanent secretary to Nye Bevan. (Bevan was the chief post-war architect of the National Health Service.) This man was married to a lady who taught elocution and voice projection,” says David. “She said to me ‘You’d make quite a good actor if you could only lose that East Anglian dialect.’ Little did she realise I’d make use of it!”

When Keith subsequently formed his Press Gang troupe, his Waveney man was a firm fixture – one of a number of folk doing their party pieces.

Then there were those All Preachers Great and Small performances in churches. David took the part of Parson James Woodforde while friend Brian Patrick had (and still has) the role of the Rev Benjamin Armstrong, vicar of East Dereham in Victorian times.

There have been the books. As well as Larn Yarself Silly Suffolk, David’s published Tatterlegs for Tea: More Suffolk Dialect in Tales and Verse and A Garland of Waveney Valley Tales.

In terms of dialect, he’d describe his as neither Suffolk nor Norfolk. “I would call mine ‘a Waveney’.” (By the way, he doesn’t hold with cross-border rivalry. “I like to think the river joins us rather than divides us.”)

David says East Anglia’s style of speech and writing was neglected for a long time in the past, but nowadays regional variety and accents are embraced and valued much more, and many people find them fascinating.

Years ago he used to go to middle schools, mostly, to talk about local language. He’d often read his “memories” of a back-of-the-house boy – a lad who’d take care of the odd jobs on a farm.

“I’d read the first two stanzas to the children with as refined an accent as I could, and they used to look at me as if to say ‘What’s this all about?’ Then I gave it to them with a Waveney sound and it came to life. I was intrigued how these little ones were taken by it.”

David’s confident traditional dialect won’t become extinct, because it nowadays has an army of champions determined to preserve local heritage.

His father “gave me a book – Norfolk Tales and Memories, I think – and someone said in it they didn’t think it would be long before East Anglian speech had died out completely. Well, I think that book was published in 1930, the year I was born!”

His own writing and recitals aim to show how colourful, textual and deep is regional dialect. “There is a richness and treasure in the local sound that’s got a certain dignity to it. At least that’s what I feel.

“I’ve always said the accent is the tune you play with the dialect’s words. They do vary, but there’s as big a variance between one part of Suffolk and another as there is between one part of Norfolk and another.”

Considering his ear for the musicality of language, does he wince at some of today’s ugly speech patterns, with “you know” and “like” peppering sentences?

Well, he does cringe slightly when people trying to sell him something end the conversation with “Have a nice day.”

“But on the other hand I can’t get too annoyed about it. What I don’t like is insincerity. I’d rather someone said straight to my face if he thinks I’m a bloody fool than say ‘You’re doing very well’ and not mean it!”

David acknowledges the theory that part of our fascination with the past might be motivated by yearnings for an era with strong community values. However, he advises caution. “We have to be very careful of saying that things were all rosy and lovely in those days – because they weren’t. Many farmworkers, when they could no longer work, ended up in the workhouse, and families were split up.”

He recognises that 21st Century life turns so very fast. David’s not against technological progress – pointing out he’ll happily write and dispatch emails once his good lady has set them up! – but is aware the frantic nature of modern existence can threaten some aspects we ought to cherish.

“An old boy once said to a friend of mine ‘If we aren’t careful, man’s brains will starve his guts.’ There’s something in that. And Adrian Bell” – the rural writer he knew well – “wrote a beautiful poem that said, and I’m talking here from memory, ‘When greed has destroyed wealth, and green our roads have grown, those that learn to live by stealth will come into their own.’”

n Larn Yarself Waveney, �6.99 including postage, is available from (01986-872088, or by post, with a cheque, via 62 Thoroughfare, Halesworth, IP19 8AR). It can also be bought from Waterstones.