Don’t be ashamed of the Suffolk dialect
It’s been a decade, pretty much, since Charlie Haylock emerged to entertain us with Suffolk lore and rural dialect. Steven Russell took a look back with the countryman’s alter ego – and made some interesting discoveries
THERE’S a definite dry and wry Suffolk humour – and it’s at the heart of most of Charlie Haylock’s yarns. Here’s one. It’s about the time Darkie Deakons set off from Edwardstone to a jumble sale at Boxford, hoping to sell a grandfather clock. Only trouble was, he had to go by bike – so he strapped the timepiece to his back as best he could and began pedalling. By the time he’d reached the Fox & Hounds at Groton the straps were becoming loose. Being aboard a racing bike, he lowered his front end and stuck his bottom in the air to stop the clock sliding off.
By the time he’s going down the steep hill into Boxford, Darkie’s moving at a fair old lick. Now, Charlie Haylock’s Uncle Charlie had earlier popped into the Swan pub for a few pints of Greene King IPA. As he leaves, he walks into the path of the speeding bike. There’s the inevitable collision. Cyclist and victim cartwheel to a halt, amid flying splinters of wood from the smashed clock.
“Uncle Charlie just got up and looked down at him and said ‘Darkie, why can’t you buy a wristwatch like anybody else?’”
There are many more where that came from.
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As well as his entertaining talks – averaging 60-70 a year, to groups such as local history societies and WIs – Charlie Haylock is known for his books.
Sloightly On Th’ Huh!, an affectionate celebration of the rich Suffolk dialect, came out in 2004 and has sold nearly 30,000 copies. It was the best seller that year in the Ipswich branch of Waterstone’s, shifting more copies there than Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter.
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A Rum Owd Dew!, published a couple of years later, has sold more than 20,000 copies. In 2008 came Caw’d A Hell – Thas Suffen Good!, in which Charlie looked at the changing face of Suffolk. Current sales figures stand at about 15,000.
Its appeal pushed the Suffolk dialect and country wisdom onto the national stage, as the author explains.
“Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft Waterstone’s between them sold so many copies that it went into Waterstone’s national top 500, and so it came up on the computer at head office and was therefore sent out nationwide to Newcastle, Swansea, Truro . . .” he chuckles.
The latest offering is a documentary-style CD – the latest in the Suffolk Voices series from Nick Jenkins’s dialect-on-disc Sounding Board Productions. Confessions of an Hysterical Historian was in many a Christmas stocking and has already sold more than 1,000 copies.
A blend of autobiography, language history, social observation and Suffolk squit – cheerful nonsense – it also displays a side of Charlie Haylock of which I was unaware: the ability to do 20-odd different regional accidents (as well as explaining how the sounds are made).
Mind you, while he can easily pass as a Geordie or a Glaswegian, he insists Suffolk is the most important county in the history of the evolution of the English language. More of that later.
While many of Charlie’s Suffolk relatives were natural storytellers – the DNA of a raconteur doubtless in his genes – his ear for mimicry was certainly honed by his upbringing.
Although his ancestors are Suffolk through and through, going back generations, Charlie was actually born in . . . Romford. He grew up in the Hornchurch area and didn’t leave Londony Essex until his early 20s. He couldn’t wait to up sticks to his familial roots in Suffolk.
His paternal grandfather had been the village blacksmith at Snape, near Woodbridge, but had twigged that the trade was declining. After seeing a newspaper advert offering opportunities in engineering in deepest Essex he made the move south, taking two sons – including the man who would be Charlie’s dad – with him as apprentices.
Charlie’s mum, meanwhile, was the daughter of the publican of The White Horse at Edwardstone, near Sudbury. She met her future husband in 1938, while visiting relatives in Essex who had also moved down from Suffolk for work reasons.
The couple married in Edwardstone in 1942, with a reception at The White Horse.
His parents made lots of friends in Essex, but did find it hard living in a built-up area after rural East Anglia.
“At home, we didn’t have a telly and I used to listen to all the stories and tales about Suffolk,” says Charlie. “Dad told me all the stories about Snape, and all the things they used to get up to as boys, and talked about my grandma.”
The lady was an invalid, though a game old girl: she was 6ft tall, 18 stones, and got around in a bathchair. On Sundays she’d be wheeled to Aldeburgh as a treat – and would tell her young sons to let her hurtle down the hill into the seaside town!
Charlie would visit Suffolk every weekend as a child. “Then, once at grammar school, it was still every weekend, plus all the holidays.
“I couldn’t get back to Suffolk quick enough. I used to stay with my granddad a lot. One day I even cycled; it was 52 miles. I just loved it: the way the family were; the people were different – they were more friendly. It was just a different scene.
“Granddad at Edwardstone was a great storyteller. I would sit and listen to stories of the Navy, school, when they used to go poaching. We’d sit there enthralled.
“Eventually, when I went to the London overspill grammar school at Harold Hill, with my proper name of Alecock and a Suffolk accent, I was picked on big-time. Big-time. When you get a hiding up against a wall, it does hurt, you know, Steven. That was awful.”
Ah yes, the name. It’s Gordon Alecock in real life and Charlie Haylock in print and when giving talks.
He’d had the nickname of Charlie anyway. And because he was talking a lot about the Haylocks – his mother’s side of the family – people assumed that was his surname. “When I was booked for a do, I turned up and there it was, up in lights: Charlie Haylock. And the name has stuck.”
Haylock is one of the oldest Suffolk surnames, he says – linked to the area between Bury St Edmunds and Sudbury and first recorded there in 1186. His mother was born at Stanstead, moved to Lawshall, and then to Edwardstone at the age of seven.
At grammar school, Gordon (we’ll call him that, now) realised the hassling he was getting couldn’t go on. He watched how pupils walked and talked, and practised doing that – talking faster and more “urban”. Trouble was, when he returned to school after the summer holidays, pupils thought he was being facetious. “Well, I got a bigger hiding for apparently taking the mickey out of them than I did for talking Suffolk!”
After a while, and after a lot of effort, he managed to engineer it so that everyone left him alone.
And, anyway, there had been no reason for people to mock the surname Alecock. Cock is Anglo-Saxon for tap or valve, so it means beer tap, he says. “What a wonderful profession to come from!”
By looking at the origins of placenames, and people’s names, Gordon found he was studying the history of the English language – something that would grow into a deep interest.
After school he had two years as an articled clerk with a firm of chartered accountants in London, then 12 years with the road transport industry training board at North Weald, where he was group training manager.
After that came a spell as a publican at the Shoulder of Mutton in Assington, near Sudbury – a job whose fixed timings didn’t easily mesh with family commitments, such as taking his two boys to rugby practice. Gordon was a gardener for four years, and has chalked up 23 with The Ryes College & Community, which provides supportive residential and educational environments in the Sudbury area where vulnerable and troubled children can learn and develop.
Gordon came to love the Suffolk folk music scene. He didn’t sing but would tell stories.
The Laxfield Low House (officially The King’s Head) was a regular haunt. One day, a well-known Norfolk monologer had a quiet word in his ear. “He pulled me to one side and said ‘Boy, put those stories down; make a monologue, get a storyline in, get a chorus line in so people can join in. Once you’ve told a story or joke, then you’ve told it and that‘s the end of it. But if you do a monologue, it sounds like a song, and people will request it time and time again because they can join in.’”
The next landmark was going to Edwardstone Cricket Club’s dinner and being told the guest speaker now wasn’t coming. Could he do something? “I went ‘Yeah, OK,’ and I stood up for three quarters of an hour, went down rather well, and I thought ‘Right...’ It’s sort of progressed from there.”
What’s the thrill of doing the talks, books and CD?
“I get a kick out of it because I’m doing something my grandfather did. And my mum was a great storyteller. I’m passing things on from the family about how things were; I’m keeping alive how Suffolk used to be.
“I’m getting it recorded so people in the future can see how it was – and at the same time I get a big kick out of hearing people laugh. Sometimes it’s ‘serious with humour’.
“It’s looking at social history – how things have changed – but done in a funny way.
“I hope it also gets across to Suffolk people how important their dialect is and that they shouldn’t be ashamed of it.
“I get so many people say to me ‘Oh, that isn’t right; that isn’t proper.’ Yes, it is! To say ‘I shew them how to do it’, or ‘I writ’, that is grammatically correct. If you look up in an English dictionary, you’ll see the past tense of those various verbs; normally, in brackets, you’ve got ‘archaic’. But it’s not archaic in Suffolk! It’s still being used.”
The tension has come because of the imposition of “manufactured” Standard English.
“Through schooling, and the teaching of grammar, what has happened is that ‘Suffolk grammar’ has been lost. A dialect is an accent, plus the pronunciation of the words, plus the grammar of that particular area, and how it’s spoken. Sadly, yes, we are losing it because the (Suffolk) grammar is going out the window. Probably it has changed more over the last generation than at any time before.”
It’s a crying shame, says Gordon, because our language is not one that’s hard and fast. “That’s why English can adopt and adapt, and will keep on evolving; whereas French, because that is so pure and precise, as writ down in the 1600s by L’Acad�mie fran�aise, they can’t vary it.”
The academy is the learned body on matters of the French language, acting as THE authority. One of its duties is to publish an official dictionary.
Gordon points out that Latin and Ancient Greek declined because they were kept so pure and rigid.
“You can’t stop people talking the way they do, so eventually Latin and Ancient Greek became dead languages. English will never be that. It’s a mongrel language; it can change, it can swap, it can make up words, and it will evolve. In 200 years’ time it will be different to what it is now, but it will still be English.”
Which is where we come back to this area’s important role in the evolution of the language – one whose heritage is still seen in the names that daily trip off our tongues.
Angles and Saxons pronounced the G sound differently: ger for Saxons, yuh for Angles. Hence we’ve got Angle Ipswich and Saxon Gippeswyk. This area is the only place in the country, says Gordon, where the two run alongside each other.
Another big influence on the Suffolk dialect, and the wider English language, was the arrival of the Danes, who took control of East Anglia and other parts of England.
The Danes struggled with the Anglo-Saxon mix, he says, so the language became streamlined. “We got rid of ‘female’ chairs and ‘male’ tables, and got the neutral ‘the’. We also got ‘this here’ and ‘that there’, which tend to be peculiar to Suffolk and Norfolk and are still to be heard in the language of older Suffolk residents.”
So we’ve had, and still have, a changing local dialect. In fact, Gordon’s sure there will still be a distinct Suffolk dialect while we still have a geographical Suffolk boundary.
Which brings us back to those differences between urban types and country folk, which were painfully apparent to the teenage Gordon Alecock and which fuel much of the gentle humour in his stories, as faster-talking city slickers meet more laid-back rural folk.
It happened in Suffolk in a big way in the 1960s, when there was a large, officially-sponsored, migration of people from south Essex and London to places such as Great Cornard and Haverhill. It was something of a culture shock on both sides and integration took quite some time.
One of Gordon’s anecdotes on the CD is about a little lad playing the junior edition of Trivial Pursuit and being asked “Where do Cockneys come from?”
“I know! I know! Cornard!” That, says Gordon, indicates how big an influence it was.
A lot of people suggest to him that Suffolk is losing its dialect because of foreigners moving in – from outside England and from other parts of Britain. He doesn’t buy it. “My retort to that: if it weren’t for foreigners in the first place, we wouldn’t have a Suffolk dialect.
“If I said Suffolk has got to stay the way it is, then I’d be saying the same as they did with Latin and Ancient Greek. It’s got to adapt.
“It’ll be different. For it to keep alive, it’s got to move with the times. But what we must do is record what’s gone on before, so we can see what we’ve got today and what we’ve got in the future, and so students in 200 years’ time, looking at the history of the English language, can hear it and read it, rather than imagine what it used to be like.
“It’s important. We’ve got to put those phrases down, like ‘Go careful’ and ‘I was frawn this morning’, and ‘I shew him how to do it’ and ‘I driv here’.”
n Confessions of an Hysterical Historian costs �6.99. It can be bought from many bookshops – see www.charliehaylock.com for details – or through that website.
SO, a decade on, does he feel more Charlie Haylock than Gordon Alecock?
“No! Yes, in as much as Charlie Haylock does talk about how I really feel, and does get across a lifetime’s study, because this – the accents, dialects, place names – is a lifetime’s study for me. But no: as Gordon Alecock I can do my job and the two don’t mix.
“I think it really works, because if I were Charlie Haylock all the time, it would get a little bit too much. The amount of publicity I get is about right. How these other people do it – in the newspapers all the time, wherever they go . . . It’s nicer to go out now and again and people say ‘Hello, Charlie’, but it’s also nice to go out and not be recognised.”
And Charlie’s got his own clothes, too!
“I started it off in the early days and just happened to wear a waistcoat and cravat, and put a cap on, and people now recognise me for that. If I did anything different, it wouldn’t look right. I don’t think I’d feel right, either!”