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AVAUNT YE CURMUDGEONLY CRITICS

by Alice Sterry

 

It is a source of constant aggravation to my East Anglian pride to be obliged to listen ever and again to the carping criticism of friends and acquaintances from London, from the northern counties and from various regions of our island, of our out-of-the-way-ness, our flatness, our aloofness, as if we were veritable dwellers in outer darkness. Mark you, it usually eventuates that they have never pitched their tents among us, save perhaps for a fearful fortnight of wind and wetness at the height of a seaside summer season ! Yet out come the denigratory cliches and the derogatory epithets …… Silly Suffolk ……. Norfolk Dumplings. Well, find me a sounder specimen of our ancient race than that same Dumpling and, for that matter, find me a better accompaniment to English boiled beef than a Norfolk Dumpling proper! As for Silly Suffolk, every school-child in the county knows this adjectival phrase to be a corruption of 'Selig Suffolk', which being interpreted is Holy Suffolk. But will these Cockneys learn? Not they.

How can these carpers ever hope to know us if they will only come in 'the season', when one can't see the native wood from the alien trees? Why will they not try us in February, say, 'to see the peach-bloom come in evening skies' over our Norfolk marshes: or in March, when the white galleon-clouds may be flying across Iken Mere and when the lights and shadows on the common lands between Blythburgh and Aldeburgh dazzle the eyes and lift the heart. Where will they, these curmudgeonly critics, find such infinite variety in a relatively small space as in our Norfolk and Suffolk with their incomparable waterways, their wide skies over common, marsh and sea-shore, their endless 'variations on the original theme', the English village and their history-packed towns and cities? What will it profit a man to have seen Constable's Flatford only under the sun of August or the umbrella of July? Let him borrow a pair of our gum boots and paddle through the puddles of that amazing sunken lane, on a winter morning, when the absence of foliage permits comparison of design between great arching roots at eye-level and high arching boughs overhead. And speaking of gum boots, do let us persuade these out-of-season visitors if and when they come, to use their feet! We cannot be seen to advantage from the steamy windows of a car. Our horizons are too wide, our undulations too gentle, for a panoramic view to be satisfactory. Our scenery needs to be literally 'gone into'.

My acquaintances from the universe's hub suffer from a seemingly immovable conviction that we East Anglians are culturally moribund. This despite some admirable efforts of the BBC to instruct them in the truth. I believe that 'tis all men's office to speak patience' and all women's duty to have the same. But I came near to losing mine t'other day, when a London business man, hearing me mention our Norwich triennial festival, professed to think it was a flower show! ( It is almost three years since a never to be forgotten evening when, in a transformed cinema, I heard Sir Malcolm Sargeant's massed choirs in such a performance of the 'Hymn of Praise' that the echoes seem yet to sound in my ear as I speak of it ). I did penance for my inward peevishness by owning it to be regrettable that our festival is not as annual as our flower show but I further crammed into his unwilling ears a prodigious list of musical feasts prepared for us in the years between. Culturally dead forsooth! Do not the Sadler's Wells and the Rambert enchant us as completely, during their frequent visits, as ever they could in Merry Islington or at the Ballet Club? And then let our detractors consider the Maddermarket. Though they 'put a girdle round about the earth' could they produce its peer? Let them but contemplate one year's list of plays performed there. Let them be present at but one play from that list and then if the words 'culturally moribund' don't choke them, well I'm a dumpling.

But, to quote an astonishing sentence from a best-selling novel I once read, I have 'saved my final effect for the end' as regards our cultural deficiencies. I am Suffolk born. There my heart is. And my quick cure for a metropolitan superiority complex would be an opera night at the Aldeburgh Festival. I danced in my youth to a tune called 'June in January!' 'Oh that it were so'; six months is an unconscionable time to wait! Confound the denigrators. Let us fellow East Anglians, remember those magical evenings ……. The intimacy of the Jubilee Hall, the club like atmosphere, the expectancy and at last the performance outliving all expectations; then that Aldeburgh speciality, the interval; emerging on the sea-front, almost on to the beach itself, coffee cups set down on the sea-wall, audience, conductor, artists and 'himself' our composer, the very keystone of this yearly recurring week of pleasure-beyond-telling, which seems to the music lover a very foretaste of heaven itself, in sober earnestness!

I had meant to say much in refutation of our critics contention that we lack friendliness and humour. After all I will content myself with one story. Ours is not the quick not-to-say pert humour of the Cockney. Ours is quiet and slow, perhaps, like our rivers, but as salty as our air. Long whiles ago, when I was a V.A.D., I helped nurse fishermen in our hospital. We had at one time a perennial grumbler for whom nothing was ever right. While I was doing something for another patient, a retired skipper I remember, he jerked his thumb towards the grumbler saying : 'If he had a Florence Nightingale to nurse him, he'd say the Pygmalion lamp smoked!'. See what I mean!