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Country Week

Published in Country Life 2001.

I read recently that the Norfolk accent is under threat, as is the whole panoply of English regional variation, from the creeping influence of television and estuarine Ken Livingstone-ese. One place it lives on however is Australia. When English was being exported to Botany Bay in the early 19th century, the Norfolk/Suffolk rural burr was also a part of the Essex, Middlesex and Hertfordshire accents. The children of convicts from other parts of Britain and Ireland were brought up with the flash argot of the London gaols, the overwhelming oratorical ability that gained linguistic power over the Irish Blarney and provided the template for the melting pot of accents that was to become Australian. But its the rhythm of the Norfolk accent that has echoes today in the Southern Hemisphere  the slight emphasis on the end of each word, the vowels, diphthongs, and the rising inflection ( though apparently this is a recent Australianism, born of insecurity - well now theyve beaten the Lions they can stop that for a start, and the cricket team dont look that insecure to me). Take that well-known Norfolk pop song by the Singing Postman, Hev Yew Gotta Loight Bor? Try saying it aloud with as strong a Norfolk accent as you can muster. Okay? Right, now squint your eyes tight against the sun, close your mouth up narrow because of the flies and try it again. See? Australian.

I was born on a sheep station in Tasmania. This is a bonus when Im over there as the Tassie jokes (inbred, pointy heads and knuckles dangling on the ground) are funnier than the Pom jokes (whingeing snobs who cant play any sport  god I wish wed won that third Lions test). We came back home when I was two, and although we then lived in Hertfordshire until I was 21, I spent most of my holidays with friends in Brancaster, on the north Norfolk coast, and was at university in Norwich. My father and aunt were brought up there, indeed in the 17th century my Dutch ancestor Hans Willem Bentinck lived in Terrington St. Clement, no doubt feeling quite at home in one of the flatter parts of the county. Very flat, Norfolk? a cyclist would disagree. I drove my aunt round her old childhood haunts recently and she was amazed at how little had changed. Having said that, in the thirties Heacham was a sleepy village, not a gigantic caravan park, houses were built by local builders, not developers with pre-fab kits and in the summer you could gallop a horse down the coast road quicker than todays swivel-headed tourists can manage in their 4x4s. In the winter though the countryside is empty and time has not altered the wildness of the coast, the power of the sea, the fickleness of the weather nor, despite the best endeavours of Eastenders, the banter at the bar, boy.

Our cottage is next to a duck pond. Lying in bed in the morning we watch the duckish year go round. Trying to maintain your ducknity on flimsy ice is not easy. I have seen Mallard families set out to cross the pond to get to the bread weve thrown and after minutes of flapping, sliding, quacking and tumbling, give up and head back to the reeds, preferring hunger to indignity. Ducks are also very bad at crossing roads and the carnage in the summer is awful. The sign saying Slow Ducks isnt trying to tell you their IQ, it means anything less than sixty would be appreciated. Last year we had some visitors, a pair of Egyptian geese. You could tell they were Egyptian because theyd put on masses of eyeliner, a la Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra and were clearly having the same kind of Burton/Taylor problems with their marriage because they never stopped arguing. When the day came for their departure, packing took hours, passports had been mislaid, they were late getting to the departure gate and it all seemed to be HIS fault. Pre-flight checks were another bone of contention and even when the desperate effort of clearing the reeds at the other end had seen them safely into the air, they were still having a go. As they turned sharply against a crisp, blue evening sky, without so much as a dipped wingtip to their erstwhile friends, they flew off gracefully into, and here Id love say the setting sun, but this is Norfolk, and they were in fact engulfed by a massive and foreboding rain cloud.

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