Diamonds are forever!

MAINSAFELY BACK: a classic scene of drifters entering the harbour pre-war to land their herring catc

MAINSAFELY BACK: a classic scene of drifters entering the harbour pre-war to land their herring catches at the Fishwharf. On the left is the Yarmouth drifter East Holme (YH22).Picture: SUBMITTED - Credit: Archant

FROM little acorns do great oaks grow, a sage once observed. In my case, that figurative acorn was a simple gas-filled child’s balloon found on the North Beach in Great Yarmouth by a 12-year-old schoolboy.

THE SUN SHONE, THE CROWDS CAME: Yarmouth's Marine Parade and central beach, with the packed open-air

THE SUN SHONE, THE CROWDS CAME: Yarmouth's Marine Parade and central beach, with the packed open-air Marina in the foreground, probably in the 1950s or 1960s.Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY - Credit: Archant

It was not uncommon for similar balloons released in Yarmouth to be picked up on the Continent, sometimes leading to correspondence and friendship between sender and finder, but seldom did prevailing winds blow them towards us.

The finder of that balloon was Russell Hanton, of Milton Road, across North Drive. He was excited about his discovery and curious about its origins. Although there was no tag or label attached, printed on the balloon itself was information in German about a children’s day at a shoe company’s premises.

As far as I recall, nothing further came of it, but that was my personal little acorn, for I wrote about it on my debut day in journalism in my home town. It was my first contribution to a nightly Eastern Evening News column entitled Through the Porthole under the permanent Peggotty byline.

That was exactly 60 years ago this week.

TIMELY ATTRACTION: the Guinness Festival Clock spent the summer of 1955 in the Marina Gardens on Yar

TIMELY ATTRACTION: the Guinness Festival Clock spent the summer of 1955 in the Marina Gardens on Yarmouth's Golden Mile, drawing crowds when its popular cartoon-style advertising characters appeared every 15 minutes. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY - Credit: Archant

I was so proud of it that I snipped it from the newspaper and pasted it into a new cuttings book to keep forever more. It is on my desk beside me as I type this week’s feature into a computer, but the scrap book practice was a self-indulgence that lasted for only a few weeks as its pages rapidly filled with news reports and features.

For example, there are my 1955 non-Peggotty cuttings about 64-year-old John Bowles, of Priory Street, Gorleston, falling 17ft into a dry dock while cycling in Fellows’ shipyard on Southtown Road but managing to go home by bus; Gorleston Reserves drawing 1-1 with RAF St Faiths; the Thurne Haven Hotel at Potter Heigham being gutted by fire and left in a sea of ice formed by the water from firemen’s hoses on a bitter night; and Yarmouth and Caister Golf Club professional Cliff Holland retiring after 50 years...

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That balloon story filled only about a third of the space then allocated for each nightly Porthole column, but it was not long before I wrote a complete one, and thereafter regularly shared with senior colleagues Joe Harrison and Peter Bagshaw the discipline of a Porthole having to be provided daily before we turned our attention to our general reporting duties.

My other early Peggottys included pink suits for men sold by A&C Menswear in King Street, requests for Yarmouth’s 1955 holiday guide coming from far-flung corners of the world, historic troll carts, conductresses being employed on our corporation buses, a home-movie of a visit here by a Yorkshireman which won him first prize in his local ciné club’s annual competition, the novel Guinness Clock featuring the brewery’s popular advertising characters drawing summer visitors to the Golden Mile...

Pride, and pulling my weight, were not the only incentives. So was the extra income!

As chief reporter, the late Joe Harrison had to ensure the provision of a Porthole six nights a week, reflected in his salary. But Peter and I were paid for our contributions, 1½d a line in that pre-decimal era. A complete Porthole would produce about 7s or 8s (35p or 40p today), a welcome addition to the meagre salary of a 20-year-old junior reporter in his first job after National Service.

The column had been launched in the 1930s, Peggotty sharing the Over the Tea Table page in the big-selling Eastern Evening News with contributions by Whiffler (Norwich) and Lowestoft’s Random (later, Highlight).

After two years on the EEN and Eastern Daily Press staff in Yarmouth, working in the Regent Street office alongside our Mercury colleagues, I moved to other Norfolk towns before returning in the late 1960s, rejoining Joe and Peter and providing nightly Portholes with them before their retirement. But a casualty of a revamp of the evening paper in the 1980s was the Peggotty column which was axed.

I had recently switched to the Mercury staff and in 1986 successfully urged my new editor for the resurrection of Through the Porthole in his pages. He offered a four-week trial...and it is still there. Not a week have I missed since that relaunch, and I agreed to continue penning it after my 1994 retirement.

It is impossible to calculate tell how many columns I have produced since that January 1955 pioneering effort about the balloon, but it must have reached into the thousands by now.

For 15 years after my retirement, Mrs Peggotty and I were spending five months annually in Spain, necessitating an armful of envelopes being delivered to the Mercury editor before we left, each including one week’s typed column (on paper, before computers), two or three pictures, and a couple of spare Portholes in case of problems.

In hindsight, I cannot imagine how I managed that in the run-up to Christmas, considering the complexities of preparing for a long winter absence from the locked-up Peggotty’s Hut. While I was away in Spain, I penned Portholes for submission on our return.

This column remains nostalgia orientated, reflecting on the Yarmouth and Gorleston I have known and as they were before my birth.

For example, present generations have never experienced – and possibly cannot even envisage - the vibrancy of the picturesque great autumn herring fishery, or the postwar years when the resort teemed with visitors and international showbiz stars spent summers in our theatres.

Through the Porthole has always been a pleasure to write, a wonderful weekly discipline helped by a vibrant corps of correspondents and friends who provide ideas, information and feedback, and willingly lend me illustrations to augment my picture files.

I am grateful not only to them but also to the Mercury’s readers as I reach this diamond day.