Lost python sparks memories

FUN IN THE SUN: the busy North Drive boating lake in the Seventies.

FUN IN THE SUN: the busy North Drive boating lake in the Seventies. - Credit: Archant

MY Friday visits to the Mercury office in Great Yarmouth’s King Street to collect “my hate mail,” as I term it, have become a bit of a joke. In honesty, seldom do I receive abusive letters or e-mails; usually they are constructive and helpful, providing more information on an aired topic or suggesting a future one.

EASTERN WESTERN: Sheriff Danny Arnold at his Cow Town attraction, introduced by Leslie Shepherd to t

EASTERN WESTERN: Sheriff Danny Arnold at his Cow Town attraction, introduced by Leslie Shepherd to the open-air Marina amphitheatre in the Seventies. - Credit: Archant

But in the six decades since I penned my first contribution to this long-running column, I have never been the recipient of one where envelope and two sheets of writing paper were painstakingly executed in perfect script. At first I thought it was done on a computer because of its neatness and uniformity, but no. It was written the hard way, with nibbed pen and a bottle of ink

The writer was an old chum from 40 years ago – Leslie Shepherd, who made an impact on the borough during his five years as our director of publicity and attractions in the mid-1970s, leaving for new pastures and challenges.

Long retired, 84-year-old Leslie lives in Blake Drive in Bradwell.

His letter was in response to my recent column recalling not only a striking publicity poster produced at that period but also to the snake – and, possibly, a parrot – he kept in his Regent Street offices.

PLEASURE PACKED: Leslie Shepherd studying the resort’s new holiday guide in the 1970s.Picture: MERCU

PLEASURE PACKED: Leslie Shepherd studying the resort’s new holiday guide in the 1970s.Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY - Credit: Archant

“Monty the python was a favourite of mine,” he writes. “I had him for two years before giving him to a friend, an exotic dancer where I am sure he enjoyed a far more interesting life than his time in local government!

“One bank holiday Monty went missing although the lid on his tank was still in place. I was panic-stricken! I was the only person in the Regent Street office, but a call to the Mercury office opposite brought help in the form of a junior reporter. We searched, and Monty was found inside an electric storage heater.”

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All well and good, but the absconding cold-blooded python still had to be extricated from the heater. While Leslie carefully freed Monty’s head, Mick Dennis gingerly untangled the tail from around a pipe.

As for the parrot, Leslie explains: “It was a beautiful blue and gold macaw called Leslie. I bought him for £35 from Lawrence Wright, a farmer and the founder of Kessingland Wild-Life Park. Today Leslie would be worth £2000!

“Lawrence and myself for a short time introduced a children’s zoo on the forecourt of the Wellington Pier; the star attraction was a pair of lion cubs born in Kessingland.”

When he bought Monty, he did not know whether his 3ft serpent was male or female despite the name. But help in establishing its sex was close at hand...just round the corner from the publicity department’s premises.

Leslie took Monty to the Star Hotel where barmaid Mrs Naomi (Tilley) Cantol confirmed that the reptile was male and did not need to be renamed. She used what she described as “an age-old method” that had never failed her on any species, even on human beings.

“I have sexed many animals and creatures using just a steel sewing needle hanging at the end of a silk thread,” she revealed to Leslie and a Mercury reporter. “If it swings like a pendulum, it is a male. But for a female, the needle circles.”

The trainee journalist who came to the rescue in the successful search for the absconding python, my former young colleague Mick Dennis, went on to become a sports reporter on a national newspaper, and probably has long since succeeded in ridding his mind of some of the assignments he received early in his career.

Leslie, a former Butlin’s Redcoat at the Skegness holiday camp, sent me a copy of one of my long-forgotten columns from the era when they appeared nightly in the Mercury’s companion newspaper, the Eastern Evening News. It detailed some of young Mick’s varied assignments during his Yarmouth training.

Listed were the lost python drama; interviewing Mr Punch (Guy Richardson) on Yarmouth beach while sitting cross-legged on the sands with about 30 children all anxious to warn Judy that her husband had lost the sausages; touring the Caister sewage plant (villagers had complained about the smell) but disobeying his chief reporter’s tongue-in-cheek instruction to throw himself into his work; and covering a jousting tournament between stuntmen at the Norfolk agricultural show.

We newspapermen and women can never complain about boredom or being in a rut! We never know what the next phone call would bring.

As for the calligraphy, Leslie Shepherd says that when he left school at 14, he worked in a factory as an apprentice fitter with an older university-educated colleague who was skilled at the art and taught it to him.

His Yarmouth tenure was at a time when summer holidaymakers were spoilt for choice with star-studded shows at the resort’s several theatres competing for their custom during long seasons. Within a decade or so, the attraction of the big-name show was on the wane, and by the Nineties was little more than a memory.

Reflecting on that wider picture in 2015, the experienced Leslie Shepherd adds: “Entertainment in the 1970s was the major attraction. Times change, but I believe there could still be a place for it, particularly in the early and late season as an aid to extending the season. There is still room for the showman in tourism; sadly, they are few.”