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Novel look at life between wars

PUBLISHED: 15:33 14 August 2009 | UPDATED: 14:44 03 July 2010

CHARLES Dickens did it. Indeed, had he not set his novel David Copperfield mainly in Great Yarmouth, this column would be signed by a different pen-name.

CHARLES Dickens did it. Indeed, had he not set his novel David Copperfield mainly in Great Yarmouth, this column would be signed by a different pen-name. Down the decades I have been Peggotty, occasionally I have reported the way other writers have described our borough, in book and magazine.

Today I return to that theme as the result of Mrs Peggotty enjoying a holiday read, a women's paperback entitled Forgotten Dreams by Katie Flynn (published by Heinemann/Arrow Books). Recognising the Peggotty potential when she came to a section about a summer spent in Yarmouth between the wars by Liverpudlian members of a concert party at the Wellington Pier Pavilion, she alerted me.

As the Random House Group has granted permission, I can share with you some of the Yarmouth experience as imagined by the author who, because of the accurate detail, probably researched her book by personal visit. She does acknowledge help from John Emms, “who starred at the Wellington Pier Theatre in the eighties and put me right on things which I was no longer able to check for myself since the old theatre has been demolished.”

Very few people are left who remember Yarmouth in those pre-war days when expectations were lower and pleasures simpler. For these survivors, it is a trip down the cliched Memory Lane; anybody who knows the town today is bound to enjoy the glimpses the novel offers of those distant times.

The principal characters lodged with Mrs Shilling, who specialised in theatrical guests, at 55 Nelson Road, “a street lined with pretty terraced houses, most of which had cards in their windows advertising the fact that they took paying guests. All the houses had tiny front gardens crammed with blooms, windows gleaming with cleanliness.”

They paid a penny admission to the pier and were confronted by “a huge glass building - an enormous conservatory (the Winter Gardens) containing wonderful tropical plants and palms.” They agreed: “We're going to have a wonderful time here in Great Yarmouth”.

During rehearsals they sampled the town's delights, exploring the narrow Rows “across which neighbours could shake hands”, buying sticks of rock and tubs of sea-food from promenade stalls. But their favourite was “the beautiful sandy beach.”

In Barron's Amusement Arcade (today occupied by Yesterday's World, a tourist attraction looking back to the past, including the period in which Forgotten Dreams is set) they played on the Penny Falls machine without winning a ha'penny, viewed What the Butler Saw and the gruesome hanging of a condemned man, sampled the rifle range and threw darts at playing cards. They enjoyed a penn'orth of chips (in Regent Road), but also during their stay indulged themselves at the expensive Langtry's Restaurant (where was that? I wonder).

From the highest point on their Scenic Railway ride at the Pleasure Beach they marvelled at the beautiful scene below them: “The sea shone like watered silk, lights twinkled in the streets and glowed from the windows, turning Yarmouth into a fairy-tale town. The piers jutting out into the sea looked like fairy palaces, with their sparkling lights, domes and minarets.”

Because of her age, one girl had to attend school in Yarmouth where she met another pupil whose parents were involved with the rival Britannia Pier show and had digs on Gordon Terrace. Reading about these fictional girls attending school reminded me of a real-life Wellington Pier act of more recent times, all of whom similarly had to attend lessons.

In 1976 the pavilion theatre staged Startime, starring Frank Ifield, with a supporting line-up that included Our Kid, a Liverpool boy band of 14-year-olds who had won the New Faces television talent show and were hailed as potential international stars. They attended Yarmouth Grammar School, I recall, but the lads' pop career was short-lived, mainly because Liverpool education committee banned them from performing.

Their legacy was You Just Might See Me Cry that reached number four in the charts.

But, back to Forgotten Dreams...

A local lad working as a scene-shifter acquainted our heroines, who had been angling off the pier, with the bigger piscatorial picture: “If you want to see real fishing, you should come back here in October when the herrin' are running. The drifters follow the shoals from Scotland right the way down to us here where our drifters join 'em. The boats come into the harbour so heavily laden with fish that it's a wonder they don't turn turtle, and on a Sunday the boats are packed so tight in the harbour that you can walk across it from deck to deck without getting your feet wet.”

When someone observed that she had seen drifters sail on a Sunday, he explained that “Nothing won't keep a Yarmouth fisherman ashore when the shoals are runnin' . But the Scots are different - they think they'd be sent straight to hell if they fished on the Sabbath so they crowd into St Nicholas's Church and the Methodist chapels even if the sea is like a millpond and the fish fairly jumpin' to be caught.”

One day one of the show girls was walking along Nelson Road to Southtown Station to catch a train to Oulton Broad (“a small village”) when she caught sight of the colourful Saturday market stalls and decided to buy picnic food “for a bob or one and a tanner” to save the expense of a restaurant meal.

Then she crossed the Haven Bridge to the (long-gone) South Town Station to board the Ipswich train to Haddiscoe (20 minutes) where she would change to the Lowestoft train for the 10-15 minute journey to Oulton Broad.

As a popular song once said, “Those were the days, my friend.” But the then-and-now gap is typified by the fact that tossing sweets into the audience was part of the girls' act - a practice banned across the river at Gorleston Pavilion's 2007 pantomime on...yes, health and safety grounds!

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