Red Letter day for this scribe

IN my constant quest for accuracy, I consulted my dictionary for the precise meaning of “red-letter day” to ensure that my belief was correct. “A noteworthy or memorable day,” it said, its origins being the practice of highlighting a festival in red on a calendar.

Well, you learn something every day, as they say, and I suppose I can call today a red-letter one even though it is highly likely that the Mercury headline above this column will be black, as usual.

Why is this week’s Through the Porthole worthy of a the red-ink treatment? Because it is 25 years since it first appeared in the Great Yarmouth Mercury ... so, to be pedantic, the colour should be silver to match the anniversary, but that would make it a severe strain on the readers’ eyes.

So this is about the 1,300th column written under my Peggotty pen-name since the then editor of the Mercury agreed in 1987 to give it a try for a couple of weeks, reviving a feature that had appeared nightly in our sister publication, the Eastern Evening News, from 1936 until it was axed in about 1985 during a major revamp.

From my entry into journalism in 1955 on the small EEN team in Great Yarmouth, I enjoyed contributing to the column, the twin incentives being not only the pleasure derived from finding topics and putting them into print but also the payment of three-ha’pence a line (roughly half a decimal penny today) I received.

The Yarmouth and Lowestoft Through the Portholes in the EEN, signed by Peggotty and Highlight respectively, were short compared with the full-page I enjoy today, but they did earn me 7s-8s (35-40p now) for each contribution, a welcome boost to my lowly salary as a trainee provincial journalist. I tried to do at least one a week.

For seven years from 1977 I adopted the Peggotty mantle with the responsibility for filing the allotted column six days a week in addition to the demands of general reporting for the Eastern Daily Press and the EEN. After I switched to the Mercury in 1984, the EEN dropped the Yarmouth and Lowestoft “Portholes”.

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In that first Mercury column in 1987 I likened Peggotty to two more fictional characters perhaps more familiar to readers than the Dickensian one: PC George Dixon, Jack Warner’s “ordinary copper” murdered by delinquent young Dirk Bogarde in film The Blue Lamp in 1950 but resurrected by television for the long-running Dixon of Dock Green, and Bobby Ewing, killed in the 1980s TV series Dallas but brought back to life.

Nostalgia is the usual name of the game in this column, and the subject matter often reflects my own interests. I owe a debt of gratitude to the friends who scour their collections of old photographs for pictures to illustrate this feature, others who contribute information on topics with which they are more familiar than I am, and readers whose letters and phone calls either spark a new subject or add to – or correct – a current one.

During Porthole’s trial weeks in 1987, subjects included townsfolk still referring to long-gone names (like the Floral Hall, Regal, Half-Way House), the famous South Beach murder of 1900, Mercury editorial secretary Iris Warner’s surprise at spotting on television her son Mark puffing on a Gauloise cigarette on camera during a BBC holidays programme about Paris, our blue buses, trading stamps... and stalwart Labour councillor Harry McGee being called “Tory councillor Fred McGee” by a national newspaper.

Oh yes, I also put in my figurative two-penn’oth on a claim by a promotional firm acting for our publicity association that 1987 marked Yarmouth’s double centenary as a holiday resort, an alleged achievement celebrated by a “do” in London hopefully providing the borough with widespread coverage.

The publicity firm declared in a press hand-out: “Though records are sketchy, the town’s civic leaders are convinced that 1787 was a significant year in the town’s history – the year when its golden sands saw the first large-scale invasion of bathers. This claim was supported by the council’s chief executive, Ken Ward: “As far as we can determine 1787 was the year when Yarmouth finally acquired the added attractions of a holiday resort.”

My challenge was based on George Nobbs’ book Bygone Yarmouth – an Illustrated History as a Seaside Resort in which he reported that 1750 saw the birth of the English seaside, spurred by the publication of a doctor’s pamphlet promoting the benefits of seawater for drinking or immersion. Fashionable society embraced this philosophy and “this was quick to be taken advantage of in Yarmouth.”

Indeed, the Bath House on Marine Parade opened in 1760, and bathing machines lined our foreshore well before 1787. But the official holiday guide in 1977 played it very safe by declaring: “Great Yarmouth: first choice for over a century.”

But even that wrangle was good publicity, and long may Yarmouth continue to be one of the nation’s prime holiday destinations. But if that 1987 council claim was correct, this year should mark the 225 years of Yarmouth as a seaside resort, but a celebration seems unlikely in this Olympics and royal Diamond Jubilee year...

This year marks 200 years since the birth of Victorian novelist Charles Dickens who coined the surname Peggotty for characters in his David Copperfield which is partly set in the Yarmouth-Blundeston area. He stayed briefly at the Royal Hotel on the seafront while researching it. Through the Porthole has always been signed by Peggotty regardless of the actual writer. I wonder how many suggested pen-names the first columnist and his editor jotted down and eliminated before Peggotty was finally agreed.

Pen-names are nothing new to me. During more than half a century in journalism, I have hidden behind several, most in weekly newspapers in small Norfolk towns, and in the Saturday night Pink ‘Un football special.

Those weekly titles had front-page editorials written by the district senior reporter but the policy then was for staff anonymity, so I was Pierman, Shannock, Black Friar, Holtfast and others I can no longer recall. Pink ‘Un jottings from football clubs were signed Bloater, Pilot, Alcydes (a classic sounding title but pronounced “all sides”), Skipper...

No wonder I am the geriatric equivalent of a crazy mixed-up kid!