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Norfolk: A cultural hotbed


Majestic drainage structures, mildly offensive folk groups, tea towel-based expressionism: Alan Partridge kicks off his ShortList career with a guide to the arts in his bustling home county

When sneery city people apply the word ‘culture’ to Norfolk, they usually prefix it with ‘agri’, ‘horti’ or ‘it doesn’t have any’. But if they bothered to open their eyes for a second, they’d see how thick they’d just been.

We’re not just a proud, hardworking people famed for our rich history and political might. We’re a liberal bunch with an artistic bent, or better still, ‘artistic leaning’.

Yep, Norfolk is a cultural hotbed – a heaving, teeming, writhing morass of bodies and brains that is literally groaning with culture, but without the upsetting mental image which that creates. (The only writhing bodies you’ll find in Norwich are in the backstreet men’s clubs that continue to blight parts of the city centre, thanks in full to a Labour-run council.)

As one of the first county councils to allow library users to access the internet for free, Norfolk is in a constant state of download, letting in ideas and influences from all over the world, so long as they respect our way of life and don’t expect a free ride at our expense.

So what’s on the menu, Alan? Well, loosen your belt a couple of notches, put on a head restraint and allow me to slip a funnel into your mouth and force-feed you a cultural feast that’ll leave you happy and fat.

Contemporary dance

Take dance. The county’s ethnic profile and strict highway code means you’d be hard pushed to find any ‘street dance’ here, but Norfolk folk sure like to move. Outsiders would have you believe the only dancers you’ll find here are Morris dancers, and while, yes, there are hundreds and hundreds of them, Norfolk’s flat terrain means you can spot them from a distance and steer clear if you find them annoying or infantile. No, our dance roster is pretty varied: tap, modern, jazz and disco are still performed creditably and enthusiastically. And I had a brilliant time at a céilidh (Irish hoedown) recently before we were ejected as they were selling booze without a licence.

Hard-hitting theatre

If theatre turns you on, swing by one of Norwich’s theatres for big-budget touring productions of a play or (for women) a musical. Or venture to an am-dram production in a town civic centre if you prefer your performances louder and slower.

Every so often, one of our schools will cancel a weekly step aerobics class and use its hall to host a visiting theatre production about issues or tribesmen. Seems the council believes this to be a better use of our education budget than, say, teaching children to read or not spit. That’s 2013!

Obscure classical music

If you get your kicks from tapping your feet to the tuba or timpani, then set sail for Norfolk at your earliest convenience, because we’re ace at orchestras. The ‘Norwich Phil’ is what we call the Norwich Philharmonic Orchestra. We do that because by saying ‘Phil’ instead of ‘philharmonic orchestra’ we save ourselves time. Although by explaining that I’ve now lost time. And I’ll be honest, that’s irritated me.

The 2013/14 season is as jam-packed as ever at the Norwich Phil, with recitals of pieces by composers ShortList readers are unlikely to have heard of. And if that sounds patronising, it isn’t. The Phil seems to delight in choosing works by complete unknowns. Sibelius, anyone? Liadov? Copland? Scrumbledecker? (I made that last one up.) To my mind, no classical composer can really be considered a success until one of his pieces has been used on an aftershave advert. That aside, though, a night out at the Phil still comes highly recommended. And why not team it up with an early evening dinner at one of Norwich’s excellent nosh houses, or ‘restaurants’ as they’re more commonly known?

Home-grown cuisine

‘Foodies’ will be pleased to learn that Norwich offers few of the chain outlets that have come to blight town centres in the rest of the country. Why? Because the people of Norfolk like to do things their own way.

We steadfastly say ‘no’ to the homogenisation of our high streets. Indeed, we have a very successful campaign group that fights tooth and nail (and plenty of other body parts besides) to keep Norwich more or less free of faceless multinational brands. For those interested in getting involved, meetings take place every Friday morning in the Starbucks on St Stephens Street.

Affordable art

Art fans should take a trip to Holkham Hall where the Earl’s collection of paintings attracts visitors from far and wide and high. Don’t forget to check out the gift shop where you can probably find some of these works rendered on a tea towel. It’s a sad fact that many visitors choose to take home and stain these masterpieces with bacon grease and soap suds, but if it boosts awareness of British art, I’m all for it.

Inspirational architecture

Thanks in large part to the work of the National Trust, the UK’s most important charity, our county is also blessed with a long list of magnificent period buildings.

One thinks of the Blickling Estate, Oxburgh Hall and of course the ‘Horsey Windpump’, one of East Anglia’s best-loved drainage windmills. What better way to spend a summer’s day then to visit one of these historic sites before parking up in a layby to eat a picnic of sandwiches, fizzy drinks and chocolate bars? Perfect.

Pop landmarks

That said, it’s pop and rock music that’s really put Norfolk on the cultural map. Big-hitting Queen drummer Roger Taylor is from Norfolk, as is Britney prototype Cathy Dennis. Hear’Say rocker Myleene Klass is from the county, so too is Great Yarmouth-born Hannah Spearritt, former S Club 7 singer and someone I’m proud to call a friend.

I remember in 1982 seeing a performance by the Ants. It was supposed to be Adam & The Ants, but Adam was stuck in traffic. And as they belted out an instrumental version of Stand And Deliver, I remember looking around the packed arena and just shouting “CULTURE!!!!”. It was an outpouring of pride for the county I live in and its artistic pulling power. But as I shouted it I accidentally spat some bitter in the face of a nearby man.

He complained to the security staff and I was asked to leave.

For a real treat, forget everything you think you know about folk music and get your backsides down to the Boxley Wheatsheaf on the second and fourth Sundays of every month. By day, they’re just six guys named Graeme, Phil, Graham, Martin, Andrew and Rick, plus sometimes a woman called Caroline. By night, they are Will O The Wisp, for my money the cultural highlight of the county. For the ill-informed, WOTW are a witty folk group whose perky musicianship will make you forget about the food (not very good) and who make up lyrics that gently mock the regulars.

These guys are funny – real groinwreckers – but get there before Phil gets too drunk as his tipsier lyrics can sometimes cross a line, especially towards women.

These cultural nuggets might seem small and insignificant, like so many tiny stones. But pile them up, load them into a high-pressure nozzle and they will pebble dash the face of the county of Norfolk. We’re also good at poetry.



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