Normal for Norfolk: Where did the phrase come from?

Normal for Norfolk star
Image caption The new BBC Two programme Normal for Norfolk follows farmer Desmond MacCarthy as he struggles to keep his 17th Century manor home afloat

The phrase Normal for Norfolk has become the title of a new BBC Two documentary programme. But what really is normal for Norfolk?

The TV show follows Norfolk farmer Desmond MacCarthy as he struggles to keep his 17th Century manor home afloat. But the phrase apparently has its origin in the medical profession.

"It was originally used as a rather derogatory slur," says Keith Skipper, an author who has investigated its origins.

"Normal for Norfolk - or NFN - most likely came from doctors to indicate the patient betrayed a peasant or rustic streak, or as a form of exasperation with patients who couldn't describe their symptoms."

Mr Skipper, who is also a broadcaster, entertainer and the founder of Friends of Norfolk Dialect, said the doctors who gave the world the phrase NFN were most likely "furriners", or people from outside the county.

Of course, odd things and quirky people can be found anywhere. But Norfolk often adds a comic piquancy to the foibles of life.

Image caption Norwich was chosen as Alan Partridge's home as it had "his weird kind of isolated feel that seemed right"

A rich seam of comedy seems to run through the county's veins. It is, after all, home to comics Charlie Higson, Stephen Fry and Arthur Smith, who studied at the University of East Anglia.

One of Norfolk's most famous sons has been shining a light on its quirky ways on the big and small screen for the past two decades: Alan Partridge.

Armando Iannucci, one of the writers involved in the creation of the Partridge character said Norwich was chosen as his home because it was "geographically just that little bit annoyingly too far from London, and has this weird kind of isolated feel that seemed right for Alan".

Norfolk-based entertainer Pat Nearney reckons Partridge offers a "clever take on the county", hooking into people's perception that the county's residents are on the slow side.

"I like to think people think we have cabbages behind our ears, but actually we're three steps ahead of them. The joke's on them," he said.

Mr Nearney, who performs a comedy show entitled We're Still A'Troshin', believes Normal for Norfolk star Mr MacCarthy fits in the same mould as the hapless presenter played by Steve Coogan.

"He's quite an entrepreneur, that chap, though he does it in a laid-back way.

"He's very entertaining, but he's a lot more clever than what people give him credit for."

Image copyright Twitter
Image caption The wardrobe was strapped to the car using a sheet of bubble wrap

Fuel is perhaps added to the fire of the "normal for Norfolk" perception by certain news stories that emerge from the county.

Take, for example, a recent occasion when police spotted a car being driven with a wardrobe on its roof.

That might not sound too odd - but add in the fact the item of furniture was battened down with nothing more than bubble wrap when police in Great Yarmouth spotted it, and an NFN story is born.

Norfolk has also been known to hire students as human scarecrows.

In 2013, university graduate Jamie Fox donned a bright orange coat and played an accordion to frighten away birds on a large field in Aylsham.

Image copyright Martyn Fox
Image caption Jamie Fox used a cow bell and even played the ukulele to scare away birds

Unusual? Yes. But it worked. Where conventional bird scarers failed, Mr Fox succeeded in deterring the partridges from gobbling the rape seeds.

The bubble wrap roof rack and the human scarecrow, says Mr Skipper, were "good examples of Norfolk 'dewin' diffrunt'.

"We have something of a cussed streak, often employed simply to annoy newcomers and tourists."

Statistically speaking, working and living in Norfolk compares favourably to the rest of the country.

Image copyright Getty Images

Norfolk, a more serious side:

  • Norfolk was the home of Admiral Lord Nelson who helped save Britain from Napoleonic invasion at the Battle of Trafalgar
  • The county provided sanctuary to Albert Einstein when he fled Hitler's Germany in 1933
  • The first woman to write a book in the English language? Yes, a Norfolk woman - Julian of Norwich in about 1390

"Normal for Norfolk" means about six months extra life-span compared with "normal for England".

And while it might be true that Norfolk people are more likely to have an alcohol-related visit to hospital, they also experience less homelessness, less violent crime, lower long-term unemployment, less drug misuse and fewer early deaths from cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

They are also happier than the average English person, something which doesn't surprise Mr Skipper.

"I think the best thing to do is to smile and keep on going," he says. "You can suffocate, but you can't Norfolk-ate.

"Normal for Norfolk is to never take what people say about us too seriously."

Entertainer Mr Nearney agrees: "With the television programme, you look at the setting and it's just beautiful.

"Norfolk is a lovely place to be, and a lovely place to live, and that's coming across."

But he believes one of the county's main assets is the fact it is rather tricky to access.

Famously, it has no motorways, and a train from London takes two hours to cover the 100 or so miles (160km) to Norwich - a train from London to Paris, a journey of more than twice the distance, takes about the same time.

"People would rather the county stay a bit cut off - I'm not saying we should build a drawbridge, but part of the charm is it's difficult to get here," he said.

Watch Normal for Norfolk on the BBC iPlayer or on BBC One at 22:00 BST on Wednesday 27 April and Wednesday 4 May.

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