Norwich and George Borrow: A Celebration, Norwich, November 2013

Norwich and George Borrow: A Celebration, 1–2 November 2013

As always, a full write-up will appear in our Bulletin: this is just a quick overview.

Norwich castle, 31st October 2013

There they come, ... from far London, or from wherever else they might chance to be at that time, to the great rendezvous in the old city; some came one way, some another: some of tip-top reputation came with peers in their chariots, ... others came in their own gigs, ... and I heard one say: “I have driven through at a heat the whole 111 miles, and only stopped to bait twice”.

Lavengro, Chapter 26

And on 31st October 2013, they had indeed come, Borrovians from all over, to the old City of Norwich, for our two day conference with our friends from the Norwich Society and Friends of the Norwich Museums.  We met up for a pre-conference social in the Champion pub, on Chapel-Field road, at 8 p.m.  The streets were full of children in Halloween costumes, the bar staff wore pointy hats, there was a skeleton on the wall, Thriller on the juke-box, and the beer mats advertised Hobgoblin — and nobody mentioned any of it, but spoke of Borrow and Norwich — well done us!

George Borrow and Norwich Society members enjoying a drink and
talk in the Champion pub, Chapel-field, Norwich

[Obligatory bit of history: The first mention of The Champion in Chapel-Field road in Norwich directories that I can find is Melville’s 1856 directory of Norwich: Charles Barnard was landlord.  In that directory there is also a Champion pub. in King street.  Did Norwich go from no Champions in 1850 to two by 1856?]

On a sunny Friday morning we found we were the largest gathering of Borrovians since 1913—61 people gathered at the Assembly House in Theatre Street.

First off was Colm Kerrigan who was speaking on Borrow’s Irish Education.  After coffee Clive Wilkins-Jones took us through Borrow’s Use of Norwich City Library and showed examples of the vandalism he perpetrated.  Adrian Vaughan, railway expert and writer, spoke next on Samuel Morton Peto—the man who built a railway line through Borrow’s estate and who, we found, had an entire graveyard of skeletons in his cupboard.  After the talk everyone wanted a copy of Adrian’s book and he sold out.  The City Bookshop in Norwich has a few copies left, details are:

Samuel Morton Peto: A Victorian Entrepreneur
Andrian Vaughan
Ian Allen, 2009
ISBN: 978 0 7110 3378 8

After a sandwich lunch at the Assembly House we broke into (at least) three groups:

* One group took a taxi to Mousehold where they no doubt heard “the wind on the heath”;

* One group, led by Freda Wilkins-Jones took the bus to the Norfolk Record Office;

* The last group, led by Norwich tour guide Wendy, took off on foot to explore Borrovian Norwich.  If you’d like to follow the tour when you’re in Norwich, it’s available on our website.

The George Borrow Society committee met in an upstairs room in Cinema City, a very nice bar and dining rooms just opposite St. Andrew’s Hall at 5.30 p.m. where they were joined by various Borrovians because their meeting overran.  Everyone then had supper (quiche, sausages, fish goujons and tartar sauce, and a lot of sandwiches) and like true Victorians “we made our own entertainment”.  Trevor Markworth (a Norwich actor) read Lavengro Chapter 2 (Borrow’s childhood).  John Hentges followed with the Lavengro Chapter 26 (“The Bruisers of England”) ending at “ was soon over.”  David Nuttall then played us the Redower Polka (Borrow’s favourite).  David has been playing concertina for 49 years, one less than the Rolling Stones have been in the music business - apart from the drugs and women - David’s musical career has paralleled theirs.  Trevor and John then performed Borrow’s encounters with Sir Richard Phillips (starting Lavengro Chapter 30.) with John playing Sir Richard, lording it over an eager, anxious young Borrow, played by Trevor.  The evening finished with David performing the Jenny Lind Polka (Jenny Lind raised the money to build the Norwich children’s hospital), and then a medley of well-known songs, where all joined in.

Saturday started with mist over the city, a bi-annual Committee meeting, and then our talks.  Victoria Manthorpe spoke about George Borrow, John Venning and Russia — explaining how the evangelical and social circles of Norwich assisted George Borrow in his mission to Russia, and the crucial part played by John Venning.  The talk was richly illustrated with drawings of old Norwich and St. Petersburg.

Next was Hazel Marsh on At the Atchin Tan: Gypsies, Music and Memory in East Anglia and South-East England (Atchin Tan means meeting place).  Looking at the topic from a gipsy point of view, and also playing us examples of true gipsy song, Hazel even got Borrovians to see that George Borrow’s “gipsy songs” were perhaps not what we and Borrow thought them.

Just before lunch Ann Ridler spoke on From Myth to Reality: Borrow’s Early Years.  Over the years various Borrovian “myths” have grown up, often caused by Borrow himself, and Ann took us through her researches to show what was really going on, what Borrow missed out etc.  For example, covering Borrow’s grandfather via Celtic Bards, Chiefs and Kings was a particularly nice touch.

After another sandwich lunch in the Assembly House we were treated to a “presentation” by Ivan Bunn.  Ivan is a firm favourite with Borrovians as he’s an real expert on Borrow and Oulton, and always comes up with new material we’d never seen before.  Saturday afternoon was a tour-de-force by Ivan (two sessions) and was beautifully illustrated with pictures, maps and extracts from the archives.  Our new Oulton timeline page gives just a glimpse of the many things Ivan touched on.

The conference finished with a dinner in The Library - a modern restaurant in what used to be the Public Library.  We were joined by the Lord Mayor of Norwich and his daughter Sarah, had a reading by John Hentges, and Clive Wilkins-Jones delivered his very funny talk on the Norwich 1913 Celebrations (see also our Presteigne visit).  A very pleasant end to a very enjoyable and informative conference.