The journalist who made it all up

Christopher south

Christopher south - Credit: Archant

Sixty-one years, almost to the day, journalist Christopher South was photographed outside the telephone box where in 1954, a police officer taught him how to make telephone calls for free.

He said: “You used to tap the cradle, once for one and twice for two. The trouble was dialling 0. You had to tap the thing 10 times but the spaces between the taps had to be exactly even, otherwise you would get through to the wrong number.”

The young Christopher, now 78, began his career as a journalist in Saffron Walden, and worked in the town’s Market Square.

The occasion of this picture, though, isn’t simply a celebration of the career of a writer and broadcaster.

He has, once again, done what all journalists are accused of doing but few actually dare – he’s made it all up. His first book The Authorised Guide to Grunty Fen, Gateway to the East, was based on a completely fictional village with entirely invented people. Its chapters and stories delighted South’s audience on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire.

It sold out several times while on sale at Saffron Walden Tourist Information Centre.

South said: “They kept asking for more copies and I couldn’t work out why people in this nice, comfortable town wanted to read about life in a rugged village in the Fens. Then it occurred to me that people living in comfort like to know that there is wilderness near them. It’s reassuring that around you there are wild places not far away.”

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It is entirely made-up he says. “It is all a giant leg-pull. There is a sign to a place called Grunty Fen but it’s uninhabited. My late friend, Pete Sayers and I made up all the buildings and all the people.”

Sayers, a folk singer, died in 2005, aged 63. Now, South, who lives in Little Chesterford with his wife, Janet, has written a sequel – Who’s Who in Grunty Fen. This is described as: “Brief lives of the hidden heroes who made Grunty Fen what it is today.”

Among the characters is The Reverend Barry “Barmy” Barnard (1937 to 1990), described as “ditch inspector, visionary and calendar reformer”.

It was Barnard, South writes, who invented the famous “V” nozzle for bicycle pumps making it possible to inflate two tyres at once. He also developed a technique for using clear starch for floppy flowers, still used by pansy arrangers.

One of the stories is about Barnard inspecting ditches at a place called Much Harm. Another character is the poet Austin Challis from Little Guttering.

His oeuvre was discovered when a workman demolished a small hut at the end of the garden at his home. They found sheets of yellowed paper covered in handwriting and hung from a rusting hook in the wall, apparently by the poet’s wife who had scant respect for his flair.

Both books are available at Saffron Walden Tourist Information Centre in the Market Square.