Coastal campaigner MARTIN KERBY

In her latest Face to Face interview KAREN BETHELL talks to Malcolm Kerby, who has been at the forefront of the campaign to improve coastal defences at Happisburgh since moving to the village 9 years ago.

In her latest Face to Face interview KAREN BETHELL talks to Malcolm Kerby, who has been at the forefront of the campaign to improve coastal defences at Happisburgh since moving to the village 9 years ago. Now focussing his efforts on plans being considered by conservation bosses to flood 25sq miles of the Broads, Malcolm has, in the past, endured his own fair share of hardship …

Born at Greenwich, South East London, at the height of the Second World War in 1942, Malcolm, who weighed just 3 pounds, was not expected to survive for more than a few days and was hurriedly christened.

But, after being adopted by his maternal grandmother, whom he knew as “Nan”, and his grandfather, “Pop” - a London docker - Malcolm confounded doctors' expectations, only to have a second brush with death when he contracted bronchial pneumonia at the age of 6 weeks.

He was coated daily in Russian tallow and wrapped in brown paper by his devoted grandmother, and the youngster again recovered. He went on to attend his local school, leaving aged 14 to work as a messenger boy for a Soho television company.

Delivering a script one day to a London stage school, Malcolm was offered the chance of becoming an actor. Early success saw him appear on stage, in films, and on TV shows including the popular ABC Saturday night drama series Armchair Theatre.

A lifelong love of motorcycles later led to jobs as a mechanic and bike salesman, with Malcolm then working as a bus conductor and driver on one of the capital's busiest and longest routes.

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A move to Kent in 1966 saw Malcolm take a job as a tanker driver for BP, but, in 1978, his working life was cut short after a fall from a ladder led to him being laid up for nearly 18 months.

He decided to take the company's offer of early retirement and, having spent many enjoyable holidays in Norfolk, he and his then wife Jenny decided to up sticks and move to Hethel.

After a spell running an industrial insulation company with his son-in-law Richard, Malcolm, who has 2 daughters and 3 grandchildren, moved to Happisburgh 9 years ago.

He quickly became involved in community life when a meeting organised by Beach Road residents worried about the encroaching sea saw 850 people turn out to air their concerns.

Malcolm volunteered as co-ordinator of a 12-strong steering group and, five years ago, the Coastal Concern Action Group (CCAG) was born.

The group has since become internationally recognised, with its website receiving 25,000 visits per month, and Malcolm highlighting Happisburgh's plight by lobbying government ministers and appearing on national and international television.

The village has already lost 26 properties to the sea, with 6 more in immediate danger, and residents left with no hope of receiving compensation.

Malcolm, who has been the focus of dozens of newspaper articles on coastal erosion, has vowed to fight on to secure the future of the village, where he lives in Grub Street with partner Elsa and rescue horses Prince and George.

What is the best thing about your job?

Although I'm retired, CCAG has taken over my life and it's become a seven-day-a-week, full time job. The best thing about it has been having a chance to work with schools and students as far afield as Essex. Young people, to me, are like pieces of blotting paper ready to soak up knowledge.

And the worst?

The tears. The greatest single investment we make is our home and I can't help but become emotional when I see people in Happisburgh so completely destroyed from the inside. Although I have never taken an exam in my life and I am always nervous before I stand up in front of people to talk, all I have to do is to think of what the people in the village are going through and I feel I can do anything. Knowing what they are suffering gives me strength.

What is the one thing you would save if your house was on fire?

My Minolta XD7 camera, which I bought in Norwich 25 years ago. My first camera was a Box Brownie bought at the end of the war and I have had an interest in photography ever since.

Where do you go to unwind?

I love riding my motorbike and being with my horses, but I also love being at home. All my life I wanted to look out of my own window and see my own horses on my own little patch of land, and, here in Happisburgh, I've got just that.

What is your favourite Norfolk building?

I think that has to be Waxham Barn, just outside Sea Palling, because when you touch the wooden walls, you are linking hands with people who trod the same path 400 years ago. I think that if you want to find a way forward, then you need to look at where you have been.

Have you ever done anything outrageous?

At the age of 50, I did an international, two week motorbike rally from Strasbourg, through Spain and Portugal, to Barcelona. There were 211 participants from 13 countries and it was tremendous.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

Just about everything really! I do wish I'd had a proper education and, looks-wise, I'd love to be Mel Gibson or George Clooney. But the one thing I would definitely change is the lack of control I sometimes have over my emotions; I would keep my ability to stand up and fight my corner, but I often get overcome by sadness and can't help being reduced to tears.

What is your proudest moment?

There is no feeling in the world like holding a newborn child and, although there is 26 years between them, it completely blew me away when both my daughters were born.

And your greatest achievement?

I'm still waiting for that, but I would like to think that I had played some small part in creating a better and more effective management of the coast.

Who do you most admire?

My parents, Nan and Pop. Even though they were in their 50s and their own five children had left home, they adopted me, took responsibility for my life, and knocked some pretty good basics into me. I think you have to admire people who are prepared to sacrifice so much for someone else. Nan was known to everyone as “Nan Kerby” and I can't tell you how much I loved her.

Do you have any fears or phobias?

I have terrible claustrophobia which, I think, also led to a fear of flying.

What makes you angry?

Injustice; it makes me seethe!

Favourite book, film and TV programme?

The book I would choose would be Bellman, a children's book about a beagle. It's a sort of Black Beauty for hounds which was given to me when I was 9 and my daughter has still got it. My favourite film is Brassed Off (1996 bittersweet coal mining comedy) as it illustrates perfectly what the working man suffered during Margaret Thatcher's era, and my favourite TV shows are natural history programmes.

How would you like to be remembered?

As someone who turned every negative into a positive. I know what difficulty is, but the one thing I have always done is to laugh in the face of adversity.