Notes From A New (Old) City

The quiet often floors me here, on the green edge of the city. It’s quiet in an entirely different way to the very rural house I moved from, where agricultural machinery and speeding cars cut sharply through a bigger emptiness. At night, the silence is thick, but a few sounds still slice it up, all of them haunting and not typically urban. The honk of trains is a ghostly wail circling the house which seems to come from no place where there is a track and continue far beyond the parameters of national rail timetables. Meanwhile, in the woods up the hill, on the edge of something created by the night, muntjac deer gather in groups and bark incantations into the early hours. It makes the foliage seem deeper than it is and the proximity of Aldi and Crystal’s Nail Salon and senior lettings negotiators and Halfords seem impossible. A hedgehog snuffled about outside my bedroom for several nights, creating a noise twice the size of itself, then eventually – on hot evenings when I left the back door ajar – began letting itself in and helping itself to my cats’ food. I arrived home from the pub one night with my friend Louise and, as I boiled the kettle, noticed the hedgehog napping in the corner, beneath the cutlery drawer. “Was I so drunk last night that I thought it was perfectly normal for you to gently pick a hedgehog up and take it outside?” Louise asked the next day. The hedgehog’s attitude to me has become gradually more nonchalant, and at this point it would not surprise me in the slightest to find him stretched out upside down on my bed, paws splayed, greeting me with a casual yawn as I rummage for my pyjama bottoms.

One of my worries about coming back here, to Norwich, was the London Seep. When I tried to talk myself out of it, I decided 121 miles was too close to be to the capital: I would really just be living in just another gentrified suburb which was losing its accent. It’s not like that at all. It’s still full of regional idiosyncrasies, edged with rurality. But it has purchased a new smart coat. The coat is largely made out of nice things: shops selling fancy houseplants, more friendly pubs, art, culture, eclectic food. On my first morning back here, I ate an omelette – with a bed of salad hiding underneath – cooked by an Egyptian man. It was incredible. Such a thing would have been unthinkable in the same place in 2002, or probably even 2010. But when the new coat flaps open in the wind, you can see a few injuries that haven’t been properly attended to. The coat isn’t quite warm enough. There’s more homelessness here than ever, more alcohol and drug abuse. But that is perhaps just any city in 2019, not specifically this city. It is where we all are.

For my first three weeks here, I was drunk on convenience in a way I never have been before in my life: shops, pubs, cafes, DIY shops, people, potential. I spent a whole hour in my old favourite DIY shop, spellbound, locating everything I needed, spinning around with a big grin on my face, like Lorraine Bracco does at her wedding to Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. I don’t accept help easily, and I like to think I can manage alone anywhere. I believe this remains true. But after over half a decade living alone in various semi or extremely remote places, a move to a city will elucidate a few of the facts of your previous circumstances to you. “Oh, actually, that was a bit tricky at times, and quite hard work wasn’t it?” you say to yourself. “I did quite well. I understand why I was tired now.”

Few metropolitan places are as Red or as Green as Norwich, and it seems in keeping with the place’s character that its big historical hero, Robert Kett, was a wealthy man who fought on the side of poor rustics, despite having no self-serving motivation to do so. I live on Kett’s side of the city. It’s got nicer pubs than it once had but it’s still the non-trendy side: the hilly side, without the artisan bakeries. People who’ve never bothered to meet Norwich spread all sorts of wildly inaccurate rumours about Norwich. “Everyone is inbred,” they say. “It’s really flat,” they say. Meanwhile, Norwich hears this and thinks, “Have you even looked at me, or my contents?” Kett’s Heights, the spot from which he and his rebel army besieged the city in 1549, is a terrific, towering vantage point from which to get the shape of the place: the tiered, compact layout that, unlike most cities, doesn’t look bludgeoned by corporate progress. You gaze at the mass of the cathedral directly below you across the river, still dwarfing every other building around it after all these centuries, and you get a bit dizzy, thinking about what went into the building of its roof and spire, and then you remember exactly when that happened, and the rudimentary building apparatus available at the time, and you get a hell of a lot dizzier. As I stood there, being dizzy for this exact reason, and trying to work out where Marks & Spencer was on the grid below me, a big dog ran up behind me and cough-barked and I turned to stroke it, only to realise it was a human jogger, choking. I withdrew my stroking hand, and the jogger ran off down the hill, continuing to choke, reminding me of one of the many reasons why I choose not to jog.

We went to see some Gardens. Alan let us into the Gardens, even though we only had £3.81 in change, and it was cash only and the actual price was £4. He told us not to tell Brian, so we didn’t. Later, in the cemetery, there were rabbits and a lone pale ginger-haired boy and I noticed a cloth cap had been left hanging on one of the graves. The cemetery is wild and beautiful and was built to provide a new, non-denominational space in 1821, when the other cemeteries in the city were overflowing with corpses to the extent that body parts were often pushed back above the surface. People worried that the overcrowding was effecting the water supply, since most parish pumps were located next to cemeteries. The water from one Norwich pump was described as “almost pure essence of churchyard”. I often moan about the water in modern Norfolk but I have found myself doing so less, since hanging out in the cemetery.

It’s a quiet and mild city, although I perhaps didn’t realise how quiet and mild until the other day when I walked through it with my dad, who is neither of these things. My mum and I kept losing my dad, then realising he had stopped to take a photo of some people sitting on a bench who he thought looked interesting or to pretend to shout abuse at a motorcyclist or to try to sneak onto the end of a guided history tour and consume some of the information for free. “LOOK AT THIS: IT’S FUCKING AMAZING!” my dad said, as we reached Pull’s Ferry, the fifteenth century flint watergate near the cathedral. “WHY HAVE YOU NEVER SHOWN ME IT BEFORE?” “I showed you it in 2005, and 2009,” I said. “NO YOU DIDN’T,” said my dad. “I’D KNOW IF YOU HAD.” I noticed that nobody else in Norwich was as loud as my dad, or as keen to make friends with strangers. I began to feel like someone leading a large, inquisitive dog through a lawn bowls event, with a blaring radio attached to the dog’s collar. “I am charmed by this dog’s enthusiasm but why don’t its owners turn the radio down?” I imagined the bowls players thinking. But what the bowls players didn’t realise was that the radio didn’t have a volume switch, just one marked “ON” and another marked “OFF”, and that these switches controlled the dog too, not just the radio.

A friend met me at the pub and told me he had been clearing out his gran’s house. One thing he’d found in the house was a knitted effigy of the man who had run off and abandoned my friend’s pregnant aunt. Into the effigy had been stuck twenty knitting needles: one for every year since the man had vanished.

I would be a different writer if I had never moved away from Norwich, and a different person, which is really saying precisely the same thing, when you’re me. Five and a half years in the West Country gave me a whole different set of colours to work with. I can’t imagine where or who I’d be without that. But I’ve noticed that my time there has tuned me into my surroundings here in a way I wasn’t before. It’s a more interesting place to me than it once was. I notice alleys I never noticed before, atmospheres, doors, gates, seamless architectural meetings of old and new and less new that isn’t quite old. There seem to be more churches than there used to be. The dust of the city’s religious past blows down the streets in a way it doesn’t in Exeter or Plymouth or Bristol. The best way to find a church in Norwich is generally to walk seven or eight yards from the church you’re already standing next to.

I’d forgotten that people place more importance on cars here than they did where I was living before: view them as not so much an extension of their personality as the personality itself. Engine size and bodywork are inextricably tied in with who they believe they are becoming as an individual. They rev their engines and race you at the lights, never suspecting for a moment that you’re not signed up for the same tournament as them; you’re just listening to a 1960s Gene Clark album and reminding yourself to buy lettuce. They make a risky move, without signalling, to gain one position in the queue, and you can’t help speculating about what they believe they will achieve, and what prize awaits them at the end of their journey – a piece of food so delectable, perhaps, that placing it on the tongue thirty nine seconds earlier will make all the difference. My car is often hungry, but doesn’t join in, and probably couldn’t even if it wanted to. One of the many questions I have answered “Yes” to while living in my new city is “Is your car actually just held together with tape?”

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24 thoughts on “Notes From A New (Old) City

  1. I am looking forward to reading more about Norwich. My mum had to go to the walk-in health centre there on Monday and I spent a happy hour looking round an ex-church junk shop. In the short walk to get there I had passed two other churches so your point about the proximity of the next church made me smile. The cathedral is magnificent and Sarah at our b&b told us the stone was brought from France. So many boatloads of stone! Toby the large golden dog’s cafe near the cathedral was very nice too.

  2. Spent three very happy years at the art school in Norwich in the early 70’s. Looking forward to reading about it nowadays.

  3. Your description of the city has made me determined to visit Norwich, Tom. And it is so true what you say about cars. In West Devon my little runabout looks quite smart, but it has done 120,000 miles and is 15 years old. When I drive it nearer to Bristol it loses its self esteem and wants to go home.

    1. “It loses its self esteem and wants to go home!” Cracked me up.

      I live in the American coastal west, and I know of no location in that vast territory where such a shift occurs. East, now, that’s a different story…

  4. Welcome back to this wonderful fine city. I spent 8 years living in Edinburgh, but I always knew I’d return. I’ve been back here for 6 years now and it just gets better and better.

      1. Thanks Tom, for signing my book last night. I was the idiot who complimented your Mum’s linoprints instead of telling you how great I think your books are. I wouldn’t have been there if I didn’t think so, of course. I hope you’re enjoying city life, and don’t leave too soon!

  5. I have lived in or around Norwich all my life (bar two years in Devon failing dismally to get a degree). Your observations are spot on, and beautifully worded. Progress has been, and will be made, and that’s the way of life. Their loss, not yours.

  6. Fabulous! I have just finished reading Help the Witch (which was bloody fantastic!) looked you up, only to find you live across town from me in Norwich. As someone who also left and then came back I love your writing on this too, I find Norwich full of so many hidden wonders I never noticed when growing up. Sometimes it feels a bit of a bubble but on the whole it’s a pretty fine city!

  7. Well that’s put Norwich on my list of places to visit. Really enjoyed your piece as ever Tom. Hope you manage to unpack everything soon!

  8. You’ve perfectly encapsulated everything I love about Norwich! We love it so much it’s where we’re thinking of buying our house and settling down. The church comment is so true 😛

  9. Wow, what a change for you it must be, but I love the fens and Norwich city, never cease to love exploring the area whenever I visit my rellies in Peterborough from Australia. They think I’m bonkers when I take off for the day down some tiny quiet lanes, with rather sharps humps when you least expect them, they only use A roads. They haven’t seen half the beautiful pIaces I have right on their own doorstep. Everytime I visit I want to stay in the most rural village, forever. It’s always hard to come home, but it’s that magical countryside that keeps me coming back. I hope this move is a forever stay for you too and I can’t wait to hear more of your thoughts on your new home, and I hope you think it’s half as wonderful as I do Tom.

  10. I really loved this Tom, thank you – I think that there is something very powerful and evocative in writing about nature at the edges of a city and how wildness and beauty can co-exsist next door to the big Aldi. X

  11. “A hedgehog snuffled about outside my bedroom for several nights, creating a noise twice the size of itself…” This is the most perfect description.

    You write so originally.

  12. Loved reading this – we’ve lived in Norwich for four years, now, and are still finding things to be amazed by. Looking forward to more from this part of the world. Thank you!

  13. I love Norwich to bits. One of my favourite cathedrals too. And the walk through the close down to the water gate. Your comment about the churches made me think of York, though. Close to me in Shipley in distance, but way distant in atmosphere!

  14. Another fabulous piece! What is it with hedgehogs and their noise?!? I once house sat for a friend and had the patio doors open late one evening, all of a sudden there was a horrible loud snuffling noise and grunting, I went cautiously to the door (half expecting a bear to appear) and there right outside were two hedgehogs squaring up to each other! Couldn’t believe the noise such small animals were making!

  15. Hello Tom
    As a relative newcomer to the region (6 years on the Suffolk coast with Norwich our nearest city) I’ve come to feel real affection for Norwich, and this essay really made me smile!

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