by Sarah Hall
This is part of the Walking Norwich series.
I’m a creature of habit. When I walk I tend to take the same routes and roads, like a rodent in a maze, or, more glamorously perhaps, a fox patrolling its territory. I was raised in the Lake District – not altogether easy terrain to travel in and over. Mountains, waterways, snow, storms, floods. Perhaps staying on ‘way-made’ paths was safer, quicker, just sensible, and that lesson has remained.
For the last twenty years, I’ve lived in towns and cities – currently Norwich. As municipalities go, Norwich is gently industrial, greenish, blessed with avenues of old trees, and a gorgeous river. Countryside doesn’t feel shut out, but is like a guest within the urban spaces. I walk most days, always towards water or open land, searching for bits of wildness.
Closest to me is Eaton Park – a lovely, formal, and very well used tract, west of the city centre. Some days it’s heaving with runners, dog-walkers, hobbyists, ball-players, even funambulists. Other days, abandoned. I can’t pretend the boating lake is a lake, the bandstand a fell, or the grassy stretches valleys. But it’s wind-blown, refreshing, and has wildlife – birds, squirrels, fish. It has the heady fragrance of blossom in spring, fire-coloured leaves in autumn, and stretches of meadow.
Place is important to me; it offers inspiration, before all the other components of fiction. That isn’t to say a setting is ever exact. Or that being in a place myself feels manifest. I’ve lived all over, including Ireland, Scotland, Italy, and America. Each location has its identity, unique qualities. But the borders between real and imagined landscapes have always seemed permissive to me. Knowledge, experience and speculation combine. Perceptions of place warp, may seem romantic, catastrophist, natal, at any given time. I go to parts of Norwich that remind me of my formative years, perhaps. I walk through its districts or along the river and imagine a future, dystopian, ruined version, like Carlisle, where I lived through extreme floods and blackouts a decade ago. Versions of places. Geo-fiction.
The Lake District was prime location for this idea of mutability. It transfigured, courtesy of the Romantics. Brutal became beautiful. That’s a reductive summary, but the point is, writers have always recalibrated place, even as they try to represent, to world-build, accurately. When I was a child I had a forensic interest in the physical details of Cumbria – moor grass, crayfish under rocks, smells, textures. I believed in matter. But at the same time I believed the mountains on the horizon might be a painted set, dismantle-able, with something other behind. That cognitive dissonance carries forward. I found myself on my knees in Eaton Park recently, examining the alarming carcass of a hornet, wondering it was an alien, or the beginning of a plague.
When I write I want a reader to believe in my story’s world, its sensuality, its characteristics, weather, buildings, earth and sky, creatures. I also want to play around with topography, expand or contract acres, jump forward through the effects of climate change, release wolves. To walk is a physical and mental act, to feel place under the feet in the present, to reconstitute it in the memory, and imagine how it might be anon. Walking and writing are so closely aligned.
Recently I had a conversation with a philosopher who explained the notion of ‘implicit learning’. This is coming to know things in an incidental manner, without awareness. Certainly while I am looping Eaton Park that’s how I feel. I think, without thinking. I end up formulating or furthering ideas for fiction unconsciously. So, perhaps the boating lake is a lake. The bandstand is summit. Pooches on leads are wolves. I am in parkland of the mind, as well as Eaton Park.
Sarah Hall’s first novel Haweswater won the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel. Her second novel The Electric Michelangelo was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In 2017 her second collection of short stories Madame Zero was published by Faber & Faber. The lead story, ‘Mrs
Fox’, won the BBC National Short Story Award. She has judged a number of prestigious literary prizes and tutored for Faber Academy, the Guardian and the Arvon Foundation. She was born in 1974 and raised in Cumbria and currently lives in Norwich.