As part of the Walking Norwich series, Singaporean writer and activist Jennifer Anne Champion has written about her experience watching a YouTube video of the streets of Norwich.
I have never been to Norwich and in these uncertain times I don’t know when I will have the pleasure. Before applying for this residency, Norwich was a place whose name I mispronounced and knew better as the name of a condominium in my country where we all mispronounce it. We do that a lot as a former colony – call places here after British names we don’t know the history of let alone how to roll off our tongues.
To then have to write of walking Norwich’s streets with these constraints is a challenge. But lucky for me, a YouTuber named RinneOnTheRoad posted a 25 minute walk they took seven months ago. Seven months. That is well within lockdown range and yet the streets in that video are busier than I expect.
And then there are the cries of the seabirds. They are mournful and so I think they are gulls but I cannot be sure.
In Singapore where I am writing this, although we are a small island you will never hear the call of sea birds. You will however hear the call of the koel and it sounds like an Oowoo. Some people call this the bird of regrets and bad decisions because to be awake when the bird is calling means you have had a long night. It also cries around 5pm when children are just finishing their homework and sighing as they must begin on a second round of homework – this time for their tuition teachers.
But the gulls are loud in the city centre. You can hear them from Upper St. Giles to St. Peter’s Street in the video. A good 7 minutes. I envy this from where I am. Unless you live by the coast, there are barely any reminders of our ties to the sea.
It’s incredible too to me how so many people walk unmasked. In Singapore, our mask-wearing is mandated by law, only to be removed in your home or when eating, drinking or smoking in public. Social distance ambassadors patrol all areas to remind you of this or issue you a fine. Early on in the pandemic, I forgot to wear a mask when I was taking a walk in the middle of the night. A patrolling police car stopped me and I remembered and apologised profusely. The cops seemed understanding but nevertheless escorted me home so that I might find my mask. We have been dutifully masked for coming to two years in a way that is both stringent and prudent.
By now, I’m with RinneOnTheRoad at Haymarket and a jaunty violin is playing. Is it live? Hard to tell in a YouTube video. But it’s charming on what looks like an overcast day. The seabird cries are gone now, replaced by the chatter of children. Children have similarly high voices to gulls. In the arcade’s vaulted ceilings these cries reverberate. The children start to sound like the birds but conversational. More than seeing the city, I wish I could talk to them.
On Castle Street onwards, I see brands that I recognise. L’Ocitanne. STA Travel. Holland & Barrett. Primark. This must be the streets for the tourists. The crowds get thinner – whether a preference for home-grown business or that shopping at all seems inappropriate in these plague times – who can say? But it is 18th December in this video, Christmas time.
I remember at Christmas last year my family agreed not to have guests or presents. It was a quietest Christmas I’d ever had and I still don’t know if I liked it that way.
On Timber Hill, a man is heard and whether he is speaking or singing, I am unsure. But I think about the appropriateness of pun here; the timbre of his voice on Timber Hill. How it rises and falls in brief notes then is felled entirely away as RinneOnTheRoad presses on.
My guide here does not know to stop for me because I am interested. They are just walking on and on but I recognise and appreciate this service they are doing, not just for me (there is no way they could have known I needed this walk). The video has 13000 views, for a user who has only 800 odd subscribers. The comments section shows great appreciation too from homesick Brits all over the world, including Norwich itself.
I think of all the people who can’t venture out in their own city in that time and now. How there is a yearning for the other side and also an anxiety of it. Whenever a lockdown lifts and we can go outside, not all of us have. Where there was a fear of loneliness in the crowds there is now both the fear of loneliness and connection, as well as the desire for connection. To want and to fear at the same time is a norm I feel too in my own country. Whenever some restrictions lift, I am not keen to meet friends or to sit at a café by myself. These experiences that I have missed have also become alien to me.
Watching this video and the countless others I have watched – of people reporting, living, doing things on my behalf – has become my normal and I am loathed to give it up, even if it means not knowing when music is live or piped from a speaker somewhere in a store, picking up what the man with the singsong voice on Timber Hill is saying, listening to people say the word ‘Norwich’ until I pronounce it properly myself.
We are now on Surrey Street and the sea birds are back. But also street music – I know it is live now as I can see the musicians in the video – as we walk St. Stephen’s leading onto Castle Meadow.
There is a store called Mr. Shoes. And I wonder whether there is a Mrs. Shoes, a Miss Shoes and an Mx. Shoes. Perhaps one day I will find out.
Jennifer Anne Champion is a Singaporean writer, archivist and educator of mixed heritage. She is the author of two poetry collections and has been published in the Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore, Esquire magazine and her national newspaper, The Straits Times. Her prose was also published in The Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singapore Short Stories edited by Cyril Wong in 2016.
Jennifer started writing poetry in 2013 and became a regular voice in the spoken word scene with around 15 slam wins under her belt before publishing A History of Clocks and Poems Read Aloud (Redwheelbarrow Books, 2015) and Caterwaul (Math Paper Press, 2016). She has since been focussing on teaching spoken word and the literary arts in public and international schools in Singapore. Jennifer is also a co-founder of poetry.sg and served as its Multimedia Editor from its inception to 2019. During her time, she helped expand the collection from poetry in English to include Malay and Chinese works.
Jennifer’s current interests lie in the intersections of textile art and the written word. A recent and avid embroiderer, Jennifer used her virtual residency with the National Centre for Writing to explore textile traditions in Singapore and Norwich and to see how this may translate into her work in poetry.
Jennifer’s residency was generously supported by the National Arts Council of Singapore.
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