Written by Jess Macdonald

Voices

Letter to my hometown: Norwich, on the road to nowhere

Hey Norwich, Jess Macdonald has something she needs to say to you. No, don’t walk off…

Norwich: A Fine City signIt’s considered the done thing to sneer at the place you grew up, and in your case, you make it easy with the slogan you’ve adopted: “a fine city”. It’s alright, I s’pose, if you like that sort of thing, it’s OK, it’s fiiine… Growing up here, I didn’t love you. You were just there, being normal, being Norwich, being fine. In as much as I ever considered you as a place, you just happened to be the city that housed Topshop and Miss Selfridge.

And then we moved back here, five years ago, after 12 years in Fenland. Let’s be honest, after 12 years hard labour in Bogmaggot Land, anywhere would be an improvement. But, oh my city, oh my place of birth, I fell for you, and I fell hard. It was like realising that you are in love with your best friend. I saw you with new eyes and now I adore you.

It’s not just that you are beautiful, with your castle, your cathedrals, your perfect patchwork spread of market stalls. It’s not just the endless joy of your twisting alleyways, passages and yards (Labour in Vain Yard, possibly the best place name ever, although St Gregory’s Back Alley might quibble). It’s not just your 31 medieval churches within the city walls, or the fact that you have an area known as Tombland. It’s not even the fact that you have the best high street in the UK, officially.

“No one ends up in Norwich by accident. If you’re here, it’s because you’re meant to be.”

It’s the fact that you are an independent city, a bolshy, thriving, bustling little city that never cares what other people think about you. We get laughed at, Norwich, because we are provincial, we’re the city in the sticks, we’re on the road to nowhere. There’s a reason Alan Partridge comes from Norwich and that’s because it’s a joke.

Other cities might get The Arse about that. What do you do, Norwich? You mount a huge social media campaign to get the world premiere of the Alan Partridge film in a manky cinema in the crumbling and universally unloved remains of the Anglia Square shopping complex. And of course, Norwich, you win. Steve Coogan even turns up in a helicopter for it.

Alan Partridge BBC

Photo: BBC.

No one ends up in Norwich by accident. If you’re here, it’s because you’re meant to be. There’s no other reason, no way anyone can happen to be just passing through. Located as we are in the bump of Norfolk that juts out into the North Sea, we stand alone, we stand apart. Some might say that makes us insular. I disagree. When you are the only city for miles and miles around, you attract the different ones. The ones who never really fitted in with their town or village. They come to the nearest city and they find their place here.

Delia Smith graffitiI see them, the various tribes, in every place I visit in this city. No one judges them, no one talks about them, no one really even notices them; they’re just left to get on with whatever floats their wherry boat. They’re not welcomed, obviously, Norwich doesn’t do hugs. What it does do is respect. The motto of the university, city, and county is “do different” (which is also a bit of an insight into Norfolk dialect). And wherever you go in this little jewel, studded in Norfolk’s fecund, rolling, glorious countryside, you’ll see that.

The reams of independent shops, the exhibitions, the festivals, the literary heritage, the green plaques adorning so many buildings that pay eloquent homage to the rich and varied history of this city, from the tiny Adam & Eve pub dating back to 1241, right up to the soaring glass majesty of The Forum on Millennium Plain.

It’s there in Stranger’s Hall, so named after the Dutch religious refugees who were welcomed to the city in the 16th century. It’s there in the huge public party that was organised to counter an EDL march a few years ago, greeting hatred with a mass lovebombing. It’s there in Head in the Clouds, a trippy, dippy, hippy headshop, that’s a rite of passage for most Norfolk teenagers. It’s there in the graffiti in an underpass that ended up being an argument over several weeks:

Head in the Clouds headshop

It’s not just the churches that are historic here.

“ARE WE FREE?”
“Define ‘we’, define ‘free’”
“We’re free if we say we’re free, it’s that simple”
“I WASN’T ASKING YOU”
“But I’m free to answer, so yes, we’re free.”

All written in three different hands and left there for anyone else who feels the need to respond (personal favourite underpass graffiti: “I like nonconformity. But only if you don’t”).

Norwich, you never tubthump. You never shout out loud who you are; you just get on with it, and let everyone else get on with their stuff too. You’re beautiful, you’re special, you’re fierce and you’re alright. You say that you’re fine. To my eyes, you are a mighty fine city, and goddammit, I love you.

@jessikart

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Written by Jess Macdonald

Jess Macdonald is a quite sweary blogger and mother of two with Scottish hair. http://putupwithrain.blogspot.co.uk