Image source: Georgina Parfitt
A miniature boating lake was the central watering hole of the families at Eaton Park in Norwich. Water gently pocked by the wind took a sailboat from one side to the other, where it rested against the stone edge until it was taken up again and relaunched. Colour was vital. Oh, the delight of a boating lake with one of every colour at sail!
My own family was the observing kind. We watched the boats like commentators at a regatta, adjudicators of class, and then we moved on, never launching a boat of our own, to the ice cream stand in the pavilion, to the tennis match, or back to the car to go home.
When I returned to the park as an adult for the first time, I was disturbed. The lake, I thought, was hideously shallow, like a joke lake, barely grander than a paddling pool. My instinct was to turn around and leave the park immediately without looking left or right, and never return again; I wanted to protect the park from whatever had happened to my senses.
But, something had also been gained. Something was here that hadn’t been here before. It was a deep, strange pleasure - déjà vu.
Norwich is a city recognized by cultural organisation UNESCO for its literary significance. It has the University of East Anglia, which hosts one of the most productive writing programs in Europe. It also has a festival with a literary bent in the summer that brings authors to the city from all over the world, and, throughout, there are cafes and venues that make writers feel very welcome. Norwich is also where I grew up, where I went to the dentist, where my first boyfriend took me on a date, and where I played in the park with the rectangular boating lake, which I knew for certain at the time was the very pinnacle of elegance.
When it became clearer what trying to be a writer would entail, I started to associate changes of scene with good, fresh writing. I didn’t want to go to university at the University of East Anglia and eat my lunch in one of the writer-friendly cafes in the high street, because it didn’t offer me that change of scene. I worried that seeing the same things over and over again would cause me to stop noticing or stop even looking at all.
But despite the changes of scene that I got elsewhere, and bouts of good, fresh writing, returning to Norwich - even saying the name is a return home in those two familiar sounds - was inevitable. So was the déjà vu. But though I could protect the boating lake by avoiding it - it was so small and separate - I couldn’t do the same with the city of Norwich. So that deep, pleasurable feeling of nostalgia transformed again. I sat with it and got to know it.
Just like when you look at a word for too long, and all of a sudden, it becomes a new thing, a different animal, the city’s familiarity became almost bizarre. Within Norwich’s familiar limits were the streets, corners, market stalls, slopes, degrees and phenomena that I knew with my eyes closed. I could look around and notice how my own sensations and memories were attached to the very architecture and infrastructure of the city.
Embarrassment was where I’d made a hash of ditching that boy I went on a date with. I couldn’t walk over the patch of pink concrete without calling out my old self, the same reprimanding phrases forming in my mouth. The cobbled slope that led, with a particular rhythm of knee shocks and arm swings, to the Briton’s Arms café told me about my nerves; it was the slope I walked up on the way to an exam and walked down after the exam was over. The sight of Norwich Castle on the hill behind the high street brought to my mind the array of gift shop treats that I used to consider on school trips. Bookmarks, rubber balls, pencils, rulers, toy swords, keyrings like drawbridges.
This map became suddenly something provocative, giving me endless collections of ideas and characters to use, all tied unbreakably to the real emotional stuff of my life.
Norwich is certainly a literary city, with a university and a festival and cafes that will help you feel like a writer. But you might as well insert your own home town into this title, because I recommend exploring the place that you know too well, because it will always have something else to show you.
Georgina Parfitt is a fiction and features writer based in Norfolk, UK, and editor at Towerbabel, a collaborative publishing platform for writers and readers. You can follow her on Twitter or find her non-fiction work at The Atlantic online, the Harvard Advocate and forthcoming in the Kings Review and Unthology Number 6.
We think Norwich sounds lovely.
You can read more about its City of Literature designation here.
The writers' centre that Georgina references is here.
Maybe you could also try some books set in Norwich.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.