The inaugural Harriet Martineau lecture, in celebration of Norwich, UNESCO City of Literature. You can listen to it in full through Writers’ Centre Norwich.
Everything, sooner or later, transforms into story: the clothes we wear, the roads we walk, the currencies we use, the places we come from, the places we go.
There was once, more than two hundred years ago, in the middle of a fine city, an ordinary-enough-looking room in an ordinary-enough-looking middle-class house. But the bricks of the walls of this house, or maybe just of this room: Were they made of something other than the usual blend of clay, sand, lime, and brickdust? Were they made of a different kind of dust altogether, a different kind of clay, a clay suffused with metamorphic properties? Because this room, in Gurney Court, Magdalen Street, in Norwich, happened to be the shared birthplace, twenty or so years apart, of two small, quite unconnected, female children who—well, wait till I tell you.
One was born on a day in May 1780, one on a day in June 1802, imagine the umbilicals just cut and their mothers—twenty years or so apart, no relation to each other, other than by the chance act of giving birth in the same building, between the same walls, under the same roof—both lying exhausted, relieved, they’ve come through the chancy thing that childbirth always is. There they are, the two babies, twenty years apart and wrapped up, probably in one of the kinds of cloth for which Norwich was famous the whole world over, and asleep at last thank God in the arms of their wet nurses. Two tiny babies, girls, one of whom, the first born of the two, we know the name of because of the sweeping prison reforms she brought about when that other baby born in the same room was a young woman, in her teens, though maybe mostly we know her name, Elizabeth Fry, and even what she sort of looked like because her picture’s been on the British five-pound note for the past decade—and the other, the latter-born one, who grew up to be a nineteenth-century household name but whose name is so little known nowadays other than by her real devotees and by a small army of wise academics in America and Japan that there was once, two hundred and eleven years after the birth of Harriet Martineau in Gurney Court, Magdalen St., Norwich, and about a five-minute walk away from that very place, a woman on a stage in the Norwich Playhouse, invited to give an inaugural lecture in the name of this astonishing nineteenth-century woman, so she stood on the stage and for a whole hour simply said, several times, one after the other, as if to insist on its presence in the present and the future, this woman’s name—so that the resonance of the name went out and entered not just every single person in the room but also the seats, the carpets, the carpet filaments, the wood, the paint and brickwork of this building, and spread through the walls into the neighbouring buildings, then to the rest of the buildings in this fine city, so that that name became part of their structural architectures, and farther, out and into the veinwork of the leaves in the trees of the town, and the bonework of the birds that landed in the trees and perched on the gutters of the buildings, and best of all that name entered the molecules of air, which then passed it between themselves, blew it around, until it spread above the building, the street, the city, the shire, the country, the places where the country meets the sea, the places where that sea meets the other countries, so that the saying of the woman’s name made a nonsense of the place where a room stops and a house starts, or a house stops and another house starts, or a street stops and another starts, or the urban stops and the rural starts, or a district stops and another starts, or a people stops and a different people starts, or a time stops and another time starts . . . the name: Harriet Martineau. Harriet Martineau. Harriet Martineau. Harriet Martineau.
Harriet Mantra-o. Harried yet, are you, by the thought that I might mean it, I might be going to do this, just say her name over and over for the whole hour? If I did, I’ve no doubt, Norwich of all places could take it. A fine city. A place where the words fine and city come together to make a place. A spiral of history into one DNA twist, Boudicca and Edith Cavell twisted into the same yarn as Religio Medici and Black Beauty, Thomas Browne somersaulting the air skeined alongside Anna Sewell. Browne, who wrote Religio Medici, the elegant spiritual memoir, the ur-memoir, which would influence through the years Coleridge, de Quincy, Woolf, even Jung, and who died with no idea, of course, how could he have? that his own skull, which he held in his hand by the chin as he wrote, would go on a journey on its own after his death, would become a peripatetic skull, leaving his body, passing from hand to hand to hand of strangers centuries after his death; what would he have made of it? And Sewell, dying two hundred years after him, only a few months after she published her “autobiography of a horse,” off to the eternities with no idea that her story would become such an international classic of anti-cruelty storytelling.
Norwich. A DNA mixture of sympathy and spiritual self-questioning. One of the earliest cities to be mapped, to have had a map drawn of it. City to which the Shakespearean actor William Kempe swore he’d morris-dance all the way from London, in 1599, and he did, and it took nine days, and when he arrived he finished his dance and even after nine bell-jingling, leg-kicking days could still leap so high in the air that he cleared a churchyard wall. City of churches, and of weavers and bootmakers, peasant revolts and food riots; city of mustard, a popular spice of a place; city of an unexpectedly bright Englishness; city with its own sharp taste.
The earliest reference to this city is on the money. NORVIC, the word, is on a coin, on silver pennies coined by King Athelstan, who reigned early in the tenth century, and this is the reason we know, and the earliest proof we have, that Norwich existed. Then the Book of Ely, in the 980s, declares the people of Norwich a people “of liberty and dignity,” as much anyway as the people of Thetford and Ipswich and Cambridge—at least, that’s what they told the Abbot of Ely, who wanted to be sure he was buying his land from more or less good sorts. Poor good sorts of Norwich, though—because the next mention is in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, in 1004, of a place “completely ranged and burned by the Danes.” Then a poet, Otto the Black, in a long poem, congratulates his fellow Vikings on making “mailcoats red in Norwich.”
Money, history, poetry. They’re how we know where we come from, where we are, and what the places are that make us. The other way we know is legacy, the other earliest proof of Norwich, a place named in wills leaving property and land as early as the eleventh century.
Money, history, the writing arts, legacy. Running like bright and dark threads through these, there’s King Edmund, bristling with arrows like a hairbrush or a porcupine, and the wolf, his wild guardian, behind him watching it happen; there’s proof that all roads lead to Tombland, where tomb means open space, not place of the dead, because if you’re looking for the dead, look under the television studios instead, under Anglia TV, where they found Roman-era bones of a hundred and thirty men, women, and children, and one of them a black woman—here’s a story waiting to be told. There was once a solitary black woman buried with more than a hundred white people, who was she? Was she a freewoman? A slave? A child of the Romans? There she is, standing with her arms by her side, her hair braided, her eye on us, right at heart of multimedia Norwich.
And ahead of her, whatever her story was, centuries after her, history bouleversing on: the great dustball of history doing what history does with much gouging-out of eyes, much burning of towers and changing of hands and hung drawn and quarterings and expelling of the Jewish people, much putting-up of walls and hauling-down of fences, much stringing-up of men from the tops of towers and steeples, much burning of witches and ducking of stools and smashing of stones and removing of altar rails, and all the while the roof bosses in the cathedral tell their stories from stone to stone, the green man puts in an appearance or two up there too, with the foliage of yet another spring spilling prolific out of his mouth.
Norwich! City of prolifi-cacy. Prolifi-city, always a writer’s city, an artist’s city, with its pens made of bone, dregs of the 1300s, found in the archaeological digs, and not just pens but a flute that was made from the bone of a wing of a swan—there’s a story there too. Maybe a story called “Swan Song.” There was once a swan, minding her own business on the banks of the Wensum, digging her beak in among her feathers to keep them clean and arranged properly and warm; it was spring, though cool for spring, and she was contemplating rounding up her cygnets, herding them with her beak onto her broad back and taking them for a boat ride downstream to where the greenery was tastiest, but who’s this hugger-muggering toward her through the bushes as if she can’t see him clear as day, even if he is dressed in green to pretend he’s just part of the greenery, it’s a man with a sack over his back full of, what is it? Pipes and piccolos, is he a musician? Maybe one of the musicians who plays in the streets for what money the townspeople will give him, no, wait, it’s a her, a woman, one of the ones who dress as minstrels and wander the streets as wild as boys. Look at her, her hands behind her back as if she’s not at all interested in pulling any swan’s feathers for her bed, as if that’s the last thing she’s thinking of. Good day, Mistress Bird, she says, and the swan hisses, shows her her beak. I mean you no harm, she says, I just wanted to ask you something. Ask me what? the swan says, in swan language, which the woman seems to understand, maybe because she’s a musician or maybe she’s one of those people who tie feathers to the end of a stick, then dip the feathered stick into colours, to put pictures of landscapes, or creatures, horses, swans, suchlike, onto the walls of their houses, and the swan stands up square on her feet and hisses again. No, I just wanted to know, the person says, seeing how very beautiful you are (the swan stops the hiss at once, arches her neck back), how very beautiful in the so-bright whiteness of your down, you are probably the most beautiful swan I’ve ever seen, in the curve of neck and the fineness of your wingbone (at this the swan arches her neck farther, back, up, head down, even more beautifully, shrugs her wings), what I wanted to know, the musician says, putting her bag down, was which you’d prefer, as an afterlife? (As a what? the swan takes three steps back and opens her wings wide to show how much bigger than human she is and that she can break bones with these wings.) Ah! You see? the musician says. Look at the strength of those wings! Because life is short, swan, and I’ve a feeling that fine wing of yours is full of bones that can be taught to sing (at this the swan, who dearly wishes she could sing like those maddening little birds in the branches of the trees, who sail the air like tiny skiffs and sing so effortlessly that it makes the swan feel heavy as a river boulder, puts her head on one side to listen to how), but the musician doesn’t say anything else, just sits down on the bank of the river next to her sack of stuff and waits (well, come on, teach me to sing, says the swan, in swan language, what are you waiting for?). Oh, you know, for the natural lifespan of a swan to pass, the musician says (the what? the swan says) or a passing fox to break your neck and use it as a feather boa, I don’t mind what happens, but I’ll make use of it whatever does, the musician says (charming, says the swan, well, you’ll have to wait a long time then if it’s me you’re waiting for). Yes, I’m very patient, the musician says, and the swan eyes her with the black bead of her eye and settles down opposite her, and they sit there, and sit (a tune from my bones, hah, says the swan, that’ll be the day, what kind of a tune are you planning to play on me?). It’s a Norwich kind of a tune, the musician says, it goes: “And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
And today you can still see that flute someone made from the wingbone of a swan. It’s in the Castle Museum.
Oh, a very Norwich tune, said the swan. A very Norwich afterlife. Tell them the story of the man who came back to life after he was hanged.
Okay, I will. There was once a Norwich man and the man’s name was Walter, and he was tried for stealing cloth, probably one of the kinds of cloth for which Norwich was world-renowned, and he was found guilty and sentenced to death. They hanged him till he was dead, and took his body to St. George Tombland, and laid him down—and he opened his eyes and sat up. And they didn’t know what to do with him, so the largest of the men in the church sat on his chest and another man sat on his legs, so he couldn’t run away, and one of his sitters put a hand over his mouth, they didn’t want the people to know he wasn’t dead or, worse, that he’d come back from the dead, and one of them went and stood guard at the church door while they debated hanging him again, waited to see whether he’d just die, maybe just keel over like he was supposed to, having been hanged and all, but, no, he stayed very much alive, so they kept him hidden and secret there, feeding him and watering him, the next day, and the next, and the days passed, till a fortnight later, when Walter, using the excuse of relieving himself, had healed in the neck enough to slip out a back window, slip past the lookout at the back of the church, and escape. And he managed to contact the king with his story and ask for a pardon, which the king duly gave him. And all manner of thing shall be well, said Walter.
Norwich. City of fruitful gainsayers. “But for I am a woman,” Julian of Norwich said, “should I therefore live that I should not tell you of the goodness of God?” City of unabashed progressives. City of public libraries, from the year 1608 onward. City of the invention of the spinning jenny. City with generally a pretty good reputation for looking after its poor, though also with a tendency to hang metal collars round the ones it judged idle. Not that there were many idle people in Norwich, not if you take Defoe’s word for it. This is what he writes, in 1724:
If a stranger was only to ride through or view the City of Norwich for a day, he would have much more reason to think there was a town without inhabitants . . . but on the contrary, if he was to view the city either on a Sabbath-day, or any public occasion, he would wonder where all the people could dwell, the multitude is so great. But the case is this: the inhabitants being all so busy at their manufactures, dwell in their garrets at their looms, and in their combing-shops, so they call them, twisting-mills, and their other work-houses, almost all the works they are employed in being done within doors.
City of trade and manufacture from the word go, from the word Norvic onward, the word on the money. There are some good stories about Norfolk people actually named Money, particularly the Moneys of Trowse. In the 1766 food riots, a mob broke in and stole everything they could get from rich Mr. Money in Trowse; twenty or so years later, Major John Money, also in Trowse, had a liking for hot-air ballooning, and in 1785 he went up in one to raise money for Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. But he had trouble steering the balloon, and managed to steer himself out to sea, where the balloon ditched and floated on the surface, scaring a Dutch vessel into thinking they’d come across a sea monster. Major Money eventually reached dry land in Lowestoft the next day. And finally a more sobering Money story. In 1807, a sixteen-year-old boy who’d stolen a horse from General Money in Trowse and been transported for seven years for his theft made the long sea journey back to England and to Trowse, especially to set fire to General Money’s barn and barley. That boy, that very young man, Thomas Sutton, was hanged this time. His father before him had been hanged too, for stealing horses. There’s a chilling true story, one about legacy, in that.
Ali Smith’s latest books are the novel There But For The (Penguin, 2011), the fiction/essay collection Artful (Penguin, 2012) and the short story collection Shire (Full Circle, 2013). She lives in Cambridge U.K.