Five Questions for... Laurence Mitchell

The next in our series of interviews about home and place with the editors and contributors to Elsewhere is with Laurence Mitchell. Laurence’s article on Tamchy in Krygyzstan appeared in Elsewhere No.02, and he has an essay on walking in Japan appearing in the upcoming edition of the journal, to be published in March (Image: WWII pillbox, Horsey Gap, Norfolk):

What does home mean to you?

I have always experienced two strong conflicting urges: that of the home-bird and that of the nomad. Both are equally important to me, so I am part farmer, part pastoralist I suppose. Actually, to continue this analogy I am probably more of a latter-day hunter gatherer – someone who likes to go on hunting expeditions (I am speaking figuratively here) yet wants a secure home base to return to. As any anthropologist will tell you, a lot more time is usually spent digging roots and gathering nuts and berries than catching game to eat.

I have been based in Norfolk, mostly Norwich, for forty years or so now, and am as much at home here as I am anywhere. I grew up in the West Midlands greenbelt and that still exerts a strong pull and, even after decades away, still feels to be as much ‘home’ as East Anglia does. In many ways I feel at home almost anywhere I go; I have never failed to be amazed by the universality of people around the world – we all share much the same hopes, dreams, fears and aspirations. Essentially, we carry home within us wherever we go.

Where is your favourite place?

This partly depends on how ‘favourite’ is defined. If I were asked what is the most beautiful place I have ever visited I would have no hesitation in saying the Hunza region of the far north of Pakistan, where enormous glaciers come right down to the Karakoram Highway and the improbably jagged mountains – 7,000 metres high or more – resemble the sort of things you see in children’s fairytale books. South American cloud forest – the mossy, misty, orchid-dripped terrain that lies between high altitude altiplano and lowland jungle – is also pretty hard to beat for sheer beauty. Central Asia, particularly mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, is also scenically gorgeous in a lonely, slightly desolate sort of way.

But I also love more modest landscapes closer to home – the marshes, dunes and estuaries of the Norfolk and Suffolk coast; the velvety green valleys of the Lake District; Peak District moorland. Coming from hillier terrain in the English Midlands there was a time when I didn’t really appreciate the low horizons of East Anglia but things have changed now. I particularly like evocative coastal landscapes that have a bit of an edge to them, a sense of dark history – Orford Ness on the Suffolk coast springs to mind here.

What is beyond your front door?

I live in a Victorian house on a Victorian Street that was created in the mid-19th century when Norwich built its third railway station, Victoria Station, now long gone. The territory that was once covered by the station buildings and marshalling yard is now a Sainsbury’s supermarket; the course of the old railway line, a cycle path and walking thoroughfare. Much of the street is much as it was 150 years ago, although the Luftwaffe did quite a bit of remodelling one fateful night back in 1942 – a so-called Baedeker raid. The gaps that were created have since been filled with 1950s semis.

Immediately beyond my door are three pollarded lime trees that shield us from the street beyond. If I turn right out of the gate I am soon at one of the main roads into the city, actually the very end of the A11 as it meets the southern city gate, now extant in name only. More or less directly across the main road are the gentrified red brick buildings of the old Norwich and Norfolk Hospital complex – the site now redeveloped with smart new housing. Nearby, within less than two minute’s walk, are three pubs, two cafes, two florists, a Turkish restaurant and an Indian takeaway. There is also a physiotherapist, a dentists’ practice and a huge Brutalist-style concrete office block where suited workers gather to smoke outside its entrance.

The area is virtually inner city – there are flinty fragments of the old city walls next to the inner ring-road just a minute’s walk away; traffic noise is fairly constant. If I lean out of my attic/workroom window I can just about see the cathedral spire and the Norman castle – well I could if I were a giraffe.

As with anywhere in the city, the whole area is layered with history – a palimpsest in which traces of modern, 1960s planned redevelopment, Victorian, medieval and Norman overlap one another. But Norwich is even older still, it was already well established when the Normans came and expanded it for their own purposes. Plus ca change...

What place would you most like to visit?

The short answer is probably northern Greenland, closely followed by Haiti, Paraguay, Madagascar and Ethiopia. The long answer? Well... like almost anybody who has read Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will by Judith Schalansky I am intrigued by the remote islands she describes, all of which are very difficult or impossible to visit for the average traveller. I am lucky to have visited just one of these briefly, Hirta in the St Kilda archipelago, a group of islands that has always held a strong presence in my imagination and continues to do so. If I could choose another from the book then – call me greedy – I would go to Deception Island, an uninhabited former whaling station in Antarctica.

Having said all of this, I far less compelled to travel far afield these days and am more content to discover new territories closer to home. Overall I am probably currently more interested in walking routes and ancient ways than places per se – the journey itself rather than the arrival.

What are you reading?

Lately I have been reading Alan Garner again, reading or re-reading some of his stories and have especially got a lot out of The Voice that Thunders, a collection of talks, lectures and presentations that explain his approach to writing. Having recently visited the John Clare museum at Helpston, Cambridgeshire, and also having seen Andrew Kötting’s film By Our Selves, I have been re-reading Iain Sinclair’s Edge of the Orison. In this, the writer recreates the poet’s painful solitary journey back to his birth village near Peterborough after escaping from a mental hospital in Epping Forest. I’ve also recently finished another enjoyable book with Orison in the title – Horatio Clare’s Orison for a Curlew – which documents an unsuccessful search for a very rare bird that may already be extinct.

You can read more from Laurence on his blog East of Elveden.