Anita Sethi on Walking the Backbone of Britain
An inspiring melding of memoir and nature writing, Anita Sethi's I Belong Here recounts the author's perambulations across the Pennines in the wake of a horrific racial assault. In this exclusive piece, Anita explains the powerful meaning behind the three words of her book's title and how the restorative nature of the Northern countryside can play a crucial role in concepts of identity and belonging.
I Belong Here. Three words which became the title of my first book and which I hope that every single reader is able to say and feel. It was a traumatic experience of becoming victim of a race hate crime which led me to asserting these words, and to making a subsequent journey of reclamation walking hundreds of kilometres through the glorious natural landscapes of the North.
One bright day in May 2019 I was on board a TransPennine Express train from Liverpool to Newcastle en route to Waterstones Newcastle to read at the northern launch of the anthology Common People to which I am a contributor. It was a day of bright sunshine, the kind of light which makes you feel that nothing bad could possibly happen. But that day I was racially abused on the train journey. I reported the man, and my attacker was arrested at the next stop and subsequently charged, pleaded guilty and convicted of a racially aggravated public order offence.
After giving my statement at Newcastle police station, I made it to the lovely Waterstones Newcastle and went ahead with the event, reading a piece about being a child visiting the hills and mountains for the first time and rising up into the glory of nature. It was soothing to be in a bookshop that evening, too, and I recall how much solace I have found in both books and nature throughout my life.
Go back to where you’re from. The words my racist attacker had uttered. I’m from the North, born and bred in Manchester through which the train had actually passed. That Summer, I was looking at a map of the area and was drawn to the miniature mappings of mountains and hills rising up and inky rivers of the Pennines, known as ‘the backbone’ of Britain, and felt a literal tingle down the spine – suffering from anxiety and claustrophobia in the wake of the attack I longed to journey through the natural landscapes of the North, to not let having been victim of a race hate crime stop me travelling freely and without fear in a country where I belong.
So I set out on my epic walking adventure taking the Pennine Way as a guide, Britain’s oldest long distance footpath which stretches 431 kilometres through the country, beginning in the Peak District which this year celebrates its 70th anniversary. It’s there in the Peak District, in a place fittingly called Hope that I began my journey – I was drawn to the place named Hope, and hope is something I tried to channel throughout, drawing on it at the toughest times to keep me going. I walked onwards and upwards through the North, upwards through the Yorkshire Dales and on through the North Pennines as Summer turned into Autumn, and all the way to Hadrian’s Wall. With each footstep I felt my strength and stamina grow. That Summer, I had also experienced a sudden bereavement with the death of a friend who passed away just 28 years old, and my journey became one walking through the emotions of grief and loss. My book’s in memoriam dedication is to Sophie Christopher who was a book publicist at Transworld.
The book’s second dedication is ‘to everyone who has ever felt like they don’t belong’ – and I hope the book will bring a sense of belonging. ‘I Belong Here’ is something that not only I’m saying but nature too is saying. As I walked through the North Pennines, I heard the beautiful song of birds and wondered what they might be saying and singing and ‘I belong here’ is something I felt the birds were saying too, for nature belongs as much to the world as we humans do, and indeed we are not apart from but a part of nature. Our wildlife and natural world, though, is threatened by climate change, and the book is a clarion call to care for and better respect not only other humans but the nature which sustains us; we all breathe oxygen created by trees and without it we would not exist. Throughout my epic walking adventure, nature brought solace and was ameliorative to my wellbeing – and the past locked-down year has shown more than ever how crucial nature is to our physical and mental health.
So, ‘I belong here’ is something I am saying; it’s something nature is saying, but it’s also something that the book itself is saying. For far too long the stories of marginalised groups have been regarded as if they don’t belong in books and whilst I’ve loved reading since childhood, rarely did I see myself reflected in the pages. “If there’s a book you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet then you must write it”, advised the late, great Toni Morrison and those words were an inspiration to me. A sense of belonging is something each and every one of us deserves – and I hope that anyone who reads the book will find it and be able to say: I belong here.
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