Sunday 17 February 2013

Cosmopolitan Norwich


Ploughing through the innumerable supplements to the Friday edition of the Times, while I was in London last week, my eye alighted on the property section and an article headlined 'Focus on ... Norwich', which begins:

'A cosmopolitan, buzzing and beautiful city...'



And why is cosmopolitan a term of approval? 

I hoped Norwich was still provincial. What is the point of Norwich otherwise? If East Anglia is not the provinces where is?

Perhaps nowhere is.

What would Norfolk men such as Sir Thomas Browne or George Borrow have made of a cosmopolitan Norwich? Or the poets of Eastern England like Cowper or Crabbe? Or John Betjeman or H.L. Morton?

I do not want to live in the provinces myself - I should hate to do so. I would not choose to live anywhere but the centre of a capital city, and I love living in an odd, seedy Balkan capital, but I want the provinces to be there and be provincial, the ballast in every country that keeps the boat from overturning.

The article in the Times went on, balefully, to declare that Norwich is one of the ten most important shopping destinations in England. 

Camus said, 'Modern man fornicates and reads the papers. There is nothing more to be said.' Modern man (person, sorry) in our day fornicates, shops and is cosmopolitan 

All in all, The Times put me off the idea of going to Norwich. Private Lives comes to mind. 

I met her on a house party in Norfolk.

Very flat, Norfolk.

There's no need to be unpleasant.

That was no reflection on her, unless of course she made it flatter.

Minette Marin said in an article a while back that as we grow older we all of us find ourselves living in a foreign country. At least I really do live in a foreign country, Romania, and one that, happily, is reassuringly old-fashioned.

P.S. I looked on the net to see if Sir John Betjeman ever wrote a poem about Norwich. It seems he did not but I found instead a poem that he wrote about somewhere else in Norfolk. It is one of my favourites among his poems and I feel like quoting it here, though it has nothing to do with the subject of this post.

Oh Lord Cozens Hardy Your mausoleum is cold,

The dry brown grass is brittle

And frozen hard the mould

And where those Grecian columns rise

So white among the dark

Of yew trees and of hollies in That corner of the park

By Norfolk oaks surrounded

Whose branches seem to talk,

I know, Lord Cozens Hardy, I would not like to walk.

And even in the summer, 

On a bright East-Anglian day

When round your Doric portico  Your children's children play

There's a something in the stillness 

And our waiting eyes are drawn

From the butler and the footman  Bringing tea out on the lawn,

From the little silver spirit lamp 

That burns so blue and still,

To the half-seen mausoleum  In the oak trees on the hill.

But when, Lord Cozens Hardy, November stars are bright,

And the King's Head Inn at Letheringsett  Is shutting for the night,

The villagers have told me 

That they do not like to pass

Near your curious mausoleum 

Moon-shadowed on the grass

For fear of seeing walking  In the season of All Souls

That first Lord Cozens Hardy,  The Master of the Rolls.


  1. As the second-most populous city of England before 1700 with numerous continental connections in trade and commerce, including a large Dutch and French community, Norwich paradoxically due to its geography is often misapprehended as provincial, but has in fact been a cosmopolitan city for centuries.

    1. I didn't notice it was very cosmopolitan when I was there in 1972 or when I went back in 1979, but I was only a child and, no doubt, missed the signs.

  2. My mother's folks were all Norfolk born and bred, and Norwich was their regional capital. Kevin Faulkner is absolutely right; throughout the Middle Ages, Norwich was indeed a prosperous trading centre with wide-ranging links to Continental Europe, rich and powerful enough to persuade the Kings of England to build and maintain a substantial castle there - which has remained until today a well-kept and fascinating tourist attraction. Norwich's main outlet to the Continent was King's Lynn, which was long a member of the Hanseatic League. So I'm sorry, Paul, but I agree that you were probably simply too young to see the signs pointing to Norwich's well-justified claims to cosmopolitanism when you visited that fine city!

    1. You think the Times was referring to cosmopolitanism from centuries ago rather than now? In any case I wonder why 'cosmopolitan' is a word of approval rather than being neutral as it used to be?

  3. Actually, John Betjeman did write of Norwich in a poem-
    Remember Norwich!
    Round the corner,
    down the steps,
    up the Hill,
    over the bridge,
    there is always church.

    1. Wonderful. Thank you so much. I did not find it online and my copy of his Collected Works is packed away but I now see it comes one of his prose works.

  4. I thought the article was interesting, and did once again reveal this trait you have of wanting places and things to stay the same that you don’t live in. I.e. living in Romania for 15 years but wanting an England (real or imagined) to stay frozen in time. I enjoyed the Camus quote, reminded me of a favourite from Brideshead: while reading of the deaths of Lady Marchmain’s brothers during the First World War, the hero reflects: ‘These men must die to make a world for Hooper; they were the aborigines, vermin by right of law, to be shot off at leisure so that things might be safe for the travelling salesman, with his polygonal pince-nez, his fat wet hand-shake, his grinning dentures.’

    1. 1. I don't want England real or imagined to remain like it was in 1998 but am nostalgic for a wholly imaginary 1880 - mutatis mutandis. This idea of mine like all philosophy is disguised psychology.

      2. My only 'point' in a wholly light-hearted article was why is cosmopolitan ipso facto a good thing as opposed to parochial or provincial? I strongly like living in foreign places (not cosmopolitan ones so much though) and not much in English provincial ones (but a cathedral close like Salisbury would be very nice) so my ideas are in some ways paradoxical. I am conservative for everyone but myself. In fact I love the past and tradition but dislike conventionality. How confusing.

    2. Interesting, thanks. I guess many people are like that, including myself perhaps. For example, Evelyn Waugh was a reactionary but loved the cinema and his novels, like Handful of Dust, are often compared to film scripts. Similarly a key segment of Brideshead is called Orphans of the Storm, named after a 1921 film. Similarly Waugh displays a disdain for some Victorian stuff, like Tony Last's house, his Oxford tutor, parodying Victorian cockneys during his binges in Oxford.

    3. Waugh was a modernist though not in theology - the modernists were all arch-conservatives: Pound, Eliot, Conrad, etc. They wanted books to be inaccessible to drive away the profane vulgar. And for his generation the 1880s was ghastly and recent. When I was very little (under 8) in the 60s the Victorians did not seem so long ago but by the mid-70s they certainly did.
      I completely understand his loathing of Hooper, am sympathetic but it is also unpleasantly snobbish and I do not concur. Waugh was an unpleasant man. More so than Martin Amis.

    4. I imagine - but may be wholly mistaken - that Norwich is not very cosmopolitan at all. I certainly hope not.