I Belong Here: A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain, by Anita Sethi
Probably everyone knows the sinking feeling and the acceleration of the pulse that come with suddenly registering an immediate threat on public transport. For some, however, such experiences are exacerbated simply by the fact of visible difference. Mancunian-born-and-raised Anita Sethi was on the TransPennine service en route to Newcastle, to do a bookshop event on her contribution to Kit de Waal’s edited collection of working-class writing Common People, when she was subjected to racial abuse by another passenger. Sethi has suffered these alienating attacks from complete strangers with cruel frequency (this was not the first time that she had been called names on her way to a speaking engagement), following a childhood circumscribed by poverty, physical abuse, and vicious racist bullying. This experience on the train, however, was the proverbial last straw, and she summoned all her resources and reported it to the police, who --it is worth noting— dealt with it efficiently and sensitively, so that the case was resolved with a conviction.
In addition, the stranger’s suggestion that Sethi should go back to where she came from galvanised her into doing so. Without even a proper pair of hiking boots, she embarked upon an epic, mostly solo journey along the Pennines in a quest to reconnect with her sense of belonging, and affirm that “This is where I’m from. The North. The glorious North.” Sethi is aware that she thereby joins a long line of walkers who struck out across country in times of personal and national turmoil, including Edward Thomas and Alfred Wainwright. Her odyssey is an act of defiance against many ingrained attitudes: women shouldn’t hike alone, the countryside is not for ethnic minorities, working-class people belong in the city.
Nature writing, in an England fenced off to ramblers by Enclosure until 2000, has always had an activist tinge, but rarely as overt as this. Sethi makes explicit the boldness of taking up space, covering ground, and exercising physical freedom, especially as a woman. This book is also unusual in its combination of pain and anger with bucolic nature writing. Occasionally the sudden shifts between the two modes are somewhat disorienting. This is particularly so because, when Sethi is contemplating nature —or, perhaps more accurately, when she is writing about any subject that makes her feel relaxed and happy as opposed to threatened and wounded— her prose suddenly expands and soars to capture a heart-stoppingly acute response to beauty. The heightened colours and textures that she perceives, and the magical resonances of certain landscapes, such as the path to Hull Pot, linger in the mind long afterwards. It is worth observing that as her journey progresses, the proportion of such passages increases, which seems to support her hope that nature can alleviate anxiety and trauma. After the first lockdown in 2020, Sethi returns to Hadrian’s Wall, and experiences a sense of liberation: “How wide the skies, after being cooped up for so long….What a sense of freedom to walk in this wilderness amid the blue and gold.”
The flashbacks to the incident on the train throughout the book have led some other reviewers to criticise I Belong Here as repetitive, somewhat missing the point that this is precisely the nature of shocking experiences. The raw honesty of these reminiscences is an expression of considerable courage, given the various other ordeals and abuses that Sethi has also suffered. Accompanying Sethi on this physical and psychological journey provides the reader with an opportunity to exercise imaginative empathy, and become infected by her enthusiasm for rivers, daffodils, the burning-off of mist by sunlight, and enormous Ordinance Survey maps. Her autodidact investigations of a wide range of topics, ranging from natural history to Charles Dickens and the public library movement, testify to a boundless curiosity and draw the reader along with her.
On many occasions (and it is not clear whether the contrast with her horrifying experiences in cities is intended), Sethi encounters, talks to, and is helped by kindly rural people. The co-operative Horton Women’s Holiday Centre, now in existence for more than forty years to provide women and their children with the chance to have an affordable holiday, is a particular highlight, with its back issues of Spare Rib in the living room and Educating Rita on the television. Not coincidentally, Sethi sleeps “deeper than I have slept in a long time.” Another wonderful episode focusses on her stay in Alston, one of England’s two highest market towns, where a small curly-haired boy rushes up and hugs her.
While human beings in Sethi’s experience have been (to put it mildly) a very disparate lot, nature is always reliable. This is a deeply moving meditation on the power of external and internal landscapes to comfort and sustain, a hugely immersive book which, with its photographic prose, turns the reader into the invisible companion of Sethi’s brave solo trek across England’s lovely earth.--Isabel Taylor