I recently relocated back to Cumbria – something of a hard-won homecoming. I moved from Norwich, a city where every other person seems to be a writer, to a town where everyone seems to be an artist or musician. This year’s fiery Torchlight celebration was a much-needed carnival, and the steep, beautifully tended, fell-side terraces rival the Boboli gardens. Several minor epiphanies have followed the move: Kendal Mint Cake is the original power bar. I’m not actually fit (my neighbours left and right just knocked out the Langdale Horseshoe run and a swim the length of Coniston). The Penrith Building Society is truly the people’s bank. Rain is a state, not weather. Everyone keeps saying, “You’re back where you belong.” I may never have felt I belonged, here or anywhere, which seems to be a common misfit writer’s position, and one that suits the invention of virtual worlds and existential questioning. But it is so nice to be – closer to – home.
During lockdown in March 2020, I wrote a novel called Burntcoat, which is being published this month. The story contains a pandemic and was a real-time reaction to the situation. It’s also a story about art, love, sexuality, the mind and body’s relationship with death. Much of my fiction steps over the boundary of contemporary or historical fact into other territory. I’ve written rewilding scenarios, and about legal euthanasia, climate change, feminist terrorism, population control, a British republic. Science and speculative fiction often deal with the future’s “fore-math” – what might be considered disturbingly predictive. Writers who play at soothsayer will always be judged (alongside Orwell and Atwood) for prescience, conduit, feeling the pulse of tomorrow. If a writer can create a convincing other world with human meaning and feeling, then a novel can be a matchless experiential experiment, allowing the reader to fully enter versions of what could be.
Burntcoat’s pandemic is worse than the one we still face. The medical system collapses. The virus is more dangerous, virulent and incurable; if survived it lies dormant in the body, then returns fatally. Basically, it’s a way to explore foreknowledge of, and reconciliation with, our extinction. As I prepare to talk publicly about the book I’ve been thinking about current events. None of the imaginings feel, to me, outlandish, or that clever, just iterations of now and soon. What still feels most speculative in all my work, strangely, sadly, is the empowering and activated roles of the female characters. In my first novel the protagonist attempts to blow up a dam built in her valley.
In the second, a circus performer has her body fully tattooed with eyes – so the gazed-upon and judged female body stares back. In the third, a woman becomes a paramilitary soldier. The fifth, a wolf conservation expert oversees a reintroduction project in England. And now, in the sixth, Edith is a successful, large-scale land artist, building more controversial equivalents of The Angel of the North. They are all agents, makers, revolutionists, main players. They are not the wives and daughters of those who make history, but the history-makers. They rise, they fall, they act freely, without mythical definition or trope, and they are not victims. And yet, in the news: Sabina Nessa, the trial of Sarah Everard’s killer, the many other women subject to male violence this year, all years; abortion restrictions in Texas; the Taliban’s campaign to disempower women and girls in Afghanistan and our complicity in that; a straw-dolly cabinet reshuffle; hideous statistics on abuse of girls in UK schools; the violently unempathic debates around transgender definitions and the lives involved. It is so harrowing, despairing; it seems eternal. How do women rise? In our imaginations first, then on the ground? And what will the new masculinism look like, that can tackle all this, be held to account, and then begin the true work of assistance?
If you were raised swimming outside, “wild” is moot. It’s an impossible boon that a few minutes from where I live now are emerald-green river “pots”, mountainringed lakes, fresh jacuzzi waterfalls. I’ve joined an all-year-round women’s plunge group. Cold water is the best tonic, for everything really, all of the above, even our appalling government led by its great ocean-going wazzock. The further north you travel, the less plausible Westminster seems. Cumbria itself is having a hot identity debate – nothing new for the imperfect Republic of Shepherds. Current polarities include plans to become the first carbon-neutral county vs. the new, controversial (apparently wazzock-sanctioned) coal mine; vast numbers of welcome tourists vs. degradation of the landscape due to human traffic; the second largest number of Michelin-starred restaurants outside London vs. one of the lowest average wages in the UK. Delightfully, I’ve been made
Professor of Practice at the University of Cumbria, where exploration of these cultural landscape issues is at the fore and as radical as our original radicals. My preference, usually after an electrifying, clarifying dip: The Independent Republic of Cumbria. 1… 2… 3… jump!
Sarah Hall is a prize-winning novelist and short-story writer. She’s the only author to have won the BBC National Short Story Award twice. Her latest novel is “Burntcoat” (Faber, £12.99)