H. dislikes Christmas, which is why I am surprised he suggests we go to the Norwich switching on of the Christmas lights. “Yes, but they’ve put up a tunnel of light that’s supposed to look like the Northern Lights next to St Peter Mancroft,” he says.
I decide to be cooperative, for once, and not mention my dislike of crowds, the cold, the rain, the absurdity of all Christmas-related events two weeks before Advent, and the fact that I simply don’t feel like going out. Instead, I put on my down coat, hat, gloves, boots – and a cheerful face.
It has stopped raining by the time we leave home, and the remaining shreds of clouds are drifting away, unveiling brilliant stars on an almost black sky. The residents of Norwich, from micro-people in prams, cheeks all red and eyes sparkling, to University students, to senior citizens, are gathering in the market place, outside the Millennium Forum and Town Hall. There is something heart-warming about living in a city small enough to gather everyone in the same place on special occasions. One gets the feeling of belonging. In Norwich, the Town Hall is an important focal point. It’s where the 28 foot Norwegian spruce is positioned for Christmas, where rainbow banners are displayed on Gay Pride day, where an inflatable pumpkin leans out of the balcony at Hallowe’en, and where many of us gathered to protest against Brexit.
University of East Anglia students are handing out flyers for a season of Russian plays entitled Тоска (Toska). I try and explain to H. how the word can be translated into English. I ask one of the students and, after a brief exchange of ideas, decide that’s it’s a blend of depression, boredom, melancholy, and sense of unexplained longing. Very Chekhov. Very Tolstoy. Very Dostoyevsky. Very Russian. We promise the undergraduate we’ll go and see at least one of the plays. There’s a smell of toffee apples, caramelised nuts and roasted chestnuts wafting through the street. A small parade is marching across the market place, towards the Millennium Forum. There are children carrying paper lanterns, emerald green-clad elves on stilts, and a rather slim Santa. There are also the boy and girl choristers from the Cathedral, in cerise cassocks, singing carols. We follow the procession. While waiting for the official lights to be switched on, we strike up a conversation with an old gentleman wearing the blue vest of the tourist information volunteers. He says he’s been here since 1946. An engineer, he was sent here and told that Norwich was “the graveyard of ambition”. He felt so at home, he never left. Like the woman who cooks the delicious breakfasts in the café we frequent most Saturdays, who came here from Wales for a weekend party fifteen years ago, and decided to stay. Like so many others.
Finally, the moment comes for the local celebrity – in this case Ed Balls – to switch on the lights. A chorus of excited “Aah”s rises from the crowd as fireworks squirt up from the Town Hall and the rooftop of Jarrolds, the department store, bursts of flame shoot up into the air, festive images are projected on the façade of the Town Hall and the wall of the Norman castle keep, and the 50,000 LED lights making up the Tunnel of Light next to Saint Peter Mancroft are switched on, its flow of colours producing the effect of the Northern Lights. We walk through it, everyone’s face changing hue every couple of minutes, as the lights alter.
There is a gently joyous atmosphere in the city centre and, after over two years of doubt and feeling homesick for London, I smile to myself, and think I’m starting to like Norwich. Truly.