Writer Karen Eng has come from afar to live in the west Norfolk town which inspires and energises her to make art
“What are you doing here?” Living in King’s Lynn for the last couple of years, I get this a lot. Typically, someone will have done a double take because I’m ethnically Asian, and speak – very quickly – with an American accent. The incredulous question usually follows the first: “Where are you from?” The short answer: California. I’m the first-generation daughter of Chinese immigrants to the USA, born and raised there.
People’s shock that I’m here implies several judgments about King’s Lynn – among which that it’s the furthest anyone could possibly get from California, with all fantasies of superior weather and wealthy lifestyle that might conjure.
It also implies that no one would come here by choice. Even lifelong natives can be hard on the place – but outsiders are the most contemptuous – even those who have never visited. I’ve heard it insisted that King’s Lynn has nothing really of any value, that it’s a go-nowhere town, the end of the line.
I don’t see it that way. Here’s why.
King’s Lynn is an edge town, at the intersection of ever-shifting tides and accumulated centuries of human history.
Living here, I never forget I’m just metres from wide-open water that is in constant motion at astonishing speeds, and within salt-smelling distance of the sea. The light here shines both brilliant and diffuse as it bounces off river, cloud and mist.
Every morning when I wake, I lie in bed for awhile in that light, breathing in the salted air and listening to the gulls, the wind, and St Margaret’s church bells. From my bath I can watch the wind shake the horse chestnut outside my window, and hear the rushing sound it makes.
That tree anchors me to the seasons. One day in autumn, after a cold snap, I watched for a long time as it dropped nearly all its leaves at once. Today, at the end of February, I watched a magpie jumping from bare branch to bare branch in brilliant sunlight – then hop and drop straight to the ground without even opening its wings, landing as gently as Mary Poppins.
Then there’s the wind. Sudden, powerful gusts shake the timbers of my roof, and the creaking beams evoke a ship at sea. Sometimes, the wind blows so steadily and relentlessly it feels like I’m in a plane, deep into a long-haul flight.
When I want to clear my head, I walk to the river – less than a minute from my house – and watch the bird traffic swooping noisily seaward in the sunset, which is often blindingly bright as it hits the water. I learned to figure out which way the tide is moving by watching the gulls riding the current – backwards, presumably to catch food flowing towards them. (I use the river for food, too: last Christmas my expedition for provisions saw me taking the ferry for the first time to buy my duck from the butcher in West Lynn – the most picturesque shopping trip ever. Believe me, it beats driving to a California strip mall.)
When I look out to the end of the Great Ouse I think about centuries of ships coming in and out of this passageway. The people who built this town harnessed the natural forces here to fish and trade, riding wind and water to carry them out to different lands – and sometimes pirates. I imagine that this was for those people a place of constant movement, of foreign influences and languages. At intervals, the community will have been overtaken by those natural forces, too, as the flood marks carved into the west door of St Margaret’s attest.
As for the presumed disconnect from California, intrepid explorer and native son George Vancouver sailed the first English ship into San Francisco Bay in 1792, at a time when California still belonged to Spain. Vancouver was the first to map the West Coast of North America, between San Diego, California, where both my siblings live, to Anchorage, Alaska. The city of Vancouver – where I have done a significant portion of my work – is named for him. And when you mention King’s Lynn there, people know it’s where the city’s name originates, and they respond with respect and interest.
So really, if you take the long view, all I’ve done is come full circle around the planet.
Back to the question of what I’m doing here. There are many ways I could answer. I came to King’s Lynn out of economic necessity – a less-than-romantic story about the demise of a marriage and seeking a new home. But I’m staying because I want to. I love living within this particular history, which is so intimately tied to this particular ecosystem.
I’m also staying because this environment inspires and energizes me to be able to do my work of writing and making art. I’ve had the good fortune to visit many of the most vibrant, most highly celebrated cities in the world. While I appreciate as much as anyone the wonders of those places, what matters most to me about where I choose to live is what I can create, not what I can consume. Artists and writers have always moved to the edges of places just for this reason.
And when I stand at the river’s edge and let the wind blow through me, I don’t think of King’s Lynn as the end of the line, but as the gateway it must have been for centuries of merchants, sailors, explorers, fisherfolk, farmers, even monks before me. It’s probably written in my blood – just as my ancestors travelled around the world, I’ve kept the journey going. It’s both comforting and exciting to have landed at what still feels like the edge of the world, where adventure began for so many – with the possibility and promise of heading out with the tide.
Karen Eng is an independent writer, editor and communications consultant