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Anita Sethi: 'I wanted something joyous to come out of this horrific experience'

Lisa O'Kelly
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Anita Sethi is a Manchester-born writer, journalist and literary festival chair. I Belong Here: A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain, is the first in a trilogy of books that will blend memoir, current affairs and nature writing. Sethi has launched a foundation with the aim of getting books to those who cannot afford them. For details visit anitasethi.com/i-belong-here.

Was writing I Belong Here therapeutic?
It was certainly cathartic. Writing is very much a way of saying “I am here”. I was attacked with words and I felt how hurtful and harmful words can be, so I wanted to use words to create something healing. I wanted the book to be a force for good and for something joyous to come out of this horrific experience. Writing it was a journey in itself and it did help me to process the complex thoughts and emotions I experienced as a result of what happened.

What was your favourite part of your journey along the Pennine Way?
I loved reaching the summit of Pen-y-Ghent after a very arduous climb, and being inside a cloud as it cleared to reveal the world in a wonderment of colours. It felt like a real lesson in life to keep going when the going was tough, and that it is possible – quite literally – to reach a place of lucidity and clarity after a time of being lost.

How did you feel when last year’s Black Lives Matter protests kicked off?
Like so many people, I felt a need to put one foot in front of the other and join in the protests. Likewise, with the recent Reclaim These Streets protests. It’s a deep-rooted, age-old thing – the urge to march in an attempt to call out injustice and inequality.

You were born in Manchester but have spent much of your adult life living in London. How does it feel living in the south when you are from the north?
London is a wonderfully multicultural city, but I do think there is still a lot of prejudice in the south towards the north.

What are your favourite haunts in Manchester?
I grew up not far from the Manchester United ground, around the corner from where Morrissey lived, and as a teenager I used to love just walking around the heart of the city, especially near the canals and the River Medlock. I would walk for hours.

The Pennine Way near Kinder Scout in the Peak District.
The Pennine Way near Kinder Scout in the Peak District. Photograph: Alamy

Do you listen to music or podcasts when you are walking?
I love listening to music. I have an I Belong Here playlist, which is very extensive. It starts with My Hometown by Bruce Springsteen and has a lot of songs themed around home, such as Long Way Home by Tom Waits. The Manchester Rambler by Ewan MacColl is on there too. And Oasis, of course.

You tried identifying birdsong in your book, but it wasn’t always easy. Are you better at it now?
Sadly not! But it’s a lovely thing to try to do. I felt as though the birds I heard on my walk were also saying “I belong here” with their songs. The natural world belongs to them as much as it does to us.

Where are you planning to walk next?
This book is the first in a nature trilogy. The next one is called Nocturne, and it’s going to be about walking at night-time. I’ve had insomnia since childhood, so it’s a subject close to my heart. It will start off with a series of night walks around the city of London, following in the footsteps of Dickens. I will also return to the north, which has some of the best dark skies in the world, and of course the northern lights, if you’re very lucky.

• I Belong Here: A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain by Anita Sethi is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply