In Unexpected Places

For May’s Something Rhymed activity, Emma Claire commissioned me to write about ‘the provinces’.

For the benefit of our international readers, some of whom may more commonly use this term in a different way, it’s worth mentioning that by ‘the provinces’ she meant those areas of the country away from the capital and other major cities.

I am, you might say, a city girl, which goes some way to explaining one of Emma Claire’s early impressions of me. Being mixed-race – I’m half-English and half-Japanese – I’ve generally felt more at home in the metropolis than the less ethnically-diverse smaller towns where, through accidents of birth and circumstance, I have actually spent the greater part of my life.

There are many things that I could say about this subject, some of which I touched on in a longer memoir, written for the Tangled Roots project last year. But since this is a relatively short blog post, and not an essay, I have taken a leaf out of Emily Dickinson’s book and interpreted Emma Claire’s assignment loosely.

Here, I have set down some thoughts about my first home, on the outskirts of York, in a part of the UK that could be regarded as firmly within the provinces.

Emily in the garden, aged two-and-a-half

It was an ordinary semi-detached house on the Badger Hill estate.

I had never seen a badger anywhere in its vicinity. The name was merely a ghost of the wooded landscape that must have preceded the tarmac, brown brickwork, and fenced-off areas of lawn.

Our neighbours were an elderly couple, the Ks, who my little sister and I really liked. Although, as a rule, they had no time for ‘foreigners’, like most people with these sorts of prejudices, they were apt to make exceptions.

Our mother had managed to win them over early, due in part to what they believed was her miraculous ability to predict the weather. It didn’t matter that she’d told them she was simply a keen watcher of the BBC forecast, they were adamant it was all down to some mystical Asian charm.

The Ks would keep an eye out for those mornings when our mother emerged from our back door with a bagful of washing, and this would usually be followed an hour or so later by Mrs K stepping outside with a fresh load of her own. This meant, effectively, that if there was a full clothes line in our garden, there would almost always be laundry hanging outside our neighbours’ house too.

Externally, our house may have been indistinguishable from that of our neighbours, but inside there were noticeable differences between where we lived and the houses of our school friends.

In later years, after the deaths of both my parents, people who knew us back then would often recall the ‘exotic’ scents of Mum’s cooking drifting out of our kitchen, the Japanese scrolls and prints hanging on the walls, the miniature stringed koto on the windowsill with its melancholic plinking sound.

There were other differences too, like the many books in my parents’ study and the fact there was a study at all – where my parents worked at desks side-by-side – but it was the Japanese elements, so at odds with the Englishness of that building, that seem to make the biggest impression, probably because they were the least expected.

These seeming contradictions were, of course, entirely normal to me. I had grown up with them. But I’m sure I was influenced by these reactions, which included open-mouthed surprise at times.

In fact, it could have been the first spark of a fascination in me with objects or people that appear in unexpected places and the ways others react to them – a major theme, I’ve realised recently, in a lot of the writing I’ve done in the years since then.

Ten Things Sarah Butler and Tessa Nicholson Love About Each Other

When novelist, Sarah Butler, and screen writer, Tessa Nicholson, posted up pictures of their beautiful letters on Twitter, we were delighted to discover that they were following Something Rhymed and joining us in dedicating 2014 to friendship. Since each chapter of Sarah’s début novel, Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love, begins with a list, we asked them to share the lists they wrote in response to February’s challenge in this month’s guest blog.

We met, aged 19, at University: both reading English, both slightly overawed by the academia of Cambridge. We were friends from the off – easy in each other’s company, interested in each other’s lives, encouraging of each other’s dreams.

Fifteen years on, we are still firm friends, and now we are both writers. Something Rhymed’s letter writing activity for January helped us to forge another, written aspect of our friendship – which has been especially delightful now that we live in different cities.

Following the example of Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love, we decided to write a list of ten things we admire about each other.

Sarah on Tess

Ten Things I admire about Tessa

Sarah: It felt like a treat to take the time to really think about what makes Tessa such a great person and friend. As I wrote, certain words jumped out at me: wise, fun, generous, honest, so I decided to make a simple list which emphasised these words. I thought about which colours I associate with Tessa, which, it turns out, are muted pinks, greens and greys, so I used these colours for each key word, using images of tree bark, flowers, leaves and stone. The list’s title is ‘cut out’ of a photo of the college at Cambridge where we first met.

Tessa: Reading Sar’s list made me realise how lucky I am to have her as a friend. It is very fitting that this exercise was Sar’s suggestion – from our early days at university I was struck by her discipline and work ethic. Living beside her from the day we were able to choose rooms, I strove to work as hard and as productively as she did – and definitely failed. Today she continues to inspire me – doggedly carving a name for herself among the literati! Am so proud of her. And of our friendship. Her list felt like a big reassuring hug and an encouraging hand on my back pushing me up the hill.

Ten Things I Admire About Sarah

Tess on Sarah

TessaThere are many things to admire in Sar, so I had to be selective when putting it down on paper. First of all, I thought I would write my list by hand – but my writing is messy and difficult to read. So then I had what I thought was a better idea, to cut the letters out of the paper (the Guardian and Grazia Magazine to be precise). I now have a lot of respect for kidnappers because ransom notes really take forever. I berated a lot of journalists during the process but am now up to date on current affairs and Victoria Beckham’s rise from Spice Girl to haute couture.

Sarah: I want a wall-sized version of Tessa’s list in my office! It’s funny – I was half-hoping Tess would handwrite the list because I love her handwriting so much, but I love the ransom note – beautiful, colourful, quirky, just like her. I was touched by all of it, but especially number 3: ‘you make me feel at home’ – which links so beautifully to Maya Angelou’s essay ‘Home’ in Letter to my Daughter.

Sarah Butler’s novel, Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love, was first published by Picador in 2013 and is just out in paperback.

Tessa Nicholson writes for PORT Magazine and the culture-vulture digital site Nowness.


We’d love to hear about the things you admire in your friend. And if, like Tessa and Sarah, you’d like to send us a picture of your response to February’s challenge, then please email it to or post it on Twitter along with #SomethingRhymed.

We’re on the look out for famous female writer pals to feature next month, so do let us know who you’d like to see profiled.