Taking up residency in a blizzard

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
My screen time is up 46%. I have divested myself of Facebook, cancelled my ongoing TradeMe favourite searches (NomD, futon and Dr Martens 39, since you ask) and turned off my notifications. And yet, my screen time is up 46%, writes Liz Breslin.

Liz Breslin
Liz Breslin
I’m sure that one reason my screen time is up 46% is because of the snow. I’ve been waiting for it to snow in Norwich. I’ve been watching for the snow.

I’ve been watching for the snow in Norwich because Norwich is where I virtually am right now, which is why the 46% more time on screens. I’m virtually in Norwich because I’m resident in its Unesco City of Literature National Centre for Writing right now but, because of Covid, those of us on residencies are all residing through our screens.

Those of us residing are five of us from different Unesco cities of literature. Marcin Wilk is from Krakow and so far I have refrained from spending an entire zoom call effusing about everything I love about Krakow. Especially since he is studying bookshops. And did I mention how much I loved sitting and writing in Krakow’s bookshops? Lynn Buckle, representing Dublin, is a literary collager with excellent recommendations of deaf performance poets. Vahni Capildeo writes from Edinburgh and is taking the same walk every day while not being a cougar to the surfers, and Valur Gunnarsson, in Reykjavik, offered that we could play one of those drinking games whereby we drink every time he says the word Viking. Tempting. But it’s not really shot-o’clock while we’re increasing our screen time together. It’s either bleary coffee or chamomile tea time for me, because of time zones, and hemispheres.

Chamomile not doing its thing, I’ve been getting up in the middle of the night to see if there might be snow. My project started off as a wide look through webcams, city to city. We have the #RoyalCam, Norwich has a peregrine nesting site on the top of its cathedral. We have the Octagon cam and Norwich did have one over its market square but that’s no longer operational, the web page set forever now on the wet candystriped canvases of empty night-time stalls.

So the project, as projects do, has evolved. No market cam. No access to any of the council’s CCTV because we’re not allowed to watch us being watched by it. No problem. The Hawk and Owl Trust nestcam is all good and crystal clear but, oh, it’s not peregrine nesting season. You might be forgiven for thinking, then, that there’s not a lot to look at in a city you don’t know from a bird’s-eye view. But lone cars travelling the main street and the parking patterns outside what I am presuming is a Covid tent are as fascinating to me as the streamed slow boats to Norway that Valur described last time we were all resident zooming. See how easy, how fun, how very totally work relatable it is to increase your screen time by 46%?

As well as watching through the nestcam for the snow and writing voyeuristic poems (Norwich, big Lizzie is watching you) I’ve been workshopping this week with some young Norwich writers, Lit from the inside. For a warm-up prompt I asked them to look at screenshots from the Octagon cam - two images, two minutes apart - and write for two minutes after. A kind of spot the detail/spot the difference.

The pictures were of the Octagon on a warm Monday night. Cars and lights. Black and white. The writers’ responses were delicious; noticing, wondering, darkening, making it into a crime-scene-in-waiting. And while we were watching, there was snow in Norwich. Turning the fields or whatever they are - pitches? - as white as the tents in them.

If you, too, might like to write, to increase your screen time by an exponential amount of scroll and wonder, you can check out the daily writing prompts for ‘‘imagining the city’’ through February from all of us. It’s on Instagram (which, yes, I am still on even though, yes, it is owned by Facebook, because logic, so overrated), shared through the National Centre for Writing/@writerscentre. I also got to showcase literature about Otepoti Dunedin in an invitation to choose five books.

Choose five books? I have enough problems choosing what to wear (should reinstate that TradeMe search) and books are so much more important and so I think I might have painfully whittled favourites chosen by a community of writers (for that is what we are and how it works) down to a mere 15. But 15 is close to five, right? Numbers only tell part of a story. And 46% more screen time, in the pursuit of stories, watching, being watched, is perfectly, perfectly fine.

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