Tjawangwa Dema was our summer digital writer-in-residence from mid July- mid August. In the last week of her residency, TJ reflected with a personal letter to the City of Exeter.

Postal elements
9th August 2020

Isca Dumnoniorum

Dearest Exeter,

Despite all that is dreadful I can only hope that you are doing well. My regards to ________ and _______. You’ll understand, I think, that I would’ve come to visit if I could. Has the summer been as changeable there as it has been in Bristol? I have only just returned from my (almost) daily walk and thankfully it did not rain this afternoon.

Since I last wrote to you about wondering in place of wandering, both looked-for and wonderfully fortuitous things have come to pass. Not to put too fine a point on it but where one cannot travel, to ask is to see. For one, the Quay Words residency, which sadly has almost come to an end, allowed me to enter into conversation with some of the most knowledgeable folk. Being connected with Exeter Custom House and the Red Coats as you are you may of course know Simon Timms, Mike Richards and Dave Adcock all three of whom were generous beyond measure in accepting my invitation to speak on everything from architecture to local stories we tell over and over again. Did you know, Isca, that the word tenterhooks isn’t just part of a random phrase. I for one did not think of it much but Exeter’s relationship with the woollen cloth trade led me to that little nugget.

You will remember that my meet-the-writer sessions were open to the public, and how wonderful that all but one were almost immediately taken up, and exclusively by girls and women! I spoke to everyone from poets to novelists, a graduate student to students from a secondary school in Birmingham. We spoke openly – and questions were a large part of that. In the end, they felt not unlike old acquaintances though I only knew one writer having met her at a pop-up poetry school in the woods of Shropshire once. But I digress; we spoke about everything from vulnerability to structure, performance and reading, slowness and creative research, we even got around to crime fiction and police procedurals – you would’ve loved it, Isca! I have one last event; a reading on the 12th of August and though it is a Wednesday evening I’m hopeful you’re inclined to join us as it will be followed by a conversation with the CEO of Literature Works, Helen Chaloner. Your questions and comments are most welcome on that day. Literature Works was of course charged with delivering this residency as part of their partnership with Exeter Canal and Quay Trust who I am led to believe relied upon Arts Council England for their support. Many hands have made this time possible, and I am grateful to them in equal measure.

You will remember that England for me is living abroad and it is no lie to say that I would have stood out demographically in your city. One question that will remain unanswered is what affect would have come into play had I walked along the river Exe in person. Nonetheless to have been able to study the city from afar; to cheat distance itself in this small, small way has been a joyful challenge.

Though one should not say so given the terror of this pandemic, its one occasional concession (I cannot call it a gift for it is begrudgingly given) has been productive stillness. And thus, I found myself receiving a tour of an empty and currently closed Custom House. Adcock whom I mentioned earlier was there and in taking my call was kind enough to show me its late 17th century staircase and its plastered ceilings of plants and creatures that bring something of the outside in. A bespoke tour all my own. I do not mean to go on about it but have you been to the Custom House? If that horsewoman Celia Fiennes, who understood travel when it was not yet fashionable, could spare the city a stopover, surely you and I can cross a road or two and ask ‘what’s this all about?’. But I digress, again. It is not precisely the building I am preoccupied with it is what it cannot help but tell us about people, place and time. I would tell you where you could go scrumping for blackberries near the building now but some confidences, open as they are, must be kept. The lesson is to always look back and up when one is walking, it is a lesson to carry into any future.

Can you imagine, me on the wireless – but it’s true Isca! Pippa and Fitz from BBC Radio Devon have been in touch from week to week to catch up on my activities. Should your schedule allow, we plan to be on the air briefly this Wednesday around 12:20 to say goodbye. Was it not wonderful of them to keep me company so and to let me into the homes of listeners. Though I was all of 80 miles away in Bristol I have felt that in this and other ways I have met the people of Exeter, perhaps even conversed with them in a more intentional way than I otherwise would have.

Of course, there is always much to speak about; I did mean to ask you and ______ about the Royal Clarence Hotel. The trouble is never ink but time and I know you have enough to get on with.

In the meantime, please accept, you who are semper fidelis, my sincere thanks for your support and contributions towards Place and the personal and the residency as a whole. It is a kindness in any time to help friend or stranger along.

I remain, for a day or more,Your digital writer-in-residence,
Tjawangwa Dema

Don’t forget to register for your free seat for our ‘In conversation’ event on Wednesday evening. Click here to book.