Professor Jenn Ashworth shares new memoir-in-progress at Honorary Fellowship event

Professor Jenn Ashworth (NC 2000) attended a special event at Newnham to mark her Honorary Fellowship. Jenn is Professor of Writing at Lancaster University and studied English at Newnham, matriculating in 2000. She completed her MA in Creative Writing at the Centre for New Writing at Manchester University.

She initially began her career as a chartered librarian, working at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University and public and prison libraries in Lancashire. Later, she became a freelance writer and literature development and project worker, setting up the Lancashire Writing Hub. She joined Lancaster University in 2011. Her first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, won a Betty Trask Award and, after the publication of her second book, Cold Light, the BBC’s Culture Show highlighted her as one of Britain’s 12 best new novelists.

At the event, Jenn, who has also published The Friday Gospels (2013) and Fell (2016), among other novels, shared extracts of her new memoir. The topic of care is a central theme of the book and she explained how she had intended to write about how the demands of Lockdown had changed our perspective of home, using her own experiences of professional care. Jenn refused to attend school from the age of 11 and attended a pupil referral unit at the age of 13, later returning to mainstream education at 15.

She spoke of how the government-mandated walk a day during Lockdown became a strange combination of meditation and imprisonment. “The walking seemed to cause a sense of constriction,” she said. “Tying me to the desk, the kitchen – hemming myself in. Most of the walks we take are circular. Walking is a kind of prayer to me. The relentlessness of hedges and fields.”

Jenn also spoke of how Virginia Woolf saw walking around the busy London streets as “a way to shatter ego,” but that Lockdown had cleared out the crowds, making Lancaster City Centre a “ghost town” on a Saturday afternoon and allowing people to walk unhindered across deserted motorways.

Following the end of Lockdown, Jenn decided to undertake the famous Alfred Wainwright 192 mile coast-to-coast walk from St Bee’s to Robin Hood Bay as a solo project and make this the theme of her book. “I was desperate to be on my own on the walk,” she recalls. “We have a lot of stories about male walkers and writers getting away on their own and finding peace and creativity in solitude.”

However, the book’s subject matter changed when her friend Clive, who lives with cancer, began writing to her. In his letters, he explored his own experiences of care, his thoughts about illness and dying, and, sometimes, his worry about how the letters themselves might become a burden.

She decided to learn his last letter by heart, seeing herself as a ‘proxy pilgrim’ for Clive, who was unable to take the journey himself. “Learning something by heart puts words in the body,” she said. “The book is about what I would have written to Clive if I’d been a good friend.”

It became a collaborative effort, with Clive approving it and both Jenn and Clive appearing at an event about it together for The Care Lab at Manchester University’s Whitworth Gallery.

You can find out more about Professor Jenn Ashworth at her website here.