The Sea View Has Me Again: Uwe Johnson in Sheerness 
by Patrick Wright.
Repeater, 751 pp., £20, June, 978 1 913462 58 1
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When​ the Napier Tavern on Alma Road in Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey was put up for auction in 2019, Kent Online vaunted its association with two local celebrities: ‘Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em star Michael Crawford revealed he visited the pub during filming forty years ago. And German literary star Uwe Johnson also had his own stool at the pub where he used to write about the people he met.’ Photos of Crawford and Johnson accompanied a picture of the Napier’s façade, with a grey wheelie bin outside and blackboards advertising bingo, live music and Sunday roasts. Crawford, in full colour, has bouffant hair, a big smile and expensive teeth. Johnson, in grainy black and white, wears a black leather jacket, with a pipe jutting rigidly from between his lips and a stare that seems to ask the eternal pub question: ‘What are you looking at?’ In a comment under the article, a disgruntled local posting as ‘muppet watcher’ insists that the puff piece was paid for by the auction house to get publicity for the sale of the pub and the plot of land next door.

Crawford filmed a Christmas special of Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em on Sheppey in 1975, the year after Johnson arrived. In the episode Frank Spencer takes his driving test for the tenth time, and hundreds of locals stood on the beach to watch Crawford, who was known for doing his own stunts, drive a blue Hillman Imp off Sheerness jetty. Crawford is Sheppey showbiz royalty: his mother, Doris Pike, was a former Miss Sheerness. Uwe Johnson attracted less notice. He spent a decade living at 26 Marine Parade on the Sheerness seafront, where he wrote the fourth and final volume of his 1700-page novel Anniversaries, which appeared in unabridged English translation only in 2018.* Johnson died at home in 1984, aged 49. His body lay undiscovered for almost three weeks, until the Napier’s landlords, worried by his absence from the pub, broke in and found him on his living-room floor. He had fallen while trying to uncork his third bottle of wine of the night. The precise date of his death isn’t known, though it may well have been 22 February, when he was last seen at the Napier.

Johnson was an avid reader of newspapers. Among the correspondents to whom he meticulously relayed news from the Kent Evening Post and the Sheerness Times Guardian were Hannah Arendt, Christa Wolf, Max Frisch, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Günter Grass. When, in 1978, Jürgen Habermas asked Johnson for an essay for a book he was editing, provisionally titled Observations on ‘The Spiritual Situation of the Age’, Johnson wrote about what he could see through his first-floor window: the three protruding masts of the SS Richard Montgomery, an American Liberty ship that ran aground and broke in two in August 1944, a mile and a half off Sheerness beach. The ship was carrying 1400 tonnes of explosives – enough to wipe Sheerness off the map, along with Southend and parts of the Kent and Essex coasts – and the explosives are still there, on the seabed, which makes Crawford’s drive off the pier suddenly look more daring, and rather less comic. Successive promises to make the wreck safe haven’t been kept. This year, plans to cut down the masts in order to stabilise the structure were yet again put off. Johnson’s essay considers Sheppey’s two possible fates: flood or fireball.

His piece on the ‘unfathomable ship’ is, like everything he wrote, about many interconnected things: past and present, world war and Cold War, Europe and America, England and Germany, ideas of liberty and freedom, and various sorts of memory – personal, local, collective, national, international. Johnson sought outsider status, not because of some bohemian attachment to the freewheeling ego, but because the objectivity of his writing demanded it. In his letters and notebooks he often referred to himself in the third person. But for the purposes of the essay on the Richard Montgomery he was both observer and one of the observed – just as he was when he sat on his bar stool at the Napier drinking Hürlimann lager and smoking Gauloises. The wreck, he argues, rather than the official memorial beside Sheerness station, is Sheppey’s ‘true monument to the ’45 war’. Might he and his fellow islanders be in a position to investigate it, ‘to get to the bottom of this derelict, to recover the jetsam it has thrown off, historically, magically, biographically, sociologically, chemically, administro-scientifically, poetically, statistically?’

Some of the people Johnson drank with at the Napier would have remembered the ship’s arrival. Many would have recalled the great flood of 1953, when cattle and sheep were swept away, thousands of homes were destroyed, and the Kingsferry Bridge, which connects Sheppey to the mainland, was marooned in miles of water. In 1978 there were two floods, the second of which, Johnson notes, overran the then unfinished sea wall. There’s a sardonic, defiant fatalism in the way he and the other islanders consider their plight, as well as a certain pride in ‘our wreck’. ‘I wish the damn thing would blow up and we’d be rid of it,’ one of them told Johnson, who speculates that there might be a ‘death wish’ here. The symbolism of the wreck is clear enough: the past dormant but still present, the three masts only just still visible, but attached to a hidden cargo of explosives big enough to blow us all up. The SS Richard Montgomery is history as prospect as well as retrospect.

Johnson arrived in Sheerness in 1974, the year before the referendum that ensured the UK’s continuing membership of the European Community; Patrick Wright was researching The Sea View Has Me Again: Uwe Johnson in Sheerness as the 2016 referendum took the UK out of the European Union. The histories Wright unfolds go far beyond those bookend dates and far beyond Johnson’s bleak last years. The categories Johnson linked – from magical to statistical – are all in play in Wright’s book, which, at more than seven hundred pages, looks longer than it feels. In that respect, it’s much like Johnson’s Anniversaries. Once the reader grasps what these books are doing, they appear as masterpieces of compression and connectivity, feats of documentary imagination that have no equivalents even in the places we might expect to find them: modernist novels, Annales histories, psychogeographical adventures.

The Isle of Sheppey which Johnson arrived in with his wife and daughter was not so different from the one Wright found forty years later: deep in cultural, economic and infrastructural neglect; prone to flooding and erosion; disparaged for its poverty, its marginality and the supposed parochialism of its inhabitants. A place of cheap holidays, ‘white flight’, potholed roads, prefabs and bungalettes, it was a stereotype of terminal England and insular Englishness: an island’s island. This one-time seaside resort, shunted aside by cheap air travel, abandoned by industry, its naval dockyard closed, tells us something about the country we live in now. It’s a place where the prefix ‘post-’ roams vampirically, looking for things to attach itself to. Wright extrapolates a history of England now, a country where the 1970s and 1980s never went away.

Neither Wright nor Johnson buys into the clichés of dead-end Sheppey, the ‘forgotten’ England only remembered when press and politicians want to harvest its resentments. Brexit doesn’t loom over Wright’s book, but it is there as a motif, something that began long before it actually ‘happened’ and will continue long after. Brexit as longue durée rather than event. Johnson said he saw in Sheppey the possibility of a ‘moral utopia’. While there was irony in the comment, he valued it as a self-reliant, resourceful and mutually supportive society, distant from the places of power and below the notice of official imagination. After he died, a book called Island Stories appeared, collated from his letters and articles, notes and fragments. It’s the work of a curious and open-minded observer rather than a deprivation tourist.

In this respect, Wright is Johnson’s perfect biographer, and immediately dispatches the commonplaces about Sheppey. He notes, as Johnson did, that many of these assumptions are about class, and are as likely (perhaps more likely) to come from the ‘educated’ left. One moment Wright is discussing the island’s geology, the next he’s tracing the history of sea walls, Sheppey’s naval history, its steel industry, its brief spell as a centre for Scandinavian-inspired furniture design. He explores the origins of the place as it now is: the 19th-century Del Boys who sold land to Londoners in search of dream getaways, and the self-built plotlands of the 20th century. In interstitial Sheppey, the formal economy, the free market and state projects designed to plug the gaps all constantly fail, but people find their own solutions. They ‘get by’. Wright works in volutes and loops, interweavings and cross-stitches of history. One of the most fascinating connections he reveals is between Johnson and the sociologist Ray Pahl, who carried out fieldwork on Sheppey’s informal economy in the 1970s. Pahl was attracted by its paradoxically close-at-hand remoteness from the mainland, and by its self-contained island status. In a book full of echoes and doublings, Ray Pahl chimes with Gesine Cresspahl, Johnson’s protagonist in Anniversaries. There’s a Pahl in the novel too, but he’s a local tailor in a fictionalised Mecklenburg town: ‘Pahl the tailor had lost his relatives in the Hamburg firebombing. He didn’t want to live among strangers depending on the same charity from his fellow Germans that he had denied to homeless refugees himself. He and his family went out into the marsh and drowned themselves in the bog. Others tried it in the Baltic.’

Wright himself went to the University of Kent, where he came across Johnson’s first published novel, Speculations about Jakob. In the early 1970s he worked as a supply teacher in Whitstable, and could see the island from his classroom window. He left the area a matter of weeks before Johnson arrived. But for a writer like Wright, even a missed connection is a connection.

Johnson​ was born in 1934 in the Pomeranian town of Cammin on the Baltic coast (it’s now the Polish town of Kamień Pomorski). His father was a member of the Nazi Party, and Uwe was educated in a SS-run German Homeland School. In 1945, as the Red Army approached, the family fled to Mecklenburg. The following year, Uwe’s father died in a Russian labour camp. The people, landscape, dialect and culture of Mecklenburg play a large part in Johnson’s writing. The Baltic coast, with its pale sand and tufts of grass, its land fading into the sea, is echoed in the beaches and seafronts of Sheppey. Wright tells us that it has been dolled up since reunification – a post-Cold War settlement Johnson didn’t live to see.

In 1956, during what many thought would be a political thaw after the death of Stalin, his first novel, Ingrid Babendererde, was blocked from publication by the East German censors (it finally appeared in 1985). His second, Speculations about Jakob, appeared in West Germany in 1959, the year Johnson left the East. The story, told from a range of ‘speculative’ points of view, revolves around the death of a railway worker. The train that hits Jakob has been taking troops from the Soviet Union to Budapest to quell the Hungarian Uprising: ordinary people caught on the branch lines of history are his subject. Speculations bears some formal resemblance to the nouveau roman, but its subject and conception are entirely different. The nouveau roman avoided history and plot, but that wasn’t possible in Germany. Writers might want to redefine narrative form, but there was no finessing history.

Once in the West, Johnson refused to play the role of grateful Ossi. He would be nobody’s performing dissident. He was criticised by politicians and journalists for failing to condemn East German socialism and the Berlin Wall. He knew the Wall was necessary to the East German state’s survival: he saw its logic. He claimed that the writer’s job – his kind of writer at least – was to be a ‘truth-finder’, and said he considered himself ‘of the left, but in a different spot’. Some reviews of the 2018 translation of Anniversaries (and of Wright’s book) see his position as cynical, or naive, or wilfully blind. But his fiction shows that there is reason behind it: his characters, like him, negotiate a world in which freedom is not an absolute.

His novel Two Views (1965) is a cross-Wall love story about distance and closeness, and the surprising symmetries on either side of the divide. An Absence (1964) tells the story of a West German journalist sent to find out about East German life. The East he discovers, and the people he meets, are not at all what he was conditioned to expect. His article is too nuanced to please his boss. Shortly after the novel was published, Maurice Blanchot gave a talk about Berlin after the Wall: ‘Omniscience, even if it were possible, would be of no use in this case … the panoramic view is not a true view.’ The only writer he cited was Johnson. Blanchot’s point, like Johnson’s, is about the dangerous belief that there is a ‘place’ in the present that allows everything to be seen in a light that distinguishes right from wrong. In Johnson’s work, perspective doesn’t come from a bird’s-eye view but from staying at eye level – from looking and never stopping. His characters are suspicious of any claim that there is an omniscient history.

In 1965, Johnson travelled to the US with Günter Grass, and he worked for a while in the textbook division of Harcourt, Brace & World. In a 1974 lecture in Munich, Johnson told his audience how he had come to write Anniversaries. New York was unfamiliar to him, but he realised he knew someone who lived there: Gesine Cresspahl, a character – an ‘invented person’ – from Speculations about Jakob. She was a year older than him, and, like him, from Mecklenburg. She too had once believed in a certain kind of socialism and watched it deteriorate into savagery and repression. She too had crossed to the West, about which she had equally few illusions. It was a journey, Johnson says, for which she was ‘ill-suited’. Gesine lived nearby with her ten-year-old daughter, Marie, and worked in a bank. Like her creator, she read a lot of newspapers and looked out of a lot of windows. Or rather, she read the same newspapers and looked out of the same windows, but observed many different things, from the comings and goings on street corners to the ramifying geopolitics of the late 1960s. She looked at the New Jersey coast and thought of the Baltic edgelands of her childhood. Her memories of the last days of the war and the fall of the Third Reich are interspersed in Anniversaries with the events of the late 1960s: racism, riots, the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, Russian troop movements, the liberalisation of communism in Czechoslovakia. Where she comes from informs what she sees. After Bobby Kennedy’s murder, she makes a list of ‘Attempted and successful assassinations since the Civil War (guns only)’. The parenthesis is devastating. After Martin Luther King’s, she drafts letters to his widow that she never finishes, and then, in one of the novel’s frequent italicised free indirect-style/narratorial voice moments, tells herself:

No, Gesine. What kind of country are you voluntarily choosing to live in? A country where black people get killed. So what is there for you to say.

You’re right. Nothing. Nothing.

Johnson himself turns up in the novel, giving a fictionalised version of a talk he had given to the Jewish American Congress. On 3 November, Gesine begins her diary: ‘The Chancellor of West Germany, formerly a member and public official of the Nazis, has named as his government’s new spokesman a former member and public official of the Nazis.’ She describes a talk by ‘the writer Uwe Johnson’ – hapless, tortuously trying to offer a balanced assessment of German politics to an audience of Holocaust survivors and relatives of its victims. Gesine has the measure of Johnson, and of a great deal of postwar German writing, when she notes: ‘You couldn’t have confidence that he even understood, much less could explain, the country he had made himself responsible for explaining; he had not yet grasped that the time and place had deprived him of a tour guide’s blameless neutrality, turning every analytical word in his mouth defensive.’

For some subjects, objectivity isn’t a solution, even if it were achievable: it only replays the fallacy of Blanchot’s ‘panoramic view’. ‘Uwe Johnson’ knows this: ‘If only I’d asked your advice first, Mrs Cresspahl,’ he says. ‘We weren’t talking to each other yet, Mr Johnson.’ ‘Who’s telling this story, Gesine?’ he asks. ‘We both are. You know that, Johnson.’ In other writers, such metafictional sallies would be arch or knowing. In Johnson,they are rigorous and self-undermining, deliberately engineered ethical impasses in which he subjects his own ‘objective’ method to the strains of its material. In a piece called ‘How Anniversaries Came to Be Written’, he describes telling Martin Walser that he could not repatriate Gesine now that he had settled her and Marie in New York. In his imagined negotiation with Gesine, she makes her preferences clear: ‘Look, you made me up the way a writer makes up a woman, but when you gave me the child … I had to deal in some way with the child, made-up though I might be; that had to come entirely from me because I’m a woman. You can’t push me around, man-style.’

Johnson began writing Anniversaries in late 1967 and it appeared in four volumes between 1970 and 1983. Suhrkamp’s volumes had covers modelled on newspaper front pages: the title and subtitle as the masthead, a black and white portrait of Johnson at the top left corner. Each section of the novel describes a single day, beginning on 21 August 1967 and ending on 20 August 1968: it opens with an American air raid on Hanoi and ends on the eve of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the brutal repression of the Prague Spring. Newspapers are crucial to Gesine, as they were to Johnson, not just for their content but for the way they mediate the news, and counterpose history as it unfolds with the dailiness of ordinary life. They also allow connections to be drawn between events that have been made apparent only by some accident of timing. On 2 June 1968 Gesine reads two articles, one about the DDR destroying a historic church, the other about a bill being passed in the West German Bundestag allowing the government to suspend basic civil rights by declaring a state of emergency. The two articles appear close by – ‘adjacent as if related’, she says. It seems like a throwaway detail, but it goes to the heart of the way Gesine makes sense of the world.

It’s the adjacent as if related nature of things that interests Johnson. We don’t just read newspapers (or, these days, any source of news, fake news or rumour) for the facts. Like an apartment window, they only provide a partial view, even if it’s a view we like. We have to parse, contextualise and scrutinise what we read if we are to see the complex ways in which it relates to our own lives. Gesine thinks about her country’s past, about her Pomeranian family, about Nazism and national memory, while she reads about world events, witnesses the racism and violence of 1960s America, and tries to bring up a child sufficiently informed to grasp the connectedness of the world without being burdened with so much understanding that she can’t live freely.

When you read Anniversaries now, every element, from Cold War politics to aerial bombing, from violence against women to structural racism, seems current. It’s not that Johnson was prescient – he would have rejected that notion as mysticism or journalese – but that he grasped the condition of the postwar world. He traces the great far-off events, the abstractions and the big theories, to their vanishing points in ordinary lives.

Damion Searls’s English translation of Anniversaries does something no previous version of Johnson has managed: it catches the liveliness of the writing, and makes plain, for instance, Gesine’s warmth – it’s easy to see why her creator was so attached to her. Searls translated a number of Johnson’s letters and fragments for Wright’s book, and the letters lend a sense of intimacy – much like the strangely moving photograph Wright includes of the sea and the sea wall taken through the window of Johnson’s house as it stands today.

‘America was a rumour,’ Johnson told the New York Times in 1966. ‘I came here to verify the rumour.’ Asked why he had moved to Sheppey, his answer was equally elliptical: ‘That’s what I’m trying to find out.’ He looks haggard on Suhrkamp’s cover of the final volume of his big novel. His decade in Sheerness was marred by writer’s block, ill health, drink, and, by the end, paranoia and self-destructive behaviour. He fell drastically behind on Anniversaries, owed money to his publisher, and his marriage deteriorated to the extent that he accused his wife, Elisabeth, of having an affair with a Czech secret police agent. She and their daughter moved out to a house nearby, but Johnson was so determined not to see her that he divided Sheerness into zones: each of them had their own streets, and for the parts of town they both needed to visit they were allocated different times of day. These were the sectors of Allied-occupied Berlin, but in Sheerness. Shortly before his death, Johnson wrote his wife and daughter out of his will and left his estate to his publisher.

Nonetheless, the image of Johnson isolated in Marine Parade is misleading. When he wasn’t drinking at the Napier or eating bacon and eggs at a decrepit café that closed down before his eyes, he was travelling for conferences, prize-givings and public events. As a writer of international renown, he was interviewed and reviewed across Europe but he made the local press a few times too. In the Sheerness Times Guardian of 15 September 1975 he is photographed standing with the mayor of Sheerness at a charity raffle to raise money for a kidney dialysis machine, held in the bar of the Sea View Hotel. (It’s this Sea View – rather than the great, grey vistas of what is still sometimes called the German Ocean – that gives Wright his title.) Johnson wrote to his old landlady from his student days in Mecklenburg enclosing two of the (unlucky) raffle tickets he had bought, and said he had wanted to win the prize – a big white bedspread – for her.

His next appearance was in the Kent Evening Post, following a heated exchange between local right-wing politicians and communist sympathisers at a debate on Cold War politics. The paper had challenged the communists to buy a one-way ticket to Moscow: ‘Send us a card, lads.’ This, Johnson complained to Christa Wolf, was ‘in breach of British fairness’, and he wrote to the editor: ‘Let the two of us find a country to disagree upon. On conclusion, he would owe me a one-way ticket to the capital of that country, and I might send him a card.’ Johnson’s letter was published on 3 April 1981, under the title ‘Just the Ticket!’ But he was on one of his trips abroad, and told Wolf that he had been unable to find a copy when he returned. Naturally, Wright has discovered one. The thought of Johnson and Wolf, two of the greatest East German writers of the 20th century, discussing an argument on the letters page of a Kent newspaper about the world they had lived in and written about, has a life-affirming bathos about it: another vanishing point in a book about vanishing points.

Johnson was an Anglophile: he respected Britain’s institutions and tended to think the best of its people. In the final volume of Anniversaries, written in Sheerness, he invents an organisation called the Institute for the Preservation of British Customs. This is only partly a joke. Johnson was alert to the poverty and marginalisation of Sheppey, but, like Wright after him, he saw beyond it. He understood the pressures on society caused by the disappearance of the docks, steelworks, factories and businesses. He saw the coastal erosion, landslips and floods as environmental correlatives of the precariousness that made the solidarity and resourcefulness of the islanders all the more attractive. The similarities with what Ray Pahl found are uncanny, and Wright brilliantly draws out the connections.

Some friends remained baffled about Johnson’s choice of residence. His publisher Siegfried Unseld remembered thinking: ‘How can one live here, how can one write here, in this rundown town with little or no possibility of preserving what makes the outer life worth living?’ Others understood what drew him to Sheppey. His decision was consistent with his politics, with his dislike of middle-class liberalism, consumerism and snobbery. The place reminded him of his childhood on the Baltic coast and, in his own way, he fitted in. In December 1974 he started going by the name Charles. He walked into the Napier in the middle of a Christmas party – ‘a heavy, powerful man’, a former fireman interviewed for Stern magazine recalled. ‘Oh there’s Charlie!’ one of the regulars shouted. Johnson corrected him: ‘No, Charlie is wrong … the name is Charles.’ Every Christmas after that, Johnson would allow a glass of whisky to be poured over his head – a Sheppey baptism. When this was reported after his death, it was interpreted by many of Johnson’s admirers in Germany as a demeaning anecdote of an acceptance that came at the price of ritual humiliation.

There’s no evidence for this view in the recollections Wright has gathered from the people who knew him in the 1970s and remembered him in the 2010s. On the contrary, he seems to have had his own place in Sheerness, his own actual stool at the bar. It still exists, the red leather torn at the edges, the stuffing poking out of the cushion, one leg – judging from the photo Wright provides – buckling slightly. I hope it was salvaged from the Napier before the place was sold.

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Vol. 43 No. 21 · 4 November 2021

The Isle of Sheppey, described by Patrick McGuinness as ‘a stereotype of terminal England and insular Englishness’, has a fixed place in my childhood imagination (LRB, 21 October). Though only twelve miles from where I grew up, to get there you had to make a perversely sharp turn off the A2 (which was heading sensibly to Canterbury), and into a timeless estuary world whose coastal outpost was the scuffed seaside resort of Sheerness.

This was the first place my mum trusted me to go by train without her. Naturally, my friend Patrick and I bought a dozen eggs and had a fight on the seafront. There was an ancient coin-operated telescope, whose one purpose was for gazing out at the tilted masts of the SS Richard Montgomery, which, as McGuinness relates, foundered on a sandbank in 1944. Mum used to go on boat trips around the wreck soon after the war. Whenever someone remarks that the explosives on board could obliterate Sheerness, the response is an unkind or self-deprecating joke about the place.

There is no consensus about either Sheppey’s decrepitude – Uwe Johnson, the subject of McGuinness’s essay, exalted the town’s emotional resilience – or the chances of Kent acquiring its own Pompeii. Many – including the US government, which in theory still owns the Richard Montgomery – believe that the cargo of TNT and bombs is getting safer as it degrades. But there’s no denying that if the ship did go up it would be the one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.

Malcolm Gaskill

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