Interview: Patrick Wright
Updated: Apr 19
Patrick Wright is a writer, broadcaster and academic in the fields of cultural studies and cultural history. He has written for many journals and newspapers, including The Guardian, and presented the BBC2 series ‘The River’, about the River Thames, in 1999. He is a former presenter of Radio 3's arts programme Night Waves. He is the author of several books, many of which explore themes connected to England and Englishness, Psychogeography and cultural history, including The Village That Died for England and A Journey through Ruins: The Last Days of London. His latest book, The Sea View Has Me Again: Uwe Johnson in Sheerness, explores the East German writer Uwe Johnson and his unexpected residence on the Isle of Sheppey between 1974 and his death in 1984.
We are proud to welcome him to Medway River Lit in June. We asked him some questions about writing The Sea View Has Me Again.
What drew you to cover Uwe Johnson in such depth?
Partly, the fact that he was such a brilliant writer, despite the chaotic disintegration leading to his death in 1984. But there was more to it than that. The Sea View Has Me Again was a Brexit-related experiment, really: could finding out about Johnson and his writing coincide with finding out about Britain through the example of the Isle of Sheppey? Perhaps I am being naïve, but I still like to think we might have had better political writing in this country had a full English translation of his masterpiece Anniversaries been published less than forty years after Surkamp published it in West Germany.
Johnson has been in the back of my mind since I first came across his earlier novels when I was a student at the University of Kent at Canterbury. I liked the fact that his writing was both experimental and interested in everyday realities and also that he wrote with a critical intelligence that was exploratory and curious: a man of the left, to be sure, but not one who was only interested in pushing some inflexible ideological line. I next came across him when I was living in Canada. I was reading the truncated American translation of the first two volumes of his huge four volume chronicle Anniversaries, and was astonished to discover from the book flap that this if by then also notoriously celebrated difficult man whose previous addresses had been in Berlin, Rome and New York, was by then living in Sheerness.
Did you know anything about the Isle of Sheppey at that stage?
I had spent the early months of 1974 looking out over the Isle of Sheppey as a supply teacher at the since demolished Sir William Nottidge School in Bellevue Road, above Whitstable. So I knew a little about that oscillating island across the water, which on a good day looked like Paradise but was routinely condemned as a dismal slum. I had visited Sheerness only months before Johnson turned up there and could still remember something of the town as it was then. I later read his extraordinary essay on the SS Richard Montgomery – the ‘Doomsday Ship’ full of bombs stranded offshore from Sheerness – which I subsequently included in a BBC2 series about the Thames. Later still, I learned that Johnson had once spoken of writing a whole collection of ‘island stories’ about the ‘moral utopia’ he claimed to have discovered among his often unemployed friends on the Isle of Sheppey. He never wrote that book, but I found that he had actually left many descriptions of Sheerness and its people – not least in letters to friends such as the philosopher Hannah Arendt – and these leave little doubt that, on good days at least, he loved the place, and by no means just because its landscape and sea views reminded him of the Baltic coast he had left behind in East Germany. So there you have it: one of the greatest German writers of his generation, hiding out for nearly ten years on Marine Parade, Sheerness, avoiding literary contacts as much as he could, reading the Sheerness Times-Guardian (all his copies are now boxed and stored at the Uwe Johnson archive in Rostock), and finding new companions in the taverns of this utterly unbourgeois and by no means entirely beaten Kentish town where he introduced himself as ‘Charles.’ That felt irresistible, especially given that the Isle of Sheppey, following the closure of Sheerness’s admiralty dockyard in 1960, was in the vanguard of a process of deindustrialization that had since gone on to engulf much of the country if not yet the entire world.
How famous was Uwe in Germany/Europe when he moved to Sheerness? And why did he write so little there?
He was an applauded and much garlanded writer, not just in West Germany, but in other west European countries and the USA too. He had become a literary sensation in 1959 with the publication of his first novel, Speculations about Jakob. Everybody wanted a piece of the 25 year-old who had just arrived from the GDR and who forcefully refused classification as a refugee and wouldn’t serve as anybody’s spokesman, East or West. And it stayed that way. By the time he left West Berlin for Sheerness, he was celebrated all over again for the first three volumes of Anniversaries. Some of his West German friends were dismayed by his new choice of residence, but those from East Germany may better have understood why the low and marshy Isle of Sheppey with its working class community might seem just fine to a man who had grown up on the GDR’s low and marshy Baltic coast.
As for Johnson’s writing in Sheppey, he had come to England to find a house in which he could complete the fourth and final volume of Anniversaries. Initially, it seemed this might be done within a matter of months. Yet it took him the best part of a decade, harried by mounting pressure from his exasperated publisher, who eventually threatened to stop the monthly advance that had kept the household afloat for the best part of a decade. It’s been said that Johnson was immobilized by ‘writer’s block.’ The more I found out, however, the more facile that theory seemed. Johnson was beset by a host of problems – heart disease, depression, drink, life-consuming paranoia, and a failing relation between his fictional world and his disintegrating domestic life – that eventually destroyed him. Despite the increasingly overwhelming difficulties that led to his death at the age of 49 in 1984, Johnson actually managed to write quite a lot in Sheerness. He eventually finished Anniversaries, and he wrote other things too.
Would you say that your book is partly a psychogeography of Sheppey?
Why not? I am all for places that have the unmanaged depth and resistant strength to challenge the perspectives through which we might conventionally see them. Sheppey has been spurned and misrepresented over the years but one only has to scratch the surface to discover a rich historical environment. It is a troubled place, to be sure, but it’s also wild in more senses than one: a place of still partly uncharted comings and goings and also refusals that I found fascinating to think about and to connect up with what I thought I already knew. I live in one of the least Brexity places in the country, so it was definitely good for me to encounter the experiences that led so many islanders to vote the other way in 2016. Congratulations, mind you, to Billy Childish for his Boris Johnson posters.
How did you find your research time on the island?
It was great, although not so easy at the start. I walked, talked and spent a lot of time in the reference library on Sheerness High Street. I realized I had more work to do when a woman on the pavement saw me taking a photograph and asked ‘Are you from the Council then?’ Things really got going after I met Chris Reed of Big Fish Arts, and we agreed to convene a group of locals who might be interested in reading and talking about some of the Johnson texts I had by then got into an English translation by Damion Searls. We kept meeting over a winter, and then did a semi-staged performance and reading in Sheerness’s Little Theatre. I was told we sold more tickets than the Del Shannon tribute band that played the venue shortly before us. I certainly couldn’t have done that on my own.
What’s next for you in terms of subjects for books?
There’s still a story or two to pull through from my time in Sheppey, and I am still working with Shona Illingworth, the film maker with whom I shared some of my researches, so something should come out of that before long too. As for books, I have two other investigations underway. They are both about England and the implications of its history now, but they’re presently also too shapeless to describe with any conviction. In fact, they are just driving me crazy. I am afraid all my projects have started out like this, but they do in the end resolve into books that I like to think are much better for the journey.
You can hear Patrick Wright talking about his book, 'The Sea View Has Me Again', in June.