Uwe Johnson spent his life on the move. Early on this was enforced. He and his family shuffled from one Pomeranian town to another. In 1944, at the age of ten, he was sent to board at a German Homeland School, which was marginally less inculcatory than a standard Nazi boarding school. Nonetheless, 1944 was not a propitious year in which to begin an SS education. After the war he studied in Güstrow, Rostock and Leipzig. He left the GDR for West Germany when it was still possible to do so; his books were never published in the former. He told Le Monde that his self-imposed exile was for ‘reasons of hygiene’. This was presumably a euphemism. Atypically in a book where every T is sedulously crossed, it is left unexplained here. In Berlin he discovered Faulkner and was described, not altogether amiably, as a nouveau romancier. His disinclination to ally himself politically caused him to be treated on the one hand as a Marxist stooge, a ‘camouflaged communist’, and on the other as a consumerist toady, a pawn of the far right (it must be recalled that Germany in the 1960s was largely ruled by Nazis in mufti). His refusal to denounce or cheer the building of the Berlin Wall was naive. He defended his position by stating that the novelist’s job is to tell a story, not to ‘usher readers into illusions’. He might more accurately have said that it was his job, rather than presuming to ascribe a collective purpose to all writers of fiction.
It is, anyway, from this agnosticism about the wall that Patrick Wright takes his cue. His massive project is unspeculative, unfanciful, founded in fact upon fact. It is a rich documentary, and the welter of detail is relentless in its lapel-grabbing insistence. Again Wright is following Johnson, whose objectivity was more than a pose: the man recorded everything with every sense. Raw material – incidents, places, shapes, dapple, colours, malodours, newspaper accounts – went almost unmediated.
Wright duly negotiates his way through Berlin’s literary circles, Johnson’s two years in New York, where he found a surprisingly companionable neighbour in Hannah Arendt, and eventually his move, financed by Max Frisch, to Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey, one of the few places in western Europe as thrillingly desolate as the Baltic resorts of his childhood and adolescence. Those resorts are no longer run-down. Since reunification, every gabled house, cutesy thatched cottage and neoclassical villa has become a swishly refurbished second home. Johnson would have disapproved. Sheerness, along with the nearby Medway towns, has missed out on the demographic ascent that has afflicted Whitstable and Margate.
The author Pierre Mertens described Johnson as a victim of ‘that old Pomeranian melancholy’. From his new (and last) home, the lugubrious writer could gaze out over the estuary where the Thames debouches into what was called – and still is in some places – the German Ocean. On the beach at Shingle Street in Suffolk, there exists a utilitarian mid-Victorian building called German Ocean Mansion. How Wright failed to include that intelligence is a mystery. I can’t believe he doesn’t know it because he knows everything about everything. Or just about: the shades of the furniture designers and architects Charles and Ray Eames would be interested to learn that they were brothers; they were in fact husband and wife.
How did these primary-coloured West Coast Corbusians come to grace the pages of this sprawling gazetteer of subfusc bleakness? Wright’s method is digressive, though of course a digression must be made from somewhere, and that point is frequently occluded by the tale within the story within the frame. Thus, much of the book is devoted one way or another to Sheerness’s centuries-long run of bad luck and neglect, which now and again has been punctuated by new enterprises, such as the factory established by the furniture designer Ernest Race, whose Scandinavian-derived work defined the Festival of Britain. He set up a factory at Sheerness in the early 1960s when the dockyard closed. This prompts a disquisition by Wright on the propagation of ‘good design’ by the herbivorous Council of Industrial Design.
There are kindred sections on just about anything that catches Wright’s eye. That on the self-built developments of the early 20th century owes much to Colin Ward and Dennis Hardy, whose Arcadia for All remains the definitive study of southern English plotlands. There is a section on aviation in its infancy, or ‘aero auto-mobilism’, which was a hobby of the rich, along with motoring, yachting and tobogganing. Among the pioneering aeronautical engineers who tested their craft at the Aero Club’s sites on Sheppey was the Anglo-Irish soldier and trout-fly tier J W Dunne. His An Experiment with Time, belief in oneiric precognition and reworking of the concept of eternal return inspired Vladimir Nabokov’s Insomniac Dreams. His hypotheses rather went the way of his aircraft.
Much of Sheppey is below sea level. It is no match for the tide’s persistent gnawing and occasional violence. Inhabitants whose land is being swept away are reassured by the Environment Agency that they are merely witnessing ‘managed retreat’, which is civil service jargon for sweeping it under the carpet. Successive governments’ laxity on coastal defences is laid bare by Wright’s near-forensic examination of their excuses, pretences of bafflement, public wringing of hands, treachery and lies. Plus ça change – apart, that is, from the diminution of the blob on the map.
The island’s inhabitants are hardly blind to the contempt in which they have long been held. They have reciprocated by working on the black and undertaking such pursuits as ‘hovelling’, or stealing from wrecked vessels. The most celebrated of these vessels, the one that most preoccupied ‘Charles’, as Johnson was nicknamed, is the SS Richard Montgomery, the Liberty ship that, due to a spectacular series of cock-ups, was broken on a sandbank in August 1944. It was full of explosives. No one knows for certain what state they are in. A number of remedies for salvaging it have been mooted, some practical, others fantastical. In a 1982 essay in Granta, Johnson wrote about the folklore that had grown up around this hulk. Would its detonation really destroy Sheerness and Southend or would it merely take out a few windows?
Johnson died a couple of years after that piece appeared. His body was not found until two weeks later. He had had no contact for some months with his wife and daughter, who lived a couple of streets away and whom he spitefully removed from his will. They are no more than shadowy names in this generally encyclopedic work, a hymn to estuarial peculiarity and a lament for an awkward man determined never to find his place.