Brent geese over Shellness and nudist beach. All pictures courtesy Patrick Wright

We live in interesting times. Who would have thought that the odyssey of legendary East Germany writer Uwe Johnson, from the Baltic to Sheerness forty-five years ago, would have resonance today in a political and social landscape scarred by Brexit? A legendary figure in European literature, Johnson chose to settle in a cheerful working-class town with a steel works and port, that echoed in many ways the GDR he left, and had views across the Thames Estuary not unlike the Baltic seascapes of his native Pomerania.

Today, Sheerness is visited by many who wish to explore its edgy post-industrial vibe amidst a marshland wilderness. Despite its proximity to London, the town is lived in by a community that gets on with life as best it can. It’s decline since Johnson’s time is surely representative of the UK’s journey, too, over that period.

Patrick Wright, Radio 3 Night Waves presenter and author of A Journey Through the Ruins: The Last Days of London, pulls together a multitude of threads connecting Johnson with the UK today in his latest book The Sea View Has Me Again: Uwe Johnson in Sheerness. Recording de-industrialization, the geography and history of the Thames estuary, and Johnson’s sharp observations and intellectual tradition, this is surely a major study of our country and culture today.

Here, interviewed by Simon Matthews, he comments in details on the points raised in his book.

How do we best describe your book? Is it psychogeography, or something like The Road to Wigan Pier or a social-political commentary with a parallel literary narrative?

I hadn’t thought of it, but the book does have a little in common with Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, a journey into a backwater that might well have been called “distressed” in the 30s. As for psychogeography, I am certainly interested in unformatted places that have the power to challenge what you may think you already know. The Sea View is really a book about what has happened to England and the UK since the early 70s. Given when I was writing, I could hardly stop Sheppey looming as a prefiguration of the offshore island England voted to become in relation to Europe.

Bluetown heritage centre, set for wedding tea

Then, of course, there is Uwe Johnson, this major East German writer who amazed everybody by moving to Sheerness-on-Sea from West Berlin in 1974, declaring his love for the island, but also dying there miserably nine years later. I take him as a guide who provides an unexpected perspective on English realities. He may stand as a warning to all habitual drinkers, but he left an acute and sympathetically observed account of his Kentish life as “Charles”: a “stranger” who identified with the unemployed, didn’t miss the middle class (largely absent from Sheppey), and made a unique social observatory of his stool in the Napier Tavern. I also hope his story isn’t only a ‘parallel’ narrative, and that his perspective informs the socio-political investigation.  

You were at the University of Kent in the 70s, a time of optimism, with airports being planned and the EU being joined: did you visit Sheppey then?

I arrived in 1970, when the university was five years old, still a building site really. By comparison with students today, we benefited greatly from Britain’s post-war social democracy. When I graduated in 1973, the 60s were long gone, and the country seemed to be falling apart. I was living at 5 St Radigund Street, which was home to people from the art college and university as well as musicians connected to the Canterbury scene. I did my finals with Barbara Gaskin, from the acid folk band Spirogyra, and remember listening to them rehearsing Martin Cockerham’s songs from their last LP Bells, Boots and Shambles (1974), a classic which would wait several decades before finding an audience.

I don’t think I recognised the contrary charms of the Isle of Sheppey until 1974, when I was working as a supply teacher in a school near Whitstable. The classrooms looked out over the Swale, and Sheppey loomed up on the far side. It could look entrancing on clear days. It was a different story close up, though, as I remember when l drove across the Kings Ferry Bridge and had the full out-of-season experience that still draws visiting commentators, who enjoy announcing that they have discovered the end of the world as we know it.

By the time Uwe Johnson arrived I had fled to Vancouver. When I returned to England five years later, I settled in London. So my recollections of both Kent and Sheppey remained closely associated with the 1970s, a decade when – as I show in the book – many of the seeds of our present situation were planted.

You make a powerful case for Sheerness being a place of immense, and continually missed, opportunities: the ferry service to Europe closed, Ernest Race’s furniture works gone, the steelworks closed, a major airport twice considered and then abandoned. Why do you think politicians fail communities like this?

It is not just the politicians. Since the mid-twentieth century, much of the island has been devoted to the holiday trade, which had its heyday before the mid-60s but has not done well against the Costa del Sol. It also has yet to achieve the ‘Creative Coast’ rebirth at Whitstable and Margate. I don’t think Sheppey was helped by having three separate local councils pre-1973. They struggled to agree and were replaced by Swale Borough Council, which is primarily a mainland authority. Other problems are connected to national policy. Places that are small – and Sheerness has fewer than 20,000 people – get neglected under our constituency system.

The Montgomery Mermaid, Sheerness

Sheerness is part of what Labour MP Derek Wyatt described as the “necklace of poverty” around London: struggling seaside towns that have failed in their claims for resources against much larger industrial areas elsewhere. That is what happened after the 1960 closure of the dockyard and garrison at Sheerness. This was devastating, but the case for state assistance was hard to sustain against larger dereliction in, say, coal-mining or steel-making areas. But, despite this, and thanks to some local politicians (including Labour MP Percy Wells), a new island economy was created. The dockyard became a de-unionised port, and drawn by the promise of subsidised factories, new businesses included a chemical company and the Sheerness steel mill.

So, there was a recovery, and it brought enough jobs to cause some older islanders today to remember the 70s as the ‘good times’. A lot of the employment was of the downriver kind: glass-making, chemicals, metal bashing, the prisons, a glue factory, etc. But there was also Race Furniture, which arrived in 1962, and who were committed to making new, future-based and English designed, furniture. Back then you could buy G Plan furniture on Sheerness High Street! The collapse of that mixed-economy idea of modernity quickened in the 80s, and despite the efforts of many on the island and the promises made via the Thames Gateway project under Tony Blair, the insulting cliché of ‘left behind’ Britain has governed recent perceptions of the island.

Generally, as I looked into the history of Sheerness, I realised the inhabitants have been living with a sense of precariousness since the town came into existence around the dockyard in the late seventeenth century. It is not just that the sea might flood into the town with every high tide and storm surge in the North Sea. The sense of being dependent on powers you cannot do much to influence or control has been there from the start.

In the early days, when it was still agricultural and subject to “marsh fever” (malaria), landowners lived elsewhere, leaving their land to subordinates: the island never became a place for the rising middle class. Later the town’s reliance on the military became a source of insecurity as well as prosperity. Naval wars meant the place boomed, but as soon as they ended, politicians upriver would start counting costs and considering closure.

Samuel Pepys may have helped lay out the dockyard in 1665, but in pursuit of “economy and efficiency”, he would be talking about closing it down less than twenty years later. The Victorian attempt to turn the place into a summer resort for Londoners was part of this battle to secure a more independent economy.

This tension with London has continued ever since – and never more emblematically than in the case of the SS Richard Montgomery, an American Liberty ship packed with unexploded bombs that still lies, sunk on a sandbank, two miles offshore. It has been there since 1944, threatening a massive explosion. For more than half a century, the upriver authorities have dithered and failed to act. You couldn’t get a better allegory of the relationship between the State and the “little people” (Uwe Johnson’s phrase) as it seemed to many local voters in the approach to Brexit.

Gentleman at rest outside the Belle and Lion (Wetherspoons), Sheerness High St

In your book you describe Sheerness in minute detail. How unique do you think the town actually is, or, is it just one of many potential case histories for the UK’s recent journey to its current position?

My aim was to understand the present situation of the country via the experience of one of those ‘places that don’t matter’. Sheerness is distinct, but it shares much of this with other embattled communities in Britain. I do provide a lot of detail. But didn’t someone once talk about seeking the world in a grain of sand?

I have always worked like this, picking up fragments or anecdotes and seeing where they take me. I count the Brexit decision as another justification for this approach now. While I have no love for the grandees of the European Commission, I still voted Remain, and I judge the government for the lies, manipulations, racist innuendos, and insouciance with which they and their media drove it through.

I was, though, at a conference at the British Academy shortly after the 2016 referendum, and found myself disconcerted by the response of the gathered academics. Nobody seemed to doubt that Brexit was deplorable and shocking. I agreed with their assessment of its blithely uncalculated consequences, but I was also already at work on the island, so I had the advantage of possessing some idea of where the vote came from. Many of those horrified objectors seemed to lack outdoor detail in their consensus, which hardly went beyond a sense of disorientation and dismay.

Given these circumstances, detail is not just a trivial matter of local colour. I wanted to get close to Sheerness to escape prejudged ideas of what may or may not be significant, of what history is and has been, or of the kind of place where the past still has something important to tell us. I felt encouraged by the example of Johnson’s attention to detail, his interest in places that are written off as backwaters, and his preference for revealing things rather than running already decided lines of argument or telling readers what to think.

Uwe Johnson saw both sides of east and west when it was bitterly divided. He knew what East Germany was like, but didn’t openly condemn it after he left. Are we all in this position now post-Brexit?

That is only partly true. Johnson refused the status of ‘refugee’ after moving to West Berlin in 1959 and also maintained his independence from the simplified Western view of the GDR. He denied that definition, insisting that, far from being just a vassal of the Soviet Union, the GDR had its own constitution as a state – however flawed – and showing in his early novels that it was possible to live a not entirely hideous life there.

He was heavily attacked when he remarked that the building of the Berlin Wall was less an act of confrontation than a pragmatic measure intended to stop a flight that was wrecking the GDR’s economy. He would defend the post-war years in East Germany, when people like Brecht and also his own university teachers Hans Mayer and Ernst Bloch, were working towards a new kind of anti-Nazi socialism. But he also saw it deformed under Walter Ulbricht, and ran into trouble for opposing it.

South of Queenborough

So, neither he nor his work was pro-GDR. This is apparent in the fourth and final volume of Anniversaries, which he completed in Sheerness. His partly utopian yearning was for a democratic socialism, indicated by the popular Berlin uprising of 1953, the extinguished Hungarian revolution of 1956, and the Prague spring of 1968, the crushing of which begins a few hours after the last day of Anniversaries.

Some may see a case for reconciliation but I wouldn’t want to suggest a connection between Brexit and the reunification of Germany. Johnson’s example suggests that we should move beyond polarisation. We should do so not by conveniently letting bygones be bygones but by really understanding where this decision came from, and what it tells us about the country and its recent history.

Condemnation may be unreliable without informed understanding, but ours is not a situation that requires letting the situation go or acquiescing to the present government’s desire for forgetfulness. Given a prime minister who talks about “changing the narrative” when confronted with awkward responsibilities, we should remember the question Uwe Johnson recommends putting to all governments in Speculations About Jakob: “What do you do with facts that you don’t like?”

Uwe Johnson describes Sheerness as a “moral utopia”. Was he trying to recover the image of the working-class like, say, Billy Bragg, or did he mean the type of rugged individualism that ultimately led to Brexit?

It is an interesting phrase which Johnson may have used a little ironically. Why is its application to Sheerness so surprising now? One of the consequences of the neoliberal tide that has swept over us since Johnson’s death is that our images of the working class tend to be utterly negative. Everything is filtered through this prism of unemployment, paedophilia, benefit dependency, domestic abuse and right-wing nationalism. I am not seeking to minimise these, but I think the makers of middle-class opinion should get themselves down to Sheppey to rediscover that people are capable of being resourceful and autonomous even if they don’t have any money.

This is what Johnson’s moral utopia was about. He saw people getting by, coping with blighted circumstances, finding ingenious solutions to problems, moaning but also coping with the sheer tedium of life on the underside of a failing state. He noted their informal systems of mutual aid and voluntary association, and also the acts of practical solidarity that might involve disregard for the law. He relished their wit, rich language, implausible political and historical theories, and the unsung heroism with which they helped each other along in the knowledge that nobody else was coming. So, it is partly “rugged” independence but there is a lot more to it than bluster.

Interestingly, Johnson perceived this “moral utopia” at the same time as sociologists Ray Pahl and Claire Wallace were carrying out research on the Isle of Sheppey into the impact of the dockyard closure on the islanders. They surveyed the same society as Johnson, noting the rise of the “informal economy”, the challenge to traditional gender roles, and the emergence of a “household economy” in which DIY, allotments, women’s work and small-scale property improvements featured heavily. They worked on the assumption that, far from being trapped in the past, people were finding new outlets for themselves: they were actually pioneers of a new post-industrial future.

Patrick Wright at Timmendorfer Strand on the German Baltic Photo. Shona Illingworth

As for the possible link with Brexit, Johnson describes people who were already against the Common Market as it was then, and there was a strong strain of disappointed patriotism in the air along with a susceptibility to what Pahl calls “Churchillian pastiche”. You can see how this might have converted into a pro-Brexit stance. But it wasn’t inevitable and there were always other possibilities.

On Sheppey as elsewhere, it would be easy to gather evidence of racism and xenophobia. I found some of this – a nasty attack on Hasidic Jews who had come from London for a day at the sea, and quite a lot of hostility to Polish workers. But the island also has a history of tolerating and welcoming incomers. Indeed, there was a successful island petition, a decade or so back, to prevent the Home Office from deporting an eighteen-year-old refugee who had been housed with a foster parent on Sheppey.

Johnson is an enormously serious intellectual who operated as a detached observer of society. Do you identify with him? How prevalent is his type in UK literary circles?

I think he felt the weight of that expectation, which may be why he told an American who interviewed him in Sheerness that he was actually an “unacknowledged humorist”. He was capable of highly sympathetic observations, but he did maintain his distance. He was part of the European enlightenment tradition, and also an inheritor of a German strand of western Marxism, which came to him through figures such as Brecht, Ernst Bloch, Jürgen Habermas, and his New York friend Hannah Arendt. This was something that English-speaking readers were only becoming familiar with in the 70s. That detached observation, reflects his view that the writer’s job is not only to move readers, but to appraise, witness, and reveal the truth about things.

Günter Grass once remarked that Johnson needed to be a stranger wherever he went. Johnson had lived through traumatic times and things didn’t always go well for those who tried to get close to him. So, no, I don’t identify with him. I do, though, think his writing is extraordinary and that it continues to be highly suggestive both in its critical approach to reality and in its foregrounding of issues that are of great significance in our time – memory, truth, and history or the organising power of narrative and the dangers – which we hardly need to be reminded about after Trump and Boris Johnson – of “stories where everything fits together.”

I can’t immediately think of any British writers like Uwe Johnson, or who manage to combine intellectual seriousness with such a broad and sympathetic social imagination. I am sure they exist, though they may be struggling to get published in the present climate.

You get quite political at the end of the book. Where do you think the UK is heading as a country?

I think we’ve been living through the slow-motion collapse of social democracy. As to when it started… I once interviewed Barbara Castle, a formidable woman who might have been a fine Labour alternative to Margaret Thatcher. She was very clear: it began with the Labour government being unable to introduce industrial democracy in 1969 because of opposition led by the trade unionists Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, and her great rival in the Labour Party, James Callaghan. In her view “that was the moment”. Ironically Scanlon had a holiday home on Sheppey, at Warden, where the cliffs are unstable and prone to erosion. His house literally fell off the cliff later in the 70s.

For years I was reluctant to use the word ‘neoliberalism’, but that is where we are now: in a world of austerity, with the social contract torn to shreds, billionaires and oligarchs barely needing to fill in tax returns, and Brexit offered as a consolation prize – despite its costs and unconsidered impact on the union. I can’t read the future, but I feel obliged to apologise to the young.

Having sensed political and cultural changes, Jürgen Habermas asked Johnson to write something for a collection of essays in the late 70s. In our current climate of shouted non-truths and misrepresentation, how should the intellectual engage in public debate?

Habermas was seeking contributions to Observations on “The Spiritual Situation of the Age”. He did this when the new right was emerging and the left was experiencing the impact of the Baader-Meinhoff gang and other terrorist groupings. He invited his contributors to respond to arguments by the philosopher Karl Jaspers, who had reviewed the “spiritual situation” of Germany in 1931, just before Hitler took power.

Habermas observed that, while Jaspers’ could not be followed in some of his assumptions, the role of intellectuals was still to explore and clarify murky realities. Johnson took this instruction literally, and submitted an essay on the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery and its lethal cargo.

I think that the case for investigating murky realities remains pressing, just as I consider it fundamental to insist on truth, and to maintain a critical distance while avoiding the cynicism with which it is often confused.

The Sea View Has Me Again: Uwe Johnson in Sheerness by Patrick Wright is published by Repeater Books