The story of Uwe Johnson, one of Germany’s greatest and most-influential post-war writers, and how he came to live and work in Sheerness, Kent in the 1970s. Towards the end of 1974, a stranger arrived in the small town of Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. He could often be found sitting at the bar in the Napier Tavern, drinking lager and smoking Gauloises while flicking through the pages of the Kent Evening Post. “Charles” was the name he offered to his new acquaintances. But this unexpected immigrant was actually Uwe Johnson, originally from the Baltic province of Mecklenburg in the GDR, and already famous as the leading author of a divided Germany. What caused him to abandon West Berlin and spend the last nine years of his life in Sheerness, where he eventually completed his great New York novel Anniversaries in a house overlooking the outer reaches of the Thames Estuary? And what did he mean by detecting a “moral utopia” in a town that others, including his concerned friends, saw only as a busted slum on an island abandoned to “deindustrialisation” and a stranded Liberty ship full of unexploded bombs? Patrick Wright, who himself abandoned north Kent for Canada a few months before Johnson arrived, returns to the “island that is all the world” to uncover the story of the East German author’s English decade, and to understand why his closely observed Kentish writings continue to speak with such clairvoyance in the age of Brexit. Guided in his encounters and researches by clues left by Johnson in his own “island stories”, the book is set in the 1970s, when North Sea oil and joining the European Economic Community seemed the last hope for bankrupt Britain. It opens out to provide an alternative version of modern British history: a history for the present, told through the rich and haunted landscapes of an often spurned downriver mudbank, with a brilliant German answer to Robinson Crusoe as its primary witness.
About the Author:
Patrick Wright joined King’s College London in September 2011, having previously been Professor of Modern Cultural Studies at Nottingham Trent University and, from 2004, a fellow of the London Consortium. Before 2000, he Wright lived for many years as a self-employed writer. While researching and writing books, he also worked as a journalist (including a five-year spell as a feature writer with the Guardian), and as a broadcaster, writing and presenting radio and television documentaries for the BBC and Channel Four. These included a four-part television history of the Thames (“The River”, BBC2, 1999). Patrick has written about the changing concept of heritage, the idea of China as it has featured in the British imagination, the literary origins and symbolic powers of the tank, and the development of the “Iron Curtain” as a divisive political metaphor that actually started out in the theatre. His latest book, The Sea View Has Me Again: Uwe Johnson in Sheerness (December 2020) was researched during his six years at King’s and written in the wake of the Brexit referendum of 2016.
NYRB: Patrick Wright and translator Damion Searls on Uwe Johnson in Sheerness, with Edwin Frank
“A monumental sifting and arranging of local particulars, stitched against the savage farce of a great European novelist’s elective exile… Patrick Wright has picked over the landfill of a very specific Estuary culture to devastating effect.” – Iain Sinclair
“A double ‘biography’ of the great but always tempestuous German writer Uwe Johnson and his ultimate home, the gritty and disreputable Isle of Sheppey. ‘Biography’ is in quotes because Wright is a saboteur of genres and his books encompass multiple worlds. I stand in awe of what he has accomplished here.” – Mike Davis