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: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl 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.
as republished on Literary Hub
USA: A conversation, with Edwin Frank, Editorial Director of New York Review Classics and translator Damion Searls, via the Community Bookstore, Brooklyn, 5 January 2021. See on YouTube
UK: “Where Might We Find a Moral Utopia?” Bristol Festival of Ideas, Tuesday 16 February 2021
“Beyond the Sea: Uwe Johnson, Patrick Wright and the Isle of Sheppey”, a conversation with Simon Matthews, the Quietus, 27 February 2021.
“This tidal book, reaching into everything and then withdrawing to show what it left behind, is a triumph.”
— Neal Ascherson, author of Black Sea and The Death of the Fronsac
“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, author of City of Quartz and Set the Night on Fire
“Patrick Wright has written an extraordinary, haunting book, a devastating allegory of our own time, yet seen from the mid-twentieth century. Wright’s phenomenal achievement is to painstakingly set the scene against which the final volume of Uwe Johnson’s monumental four-part novel Anniversaries can be read and to turn it back to us, with a contemporary question — are we left behind or staying behind?”
— Gillian Darley, author of Villages of Vision and Excellent Essex
“An astonishing chronicle of the great German author Uwe Johnson, who moved to Sheerness, Kent in the 1970s.”
— Helen MacDonald, author of His for Hawk and Vesper Flights
“With consummate timing, when so many are locked in a blind charge towards some bigger and better crisis, Patrick Wright has picked over the landfill of a very specific Estuary culture to devastating effect. The Sea View Has Me Again is a monumental sifting and arranging of local particulars, stitched against the savage farce of a great European novelist’s elective exile. Remorseless retrievals from bunker and cranked microfilm, enlivened by human witness, make this final panel of a notable literary triptych, following on from A Journey through Ruins (Dalston Lane) and The Village that Died for England (Tyneham), into one of the abiding memorials to a tattered angel of history”.
— Iain Sinclair, author of Downriver and The Last London
“In this masterful modernist history, Patrick Wright tells the story of an island which is England, yet much more than that. Wright’s Isle of Sheppey is a de-industrialised place, not in the North, but in the garden of England; a refuge of liberties that has three prisons; a dockyard and garrison town with a pacifist MP; an island which could be destroyed by bombs left over from the war, but which far from being stuck in the past is a model for a new post-industrial world. It is the stage for an extraordinary cast of characters, among them Napoleon Bonaparte, DH Lawrence’s mother and an Anglo-Catholic fascist parish priest; the Wright brothers’ patent agent, the nation’s first indigenous aviator and the father of the British atomic bomb; the communist leader of the engineering union, an immigrant imperialist machine-tool inventor; makers of modern furniture and foreign photographers.
At its heart is the life, work, and inspiration of extraordinary East German writer Uwe Johnson who drinks himself to death in a pub run by veterans of the Battle of the River Plate. Wright scintillatingly creates, from perfectly observed fragments from the past and flashes of a better future, a British history like no other, crafted with tools forged out of hard realities of modern European history. With its steely dissing of the tide dichotomies and exceptionalist clichés which disfigure our sense of who we are, this is Patrick Wright’s most important book. It brings Europe to England by showing it has always been here, at a moment when too many want to believe something else.”
— David Edgerton, author of The Rise and Fall of the British Nation and The Shock of the Old
“A model portrait of person and place, a kind of cultural and literary geography that never fails to fascinate.”
— KIRKUS (starred review)
“Sebald on steroids… I loved every scrap of it”
— John Mitchinson, BACKLISTED
“Beautifully written, defiantly oddball, challenging in so many ways and completely compelling.”
— John Wyver, Illuminations Media
“... a huge achievement: a comprehensive portrait of s place and a person, and the best book about Brexit that’s yet been written.”
—Jon Day, “Books of the Year”, The White Review
“The first telling of a life tends to be heroic, dramatic, and efficient. But a second telling can always be imagined, built of stories left out of the first for any number of reasons. This second, inverse telling might be arduous, indirect, speculative, and sad. It might provoke a reaction of what-exactly-is-this?, like Rachel Whiteread’s negative-space sculptures of building interiors. It might also be as valuable as the first.”
—Ben Ratliff, review at 4columns.
“I am increasingly obsessed with place as a way to understand history and the techtonic shifts in culture and society. Very few pieces of writing have matched Patrick Wright’s new book in the ability to chart, through one place and one life, the startling shifts of the past half century. On the face of it this is a book about Uwe Johnson (the under-read and perhaps under-appreciated German writer) and his life in Sheerness on the Kentish Isle of Sheppey. But, as with all of Wright’s work over the decades, it is so much more: a study of deindustrialisation and decline, a history of England and of the Kent coast, and a stunning work of both biography and literary criticism.”
—Verso, Staff Picks 2020
“If you are looking for a straight biography, then keep browsing. If, however, you are after an eccentric, brilliant, digressive, idiosyncratic, social-historical door stopper to get lost in, then Patrick Wright has produced something special. Wright uses psychogeography and psychobiography to bleed the life of Johnson through the veins of Sheerness, thus giving life to the town. In a sprawling narrative that layers the kernel of Johnson’s life, he also creates a beguiling memento mori to a place that has often been left for dead by central authorities, and a German writer who moved there from New York with (at worst) something of a death wish, or (at best) with the overwhelming burden of finishing his magnum opus Anniversaries. A best book of 2020 contender.”
—NJ McGarrigle, Irish Times.”
“a hymn to estuarial peculiarity and a lament for an awkward man determined never to find his place.”
—Jonathan Meades, The Literary Review
“Reading Wright’s magnificent account we sympathize with Johnson’s plight. We
might even see the exiled German as a spiritual brother to Marvin Gaye
remembering that the singer (in an oddly similarly move) hid out in Ostend,
another backwater on the opposite North Sea shore. Both of them owlishly
looked out at the world and asked plaintively – what’s going on?”
—John Quin, The Common Breath
“The book also doubles as one of the best-researched texts about the Island. It deals with its legends, such as Grey Dolphin; the prison hulks of Dickens; the mysteries of Dead Man's Island and Sheppey's run-in with the Dutch when Queenborough was captured by invading forces in 1667.
It includes Island characters like showbusiness entrepreneur Stan Northover who ran the Island Nightclub at Leysdown and "celebrity clairvoyant" Mia Dolan; celebrity visitors; and a painstakingly detailed account of the magnificent men in their flying machines, like Charles Rolls, who pioneered British aviation from the fields of Shellness and Eastchurch.
It also reminds readers how successive governments have left Sheppey to hang out to dry with illustrations of failed industries including the ill-fated Murad car which was years ahead of its time but ran out of road when a promised relocation loan to the Island was removed by the Board of Trade.
Mr Wright has left no stone unturned in his quest to unearth the strange allure of Sheppey and its people.”
— John Nurden, Sheerness Times Guardian
“This book is about many things: the rise of post-industrial society in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s; the ways that diverse memories and feelings can be melded into a narrative by an author to give them some kind of shape and explanatory power; the relationship between location and imagination. Finally it is testament to the ways in which writing offers a sort of salvation, even to the most blighted of souls.
— Kerry Brown, “Uwe Johnson: The Enigma of Sheerness-on-Sea.”
Preliminary and Associated Texts
“The Piano Man, no ordinary scrounger,” posted on Various Small Fires 17 April 2015 (first outing of a text that has not yet been published in its final form)
“The Moral of Brenley Corner,” London Review of Books 6 December 2018.
“Turning Inward: Brexit, Encroachment Narratives and the English as a ‘Secret People.” Presented at the British Academy, 4 November 2016 and published in Ash Amin & Philip Lewis (eds.), European Union and Disunion: Reflections on European Identity, London: British Academy, 2017, pp. 64-72