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The mystery of the East German writer who moved to the English coast
2015-04-19KentComments Off on The mystery of the East German writer who moved to the English coast264 Views
Uwe Johnson in Sheerness: Why did a major East German writer move to an English seaside town?
Gunter Grass called him the most significant of all East German writers. So why did Uwe Johnson choose to live in the unlikely setting of Sheerness, Kent, asks John Goudie.
To his fellow drinkers in the Seaview Hotel, he was Charles or Charlie, the mysterious foreigner who had become part of their hard-pressed world. They noticed he kept a notebook in his pocket.
To the international literary scene, he was Uwe Johnson, a world-class East German writer who found fame with his first published novel in 1959 – the same year that Guenter Grass published The Tin Drum, and the two writers were widely regarded then not just as contemporaries but also as equals.
Johnson’s book, Speculations About Jakob, was the first to focus on the difficulties of living in a divided Germany. Its unsparing account of life in the East forced Johnson to move to West Berlin for its publication. He found himself described as “the poet of the divided Germany”, a title he hated. He was uncomfortable in the capitalist West, too.
After spending some time in New York in the 1960s, Johnson moved to the seaside town of Sheerness, on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, in 1974. He was 40. It was a decision that astonished his admirers.
In the 1970s Sheerness was not a pretty place, as Johnson himself was quick to acknowledge. Hundreds of jobs were lost when the Naval Dockyard closed in 1960 and the town had struggled to replace them.
Professor Patrick Wright of King’s College London has looked closely at Sheerness and Johnson’s life there and commissioned new English translations of his writing about the town. Wright argues that, then as now, “Sheerness was often stigmatised as a place of industrial dereliction and defeated people.”
Johnson lived with his wife and daughter in a Victorian terraced house on Marine Parade overlooking the water. In his words, Sheerness was “no sleepy suburb” but “an ugly, living community”.
Martin Aynscomb-Harris was Johnson’s neighbour, and still lives on Marine Parade. Four decades on, he can still recall the arrival of the mystifying East German.
“We didn’t know what he was – was he a millionaire in hiding, was he poor? One of the first things he said to me was: ‘My name is Uwe Johnson but everyone in England has difficulty with that name and so I’m called Charles.’ So I always called him Charles.”