To the Lighthouse

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They are taking the lighthouse down. It was really just a matter of time. Time and tide, it is said, wait for no man, and the two make for a powerful combination on this rapidly changing shoreline. The Orford lighthouse has stood here on the Suffolk coast since 1792, the 11th to stand on the same spot. All the previous lighthouses, mostly flimsy wooden structures, were lost to the sea; this one built by Lord Braybrooke of Audley End has lasted longer than any before it.

The ongoing demolition is simply a matter of being one step ahead of what will happen naturally as a result of longshore drift. Built as a very necessary warning for shipping and continually in service until its decommission in 2013, in more recent times the lighthouse has served as a bold territorial marker for this curious – and one-time secretive – strip of coastline. What it stands upon is not an island as it may seem but a spit – a long stretch of shingle, marsh and sand that sits between the estuary of the River Alde and the North Sea like a curving finger pointing south. Along with an expanse of pylons and weapon-testing ‘pagodas’, this red-and-white band structure has been an icon for the territory of Orford Ness, a place of Cold War secrets, sea-scraped shingle, wildlife and, in recent years, National Trust day trippers. Because of its dark history and evocative, lonely location, the Ness has also seen service as an unsanctioned psychogeographical theme park, a go-to liminal zone for enraptured lone males and Sebaldian shore-shufflers (myself included).

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While we are all losing a lighthouse, I am losing a gravatar for my blog and twitter feed. I suppose I ought to replace it with something new but I will keep it for a while as a tribute to the lighthouse’s ghosted memory. As for the lighthouse itself, it is hoped that the lantern will be reused to form part of a memorial structure on land across from the Ness on Orford Quay.

Not for the first time have iconic buildings world vanished overnight. The lighthouse’s destruction is, at least, planned and been a long time coming. Other well known places I have visited have met more violent ends – vicious executions rather than gentle euthanasia. I refer to some of these in a post on Palmyra from five years ago. Syria seems like a dream now; something I might have imagined. The reality is that the country I experienced as a welcoming place nearly twenty years ago has since become a land of nightmares.

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Going further back in time, it feels equally strange to recall having once spent several days in a hotel that overlooked the enormous sandstone Buddhas of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan. This was back in the halcyon days when the country was a way-station on the so-called Hippie Trail to India, long before the Taliban decided to blow the Buddhas up as blasphemous objects of idol worship (even then, the statues’ faces had already been disfigured by angry iconoclasts).

To continue a tally of Zelig-like appearances at places associated with doomed futures, I might also mention a visit to the World Trade Centre in New York on my first visit to the city in 1986 – of having once stood in a small room at the very top of the structure, a space that now existed as just a cube of empty sky above a disaster zone. Or a visit to a place that languished in a void between destruction and repair: Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, still a broken city when I visited in 2003, the absence of its beautiful 16th-century Ottoman bridge hanging like a question mark above the rubble-filled turquoise of the River Neretva. The bridge was faithfully rebuilt with foreign investment and reopened in 2004. As beautiful as before but somehow sad and perhaps even futile, the reconstruction was a gesture of hope more than anything else — the Muslim east and Croat west banks of the river would remain as places apart in terms of religion, culture and political allegiance.

Less exotically, I also recall the cooling towers that used to stand next to the M1 in Tinsley, Sheffield – twin behemoths that could be seen from the windows of the school where I did my first teaching practice in the city. The towers, devoid of function since 1980, possessed a grace and heft that seemed to perfectly symbolise Sheffield’s industrial past (as did the abandoned steelworks of the Don Valley, which were eventually cleared to provide the land for the inevitable – a massive shopping complex, Meadowhall). Like the Orford lighthouse, and also the equally iconic cooling towers that stood at Ironbridge until last year, the Sheffield towers were finally expunged from the landscape. It took just seven seconds to reduce the 76 metre towers to rubble. For now, like the Orford lighthouse, they remain as a memory, a ghost of landscape that will fade with time.

Lammas Day, Suffolk Coast

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Lammas Day – the first day of August. School holidays, warm weather, beach visits, perhaps a swim in the sea? Or, on a windy cloudy day, a walk; a beach walk. At low to mid tide it is possible to follow the beach all the way between Lowestoft and Southwold on the north Suffolk coast without ever venturing inland. The coast along this stretch of the North Sea foreshore is a mixture of sand and shingle, with low cliffs and the occasional freshwater broad lying perilously close to the ever advancing tide. At odds with the gentle agricultural landscape of the hinterland the coast here is an uncompromising full stop in the landscape: a sudden transition from land to sea. Far to the east, beyond the horizon, are the European Low Countries that were once so closely tied, economically, and culturally, to this region. Lowland – sea bed – low land: the North Sea (WG Sebald’s ‘German Ocean’ in The Rings of Saturn) is but a watery interruption in the flow of things, both a barrier and a conduit for the movement of humans and goods. IMG_1716I set out from Kessingland, just south of Lowestoft, where a large expanse of dunes and shingle separates the sea from the holiday homes and caravans that line the low clifftop like racing cars at a starting grid preparing to rush towards the sea. Truth be told, there is little in the way to stop them. It may be August but even now the beach is relatively quiet – just a few families and dog-walkers clambering over the dunes to reach the sea, which today is grey, grumpy and not particularly welcoming. The Kessingland littoral is distinguished by its specialist salt-tolerant flora: sea holly, sea pea, sea campion, sea beet – in fact, place a ‘sea’ in front of any common plant name and there is a good chance that such a species will exist and flourish here. Also rooted into the shingle, thriving on little more than sunshine and salt spray, are clumps of yellow-horned poppies with long twisting seed pods. The poppies are mostly past their flowering peak but elsewhere, where there is a thin veneer of soil to root into, colour is provided by stands of rosebay willow herb – a rich purple layer of distraction between the straw-hued shingle and the cloud-heavy sky, both washed of colour in the flat coastal light. IMG_1718Further south, the cliffs grow a little higher. Ferrous red and as soft and powdery as halva, they are irredeemably at the mercy of the North Sea tide. And it shows: the cliffs are raw and freshly cleaved, with collapsed chunks that have been further eroded by the incoming tide such that they appear to seep from the cliff bases like congealed gravy.  Man-made objects receive no preferential treatment – a collapsed WWII concrete defence bunker slopes between cliff and sand at one point, its long process of total disintegration still in its infancy as its perches ignominiously at 45 degrees, an involuntary buttress for the flaking cliffs.IMG_1744

The cliffs may be ephemeral geomorphology, constantly pushed back by the eroding tide, but they possess enough permanence for colonies of sand martins to pit them with nesting burrows high up the cliff face. The birds swoop and chatter in high-pitched whispers as they gather flies above the shingle, flying in and out their nest holes faster than the eye can bring itself into focus. IMG_1802

Further along, a red-brick building lies in an even more advanced state of breakdown. Dead trees, devoid of bark and bleached pale by saltwater protrude from the sand. Some stand roots-proud with their upper trunks planted in the sand as if drawing nutrition from deep underground. Others are inverted stumps that appear to channel the centrepiece of north Norfolk’s sacred Seahenge, upturned roots on display like rustic altars.IMG_1768

IMG_1783The tide is still going out, revealing new treasures on the wet smooth sand. Footprints ahead of me heading south look like my own but, of course, they are not – I have not been there yet. The unidentified boot-print doppelganger must be far ahead of me. One of the imprints has narrowly missed a solitary beached jellyfish, red-veined and otherworldly. Soon I notice more jellyfish on the tideline: unveined, translucent specimens that stare up from the sand like the detached iris of a giant’s eye.IMG_1770

Approaching Southwold, the pier stretching out to sea becomes clearer in detail. The town’s white lighthouse flashes in warning. Beyond the resort, a few miles further south, the gargantuan golf ball of Sizewell B glows uncannily white. Halfway between sea and cliff on the freshly revealing sand are miscellaneous concrete blocks, remains of footings, moorings, buildings. Some of these have been almost completely submerged by sand to leave a line of tiny pyramids like the vertebra of a buried dragon. Frame the scene carefully and squint and this might be an aerial view over the Egyptian desert. The lack of a viable sphinx and presence of a battered clifftop caravan soon disabuses such fantastical musing.IMG_1810

Southwold arrives – or, rather, I arrive there – the beach approach heralded by groynes and breakwaters. Then comes the first phalanx of the town’s famously expensive beach huts, a sink estate for solvent holiday makers who have succumbed to the Southwold equivalent of shed-envy. The huts trace a line along the seafront past the pier where a Punch and Judy show is underway, delighting a crowd of children and adults with good old-fashioned, non-PC entertainment that glosses over domestic violence and police brutality. “That’s the way to do it,” swazzles Mr Punch before exclaiming, “Lookout children, the Devil’s going to come and get you.” The Devil was, in fact, coming for Mr Punch yet is outwitted by the trickster anyway in the show’s denouement. Light entertainment, yet such darkness – the seaside has always taken liberties with propriety.

For more on this stretch of coast see my earlier post: At Covehithe

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At Covehithe

IMG_1981The day before the autumn equinox: the setting, the beach at Covehithe. We have gathered here at the north Suffolk coast to walk and talk. A literary walk to celebrate W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, no less, organised as part of the Waveney & Blyth Arts festival. The weather – hazy grey skies, mist, light drizzle – is suitably Sebaldian.

Proceedings begin at Covehithe’s St Andrew’s Church – itself a curiosity, a church within a church –the large medieval shell of the original church sheltering the tiny 17th-century thatched-roofed replacement that was built when the former became too expensive for villagers to maintain. The fine 15th-century tower abuts the later build, dwarfing almost mockingly its dinky proportions. Before taking a pew to hear an introduction by UEA lecturers Jo Catling and Barbara Marshall, who both knew and worked with W. G. ‘Max’ Sebald, some of us examine the font, recycled from the earlier church, which has stylised lions and hairy human-like figures that have had their heads chiselled off. Headless or not, these strange decapitated figures are recognisable as representations of the woodwose (wild man), a creature that belongs to the same fabulist stable as the Green Man, the crude anti-masonry no doubt the handiwork of William Dowsing’s men as it was these same arch-puritans who did for the stained glass windows that used to illuminate the original church.

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We drift down to the beach by way of Covehithe Broad – the direct road from Covehithe is closed and fenced-off these days thanks to the coastal erosion that constantly depletes this shoreline. The broad’s brackish water is alive with Canada geese that honk plaintively, their voices coming through the mist even before we can see them. The geese take off sporadically in small groups to circuit and survey the parish before returning to the watery comfort of the broad. At the shore, the tide is out and the beach is deserted but for the presence of a distant dog-walker and our own gaggle of muse-seeking Sebaldians. To the north, the curve of the coast at Benacre Ness near Kessingland can just about be discerned. Southwold lies to the south: a distinctive profile that stretches from sea to land – first pier, then low town roofs and blinking lighthouse before a water tower marks the point where the town ends and the Sandlings and marshes begin.

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We walk north along the beach in small amorphous groups exchanging thoughts on Sebald’s gloomy oeuvre. The cliffs of Covehithe feature in The Rings of Saturn, albeit briefly, which is of course why this was chosen as a suitable territory for the walk. It was here that the author stood on the cliffs and gazed out on the leaden-coloured water of what he describes as the German Ocean (a rather archaic term for the North Sea that went out of fashion at the end of the 19th century but chosen by Sebald for his own, anything but nationalistic, reasons). As he lowered his gaze to the beach below he inadvertently spied a couple making love and noted that “it seemed that the man’s feet twitched like those of one just hanged”. Overcome with panic at the sight of this “many-limbed, two-headed monster that had drifted in from far out at sea, the last of a prodigious species” he left to walk to Southwold.

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Thankfully, no such sexual shenanigans affronted us on Saturday. In fact, the only other living thing on the beach other than a desultory parliament of herring gulls was a lone figure scrutinising the foreshore for Paleolithic flint hand tools that we were assured sometimes turn up here. The walk’s turning point was probably somewhere in the shadow of Covehithe church, although we could not see its landmark tower from our position on the sand beneath the cliff. Having examined some of the evocative bleached tree stumps that decorate the beach here like Arts Council sculptures, looked at the ever-receding cliffs with their abandoned sand martin burrows and observed a solitary craft out to sea just as Sebald had done, we turned to face south. With Southwold’s low skyline now silhouetted on the brightening horizon we placed the North Sea/German Ocean to our left as we ruminated and slowly ambled our way back to Covehithe’s church within a church. In half a century or so, this may well be gone, a victim of the ferocious erosion that defines this coastline. Covehithe and its church will have vanished forever, living on only in memory and books – a place of legend.

Patience (After Sebald) – Walking The Rings of Saturn

About a year ago I wrote a post about an Aldeburgh Music weekend at Suffolk’s Snape Maltings that celebrated the life and works of the writer W G Sebald. A new film by Grant Gee, Patience (After Sebald), was also previewed on that occasion but it has taken a full year for it to have been finally been put out on general release in the UK. After such a long wait, ‘Patience’ might seem a wholly appropriate choice for a title but I finally got the chance to see the film last Sunday at a sell-out screening at Cinema City, Norwich.

The film is based on what is probably Sebald’s best known work, The Rings of Saturn, which  describes a long meditative walk in the Suffolk coastal region. In German translation the book is subtitled ‘Eine Englische Wollfahrt – an English pilgrimage’, but this is misleading as The Rings of Saturn is not really about pilgrimage at all, nor is it a work that concerns itself that much with landscape, although the shingle and wide skies of coastal Suffolk do make a cameo appearance.

Although genres such as travel, history and memoir are appropriate up to a point, The Rings of Saturn is a work that boldly defies categorisation and which cannot easily be placed into any single literary pigeonhole. Sebald’s Suffolk odyssey is really as much an internal journey through one man’s mind as anything else. Far from the normal notion of travelogue, The Rings of Saturn is more a psychogeographic exploration of one corner of East Anglia. Certainly, the physical geography here is spectral, a melancholic landscape of ghosts, personal reflection and dark cultural memory. The term ‘Proustian’ might be used to define Sebald’s style to some extent but a better word would be Sebaldian: W G Sebald is one of those rare writers, like Dickens, Kafka and Ballard, whose name can be confidentally used as an adjective thanks to a distinctive mournful style and typically digressive, fragmentary narrative.

Part of the Sebaldian trope is to include images – black and white photos and line drawings – as part of the narrative flow; images, sometimes unsettling, that are tangential to the geography of the walk yet central to the narrative’s solipsistic digressions. Many of the book’s already familiar images are replicated in Patience (After Sebald), serving as a backdrop for talking heads like Robert Macfarlane, Iain Sinclair and Andrew Motion who have been recruited among others to give their personal take on Sebald’s oevre. Other images on display in the film are immediately resonant to those who have read The Rings of Saturn even though they do not appear as photographs within the pages of the book itselfA brief glimpse of a naked couple lying on a beach clearly represents the lovers that Sebald stumbled upon at Covehithe and, panicking, described as ‘like some giant mollusc washed ashore… a many-limbed, two-headed monster’. A shot of a distressed-looking plate of food undoubtedly refers to the joyless pub meal taken by the author in Lowestoft, which contained a fish that had ‘doubtless lain entombed in the deep-freeze for years’ along with tartare sauce ‘turned grey by sooty breadcrumbs’. Apart from an occasional colour inset frame showing a walker’s boots on the tarmac (the film-maker himself perhaps?), the images used are monochrome throughout, as grey as Sebaldian tartare sauce.

Also permeating the film are grainy 8mm-like shots of some of the locations that Sebald passed through on his long walk – places that get scant mention in The Rings of Saturn but which clearly inform its telling; places familiar to anyone who knows the Suffolk coast reasonably well – Southwold’s Sailors’ Reading Room, Boulge church, Yoxford, the ruins of Dunwich and the formerly top secret research pagodas of Orford Ness. If anywhere could be described as an archetypal Sebaldian landscape it would surely be Orford Ness.

Patience (After Sebald) complements Sebald’s book admirably. It encourages those unfamilar with his work to read The Rings of Saturn for the first time, while those already smitten can find nourishment in the distinctly Sebaldian imagery of the film and the generous personal accounts of the man himself. To be nitpicking, there are a couple of small details that some Sebaldophiles might find slightly incongruous – Andrew Motion reading his poem about the merman of Orford, perhaps, and a scene near the end that involves a puff of smoke at the roadside where Sebald died in a car accident. The latter I found quite thrilling although some might consider it borderline tacky – I can say no more.

Sometimes writers can seem to influence the reader’s view of landscape to such an extent that it is hard to come to it with innocent eyes. Once The Rings of Saturn has been read and absorbed, coastal Suffolk – in the right conditions – can easily transform into a Sebaldian landscape for those passing through it. Yet, as Robert Macfarlane recounts in Gee’s film, it is imposible to replicate Sebald’s journey exactly. Macfarlane’s own well-intentioned attempt to retrace Sebald’s steps was thwarted by sunny, distinctly non-Sebaldian weather and by simply having too much fun swimming at Lowestoft.

Even with fine weather and a light heart, it seems impossible for anyone who has read The Rings of Saturn and walked the Suffolk coast to not have some sort of Sebaldian connection. Whether we like it or not, his prose and dark historic musings have encouraged us to see the coastal landscape in a thousand shades of (tartare) grey whatever our proclivities. But we cannot replicate Sebald – and why should we? Even following those exact same footsteps, we all do our own walk, make our own pilgrimage. The psychogeographical dimension of any walk through any landscape is as dependent on the mindset of the walker as it is on the territory itself.

On a personal note, the book’s geography resonates more than I might ever have imagined: the site of the old Norfolk and Norwich Hospital where Sebald opens the text (finding himself there with a back problem a year after the completion of his Suffolk walk) is located immediately across the road from where I live.

W.G.Sebald, In Memoriam

The UEA-based German writer, W. G. (‘Max’) Sebald, died just over nine years ago in a car accident close to his home south of Norwich. One of his most famous books, and certainly the one most closely connected with the East Anglia region, is The Rings of Saturn, published in 1999. Superficially a post-illness walking tour of east Suffolk, this labyrinthine unclassifiable work delves tangentially into deep history to discuss episodes as wide ranging as the import of silkworm cultivation into Europe, the writings of 17th-century Norwich polymath Thomas Browne, Nazi concentration camps in Croatia and the scurrilous private life of the Suffolk-based translator of Omar Khayyam.

Focusing unhealthily on the dark, isolated and horrific, Sebald’s writing is hardly what one might describe as ‘feel-good’; indeed, it is often gloomy to the point of verging on the morose. His literate, hang-dog style can almost seem self-parodying on occasion, especially when it circles down to earth to confront the quotidian as in the case of an hilarious description of a disappointing dinner in Lowestoft – only Sebald could disparagingly describe the ‘breadcrumb armour-plating of the fish’ and sachet tartare sauce ‘turned grey by sooty breadcrumbs’. Although he veered towards the hyper-melancholic, his writing was always elegant and elegiac, not to mention meditative, lapidary, dream-like and solipsistic. Interweaving memory, fiction and observation along the course of his walk, there is a Proustian quality to his writing that questions the transience of life and suffering.

Clearly, The Rings of Saturn has sufficient devotees for others to want to walk in Sebald’s footsteps, seeking out the Suffolk landscape that inspired such beautiful gloom along the eastern reaches of the Waveney Valley and the Suffolk coast between Lowestoft and Dunwich – a landscape that seems oddly devoid of people in Sebald’s book. Aldeburgh Music at Snape Maltings recently held a weekend devoted to a celebration of Sebaldia that involved the American rock chanteuse Patti Smith no less. It remains to be seen whether the film Patience (After Sebald) by Grant Gee that was also screened during the weekend will be available to general view in the near future.

Here’s a short film and a piece in the Guardian.