WG Sebald

The poet in the tower


Every writer could use a good tower (or at the very least, a top-floor study). I think of Yeats’ Thoor Ballylee or Joyce’s Martello in Sandycove (the subject of a blog post over a year ago now). A tower gives you perspective, the ability to see the full landscape. This morning I looked out the window of my tower and found myself eye to eye with a gull (which was perched on the top of a telegraph pole). The gull was looking for breakfast, and I was looking for a poem; the gull flew off, but not before he’d made it into what I was writing.  

When I say ‘my tower’, I mean the South Lookout on the beach in Aldeburgh, which is on loan to me for the weekend. The tower is owned by the gallerist Caroline Wiseman, who invites writers and artists to use the space as a creative stimulus. The only proviso is that you must sleep here for at least one night. The ground floor area (which is a gallery space when not occupied by those creating the art) is rustic and spartan, as it should be, with a folding camp bed that I have placed near the open fire (there is electricity, and I’ve used one of the sockets for the bar fire, and the other three to charge my computer, Blackberry and iPad respectively – so much for ink and quill). There is no plumbing in the tower, but Caroline’s house is a few feet away (I remember hearing that Thoreau’s modest shack at Walden Pond was less than two miles from the family seat – writers do need creature comforts, even in the attempt to be closer to nature). Caroline’s instinct is right: there is something about waking up to the sound of the sea and the wind, knowing you are right on the beach, in the middle of the elements, that sets you off in a way that could not happen in one’s own bed.


I rolled up on Thursday to glorious early evening sunshine, but woke on Friday to bleak rain-soaked skies. Although the sun that greeted me on my arrival was lovely, the grey, leached East Anglian landscape (of Crabbe and Sebald) is the one I’ve grown to know. I started Friday at the very top of the tower, which is accessed from the outside of the building, up a narrow spiral staircase. The view, even rain-soaked, was fabulous, and I wrote my first poem of the day (after the meeting with the gull). But then the skies closed in, and the eerie became cold and oppressive (no heating up there!) so I moved to the middle level, which has just been officially christened the Laurens van der Post Room (opened by his daughter, Lucia) where the writer came to work every day for 30 years. That was my spot for most of the day, and where I wrote a further three poems.

This kind of concentrated experience has proven to be the sort of stimulus I would not have elsewhere. It normally takes me months to do what I’ve done in one day, just by being quiet and isolated in a little space with no distractions or disruptions, apart from watching for any activity on the beach, and charting the  constant movements of the sea.
On Saturday, I will put my poems up on the wall, along with some photos of the beach, and invite people to come into the Lookout to see what I’ve been up to. And Saturday evening, I’ve invited some fellow Suffolk poets along to read poems about the sea. It should be a wonderful evening, even if it rains.


The Sound of Secrets

We embarked for the Ness on a boat from Orford Quay early on Saturday morning. The sky was grey, the sea darker – the colour of mutton-fat jade, as in Bishop’s poem ‘The End of March’. Our group had read the poem the night before, and discussed the various endings being marked, not just the end of winter, but also the end of wanderings (thinking about the pun in the title) – Bishop had travelled the earth, but her only wish was to retire to a little house (the proto-dream-house in the poem) where she could do nothing:

or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms:
look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, on foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light.

(We didn’t really believe her. That restless, active imagination of hers could never still). It is also an end of life poem – Bishop died two years after it was published. In a way it’s her version of ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’; a poet at the end of her career, not so much worried about the exit of imagination (as Yeats was) as almost willing her imagination to cease. How exhausting it is to always be thinking of the poem in every situation, the imagination working overtime.

But back to the Ness, where we had come expressly to write poems. It is a place where you can’t stop the imagination from running off in all directions. It makes us question what it was like to be there in those heady secret days of code breaking and bomb making. It is a place of extraordinary contrasts: beauty and barrenness, an abundance of life amongst symbols of death, a frail ecosystem in a place that still contains unexploded ordnance.

When we arrived on the Ness, Silke, a National Trust volunteer, gave us the usual speech about staying on the paths (due to the aforementioned unexploded ordnance), where to find the information building and the toilets, but then broke into a moving and completely unrehearsed eulogy to the Trinity Lighthouse, which has stood on the Ness since 1792, and has survived storms, machine-guns and bombs, but will not survive the sea. The lighthouse will be engulfed in the next few years (in 2011, the section of the coast where the lighthouse is situated eroded by 200 meters). It has already been decommissioned, its light turned off, its mercury removed. Another ending. Silke suggested we all go and hug it one last time.

Before we took off to explore, I read a passage from The Rings of Saturn, in which WG Sebald describes his arrival on the Ness:

The day was dull and oppressive, and there was so little breeze that not even the ears of the delicate quaking grass were nodding. It was as if I were passing through an undiscovered country, and I still remember that I felt, at the same time, both utterly liberated and deeply despondent. I had not a single thought in my head. With each step that I took, the emptiness within and the emptiness without grew ever greater and the silence more profound. Perhaps that was why I was frightened almost to death when a hare that had been hiding in the tufts of grass by the wayside started up, right at my feet, and shot off down the rough track before darting sideways, this way, then that, into the field. It must have been cowering there as I approached, heart pounding as it waited, until it was almost too late to get away with its life. In that very fraction of a second when its paralysed state turned into panic and flight, its fear cut right through me. I still see what occurred in that one tremulous instant with an undiminished clarity. I see the edge of the grey tarmac and every individual blade of grass, I see the hare leaping out of its hiding-place, with its ears laid back and a curiously human expression on its face that was rigid with terror and strangely divided; and in its eyes, turning to look back as it fled and almost popping out of its head with fright, I see myself, become one with it. Not till half-an-hour later, when I reached the broad dyke that separates the grass expanse from the pebble bank that slopes to the shoreline, did the blood cease its clamour in my veins.

These days, now that the Ness has reinvented itself as a nature reserve, that sense of fear that Sebald describes has perhaps dissipated. Midas Dekkers talks about the ‘benevolent silence’ that reigns over military ruins. Is that sense of benevolence more relief on our part that this place has passed into peace? Or are some places always tainted by association, the very earth poisoned by the associations of its past (on the Ness, this is a literal tainting, if we consider the undiscovered bombs that may lie just below the surface)? Sebald gets this – he could never really go anywhere without excavating the layers of the place and finding all the glittery trash of history and memory. And now the Natural Trust, who acquired the Ness in 1993, operate a policy of ‘controlled ruination’, which is why the lighthouse is being allowed to fall into the sea. Christopher Woodward writes about this in his book In Ruins. Apparently, the NT originally thought to demolish the bunkers and sheds:

It was Jeremy Musson, an architectural historian working for the Trust at the time, who first argued their value as ruins. The Ness of shifting shingle, he said, was a palimpsest of twentieth-century history, from the wooden huts of the First World War to the Cold War’s Pagodas. In a new and hopefully more peaceful century the ruins would crumble into extinction in exposure to the wind and waves, as if the earth was being purified by Nature.

I guess if Sebald were still with us he might argue against the possibility of the last statement. It is true that Woodward’s book was published before September 11th and the new wars of the 21st century in which destruction is orchestrated largely by computers. And even Nature has turned against us, in a way, with the threat of Global Warming and ecological crisis. So maybe Sebald was right to embrace fear.

Later, after we returned to Mendham Mill, the well-manicured and picture-pretty birthplace of Sir Alfred Munnings (you couldn’t imagine a greater contrast to the landscape of the Ness), we read poems about ‘secret landscapes’ and ruin. I chose Derek Mahon’s ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’, written in the 70s, around the time that the MoD was clearing out of the Ness, and Northern Ireland was at the height of the Troubles. I have mentioned this poem before on Invective, loaded as it is with all the terrors of the century in which I was born. It’s worth quoting the whole poem, but I’ve found this, a recording of the poem read beautifully by Kevin Porter:


Hugh Haughton writes of Mahon’s poem:

it remains a haunting instance of the way a forgotten place — not an archaic, pre-historic place but a modern place full of historical rubbish — might become a place where thought might grow. The site of a new kind of poetics of commemoration.

Haughton could so easily be writing about the Ness in that passage, ‘a modern place full of historical rubbish’. But it’s Sebald I will finish on, as no one has written so meaningfully and so articulately about what it is like to stand on Orford Ness, with that huge sky lowering, and think about how it came to be:

My sense of being on ground intended for purposes transcending the profane was heightened by a number of buildings that resembled temples or pagodas, which seemed quite out of place in these military installations. But the closer I came to these ruins, the more any notion of a mysterious isle of the dead receded, and the more I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe. To me too, as for some latter-day stranger ignorant of the nature of our society wandering about among heaps of scrap metal and defunct machinery, the beings who had once lived and worked here were an enigma, as was the purpose of the primitive contraptions and fittings inside the bunkers, the iron rails under the ceilings, the hooks on the still partially tiled walls, the showerheads the size of plates, the ramps and the soakaways. Where and in what time I truly was that day at Orfordness I cannot say, even now as I write these words.

More images and poems from the weekend at Orford Ness will be posted on the Mendham Writers site. My thanks to Rochelle Scholar at Medham Writers: http://mendham-writers.com/news/

The waiting room

Much to consider following the After Sebald weekend in Suffolk. The discussions focused primarily on the notion of place and its meanings, and although memory and history came into these discussions, less was said about Sebald’s portrayal of time in relation to place. In his world, time is slippery, hard to pin down. There are clocks in train stations or hotel lounge bars which might tell you the time at that moment, but Sebald is concerned more with continuum: what has happened here, what might happen here. What is happening is less certain, as the mind leaps from one thought to the next, as one voice gives over to another.

What Sebald is suggesting is that a place is never just what we see before us, so burdened as place is with event. The most terrible events are not forgotten, even with the passage of time. Nearly every day I pass through Stockwell tube station, and nearly every time I do, I notice the plaque (now a permanent memorial) for Jean Charles de Menezes, the young Brazilian shot dead by police marksmen one ordinary day in July while he was on his way to work – a case of mistaken identity (for which the police have never been called to account). He is forever linked to Stockwell tube station, a random location recast as the site of a horrible tragedy.

I’m reminded (again) of the beginning lines of ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ by Derek Mahon, where the poet lists sites of abandonment, ‘places where a thought might grow’, before he focuses on the location of the title, where ‘a thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole’ in the shed where they have lived ‘a half century, without visitors, in the dark.’ Mahon sees them as outcasts, the forgotten victims hidden away in a forgotten location. At the end of the poem, he compares them to the ‘lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii’, locations which are not forgotten, which are only recalled now for their tragedies, and to that list we could add other major locations such as Lockerbie or the World Trade Centre, and smaller and smaller places, such as Stockwell tube station, or any number of roadside shrines where flowers are placed, which in turn wilt and die. The shed in the poem becomes all of those places, where time continues, but only through the process of decay.

Grant Gee, director of the film Patience (After Sebald) which had its premiere at the weekend, came closest to finding an analogy for Sebald’s timeframes. He talked about the slow fade as a cinematic technique to pass from one scene to another. Sebald’s own analogy is to photography rather than film; in Austerlitz he talks about ‘the moment when the shadows of reality, so to speak, emerge out of nothing on the exposed paper, as memories do in the middle of the night, darkening again if you try to cling to them, just like a photographic print left in the developing bath too long.’

My analogy goes back to poetry, and something I just mentioned in a previous post; the stanza break represents a moment when time can be altered, when the poet might clear his / her throat and start a new idea. The white space represents a silence, a moment in time captured, a freeze frame.



New year’s resolutions?

The sculptor Henry Moore was perhaps most eloquent on the subject: ‘I think in terms of the day’s resolutions, not the year’s’. For the artist or writer, it is virtually impossible to set such restrictions on how to create, for so much of our practice is based on (I hate this word) inspiration. Inspiration is just a heightened term for not really knowing what is going to happen next, when suddenly, it just happens. There are writers who swear by schedules: you must be at your desk at a certain hour for a certain length of time, and in that time, you must produce a certain number of words; so that writing becomes like any office task. And that discipline works for some writers, although I would imagine it is more suitable for prose writers than for poets. Definitely not suitable for me; I have never been a disciplined writer. When I was working on my (still unpublished) novel, I would find twenty reasons not to be writing, perhaps because it felt too much like hard work. I have always responded best to spontaneity, writing myself to an answer when I didn’t know the question in the first place. In his poem ‘Lesson’, Eamon Grennan describes that moment:

and I began to understand
how a poem can happen: you have your eye on a small
elusive detail, pursuing its music, when a terrible truth
strikes and your heart cries out, being carried off.

I wish I could sit down at my desk every morning and start writing and know that by the time I get up again I will have something meaningful, something worth pursuing. Poets seem to be particularly slow and inconsistent workers in the artistic world. I have several theories about that (all of which apply to me): poets have short attention spans, they are lazy, they are not good at closure, their negativity leads them to believe that nothing they write is of any poetic merit (and that no one is reading their work anyhow, so what’s the point of continuing?).

But one thing is true for all of us. Time is the enemy of art. There is never enough of it. As Hippocrates said, ‘ars longa, vita brevis’. Editions of collected works by dead poets depress me, especially thin ones. There will never be more. I see myself in terms of page numbers. Neil Rollinson has a great poem about his anxiety over the open brackets after his birth date in anthologies. But at the risk of sounding terminally gloomy at the beginning of this new year and new decade, I recognise that Time is also what links me to the poets and artists I love who’ve come before (and those who will come after) and what lives of me in print will live beyond me (even when the brackets are closed).

And so, I will start the year with a quote from WG Sebald, which should stand to remind me why it is I do sit down at this desk every day (but not always at the same time), why the effort is worthwhile:

It was only by following the course time prescribed that we could hasten through the gigantic spaces separating us from each other.

The image is by Jasper Johns


A walk round Metfield in Suffolk and its neighbouring farms. Hedgerows heavy with sloes, wild bullaces, and the last blackberries. But we were there to taste apples. Russet and Pippin and Spartan, but more unusual varieties too: Orange Goff, Orleans Reinette, Flower of Kent. Biting into my first Orange Goff, named not only for its colour but for its citrusy tang, I remembered Tacita Dean’s incredibly moving and beautiful film of the late Michael Hamburger and his orchard in Middleton (like a scene from Vermeer come to life) and WG Sebald’s description of ‘a few dozen diminutive crimson apples on the sill of [his] window darkened by the yew tree outside’. And these lines from Ted Hughes, Hamburger’s great friend and fellow apple lover: 'Through all the orchard’s boughs / A honey-colour stillness, a hurrying stealth, / A quiet migration of all that can escape now.’