I’d never realised quite how mean-spirited W.G. Sebald’s description of Lowestoft is in The Rings of Saturn, probably because I’d never set foot there myself before today.
He writes, in one of his trademark elongated Germanic passages:
The last time I had been in Lowestoft was perhaps fifteen years ago, on a June day that I spent on the beach with two children, and I thought I remembered a town that had become something of a backwater but was nonetheless very pleasant; so now, as I walked into Lowestoft, it seemed incomprehensible to me that in such a relatively short period of time the place could have become so run down. Of course I was aware that this decline had been irreversible ever since the economic crises and depressions of the Thirties; but around 1975, when they were constructing the rigs for the North Sea, there were hopes that things might change for the better, hopes that were steadily inflated during the hardline capitalist years of Baroness Thatcher, till in due course they collapse in a fever of speculation. The damage spread slowly at first, smouldering underground, and then caught like wildfire. The wharves and factories closed down one after the other, until all that might be said for Lowestoft was that it occupied the easternmost point in the British Isles. Nowadays, in some of the streets almost every other house is up for sale; factory owners, shopkeepers and private individuals are sliding ever deeper into debt; week in, week out, some bankrupt or unemployed person hangs himself; nearly a quarter of the population is now practically illiterate; and there is no sign of an end to the encroaching misery. Although I knew all of this, I was unprepared for the feeling of wretchedness that instantly seize hold of me in Lowestoft, for it is one thing to read about unemployment blackspots in the newspapers and quite another to walk, on a cheerless evening, past rows of run-down houses with mean little front gardens; and, having reached the town centre, to find nothing but amusement arcades, bingo halls, betting shops, video stores, pubs that emit a sour reek of beer from their dark doorways, cheap markets, and seedy bed-and-breakfast establishments with names like Ocean Dawn, Beachcomber, Balmoral, or Layla Lorraine.
He’s not wrong exactly. Walking down the high street, I’ve never seen so many mobility scooters and children smoking before (and I’m from Hull, lest we forget). In many ways Lowestoft seems to have gotten worse than it was when Sebald described it, but it must be said that Lowestoft is not remarkable in its decline; it is not as singular in its hellishness as the man himself makes out.
Reading the book now, I’m reminded of Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida — a book whose author likewise struggles to pass comment on life under the influence of his own melancholy. That book was written by Barthes under the shadow of the death of his mother, seemingly with little self-awareness for how far this shadow has spread into his own analyses. With Sebald’s novel beginning with the writer in a hospital bed in Norfolk, waxing lyrical about death and anatomical procedures, I find it hard not to read an anger at his own encroaching decrepitness being projected onto the faltering seaside city. Not that this is much of an insight — the symbolism is hardly subtle throughout.
This is most apparent in Sebald’s Lowestoft when he walks past Lowestoft Central station, “which had not been refurbished since it was built in the nineteenth century”. He notes “a black hearse decked out with wreaths” passing him by. The chapter also ends with a photo of the hearse in question. My vision of Lowestoft Central was somewhat different — there was far much more life in it.
I was further reminded of the comments made in the film Patience (After Sebald) in which one of the film’s Sebald fans — who has done what I’m doing this week, haphazardly following Sebald’s footsteps — comments that when they arrived at Lowestoft they half-hoped to find squalor and misery under overcast clouds but instead found children playing in the fountain by the pier and felt that they were all having too much fun. It’s almost as if patience was precisely what Sebald was lacking — too melancholic to stop and see the life in what is around him; too trapped inside his own depressive perspective.
It must be said that, today, Lowestoft seems like two towns attached at the hip. Pulling into the both oddly and aptly named car park, Battery Green, we walked the length of the high street on a bright but chilly day, dropping into charity shops and a Gregg’s and a Waterstone’s before we eventually crossed the port estuary onto the rather lovely promenade. The high street was evidently the town’s major artery but we seemed to be the only tourists to wander that far to the town’s north.
I didn’t mind any of it. It was all very familiar. In fact, I was reminded quite explicitly of Sunderland as we walked Lowestoft’s streets, where I spent a lot of time as a child, heading from its toughened bowels to the quaintness of its seafront. This tale-of-two-cities vibe is common to a lot of east coast towns and cities in the UK, with generations of new money and old industry warring uncomfortably against each other and the towns themselves becoming patchwork places of stark inequality. There’s none of that in Sebald. For all its “realism”, there’s no social realism to speak of. It’s all too trapped inside his own head.
After Mark Fisher died, I remember The Rings of Saturn coming up in conversation with Kodwo Eshun who said Mark hated it. I can see why now. It is less a book of Sebald being impacted by the landscape around him, letting the Outside in, but rather pulling himself out across it, his melancholic continental sensibility being a grotesque skin stretched across the coast, and he beats himself like a drum along its shores. I still like the horror of his adventure but clearly it is a mistake to go looking for Sebald’s Suffolk. It doesn’t exist beyond the pages of his book.
For what it’s worth, my favourite thing about the town was the local Wetherspoon’s, busy for a Monday, named The Joseph Conrad. Opposite Lowestoft Central, I thought about Sebald starting his journey here. As far as he is concerned, it seems that his is a journey out of the heart of darkness, into the bourgeois tranquility of the Suffolk countryside, albeit stalked by death wherever he goes.
I’m still hoping for such a journey myself, in the direction originally intended, finding some non-Euclidean environ at the end of the river Blyth. As much as I have failed to find Sebald’s Suffolk so far this week, I’m yet to find Mark Fisher’s either. I should instead be trying to describe a new kind of Xenogothic eerie perhaps: something that emerges from the failure of Sebald’s absence and the failure of Mark’s presence…