Published: 06:00, 22 January 2021
| Updated: 07:14, 22 January 2021
Towards the end of 1974, a stranger arrived in the small town of Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey.
He could often be found sitting on a favourite stool at the bar of the Napier pub, drinking Hurlimann lager and smoking French Gauloises cigarettes while flicking through the pages of the local paper.
“Charles” was the name he offered to new acquaintances but the mystery man with a German accent never encouraged probing questions about where he was from and why he was there.
Now literary scholar and former Whitstable teacher Patrick Wright has tried to solve the puzzle in a minutely researched 734-page book called The Sea View Has Me Again (Repeater, £25).
It is the story of how acclaimed east German novelist Uwe (pronounced 'oover') Johnson chose to spend the last decade of his life on the north Kent island.
Even now, international fans of his writings embark on a pilgrimage to gawk at the terraced house he once owned in Marine Parade, much to the bewilderment of its new owners. Some even knock to ask if they can look at the sea view from Johnson's former bedroom which he immortalised in his work.
His former neighbour, the late artist Martin 'Aynscomb' Harris, said after Johnson's death in 1984: “He was a kind man often misunderstood because of his abrupt manner. He had no time for idle conversation or banalities. He sparred with words. He was a verbal heavyweight, an intellectual whose politics were very much to the left.”
Mr Wright, 70, who now lives near Cambridge but is a long-time fan of the island, said: "This has been a labour of love. I was first introduced to Johnson's writing when I was studying English and American literature as an undergraduate at the University of Kent at Canterbury from 1970 to 1973.
"For a year after I taught at the Sir William Nottidge Secondary Modern School at Whitstable which had a remarkable view of the Isle of Sheppey. It looked quite magical on some days. Then I visited the island and realised why some people called it a dump.
"When I learned that Johnson had moved there, I wanted to understand why."
The published author and Professor of Literature, History and Politics at King's College London was turned down by other publishers who could not understand why he wanted to write about a German author, virtually unknown in Britain, or about the Isle of Sheppey.
The project has taken seven years to complete.
Mr Wright said: "I started out just wanting to have Johnson's writings about Sheppey translated. Then I wanted to know more about him."
He made appeals on the radio and staged an evening of Johnson's readings at the Sheppey Little Theatre in Sheerness, just a stone's throw from Johnson's former home, to encourage those who had known the author to get in touch.
Johnson admitted he was drawn to the area because it was at the end of the Thames. Writing in 1977 he said: “It would be fair to say that I have a thing for rivers.
"I grew up on the Peene in Anklam; the Nebel flows through Güstrow; I have travelled to and in Rostock on the Warnow; Leipzig presented me with the Pleisse and the Elster, and Manhattan is surrounded by the Hudson and the East and North Rivers.
"For the past three years I have had on offer outside my window the River Thames where it turns into the North Sea."
Pipe-smoking Johnson hailed from the Baltic province of Mecklenberg and became a leading, controversial and troubled author writing about a divided Germany.
He arrived on Sheppey towards the end of 1974 with his wife Elisabeth and their young daughter Katharina, ostensibly to complete the fourth and final volume of his novel Anniversaries: From a Year in the life of Gesine Cresspahl.
His friends were aghast at why anyone would want to settle on Sheppey with its abandoned naval dockyard, run-down town and a wartime wreck of an American liberty ship full of unexploded bombs just off the coast. He told them it reminded him of his home on the Baltic coast.
According to Mr Wright, Johnson had already dismissed Bexleyheath, Croydon, Bournemouth, Brighton, Dover, Canterbury and Herne Bay before alighting at Sheerness-on-Sea.
In a letter to his benefactor Max Frisch in August, 1974, Johnson admitted: "It is not pretty. But is that why we've come?"
He described his white-painted house on the seafront as a "helpful argument in favour" with its enlarged basement and views of the sea.
He was also delighted to discover, on arrival, that the outgoing owner had kindly left a light bulb in every room and three pennies on the window sill which he took to be a quaint English gesture of welcome. He was also amused to find an abandoned pair of knickers.
At the time, Britain was suffering from industrial unrest and a plethora of strikes. When Johnson arrived, Sheppey was in the middle of a bread shortage with shoppers panic-buying flour.
Johnson went on to install a wall of bookshelves and an office in the basement. He introduced a large table which had been made for him in Berlin and an IBM electric typewriter.
He also became an ardent reader of the Island's newspaper, writing to a friend: "On Friday, the Sheerness Times Guardian arrives and you couldn't possibly overestimate the excitement which we wait it." He kept every copy from 1974 to 1981. They remain in the Uwe Johnson archive.
Johnson became a regular at the now demolished Sea View Hotel and the Napier, which is being converted into a restaurant. It was there in the bar, it is said, Johnson was given his English name by locals during a Christmas Eve party.
He adopted a bar stool which became his preferred vantage point to study English eccentricities which he turned into a collection of Island stories. The stool starred centre stage in a reading of his texts by members of Big Fish Arts at the Sheppey Little Theatre on March 5, 2016.
Johnson kept a weather-eye on politics and took umbrage when Southern Water decided to raise the sea wall in front of his home.
He knew the Berlin version well but his last months were plagued by the construction of a different kind of barrier directly across the road from his window.
In a letter to a friend in August 1982 he stormed: “Now I am obliged to add the fact, impossible to make up, that the offices of Southern Water intend to protect this grimy, insignificant locale by raising the flood wall even higher in front of this row of houses."
He told neighbour Martin Harris that the rampart reminded him of the works of Hitler’s preferred architect Albert Speer. The two-year project was completed in 1984, the same year he died alone. He and his wife had separated acrimoniously in 1978 with Elisabeth and Katharina moving to a house in Unity Street.
In his later years Johnson turned to drink. The Sheerness Times Guardian reported the death of Uwe Klaus Dietrich Johnson on March 16 - although he could have died two weeks earlier having last been seen at the Napier on February 22.
His body was found on the parquet floor of his living room by Col Mason and Ron Peel, landlords of the Napier, on Monday, March 12, when they broke in after cleaner Nora Harris said she couldn't get a reply. Two empty bottles of red wine were on the table. It appears the author tumbled and hit his head on the floor while attempting to open a third bottle.
The coroner said death was from hypertensive heart disease.
Johnson, who owed his Frankfurt publisher Siegfried Unseld £60,000, left the bulk of his estate and manuscripts to him. His estranged wife ended up with half the house and his 30-volume 1973 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Johnson was cremated at Vinters Park, Maidstone, on Friday, March 23, 1984 as he had instructed, with "no music, speeches, flowers or any religious or other other service whatsoever." Among those present were his wife and daughter, sister, publisher, executors, solicitor Mr Clough from Sevier and Partners and neighbours Martin and Susan Harris. They had seen the hearse draw up in Marine Parade and followed it to the crematorium as a mark of respect.
The author's ashes are buried beneath a polished but otherwise plain gravestone at plot 54XD in Halfway cemetery with only his name to guide mourners; no dates, no words of sorrow and no description of the man below. He was 49.
When Katherine Bishop's parents bought the house after Mr Johnson's death it had black wood panelling and black wallpaper. When she later put the house on the market in January 2012 and proudly announced it had once been home to "German author Uwe Johnson" she received requests from abroad to confirm rumours it had, indeed, been all black inside.
Talking to Mr Wright, she recalled that German visitors had kept turning up throughout her childhood taking photos, sitting on the concrete steps and knocking on the door asking to be shown inside. She even remembered the odd coach pulling up outside so "rows of unlikely pilgrims" could peer in through the windows.
She said her bemused father had tried to accommodate their interests at first but it became difficult as he was trying to run his accountancy business from home. A commemorative plaque sent by admirers in Germany is now near the front door.
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.
* Special offer: readers can order their own half-price copy of The Sea View Has Me Again by using the code ISLANDER at the checkout at www.repeaterbooks.com. A paperback version is due this summer.