Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Returning home is now a strange and romantic experience. Suffolk has never felt more like home, yet the part of Suffolk I return to is more than twenty miles away from where I grew up, and the parent I visit is not the one who brought me up.

My bedroom in Wickham Market could not be less homely. My dad has filled it, floor to ceiling, with polystyrene boxes which he has used for packing fish. The few books I have there are hidden away in a cupboard. I sleep in a sleeping bag, on an inadequate pillow. How is such a place, a place in which I have never lived, home?

Perhaps because it delivers the promise of home, a promise which is elusive in the age of atomised capitalist industry. One should no more expect today to have an enduring home than an enduring job. The promise of home is a guileless thing: an ideal, without the duties and the routine that accompany the reality. “Not otherwise will the world appear, nearly unchanged, in the steady light of its day of celebration," wrote Adorno, "when it no longer stands under the law of labour, and the duties of those returning home are as light as vacation play.”

The ambiguity of the home recalls Freud’s enquiry into the uncanny, which we have touched on before. Perhaps Suffolk is uncanny because it both home and non-home. It is my home, yet I feel a stranger there. We know from psychoanalysis that something must be familiar – deeply so – to be uncanny. Suffolk has an asphyxiating association for me, both because it is where I lived when I was a teenager dreaming of escape, and because its enormous skies and wide, flat plains suffocate.

On returning to Suffolk last weekend, we took a trip to Alderton, a nondescript village near the coast, and from there walked across fields to Shingle Street, a streak of pebbled beach between Orford and Bawdsey. It is true that Shingle Street is a dourly perplexing place, though it is not due to the beaches littered with Nazi soldiers which Suffolk myth claims (you can read more about these claims, though they seem rather farcical to me, and certainly unsubstantiated). Rather, it is because of the questions which Shingle Street poses. What is the place for? Is it merely a semi-living ghost-town? Would anybody notice if it was swept quietly away to sea?

In the nineteenth century, Shingle Street was a busy fishing village, a subsidiary of the frenetic port of Lowestoft, a few miles up the coast. In the days before cod and chips, herring defined England and Scotland, so that even in southern counties such as Dorset, where herring catches were only seasonal, there are towns called Langport Herring and Chaldon Herring. It is an unlucky fish - those not caught by humans or nets usually end up inside the bellies of haddock, conger eel, rock eel or cod. In the late eighteenth century, an estimated sixty billion herring were caught, but the military demand for boats and able seamen during the two world wars moderated the industry. Yet, by the mid 1960s, herring fishing had gone berserk, and by the mid 1970s herrings had become an endangered species. The history of herring fishing is crucial to the history of Suffolk, and has a bearing on Shingle Street's place in the world today.

The boats in which the fishermen once put out from the shore have vanished, now that fishing no longer affords a living, and the fishermen themselves are dying out. No one is interested in their legacy. Here and there one comes across abandoned boats that are falling apart, and the cables with which they were once hauled ashore are rusting in the salt air...

But a more pressing reason for Shingle Street's obscurity is the decision, taken in June 1940, to evacuate the residents of the village to nearby Alderton and Hollesley. In 1943, a 500 pound bomb of explosives and oil of wintergreen was tested there, and destroyed local houses and the pub. But when people were permitted to return to their village in 1946, most dwellings were uninhabitable simply because of decay and neglect.

A walk along the promenade today, such that it is, offers a nonsensical array of houses and abandoned buildings. There are sun-bleached huts ; old coastguards' cottages with faded coastal maps and diagrams of sea fish ; there is a weekend pad with enormous windows for walkers to admire its owner's impeccable taste; there are up-turned boats, and winches, and Union Jacks aloft rusting flagpoles ; there are three Napoleonic Martello towers in various states of disuse and domestication ; and there is the sea and the beach and, perched in a buoy some yards out to sea, a tragic, calamitous bell whose peals chill the village.

Soon after the village, one reaches the mouth of the River Alde, the most haunting of Suffolk's coastal rivers, and one which will get the post it richly deserves when I find the words to justify it. As the Alde reaches the North Sea, a spuming rush of white foam covers the surface of the water and attracts scores of squawling gulls. At this point, we looked back at the village

turned inland and walked back across the farmlands towards Alderton. What struck me as I followed my dad back to the village, is how ununcanny Shingle Street had been. In part, this was no doubt due to the weather, which was springlike rather than Februarylike. But, pleasant as the walk had been, it had not chilled me to the marrow as I hoped it might (that bell notwithstanding). As the sun set, I looked back over the fields to the coastguards' cottages and the German Mansion

and there it was.

A photo does not do justice to the confluence of big skies, unknowable undergrowth and unoccupied buildings which give Suffolk its freakishness. It can only be experienced towards the end of an afternoon, in the hinterland between coast and county, when you are caught between the emptiness of the sea and the insurance of the land. Only Suffolk can do this to me ; only Suffolk delineates life and death so starkly.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have travelled the world, however Shingle Street is my most favourite place in the planet. The emptiness, solitude and huge skies, together with the sound of the haunting bell you mention, makes it a place that always and forever will have a massive impact on me.

9:15 PM  

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