Friday, May 22, 2009


Fantastic Journal wonders if W.G. Sebald visited Thorpeness in The rings of Saturn. DV thinks so too, but flicking through my copy today, I can’t find any mention of it. It doesn’t seem like the sort of place he would have visited, nor a place where he would found anything of interest. Thorpeness is too bright and breezy for Sebald I suspect, too chipper, too populated (both by man and elf). He does visit Orford Ness, but that is a different proposition altogether.

Sebald does, however, visit the bridge over the River Blyth:

This slim iron structure was, he says, originally built as a railway bridge to connect the Imperial Palace of the Qing Dynasty in Beijing with one of the Emperor's summer residences. The Guangxu Emperor, successor to the Tongzhi Emperor, who died without leaving an heir, was imprisoned in a corner of the Forbidden City by the Dowager Empress Cixi. Guangxu was fixated by the workings of machinery, and Sebald suggests that the railway was originally commissioned to be Guangxu’s plaything. After a long period of illness and neglect, the 37-year old Emperor died, probably poisoned by Cixi. Cixi herself died less than 24 hours later. The plans were for the railway were ditched, and the bridge found a new home on the Suffolk coast.

At the risk of spoiling a good story, this has no historical basis whatever. It is a bridge for pedestrians, not locomotives, and the railway line that connects Southwold with Walberswick crosses the river a mile or more upstream. This inaccuracy has its precedents in The rings of Saturn (see here for an even more brazen error), which is not really a book about Suffolk at all, but a obsessively restless search eastwards, to Holland, Germany, China, beyond...

From Walberswick, Sebald walks south to Dunwich, where Swinburne sought solace when his masochistic and alcoholic episodes came to a head. Swinburne’s life, says Sebald, was co-terminous with that of the Dowager Empress (actually he was born two years after her, and died one year after, but what the hell...), and he apparently wrote "By the North Sea" in Dunwich, overseen by his loyal friend and carer Theodore Watts.

DV and I are going back to Thorpeness tomorrow, and may walk past the nuclear power stations (one decommissioned concrete monolith, one very active giant golf-ball), through the Sizewell Belts, and onto Minsmere. On the other hand, we may find a pub somewhere and gorge ourselves on Adnam’s. Here’s a short film about Sizewell Nuclear Power station, from the Guardian’s Barton’s Britain series (she visited King’s Cross snooker club recently, so she clearly knows a thing or two about strange, secluded spots).


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