THE MILKY WAY (TO CROYDON)
‘We can walk between two places and in so doing establish a link between them, bring them into a warmth of contact, like introducing two friends.’
Thomas A Clark
It could have been, but he thought not. Ambiguity of distance and fallible memory. Right books, wrong set to contain them? Right rucksack, for sure. Stephen gave me that story. And the photograph on page 55 of the Penguin paperback of Austerlitz was something approaching an actual icon now. ‘A sign or representation that stands for its object by virtue of a resemblance or analogy to it.’ An honoured relic too. Sanctified by its biography, the pilgrimages it had made across Europe, and the journeys it had not made, and would never make, across the Alps from Italy into Germany; a legend confirmed or embellished in print, all the way back to the moment of purchase on Charing Cross Road, in a shop that is no longer there. The conjunction, in earlier times, of bookshops, used and new, and suppliers of rucksacks and raincapes, was sympathetic. Which came first, the canvas receptacle or the books that would fill it? In the end, Stephen said, after many years of good service, and that appearance still undamaged in Sebald’s Austerlitz, books were the undoing of the rucksack.
Stephen Watts, poet and translator, was returning from Lithuania, coming in on the Stansted Express, where his documents had been scrutinised and his luggage checked, to Liverpool Street station. The place where we met before our first walk through Whitechapel and Mile End, and where he waited to greet Sebald as he stepped from the Norwich train, to begin one of those meandering expeditions that
informed and animated the novel-in-progress. Held at the barrier, trying to force the bulging rucksack through its blind mechanical opposition, the strap broke. Lithuania had been a treasure trove of poetry and folk history, the food and substance of future projects. Stephen loaded the pouch to capacity: it burst, spilled. It could never again be suspended, as it is in Austerlitz
, from a hook on the wall of the Toynbee Studios on Commercial Street. The post-Lithuanian rucksack, the one I photographed in the Jewish burial ground at Alderney Road, was repaired with strong twine, shepherd’s twine, looped around the padded leather collar. The twine was milky white and could have been woven from strands of Stephen’s untrammelled hair. The rucksack had become as much its captured representation as its physical self. But it was still in service, still being exploited in other stories. The leather collar was gouged with marks of travel, compulsive nomadism.
But the photograph of the bookman’s cave, from page 43 of Austerlitz
, was not, as I had imagined, the workshop and library of Stephen Watts, from his nest at Toynbee Studios. Rachel Lichtenstein, in her memory-expedition On Brick Lane
, calls Stephen’s hideaway an ‘office’. An office precariously perched above the abyss of poverty. A mendicant scholar’s cell supported by columns of books, files of research, set-aside essays, epic poems in progress, translations bringing to life voices of migration, angelic glimpses. ‘Why don’t you sell some of your books?’ Lichtenstein asks. Registering the horror on Stephen’s face. ‘He looked even thinner than usual and seemed exhausted.’ Familiar ghosts attend their conversation in a neighbourhood curry house. The Yiddish poet Avram Stencl. The historian and teacher Bill Fishman. And of course Sebald: ‘who had recently died’. They move on to Stephen’s office. Climbing weary stairs, Rachel follows Stephen in expectation of encountering a chamber as haunted as the weavers’ garret of the recluse David Rodinsky, above the Princelet Street synagogue (now a Museum of Immigration).‘The walls are covered in bookshelves that reach to the ceiling and heave with thousands of volumes, including poetry books in different languages. The floor is alive with orange peel, tea bags, towers of
polystyrene cups and stained coffee filters, which Stephen sees as sunflowers. An ever-growing collection of stones, bone and pieces of worn wood retrieved during his many walks is scattered among the debris… Somewhere, buried in the centre of all this, is the ancient computer where Stephen sits and writes.’
The elements are generic. They are found in the snapshot Sebald positioned in Austerlitz, where the unoccupied room is surrounded by a sympathetic border of words. Surveillance reports on truth. Stephen, hesitating, placed that photograph of the office at UEA in Norwich, the lair of the German scholar. But he couldn’t be sure.
‘I would usually spend an hour or so sitting with him in his crowded study, which was like a stockroom of books and papers with hardly any space left for himself, let alone his students, among stacks piled high on the floor and the overloaded shelves,’ Sebald wrote. He was conjuring Stephen’s retreat or his own, and trapping them both, and readers seduced by the tale, into a close inspection of the photograph – which, because it is so firmly fixed in time, serves to anchor the play of fantasy. It sits like a darkened window into a past that never quite came into being.
But Stephen was not to be located. Since he published Republic of Dogs / Republic of Birds in 2016, he had vanished from view. We had our rituals and our paths crossed from time to time. There are risks, as I was well aware, in resurrecting abandoned manuscripts, books that decided, somewhere in their travels, not to permit completion or publication. The prose-poem of doubling, pulling focus between North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, the Western Isles of the early 1970s, and the pre-Docklands Isle of Dogs in the late ’70s, establishes a seductively unstable force field. Flashbacks. Eidetic insults. The recovery of a text composed in the late 1980s and misplaced until 2012, before being translated into laptop in 2013, and finally published by the independent Hackney press, Test Centre.
I have it on my desk. I handle it. Book visible, poet erased. ‘There is no edge to this city that extends all the way to the sea.’ Stephen hymns migration, the drift of transhumance with the changing seasons, mountain pasture to river valley. He finds his place in Whitechapel because of that history of bruised settlement, first breath, recovery
and recuperation, outside the walls, real or imagined, of the established city. Where money is always pushing at the boundary fence, hungry for more, more of everything.
We plotted a walk from Shadwell, where Stephen had lived for more than thirty-five years in a council flat, to West Croydon, the end of the southern spur of the London Overground line. A metal ladder down which fire, fanned by digital communication, had rushed at the time of the riots in 2011. West Croydon, the emerging city of towers, was where Stephen’s maternal grandfather, Sebastian Longhi, kept his Creamery, his café and ice-cream parlour, across from the station. A democratic resource, Stephen liked to think, a place to sit, take serious coffee, discuss the day. Much like the little breakfast bar, close to the Thames, close to a set of steps running down to the foreshore, where Stephen walked on good mornings, to open his emails, to read and work. He kept that nuisance out of his home. In this interval of retreat and reverie, before the engagements and collisions of the day, the poet watched cormorants – as, perched on rotten tripods and moorings, they kept their own watch ‘over the dead docks’. He tried to remember what that Russian had written. ‘The grasses in the streets of the city were the first runner-sprouts that would end up covering even the interstices of contemporary space.’ There was a primer in his pocket on the burning of books, the ‘firing of the libraries of the Republic’. Dried leaves of the libraries of the world are gathered in one small Spitalfields cabin. Correspondences. Versions from Irish Gaelic, Hungarian, Russian, Icelandic. ‘Live archaeology of my mouth.’ Stephen was the true keeper, the last witness.
In those final years, they had often discussed the notion of a walk from Stephen’s grandfather’s Italian village, across the mountains, to Sebald’s village on the German side. They studied maps and projected routes, huts where it was possible to lodge. The unwritten poems and the potential books hovered and worried like birds in the room. ‘Cutting a section across the Alps / or a section through a glacier’s brain,’ Stephen called it in a memorial poem for his friend. ‘From Precasaglio / in the Alta Valcamonica to Wertach in the Allgäu.’ He paces his stacked office, staggering and mewling, and he hears Sebald
speak in that deep Bavarian growl: ‘They are ever returning to us, the dead.’
The walk will be made alone, the poet hopes. But it will no longer be the walk. The words will be made alone.
Stephen protected himself, treating electronic communications networks with suspicion, handling email traffic with metaphorically gloved hands. Therefore, it was said, and his publishers confirmed it, he was not an easy man to find. My emails were unanswered. The poet, who could be relied on to appear, hovering and attentive, at readings, lectures, independent film shows, wasn’t there. He wasn’t well. He was barely strong enough to make it down to Cable Street for the launch of his own book at Wilton’s Music Hall. He had been giving blood or bone marrow or body parts to a relative, so rumour went. There had been a terrible family tragedy. It was not the moment to pursue the notion of a walk down the Ginger Line to West Croydon.
The difficulty was that Stephen’s identity had merged somehow with that of a character in Sebald’s novel, Austerlitz. ‘It was almost impossible to talk of anything personal, as neither of us knew where the other came from… He clutched the worn spectacle case he always held in his left hand so tightly that you could see the white of his knuckles beneath the skin.’ Did he walk with Max through the Isle of Dogs to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel? Or did he write his terse account from something I told him? Stephen had forgotten. And then there was the version Rachel Lichtenstein crafted for On Brick Lane. Stephen Watts as secular saint, troubled among a ballast of books. The poems that have still to be translated. ‘There is a tidal wave of sound and memory running down that street.’ In his portrait, snapped by Rachel, Stephen is smiling.
One afternoon I walked to Whitechapel to see if Stephen had been visiting his office. But Whitechapel was no longer there. The whole sweep on the south side of the Spitalfields Market, apart from a tragic façade propped up as a mocking quotation, was gone. Dust. Grit. You could taste it in your mouth all the way back to Hanbury Street. And without the brewery to wash away the hurt. Heritage
tourists, style scavengers and City overspill occupied the narrow pavements in puddles of noise and whelping chatter. The concrete slab of the multi-storey car park built over the site of the final Ripper murder in White’s Row was a nightmare eddy of oil and filth. But this view across the open ground, towards Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, had not been available in generations. And would soon be obliterated by the latest thrust of aspirational towers. Already the field of rubble was enclosed with a green fence suitable for CGI promises and upbeat slogans. Toynbee Hall was part of the outwash, a pit, a destructive upgrade.
Miraculously, the studios at the side were still in play. I was fearful that Stephen’s myth had been swept away with the old bricks. Did he have the willpower to husband this latest insult and turn it to advantage? I left him a letter, with no more expectation than stuffing the paper into a bottle and throwing it overboard. A couple of weeks later I received a reply. ‘I’m just back from Romanian villages… but I appreciate your flexibility & the pencil.’ A date was set. Postponed. Set again. We would meet at Shadwell Station on 24th October at 8am.
Half-an-hour early, on a bracingly crisp morning, and making a slow circuit while I took my bearings, I spotted Stephen, tumbled from his warm bed, hair streaming behind him, trying to keep up as he rushed down the culturally diverse and conflicted street in quest of coffee. The curator Gareth Evans called the poet’s work ‘fiercely engaged internationalist writing invaluable to our understanding of the Crisis’. Crisis with a capital C. Stephen’s long stride was enveloped in windblown wrappings of free newsprint flagging up the closure of the Calais camp. And demanding the first wisps of fire, scarlet splashes across the grey. CALAIS EXODUS. TEMPERS FLARE AS THOUSANDS OF MIGRANTS LEAVE ‘JUNGLE’ CAMP. Flare. Jungle. Exodus
. Old Testament apocalypse. Scuffles. Fires lit. Tear gas. Shantytown. Flashpoint
. Full-page picture spread: a single, white, ‘British volunteer’ struggling to hold back the mass of young black men pushing against a barrier. BANKER KILLED TWO WOMEN
AND FILMED TORTURE: PAGE 22.
Out of hot underground tunnels, dead newspapers. They drop, unread, from the hands of travellers. Every railway cave down here is an active concern: MEAT BAZAAR, FISH BAZAAR, VEGETABLE BAZAAR. A reward is being offered for the recovery of a female, five-year-old, Russian Blue cat called Marta, chipped and registered in Lithuania. The arches of the Docklands Light Railway – Shadwell is the point of transit – have been converted into sponsored windows: TO LEARN AS MUCH AS TO TEACH. The doctored art photograph, making its allotted space into stained-glass, is a portion of English field with the tracings of a white line showing us the direction of travel. Like a theft from Richard Long and the land artists of the Sixties and Seventies. The only legimitate journey is into the past.
Stephen sets off at a clip. I admire his shiny black walking shoes, acquired from a shop in Aldgate: light enough and stylish enough without making a fashion statement. We will retrace my London Overground route, station by station, to Surrey Quays, and then pick up the West Croydon tributary. With black linen book bag to replace the famous Austerlitz rucksack, and bareheaded, grey leisure top and poet’s trailing red scarf, Stephen leads us past his own building, the bicycle on the balcony. A narrow pier from which he has witnessed the world and its changes. The view is tranquil, he reckons, the backwaters of a maligned neighbourhood. ‘I did not stand on my balcony in London for thirty-five years,’ he says, ‘watching the children grow to their delinquence.’
There is an established path of desire, it is part of his being now, and I have stumbled on it from time to time, carrying the alert pilgrim to the Thames at Wapping. Flowering plants have been hacked out of the beds beside the path to make way for barriers of thorn and close-knitted municipal greenery. The ventilation shafts for the Overground tunnel remind me of Shetland brochs. Stephen has the gift of registering plural landscapes in a singular time. ‘Because to breathe is to be forever on the move.’
The night before our expedition I met Peter Bush, a former
colleague of Sebald at UEA and a great friend of Stephen Watts. He asked me to send his love to the poet. Bush was a translator of French, Portuguese, Spanish and Catalan. As a gesture of solidarity he was on hand at a promotional event for Bookshops
by Jorge Carrión. His services were unrequired, Carrión was fluent in global anecdotes, and in love with the particulars of bookshops everywhere. At the meal afterwards, Bush remembered Sebald with affection and respect. But the German professor was not, it seems, an easy person to know. There was always the mystery of his craft: where does it come from and what is the secret? Beyond the particular space occupied by a man carrying out his duties, living his life, driving between campus and the Old Rectory in a Norfolk village.
Stephen said that, perhaps, it’s possible, he didn’t want to conjecture, there was a palpable tension between Sebald’s professional life and the impulse, or more than an impulse, to write. That privacy. That perversion. That magic when the alchemy works and the printed page feels like a recovery from an illuminated testament that was already there. ‘We are each of us republics with many trapped voices inside,’ he said. The struggle he felt in Sebald, the pressure, was a recognition of the stress in his own life, between poetry, the trapped voices, and the necessity to complete applications, fill in forms, present himself: to engage with the mundane world. Peter Bush, coming at the question from another angle, intimated that Sebald was happy with the job, his duties, because, every third year, he would have a paid sabbatical; a certain balance could be sustained. As we walked towards the river, Stephen pondered the question. And decided that the ‘free’ year was a time for travel, European train journeys, walks, Belgium, Switzerland, Corsica. A time to rehearse a character that might, at some unspecified point in the future, convert experience, reading and photographs, into an improved version of himself and paradoxes he had yet to unravel.
Before lectures, Bush told me, he would often find Sebald, who spurned required university computer systems, running and re...