Monday, October 29, 2007


Midway through his book The rings of Saturn, about a tramp across Suffolk which is really about anything but Suffolk, W.G. Sebald walks from Southwold, across the River Blyth through Walberswick, to Dunwich, a village in Suffolk which I have written about recently. Sebald writes:

The parish churches of St James, St Leonard, St Martin, St Bartholomew, St Michael, St Patrick, St Mary, St John, St Peter, St Nicholas and St Felix, one after the other, toppled down the steadily receding cliff-face and sunk in the depths, along with the earth and stone of which the town had been built. All that
survived, strange to say, were the walled well shafts, which for centuries, freed of that which had once enclosed them, rose aloft like the chimney stacks of some subterranean smithy, as various chroniclers report, until in due course these symbols of the vanished town also fell down.

Until about 1890 what was known as Eccles Church Tower still stood on Dunwich beach, and no one had any idea how it had arrived at sea level, from the considerable height at which it must once have stood, without tipping out of the perpendicular
. The riddle has not been solved to this day, though a recent experiment using a model suggests that the enigmatic Eccles Tower was probably built on sand and sank down under its own weight, so gradually that the masonry remained virtually intact.

Something in this story of the Eccles Church Tower rang a bell with me, yet it did not at all ring true. Intuitively, it would seem strange that Dunwich might have had a church called Eccles Church, for what has "Eccles" got to do with Dunwich? Besides, myths abound about this odd place, which exalts the emptiness of the endless sea, and makes the individual feel very small, and the story of Eccles Church does not correlate in my mind with Dunwich.

As Norfolk and Suffolk people will know, Sebald is gravely mistaken. Eccles Church never ended up anywhere near Dunwich. Eccles is some 50 or 60 miles north of Dunwich, in the county of Norfolk.

But perhaps - much as it pains me to admit it, as his book is infuriating - Sebald can be forgiven, for the village of Eccles-on-Sea has suffered a similar indignity to Dunwich of being slowly, tortuously, devoured by the sea.
In the late 19th century, the North Sea was advancing upon Eccles, just as it threatened the rest of the East Anglian coast. "As the sea advanced," said a 2001 Archaeological Field Unit report, "chewing ever more land away, the sand dunes were pushed back around the church. When Ladbroke engraved the tower for his series of illustrations of the churches of Norfolk in 1823, the tower was still, just, on the landward side of the dunes." By the 1890s, the church had slipped, as per Sebald's theory, over the dunes to the beach, and shortly afterwards it was swept out to sea. Simon Knott's website states that Pevsner could still report traces of flint from the old church in the 1960s, but today no fragments remain.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


Get ready for the year's most boring political contest - tomorrow's Presidential Election in Argentina.

None of the leading figures (two lawyers and a businessman) bring anything new or outstanding to the table, and in any case the result is a given. While the Guardian's report lists the three principle candidates, eight pollsters interviewed by the left-leaning Buenos Aires daily Pagina 12 predict a landslide victory for Cristina Kirchner, of between 22 and 30% points. The Argentine system requires the leading candidate to lead by at least 10% over his/her nearest rival. A second-round run-off looks, therefore, to be a virtual impossibility. Indeed, from the moment the election campaign began, an air of inevitability has hung over the result.

The one noteworthy aspect of the election is that Kirchner will be the first democratically elected female head of state in Argentina's history. She has the overwhelming support of working class voters, especially in Buenos Aires province and the northern cities of Salta and Jujuy, where the urban poor were hit hardest by the collapse of the peso in 2001.

Kirchner's victory will be the result more of a wish for stability in Argentina (her husband is the current President, and his economic policies are credited for bringing Argentina in from the cold) and a deeply splintered opposition. Since 2003, the Argentine economy has grown steadily, and Cristina is generally seen as the safest pair of hands. But inflation is said to be rising beyond the government's conservative predictions, which means the prices of essentials (especially fuel) could become unaffordable for the poorest in society. Time will tell whether Kirchner's promises to redistribute wealth to the poor will materialise; certainly nobody should expect the socialist politics taking root in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.

But tomorrow's election, while dull, should not be seen as a depressing affair. Each of the three main candidates are running on a centre-left, Peronist platform. I have discussed before how Peronism can mean one thing to one politician, and something completely different to another, but the semi-fascist, militaristic strain of Peronism seems to have lost favour altogether - hardly surprising after a military dictatorship and a decade and a half of crippling privatisation. The criminals of the Dirty War are, slowly, being brought to justice, and Argentina (or at least, the visible side of Argentina) is regaining its confidence. While some might yearn for a more radical politics, one can hardly blame Argentina for its pragmatism.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Last weekend I linked to an article by Polly Toynbee. Less than a month ago, she was Gordon Brown's biggest fan, echoing his supporters' contention that he was "a man of conviction, of brain, intensity and seriousness; a strategist, not a mere tactician; a long-termist, not a quick-fixer; a man on a moral mission". Following last week's pre-budget report, she has been turned off by a Prime Minister who decided to increase the threshold for inheritance tax and reduce capital gains tax for property investors.

Andrew, from Newfred, posted a robust defence of Brown in the comments box, which you should read here before you read the rest of this post. My response is rather lengthy, so I thought I would put it up as a post in its own right rather than dropping it into the graveyard of the comments box.


To suggest that liberalising laws around the accumulation of property (whether you intend to let that property, or pass it on to your children) leads to greater social mobility does not stand up to scrutiny.

Firstly, Inheritance Tax. It is not true to say that "there has been no change in IHT entitlements" as a result of the pre-budget report. Couples could indeed seek legal aid to combine their allowances before the report, but such aid is prohibitively complex and expensive. These constraints have now been removed and it is now much easier for wealthy couples to pass on property to their children tax-free. Even before the pre-budget report, very little of the value of inherited property in the UK was paid in tax (around 6% - much less than in most European countries). Now even fewer properties will go onto the housing market as a result of the tax. Even more already comfortable children will inherit property without having to pay tax. Even less wealth will be redistributed. How might such a move increase social mobility?

Secondly, the cut in capital gains tax for buy-to-let owners. Firstly, becoming the tenant of a private landlord is not, in itself, a yardstick of upward social mobility. Fewer than half of first time buyers were previously private tenants. In our property-fixated society, becoming an owner-occupier is a sign of upward social mobility - but the substantial increase in properties bought to let in the past decade has proved to be obstructive to people looking to buy their first property. But let's look at how BTL affects tenants first.

You describe BTL investors as being "willing to let property" as if they were doing it out of the goodness of their heart. All investors are driven by profit, and some (mostly those who let only a small number of properties) manage to combine this with responsible practice. But if your vision of large-scale BTL investments and their impact on social cohesion is in any way rose-tinted, I would recommend visits to either Thamesmead in South London, or Tottenham in North London (I have had the dubious honour of working in the London Boroughs of Greenwich and Haringey in the last 12 months...).

There are high levels of BTL properties in Thamesmead within mixed tenure communities. The area hit the news earlier in the year because of a surge in anti-social behaviour and gross over-occupation. On the recently built Pinnacle Estate, for example, cars were abandoned in car parks ; furniture was dumped on stairwells ; rates of burglary and vandalism increased ; and social housing tenants reported intimidation from BTL tenants. Absentee landlords bought properties en masse, rented them out on short-term leases, often just on a handshake, and then defaulted on maintenance and service charge payments. Many non-BTL tenants, terrorised in their own homes, upped sticks after only a year or so on the estate and moved elsewhere. I suppose this is social mobility of a kind, but I suspect it is not what you had in mind.

In Tottenham, the other symptom of BTL manifests itself, with Haringey Council having to rent back the very same homes it previously sold off to buy-to-letters, at double or treble the original post.

Even before the pre-budget report, BTL owners benefitted from significant tax relief. In June, the President of the Chartered Institute of Housing argued that the phenomenal growth in BTL investments (the rate was 57% higher in 2006 than 2005) was contributing to the affordable housing crisis by pricing first-time buyers out of the market. Because BTL investors generally buy before construction has finished, potential owner occupiers have a reduced choice of accommodation ; and because BTL owners generally buy housing at the bottom end of the market, prices for the kind of houses and flats owner-occupiers might prefer are forced up.

So, from the point of view of both tenants and potential owners, I again cannot see how Alastair Darling's pre-budget report might contribute to an increase in social mobility. In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite.

Our respective views of Gordon Brown's style are as much down to personal preference as anything else. I find his image, such as it is, as manufactured as that of his predecessor, and his rival across the floor of Parliament. But his economic policies do not balance the demands of economic competence (a nice euphemism) with social change, as you say they do. As Patrick Collinson wrote in the Guardian last week,

What is extraordinary is that a Labour chancellor is shifting the balance away from capital and on to labour. Unearned gains are awarded special tax privileges, while the gains from hard work - your salaried income - could be taxed at more than twice the level of capital. Yes, there was a welcome, and long overdue, clampdown on "non-doms" but it resulted, not from a Labour chancellor wanting to tackle the abuses of the system by the wealthy, but because of pressure from - of all people - the Conservatives.

This shift towards punishing labour to reward capital accumulation shows just how far Labour have moved from any notions of redistribution and social justice. The pre-budget report was a craven submission to the demands of capital.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


From here.


Polly Toynbee has for some time been the Brownest of Brown-nosers, and she permits herself an indulgent and foolish note of optimism at the end, but this is a surprisingly good critique of this country's abysmal Prime Minister.

To give the children of the well-off a £1.4bn inheritance bonus while the children of the poor only got another 48p a week in tax credits is symbolically far worse than that notorious 75p for pensioners. The halfway mark to abolish child poverty by 2010 will be missed by miles. Holding down public sector pay rises to 2% for three years, only half next year's expected private sector increase, will increase inequality. To cut capital gains tax on buy-to-let property, antiques, paintings and jewellery is as shameless as it is dysfunctional.

That the social democratic left ever held out a shred of hope for Gordon Brown is the greatest symptom of their intellectual decline.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


Above him, along the crests of the dunes, the tall palms leaned into the dim air like the symbols of a cryptic alphabet. The landscape of the island was covered by strange ciphers.

- J.G. Ballard, "The terminal beach"

Truth be told, I have never been to Orford Ness in my home county of Suffolk. I have seen its weird pagodas, its forbidding concrete walls, and its traces of rusting garbage from a distance, and have been dimly aware of its classified past as a site for nuclear experiments and dive-bomb tests. But having read Ballard's "The terminal beach," a short story about a man who sets up home on an island formerly used for atomic testing, I feel like I've been. Its mudflats and lagoons and reed-beds out-Ballard Ballard himself.


It was at Orford Ness, a shingle spit near to Dunwich Heath and part of Suffolk's sinister coastline, that the Mark 1 "Blue Danube" atom bomb - Britain's first operational nuclear weapon - was developed. Tons of high explosive were tested at the site after the government decided in 1947 that Britain should have an atom bomb.


Planes left from Farnborough in Hampshire and flew over to Ipswich, where they let go of the weapon and dropped it over the Ness. The weapon would be tracked via radar from the Ness (radar had been developed in Orford in the 1930s) to test their stability.

The island was sold by the MOD to the National Trust in the late 1980s, and is preserved with (as one interviewee puts it) "a philosophy of decay". These wonderful films show this mass of saltmarshy secrets as the very focus of Britain's Cold War history.


A month or so ago, I wrote about the trial of Christian von Wernich, an Argentinian priest on trial for complicity in murder, torture and illegal imprisonment. Von Wernich was only the third person to have been tried for crimes against humanity during the military junta in the late 70s and early 80s. In that post, I wrote :

The process of bringing murderers and torturers to justice will be slow and cumbersome, but without it Argentina might never account for that dark period in its history, a period which it is so loath to discuss.

Well, yesterday justice was done. Von Wernich was sentenced for life imprisonment for involvement in seven murders, 42 abductions and 31 cases of torture between 1976 and 1983. One of the prosecution lawyers, Myriam Bregman, said :

The importance of this case is fundamental because it's judging the participation of civilians in the military dictatorship. And not just any civilian, but a member of the Catholic Church - an institution with a lot of weight in Argentina. Out of the Von Wernich case we've learnt not only about the collaboration of this police chaplain, but also of other eminent members of the Church during the military dictatorship.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


Courtesy of the wondrous Darling Vicarage, here's an old time romance between a line who is thoroughly unworthy of the attentions of a divine dot, but who gives it his best shot anyway.

And as one commentator (in a rare moment of Youtube insight) writes :

The line would do anything for the dot, and learns that in loving her, he can find the best parts of himself.


The ruins of Carthage, of the great city of Jerusalem, or of ancient Rome, are not at all wonderful to me ; the ruins of Nineveh, which are so entirely sunk as that it is doubtful where the city stood ; the ruins of Babylon or the great Persepolis, and many capital cities, which time and the change of monarchies have overthrown ; these, I say, are not at all wonderful, because being the capitals of great and flourishing kingdoms, where those kingdoms were overthrown, the capital cities necessarily fell with them ; but for a private town, a sea-port and a town of commerce, to decay as it were of itself (for we never read of Dunwich being plundered or ruined by any disaster, at least not of late years) ; this I must confess seems owing to nothing but to the fate of things, by which we see that towns, kings, countries, families and persons have all their elevation, their medium, their declination and even the destruction in the womb of time and the course of nature.

- Daniel Defoe, Tour through the eastern counties

The North Sea has slowly devoured the coast of Suffolk for centuries, and the village of Dunwich (once a major trading town) is emblematic of the erosion which still eats away at it. In the 13th and 14th centuries, two major storms ravaged much of Dunwich, and for the past five hundred years a severe longshore drift has washed most of it away. There is still a Franciscan priory, and a former hospital for lepers, but otherwise there is little to see in Dunwich. Visitors come for precisely this reason : to see nothing.

There were once 18 churches in Dunwich. All Saints Church, pictured above in 1906 as the last of its ruins fell into the sea, was the last to go. On a quiet day you can still hear the church bells out at sea (or so they say), and sometimes, as the cliffs collapse, bones from long-dead villagers are found on the beach. The slow death of Dunwich continues today - the coastal path I walked along yesterday will not be there next year. Dunwich's decay is its life.

Such desolation is not unique to Dunwich. The central Suffolk coast is bleak and blasted, its uncanny aura a product of being a wartime base for military research and nuclear testing. When one walks the coastal paths and the heathlands and the forest tracks of Orford Ness or Minsmere or Rendlesham, one commonly finds abandoned houses, burned-out vehicles and evasive men in buggies talking into CB radios. Nothing, one suspects, is quite as it seems.


One night, shortly after Christmas in December 1980, two officers from the American air base at RAF Woodbridge claimed they had seen an unidentified space craft land. They saw a brilliant white light hovering a few feet above the ground, through the trees in Rendlesham Forest. The officers drove closer to find the large white light moving along the forest, as if mirroring their movement. At first they thought it was a military plane which had lost its way. The officers contacted Heathrow Airport, who had earlier located an object above the Woodbridge base which had then disappeared from their radar.

But as the officers approached the craft, they found that it was not an airplane, and that it had not crashed. The object, whatever it was, had landed in a clearing and was transmitting an array of flickering coloured lights, some red, some yellow, some green. "There was also a sense of slowness," said Staff Sergeant Jim Penniston afterwards, "like time itself was an effort."

The next night, a similar landing was reported. This time Deputy Base Commander Lt Col Halt was at the scene. Sceptical at first, Halt took radiation readings. The readings were higher than normal. There were marks on several tree trunks nearby which suggested the bark had been scorched by something. Halt also reported seeing a pulsating red light in the air, from which "molten metal" dripped.

The Rendlesham Forest Incident quickly became the cause celebre among the UFO community. The US military corroborated the story, but others were more sceptical. The bright white light, they said, was Orford Ness lighthouse (ps, watch the video in this link - it is spooooky), which is visible from Rendlesham Forest and which appears to hover only a few feet above the ground. If the officers had seen a space craft, they would have seen two lights : the lighthouse and that of the craft. But Penniston and his colleague only saw one.

Subsequent tests also suggested that Lt Con Halt's radiation readings were not, in fact, abnormal ; and the coloured lights which Penniston saw were actually the result of an "exceptionally brilliant meteor" which had seared through the night sky early on Boxing Day morning.


Perhaps some of Suffolk's creepiness is derived from its position during the Second World and Cold Wars. In the 1930s, the "half wilderness, half military junkyard" of Orford Ness was home to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, where the firing mechanisms for nuclear weapons were developed. Orford and its surrounding area still carries the air of calculated violence, bestowed upon it by testing stations during the twentieth century.

In 1936, the old stately pile of Bawdsey Manor was sold to the Air Ministry for research into radio direction finding. Headed by Sir Robert Watson Watt and staffed mainly by women, it was here that the first "Chain Home" radar station was developed. In the lead up to war, Bawdsey's two radar transmitters and a third "buried reserve" tested Britain's pre-war paranoias to their limits.

As the nearest English county to the continent, Suffolk's coast was vulnerable to attack and after the Battle of Dunkirk in May and June 1940, many other towns from King's Lynn to Southend were used for military testing and experimentation. In August 1940, Ronald Ashford was a Local Defence Volunteer near Shingle Street, a godforsaken strip of parched beach which looked out to occupied Europe across the grey, soupy North Sea. Shingle Street is just south of Orford Ness and what little there was of village life had been evacuated in late June to create a coastal defence area.

Following intelligence reports of enemy troop build-up in France and Belgium, the LDVs, a couple of miles north in Aldeburgh, had been issued with ammunition and were prepared for attack. One night, Ronald Ashford witnessed something strange :

Not long after we were issued with rifles, and before we had been properly instructed in their use, a red alert was declared along the East Suffolk coast and we found ourselves dug in behind a long brick wall facing the Aldeburgh marshes. We had knocked out firing slits at intervals of a few feet. It was a clear dark evening, about 9.00pm, when the heavens appeared to open up south of Orford Lighthouse, in the Shingle Street area. We heard a tremendous amount of gunfire and explosions. The night sky was lit up with a red glow. Sporadic gunfire went on for several hours. We received word that a German landing had taken place. This was later confirmed by eye-witness accounts of a shoreline littered with burned bodies.

The Germans, targeting the radar station at Bawdsey Manor, had apparently attempted an invasion, but had been thwarted by an audacious British counter-attack : setting the North Sea on fire. The sea bed had been laid with piping full of flammable liquid.

Ashford claims that he has collected other eyewitness accounts which confirm his story, including the sighting from a Mr Burrows of British soldiers loading dead bodies onto a lorry. Ashford states that the German flotilla was picked up by radar, and that locals had seen the dead soldiers. Indeed, there are articles from late 1940 which confirm that four bodies were washed up on the beach. But these men had been dead for some months, and had probably died at sea.

In 1992, W.G. Sebald set off on a walking tour of Suffolk, which he described in his book The rings of Saturn. He writes :

I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then, walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast. I wonder now, however, whether there might be something in the old superstition that certain ailments of the spirit and of the body are particularly likely to beset us under the sign of the Dog Star. At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place.

The fact that Ronald Ashford's story, like that of Rendlesham UFO, has been widely discredited seems rather insignificant, for in Suffolk truth really does have the structure of a strange and unsettling fiction. The threatening landscape and paralysing horror that Sebald describes creates these fictions, so that the more they are disproved, the more real they become.