I’m in Suffolk this week, staying with a friend in a barn at the end of a dirt track. The view from my window looks across fields, a mown track down the middle for walking, and the gnarled silhouette of a dead tree with its twisted, antic limbs and hollow trunk in which an owl has made its home.
My friend and I go for a walk along the beach at Sizewell, where the huge white reactor dome of the power station is partly visible through the trees. Out of the corner of my eye it looks like a full moon rising. Around me, the colour palette runs the full spectrum of all the greys, like a Farrow & Ball paint chart – cloud, sea, shingle, concrete and steel.
I can’t help thinking of the HBO series Chernobyl, which I plucked up all my courage to watch on TV recently. It gripped and horrified me, but its sullen, dull beauty was what drew me in – all that muted brown and beige, flat light and functional furniture.
Individual scenes were vivid and Tarkovsky-like: the families watching the burning reactor from a nearby bridge, children playing in the fallout that drifted over them like snow, like tossed confetti; the first responders who picked up blocks of graphite, then watched their hands disintegrate; the divers sent into the contaminated waters below the station on a world-saving mission, their torches flickering and dying, plunging them into darkness.
We were all in the dark at the time though. Had the water tanks that threatened to explode done so, it would have led to a catastrophe beyond imagining, and that event was only narrowly avoided.
I remember not having realised how serious it was. We bandied around the name Chernobyl and made uneasy jokes about our vegetables and milk being contaminated, but we had no idea what had really happened, nearly happened, was still happening, even as we wondered whether we were worrying too much or too little.
I’m reading Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature, having heard part of it on Radio 4’s Book of the Week, read by Rupert Everett. Jarman made his garden on the beach at Dungeness in Kent, and from his kitchen window he looked out at the “iron grey bulk” of the Dungeness nuclear reactor. Here on the beach at Sizewell the plants that grow wild are the same tough species he loved: grasses, and sea kale, red poppies and yellow sedum, gorse and broom.
Jarman was living there with an HIV diagnosis and the constant shadow of death as he lost friend after friend to the Aids epidemic. Yet he found endless reminders of life in the tenacity of the plants that insisted on growing against all the odds. And so the book is full of moments in which you can sense his determination to focus on survival and regeneration:
“The dead of winter is passed. Today Dungeness glowed under a pewter sky – shimmering emeralds, arsenic, sap, sage and verdigris greens washed bright, moss in little islands set off against pink pebbles, glowing yellow banks of gorse… silvery catkins and fans of ochre yellow stamens fringed with the slightest hint of lime green of newly burst leaves.”
He found beauty in a lonely place, created abundance in a wilderness, looked directly from his kitchen at something that represented a threat and its opposite, a nuclear reactor being an obvious symbol of both creation and destruction.
After watching Chernobyl I found myself googling for more information. After the initial devastating effects, the ecosystem in the area of the Exclusion Zone, from which all inhabitants were evacuated, has made a remarkable recovery. The absence of humans created, in effect, a huge nature reserve, with some scientists believing the overall effect has been an increase in biodiversity.
I walk along the beach at Sizewell, and the landscape is a million miles from the traditional idea of a “lovely view”, yet it strikes me as beautiful: the relentless waves breaking on the shore, the defiance of those bleak buildings, the hardy little plants forcing themselves up through the shingle. Nothing pretty, not really, just life pushing on and on.
Next week: Kate Mossman
This article appears in the 17 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Facebook fixer