by Ben Smith,
published April 2019
All around, to every horizon, the blades of the wind farm turned.
Far from land, out in the North Sea a boy (Jem) and an old man (Greil) live and work on a vast wind farm. They maintain and service the 6,000 turbines of which 850 are broken and more are malfunctioning – ‘dark blooms and scabs of rust… seepages of oil and grease … slumped down at an angle, their foundations crumbling like silt.’ This is an elemental world coloured grey – mineral and metallic – where everything is constantly changing and being eroded by the sea; even the old man’s cheeks are ‘flushed purplish grey, like metal discoloured by a flame.’ The sea itself is polluted and sterile, with nothing moving in it apart from human rubbish and plastic. In an evocative description we see:
swathes of shining fluid that coated the surface of the water… shoals of plastic bags and bottles… the brittle shells of electrical appliances.
In this bleak environment set in the not too distant future, the two main characters are so rarely named they could be any of us, or represent each end of one life: youth and old age; innocence and experience. Their only contact is with the captain of the quarterly supply boat who brings the processed meals they live on and occasionally trades with them. To ease the boredom and acute isolation the man and boy play tricks and try to outmanoeuvre each other like an elaborate game of chess. The old man salvages artefacts from the seabed, evidence of the Stone Age civilisation who lived there when it was ‘Doggerland’ before sea levels rose and it was submerged. The boy’s main obsession is to find out what happened to his father who worked on the farm before him and who mysteriously disappeared. When he finds a shoe at the beginning of the novel he thinks it could be his father’s.
This inventive novel, written with a pared-down style that still admits genuinely beautiful poetry, has echoes of Waiting for Godot and The Truman Show. A very impressive debut from Ben Smith about isolation, selflessness and the indefatigable human urge to create and explore.
Background information about Doggerland:
Named after the Dogger Bank (familiar to listeners of BBC Radio’s shipping forecast) which in turn was named after the 17th century Dutch fishing boats called doggers, the prehistoric existence of a now submerged area of land linking Britain to mainland Europe was established in the late 19th century. It featured in a short story by H G Wells. In the 1990s interest was revived by archaeologist and academic, Bryony Coles, who named the area “Doggerland”
Map of how Doggerland might have looked.
Around 6,000 years ago, the nomadic Mesolithic people were forced out of Doggerland by rising water that engulfed their low-lying settlements. Modern fishermen often find ancient bones and tools that date to about 9,000 years ago.
The skull of a woolly mammoth, discovered in the North Sea in 1999, in the area then known as Doggerland. Image: OGMIOS/CREATIVE COMMONS
Now (2018 onwards) archaeologists working for Swedish energy firm Vattenfall are examining a set of ‘cores’ recently extracted from the seabed as part of the developer’s surveys for its Norfolk Boreas offshore windfarm. The core samples provide an almost unbroken record of pre-historic environmental change from the end of the last Ice Age through to the flooding of Doggerland. The research will shed light on how quickly our ancestors would have needed to adapt to the changing coastline, as rising sea levels flooded the North Sea through the English Channel and cut off the British Isles from the European mainland. Climate scientists say a similar situation could affect the billions of people who live within 60 kilometers (37 miles) of a shoreline today, if polar ice caps continue to melt at an accelerated pace.