As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author David Gaffney on the research process behind his story The Country Pub (Nightjar Press, 2022).
One aspect of The Country Pub that jumped out at me is the idea of the narrator as an avatar for the author, with your short story mirroring certain qualities of your own life quite specifically. I wonder if the narrator’s experience of a night of anxiety in the Cumbrian countryside comes from personal experience, and whether it’s typical for you to lean on your own experiences for setting and plot. In broad terms, what does it mean to write oneself into narrative fiction?
I do tend to write stories based on personal experiences as I find that real events that I have been part of or have witnessed stimulate my thinking much better than say an abstract idea or a artificial prompt, or worse, a blank page. But I do sometimes wonder if this approach leads me to have more strange encounters and experiences than most people because maybe subconsciously or even consciously I seek them out. I am the person who will speak to strangers on trains or in the street, or seek out the unusual route to walk around the city, sneak into places that look interesting, or indeed do anything that might lead me to finding some aspect of life that might be worth writing down. So whether it is things I see, things I do, things I hear, or things people tell me about, I would say that that all of those things tend to inform my stories. And even while I am experiencing them, I am already thinking about how I will structure and retell the experience later. In the case of The Country Pub I have an awkward relationship with the countryside. I was brought up in west Cumbria in the middle of nowhere and all I wanted when I was a kid was to grow up and go and live in a big city where lots of things are always happening. And now I live in Manchester, I do find it difficult to understand why anyone would want to live miles away from bars and restaurants and cinemas and shops and music venues. You ask what it means to write yourself into narrative fiction and I would say that all narrative fiction has the writer’s own experiences and views running through it like goblins in a prog rock concept album. So in short, in the case of The Country Pub there was a pub exactly like that and most of what happened in the story is true.
To roll with that for a moment then, it feels as though one of the central sources of anxiety here is the tension between the central couple’s urban, middle-class sentiments and their rural surroundings, which lead them to perceive the countryside as stagnant, irrational and potentially threatening. Do you think this is indicative of a real-life divide between urban and rural cultures in England, and to what extent might the couple’s fears reflect genuine anxieties in the rural-tourist experience?
I don’t think my attitude to the countryside is very typical. Most people I know, and indeed most writers I know, love the countryside, and in fact seek it out for writing retreats and short breaks. But as I said earlier I have a rather more complicated view of the countryside and rural life in general. I tend to see rural areas as either being extremely privileged picturesque areas full of very well-off people who have moved there from cities, or as small non-descript towns full of people who are disgruntled because they can’t escape to busy more highly-populated places where there are more opportunities, more culture, and in general more things to do. On the other hand, in The Country Pub I wanted to explore the often unrealistic expectations of middle-class city dwellers who expect the countryside to be preserved as a kind of open air museum which has all the qualities of a imaginary rural idyll; village greens and busy, friendly pubs, along with the comforts and luxuries of a city, like Michelin star chefs and trained baristas on every corner. I thought this would be an interesting clash of cultures to explore. In my next collection of short stories, Concrete Fields, I explore these themes in more depth, in particular the idea that escaping to a rural idyll for a short time can make an artist more productive creatively, which I don’t find is the case for me.
Sitting at the centre of the rural environment, the archetype of the English country pub is of course one broadly established from Hardy to du Maurier to Ishiguro. The image of the pub as including a log fire, local ales, etc. is one particularly evocative of Englishness as a site of comfort and familiarity, as you alluded to above. I’m curious to know whether you feel this archetype is changing, and whether it is compatible with modernity and the new forms of community forming around Instagram and the online tourist industry.
I feel that the idea of the English pub is on its last legs. Many of the old country pubs in Yorkshire, Lancashire, and the Lake District, have been destroyed by managers reinventing them as eating establishments and decking them out like inner-city wine bars from the eighties. The whole idea of the pub doesn’t fit so well with a new, more diverse and more equal society. It is no longer the case that a man wants to go down the pub every night on his own while his wife stays in the house minding the children. I remember a pub in Ennerdale, Cumbria where it used to be customary that all the men had to stand at the bar while all the women sat down together in a corner. And this was only recently. I think it’s fair to say that old-fashioned pubs are not all that welcoming to women or to people from other cultures, and the endless sport on every screen and flashing slot machines everywhere can be a big deterrent. And not everyone even drinks alcohol any more. I think the more continental-feeling café bar you’d find in an arts centre can be a much more welcoming place for people of many different types. After all, some people just want to come in on their own and sit in a corner reading. But what I do think is missing now is the sense of danger and excitement that a pub used to offer – the possibility that something could happen there that might change you forever.
Absolutely, for better or for worse, as many of us have experienced. Though to close, I’d like to move away from rurality and hone in on one of the central metaphors of The Country Pub, that of the ambiguity of the still image. From the opening, the narrator is unsettled by the dichotomy that a still image is unable to provide proper context for the action it portrays, as in the following example: ‘Think about a photograph of a man holding a hat above his head. You don’t know whether he is putting the hat on or taking it off, do you?’ This put me in mind of Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void, in which a man in mid-air can be perceived as either floating or falling. In broad terms, what does this dichotomy mean to you, and what feelings (even ambiguous ones) does it provoke?
Yes, this is something I wanted to explore – the idea that when we are in a particular time and place, how do we know whether we are leaving the place, or just arriving, and whether this is the end of something or the beginning? The idea of the short story as a photograph, a moment captured in time, with no sense of what happened before or what might happens afterwards. I sometimes feel that as we move from Autumn into Winter, it can be mistaken for moving from Winter into Spring. Are the days getting shorter or longer? Is this a sunrise or a sunset? Is this relationship just beginning or just ending? We can feel momentarily that we are trapped in an in-between state where we haven’t quite worked out which direction we are travelling in. As writers the essence of a story can come to you in one whole rush, as if the whole thing has happened all in one second. What we then need to do is unravel it and flatten it out on the floor into some sort of linear sequence that makes sense to the reader. We live in stories, we make up stories about ourselves, we tell ourselves stories to make ourselves feel better, and we change our stories to improve our lives. We’re always trying to get our stories straight, as if one day we might be interrogated about them. So having this sense of not knowing where you are in the durational structure of a story seemed a good thing to look at.
David Gaffney lives in Manchester. He is the author of several books including Sawn-Off Tales (2006), Aromabingo (2007), Never Never (2008), The Half-Life of Songs (2010), More Sawn-Off Tales (2013), All The Places I’ve Ever Lived (2017) and graphic novel The Three Rooms In Valerie’s Head (2018). His latest novel Out Of The Dark is out now on Confingo and his graphic novel, Rivers, is also out now on Top Shelf. See www.davidgaffney.org for more.
Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.