As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Harry Gallon on the research process behind his novel Small Rivers (Dead Ink Books, 2021).
It feels to me as though aspects of Small Rivers complement the recent wave of anti-pastoral landscape writing – a kind of rural menace we also find in Benjamin Myers, Benjamin Wood and others. In Small Rivers, rural England is presented as rotten, tired and culturally-stagnant, motifs which are echoed in your descriptions of the natural landscape. Obviously this has a direct link with your depiction of the historical setting (Brexit-era Britain) but I wonder to what extent you’ve drawn from wider literature that examines the menace of rural England. What writers have fed into that for you, if any, and do any contemporary novels spring to mind?
Generally, the answer to this feels as though it should include everything that has influenced, and continues to influence, my relationship with Britain and the British landscape throughout my life. It’s harder to pinpoint certain specific literary works on the subject when the most poignant thing has been a general feeling—something that I have felt exists within me, in various forms, since I was a child. Back then, I was all about Biggles and watching war films with my dad. We always lived in the countryside, moving around between various rental properties, so the landscape has very much been a character, and since I was fascinated with history, I would do a lot of reading about old battlefields. The British Isles has a violent history, long before empire, and so it felt important to communicate the inconsistencies in the idea of the green and pleasant land, which is, after all, no more than a tool of nationalist propaganda. This was definitely a running theme in Ben Myer’s The Gallows Pole and Under the Rock, which both influenced how I decided to approach this subject in Small Rivers. But I was also reading academic and historical books on British farming, railways, airfields and general infrastructure that has all but vanished from the rural communities they once served. I say vanished, but deliberately removed is correct, as a kind of disenfranchisement that successive governments have inflicted on those communities since the end of World War Two. When it came to writing specifically about agriculture, John Connell’s The Cow Book and 2016’s The Levelling, directed by Hope Dickson Leach, were excellent—The Cow Book for its wonderful comparisons of contemporary family-run farming (in Ireland, rather than Britain, but those processes are largely the same), and the history of agriculture, animal husbandry and humanity’s relationship with the land they live on. Meanwhile, The Levelling included the kind of gritty, cold, harsh reality of trying to maintain a small farm, its protagonist reluctantly returning to take the reins in much the same way as my own (this, too, happens in The Cow Book). That was important, because so much of farming has been passed down generationally, but in the face of corporate agriculture, poor pay and a plethora of different lifestyle and career paths, younger people are not as keen anymore. As for looking at the countryside through the lens of the Brexit era, 2017’s God’s Own Country, directed by Francis Lee, feels painfully accurate, its beauty and tenderness at odds with the racism that foreign farm labourers receive from British people who rely on their labour for sustenance.
That’s fascinating. I’m particularly curious to know how those personal experiences of rural England you mention might have shaped the plot design of Small Rivers. When I spoke with the author Ruth Gilligan on her research for The Butchers, I was fascinated to hear that she’d spent extended periods of time studying practices and conditions on Irish borderland farms. Did you do any specific naturalistic or agricultural research to help achieve the anti-pastoral tone of the novel? And if so, did your perception of the environment change as you researched?
Well, as previously mentioned, I grew up in the countryside. Most of the homes my family lived in were rented from a single, wealthy landowner, who also owned a lot of farmland. It was an open farming estate, basically, with through roads and some other properties he didn’t own, but he was our landlord for years, and though he didn’t farm himself, he employed a farm manager and other workers who did. So, I grew up playing on these farms—trespassing in the woods, building dams in the small streams, dens in the bushes, sneaking between farm buildings, breaking occasional windows. My family were not farmers, but we had chickens at various times, and my dad, brother and I would shoot the occasional rabbit for dinner. I knew what a landlord was, but I had no concept of how intangible our existence was. We moved around this farming estate, and the land itself, the byways, tracks and fields, became the only real constant in mine and my brother’s lives. I did a lot of looking back while writing Small Rivers, to this time, and to just how strange it was to have such a close relationship with the landscape, the dirt, the puddles, the need for it, but effectively being tenants. That’s all the public are, these days—tenants, renting a space on an island they’ve been conned into fighting for and defending for centuries, which, now more than ever, is owned by just a few obscenely rich people.
It wasn’t until my mum got together with a farmer, married and moved onto his farm, that that lifestyle held a bigger place in my life. My stepfather employed me for a couple of years before I went to university, and then London, so mucking out barns, herding cattle, driving tractors, crashing tractors, ploughing fields and putting up barbed wire fences, was something I did most days. It was enjoyable work, for the most part, and felt very natural, and though I haven’t done it for years, most of those processes haven’t changed (at least on my mum’s farm), which was one of the main reasons Small Rivers is set on a farm, too. Buildings sag and equipment rusts, as the farm languishes, slipping further into redundancy and outdatedness, while livelihoods evolve to meet the needs, and desires, of modern life. I didn’t do any field research for Small Rivers, because I had already done it, and actual farm work is not the point of the book; it’s not a manual for how to corn cart or hitch a trailer. Knowing how a small, family-run farm works (and doesn’t) was just the flavour.
Yes, I think there’s definitely a sense of ‘lived experience’ in the novel, certainly in terms of the use of setting as a frame for your characters. With that in mind, I was struck by your use of traditional rural archetypes – the struggling farmer, the city-slicker, the disgruntled labourer and others. This latter archetype, typified by the violently-xenophobic Damien, is one I’m particularly keen to explore. I’m curious as to how you built his character, and why you chose to build it with (arguably) no redeeming characteristics. Is this a fair summation? And, in a more critical sense, do you feel there is an aspect of demonisation in play here, reflected even down to the character’s name?
I had very mixed feelings about whether or not to redeem Damien. I think redemption is possible for everyone, in some form at least, and did not want to simply punish him for his beliefs. However, Damien was designed to represent everything that is wrong with the modern British psyche—self-entitled, self-interested, self-pitying, sexist, racist. These are not good qualities, and I made sure not to tar every peripheral character, i.e. rural villagers, with the same brush. Likewise, I made sure not to make Toby or Angelica, the young city dwellers, these bastions of progressive thought and change. They are flawed, too. They are also kind of douchebags, living in their own bubbles and wondering why other people don’t agree with them without looking at whether or not the issues that form the basis of their disagreements are part of a wider problem (late-stage capitalism).
Though set at the end of 2016, not specifically mentioning the EU Referendum was important because the deliberate campaign of misinformation and cheating that won it for Vote Leave had been ongoing for years and years. I think it’s fair to say that Damien is representative of how much people were tricked by the powers that be; how much they’re used by a system that does not care about their actual wellbeing, but whilst those people are not all ‘bad’ (read as xenophobic, racist etc…) I felt the story needed there to be that objectively bad character (and it had to be a male one, as this is predominantly a white masculine issue), because the country is so divided between right and wrong. That’s not black and white, though, because each side thinks they are right. I have my own stance and opinions, and of course things like nationalism and xenophobia are bad, and I definitely wrote that into Small Rivers, but I also thought it unfair to demonise Damien, and what he represents, completely. Of course, it’s not stated which side he would take, how he would have voted in 2016 or with which party he would align. Rather, I’d say he abstained, and what’s bad about him can be quantified by his acts of crime: stealing, arson and attempting to poison a water source are objectively wrong. However, these are directed at Frank, another Englishman, rather than Irena and Jerzy, the Polish couple Frank hires to replace him, so it’s more likely Damien was trying to fight back against a system, such as landownership, which considers him disposable. The problem is, however, that Damien’s actions are clouded by his entitlement, so whilst Frank may be representative of that system, Damien’s clearly in the wrong, and is also targeting the wrong person, just like each side of the divided public, who bicker with and threaten each other (sometimes worse, obviously) rather than unifying against who is actually responsible, and to blame, for why the country’s in such a terrible state.
Sidestepping the obvious political implications present there, I’m keen to circle back to something you mentioned earlier around your childhood experiences. Something that really jumped out at me while reading is the link between English rural life and childhood, a link which is found across the generations though may be quickly disappearing. To an extent, Small Rivers turns the classic bucolic-childhood view of rurality on its head by returning Toby and Angelica to a neglected environment, robbing them of the romantic vision of the countryside that English culture often seems to associate with childhood. Do you think this link between rurality and childhood is still present in our culture, and how do you feel Small Rivers speaks to that theme?
For those born and raised in towns and cities, often in poorer communities, the countryside is probably something that feels very distant and inaccessible. The link between childhood and countryside is real, but perhaps reserved for people from more privileged backgrounds, who grew up in the countryside and then moved to large cities for work or university. I consider myself very lucky to have grown up, whilst by no means financially stable, definitely middle class. When I left home at the age of 19, and then moved to London at 23, I was very keen to put that link behind me, associating my childhood in the countryside with negative family experiences, such as a messy divorce and the toing and froing, emotional manipulation and mental health issues that define the years that followed. I think generally it’s natural for young adults to want to put space between their childhood and their present, regardless of what that past represents, or if it contains trauma, when they leave home for the first time, because it’s necessary for the formation of individuality and adulthood. The world of Small Rivers very much exists in that link, which is like a liminal space; a no-man’s land that connects us to past and place.
For me, and for the characters in Small Rivers, place is four things: the countryside and the city, the past and the present. By moving to a place so concrete, I was letting go of that link in a very clear way, and rarely went back to the places I’d grown up, even to visit family. It wasn’t for many years that I began to feel a need for reconciliation. Feeling good about going back to those places was only made available to me after much personal change and growth, and it was with that in mind that I wrote the link between the countryside and childhood; the idea of escape, return and reconciliation, into Small Rivers. Of course, Toby and Angelica did not leave the farm for the same reason. The death of their mother had only hastened their departure, leaving Frank, their father, to stay the course and try to keep the past, and the memory of his wife, alive. Of course, what Frank doesn’t realise is that his children keep that link with them wherever they go. It’s always present, and Angelica specifically returning from Berlin (Germany being picked deliberately because of Britain’s tedious obsession with the war), Small Rivers turns the idea of reconciliation on a personal, family level, to a national one. The return to the farm is also a return to Britain, but a new one, hopefully; one not ensnared by nostalgia, riddled with amnesia and strangled by the disease of nationalism.
I’m glad you’ve touched on the idea of looking forward because I’m curious to know what you feel the future of the English countryside might look like. Amid the cultural and environmental changes spreading outwards from our increasingly-swollen cities, and amid the continuing crisis of British farming, is there room for hope in our vision of rural England?
Where to begin? Hope is always there, I suppose, but since 2019 I have found it increasingly difficult to remain optimistic about a lot of things, including the environment. British farming and the countryside are intrinsically linked to the climate crisis, obviously, which the current government seem hell bent on accelerating. Sewage dumped into every waterway. New coal mines. The abominably pointless HS2. London centricism. Fracking. Blood sports. These people are violent, self-interested criminals, and they would clearly rather line their pockets than do anything that would benefit us, or the environment. The farming community was tricked into voting for Brexit, despite the fact that so many farmers were receiving massive subsidies from the EU. Same for fishing. That referendum was an endeavour not towards any sort of liberation for the people, but to allow the few people in power the freedom to keep exploiting everything the land and its people have to offer. This isn’t a comment on whether or not the European Union is problematic and needs reforming—the book isn’t about that—but it is a comment on internationalism, and the relationship between capitalism and the environment. In reality, and in Small Rivers, cash-strapped farmers are selling off their land to developers and energy companies, or turning their fields into paddocks and renting out stables to rich horse owners who drive Range Rovers everywhere. Natural, ancient forests are being torn down and replaced with non-native evergreens for logging. Biodiversity is at an all time low. It’s pretty bleak, but I suppose one good thing to take away is that members of the public are more conscious than ever of the need to protect the countryside, to subvert class and economic structures and make it accessible, and to make farming practices sustainable. The pandemic has certainly heightened this awareness, with successive lockdowns make people crave wide, open space. Bark. Moss. Petrichor. There’s hope in people, then, which seems ironic since people, after years of being worn down, disenfranchised, scapegoated, manipulated and murdered, are also very easily tricked into voting for villains.
Harry Gallon is a London-based author and ghostwriter, represented by Imogen Pelham at Marjacq Scripts. He has an MA in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of Winchester, reads for The Bridport Prize first novel award, Brick Lane Bookshop Short Story Prize, Jericho Writers and The Literary Consultancy, and is a contributing editor for Minor Lit[s]. His work features in numerous publications, including Forward Poetry, Open Pen and The London Magazine, while his debut novel, The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes, was published by Dead Ink Books in 2015, its follow-up, Every Fox is a Rabid Fox, in 2017. His third novel, Small Rivers, was published in May 2021.
Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.