Graham Swift: A coastguard meets a comedian

By Stephen Jewell

The many facets of England meet in the pages of Graham Swift’s new book, writes Stephen Jewell.

Graham Swift says writing short stories allowed him to enter each little world and be with the characters for a short visit. Photo / Janus van den Eijnden
Graham Swift says writing short stories allowed him to enter each little world and be with the characters for a short visit. Photo / Janus van den Eijnden

"Don't ask me how it came to me, it just did, so I went for it." Graham Swift is talking about the title piece of his new book, England And Other Stories. Set on Exmoor, it centres around a bizarre early morning meeting between a local coastguard and an Afro-Caribbean comedian from Yorkshire, whose car is stuck in the mud.

"There's a lot going on in there and I didn't have any difficulty calling it England or in putting it right at the end of the book - it just has that position," says Swift. "It's an extraordinary mix. You've got someone from the north of England in the West Country, who is lost, so he's like a total foreigner in that sense."

Forced to come to someone's rescue on dry land, the coastguard finds himself even more out of his depth as the comedian's constantly changing accent means he can never quite pin down where he is from.

"It's all internal to England," continues Swift. "It's amazing as England is such a small country physically and yet there are huge physical differences within it, so northerners can feel lost in the south and vice versa.

But the north/west element in the story is only one layer. You've got this man with Caribbean roots in England and a sense of how the West Country and places like Exmoor are almost being colonised by people from London.

And you've also got a sense of England's - or Britain's - colonial past in the voices and language in this extraordinary encounter."

Located between Somerset and Devon, Exmoor's rolling wetlands bring to mind the fens of East Anglia that Swift captured so evocatively in his 1983 novel, Waterland. Still his most celebrated work, it put him on the literary map and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, an accolade that he would later win for 1996's Last Orders.

"I'm thoroughly English and thoroughly indigenous, but as a writer I've always approached my own country as both an insider and an outsider," he says. "I've done that by looking at what's foreign about where I live. With the fens, I have no personal connection to them and they're really like a foreign country within England. They're so peculiar, uncanny and strange geographically that you get this feeling of foreignness in your own country."

A long-time resident of south London, Swift admits he begins to twitch if he ventures much beyond Euston Rd, a short walk from the Bloomsbury offices of his publishers where we meet. But while several of England's 25 stories take place in the capital, a significant number are also set in other parts of the country.

"I haven't done an exact breakdown but certainly you can divide them between the city and the country, and the urban and the rural," he says. "Geographically, you have bits of southern England and certainly some set in the north, even if you don't know exactly where in the north. There's actually a story called Yorkshire, although the characters in it are Londoners. So I think there's a fair mix, although I didn't approach it thinking, 'Well, I must have a good balance of east, west, north and south,' but I hope there is a sort of geographical range."

And though most of the stories occur in the present day, a crucial few delve into the past. "There are some stories you might call historical and the first of them, Haematology, is the most historical as it is set in 1649 at the time of the Civil War," says Swift. "It's the fourth story, so you turn the page and it's like, 'What's all this about?' I must say that while I took a certain pleasure in that sudden jolt the reader will have, I hope it will quickly seem as immediate as any of the other stories. There's also one set during Napoleonic times and another during World War I. But the purpose of those stories is not historical in the way we think about historical fiction. They explore things about human nature, which were true then and are still true now."

And though Swift carefully planned the sequencing of the stories, it is also possible to randomly sample any of the various tales. "Some people who have read it have said that if you read it from page one all the way through, the experience is like reading a novel. So it does come together and there are ways in which one story flows into another with different rhythms and echoes ... but you can also dip in and out as there's no reason why each individual story shouldn't be appreciated by itself."

His first book of short stories since 1982's Learning To Swim, Swift found the brevity of the form a refreshing change after penning nine novels over the past three decades. "They're definitely all quite brief, which was a real joy. One of the delights in writing them is that you know the end is going to come quite soon. If you're writing a novel, it really does require a totally different inner fuel. You have to have a lot more stamina, as it's something you're going to have to stick with for a long time. So I loved entering this little world and being with the characters for just a short visit."

England and Other Stories (Simon & Schuster $37) is out now.

- NZ Herald

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