Six months into writing a novel set in a Yorkshire fishing village – with a background of Brexit and immigration – I thought it might be a good idea to go up and find out what one actually looks like. The story had come out of an exercise which involves writing as if no one will read it – which means it doesn’t much matter what you write. But at some point, fantasy has to meet reality.
I was lucky enough to pick Staithes in Yorkshire, partly because it is quite idyllic and partly because there are all sorts of interesting things going on. Trouble is, they’re not the interesting things I had imagined. Which leaves me with the problem of marrying the two. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The first evening was beautiful. The tide had gone out and I spent ages wandering amongst the rocks and rock pools. I kept seeing surfers (surfers?!) in ones and twos. As I made my way back, I decided to ask one of them where they were going. I greeted the next one, and he said, ‘Hello, Mr Gapper!’ He turned out to be Adam, an associate trainer at the company I work for. Once we’d got over the shock of the coincidence, I told him what I was doing there, and we agreed to meet up.
He turned out to be incredibly helpful. One of the things I’d got wrong was that the incoming tide goes right up to the cliff edge (I had written a character who slept on the beach each night). He said, oh, you should go along to Port Mulgrave, there’s a little encampment by the sea. And he was right. The next day I followed his instruction to ignore the ‘Path Closed’ sign and made my way down the long descent, through the overgrown plants, down a makeshift stepladder and onto a flat lip of land where there are tin huts and wooden constructions. There, I got talking to the only one of the residents present who told me the whole history.
The first two days had a slightly magical feel. As if, I just had to remain open and things would turn up. The next couple of days were harder. I learned that this was not the thriving fishing village I had imagined. A local book describes only one full-time fisherman, Dave Anders, who has now retired and passed the business on to his son. I spoke to him, and though it turns out there is actually quite an active, small fishing community, the real business of the village is tourism. Me, for example. So, what of my novel?
I booked myself onto a chartered fishing trip. Now, the first thing to be said here is that I have never fished before in my life, and I found myself on a six-hour trip with seven experienced fishermen. Fortunately, the guy running the trip, Sean Baxter, was really helpful and took my ineptitude in his stride. He very quickly taught me how to fish and, when he found out I was writing a story, kept making suggestions. Even when, four hours in, I threw up twice due to motion sickness, he just told me to get everything out and then passed me a couple of tablets.
By then, through the banter on the boat, I had already got a sense of the real tension in the village. A place where, in the 80s, locals were priced out of the housing, and, by the noughties, people with those houses – who now had second homes – were renting out their properties on Air BnB. The thing you notice as you walk through the village are the number of key lockboxes on the outside of the homes. In the meantime, the original locals either hung on, got by, or moved out. Adam introduced me to a younger local who confirmed that this is what is happening. In other words, the same story that is being told up and down the country.
Interesting. But how to adapt it into my story? Well, that’s the next challenge.