Author meets Reviewer: Matt Gaw meets Paul Cheney

Article published on May 8, 2018.

Matt Gaw’s The Pull of the River follows two friends as they set out in a homemade canoe to traverse the waterways of the UK in search of the adventure that they believe is waiting for them on their very doorstep. Illustrating just how many exceptional places go noticed or perhaps unloved, it is “a beautifully written exploration of nature, place and friendship, and an ode to the great art – and joy – of adventure.”

Reading about Gaw’s travels inspired Paul Cheney to come up with some questions about The Pull of the River, the joys of canoeing and other waterways that are still waiting to be explored:

Paul Cheney: Thank you for writing such an entertaining book with a refreshing take on the natural world.

Matt Gaw: Thank you for your support and kind words Paul, it was strange sending the book out into the world – like sending a child to school and hoping it doesn’t get bullied!

PC: Of all the rivers you paddled and talked about in the book, which was your favourite?

MG: It’s really hard to say, I know it sounds a bit of a cop-out answer, but all of the rivers were special in their own way. Each has its own character, its own history. There were definitely highlights though. When we paddled the Wye, it was glorious weather and it really is a beautiful piece of water – running through gorges and wooded valleys.

But I also have a special place in my heart for the Lark, my local river. We canoed it in December and January, sleeping in hammocks as the temperature dropped to -7 and sections of the river were really neglected – straightened, hemmed in with concrete and full of litter. But seeing it flow through my home town it is a reminder of how adventure can be closer than you think. I guess it sums up for me how rivers can be secret windows into a different world.

PC: Have you got any other rivers in mind to paddle this summer?

MG: Yes, I’ll be heading down to the Dart at some point and I also want to go north to find some wild water. I’ll also be paddling some of the rivers that are closer to home. There are still some in Suffolk I haven’t been on and it’s always fascinating to re-explore places you thought you knew.

PC: Making your own canoe as James did, is not going to be for everyone; are there ways that people can try out canoeing relatively inexpensively?

MG: Yes definitely! There are lots of clubs up and down the country where you can learn or rent canoes or kayaks (whatever floats your boat). And if you don’t want to join a club, there are many stretches of river where you can hire for a few hours or even a week – they’ll supply everything you need.

PC: And what sort of equipment would you recommend for those who were wishing to make the investment to start off with?

MG: We were definitely unprepared when we started out. We borrowed life vests and paddles and stowed all our stuff in carrier bags. We eventually upgraded our kit (after learning the hard way) but it doesn’t have to be expensive. In terms of essentials, life vests are a must and I’d recommend good dry bags and a swim case for your phone. If you want to hit the water in the winter I would also invest in a drysuit: it’s the most expensive piece of equipment we bought but well worth it.

PC: If you could canoe some of the rivers in Europe, what rivers would be top of you list?

MG: I would love to paddle the Danube. Not only is it somewhere that John MacGregor (who pretty much founded modern canoeing) explored in the Rob Roy, but it is such a varied landscape. I’ve got my eye on some North American rivers too, places that are boundaries and frontiers I just find so interesting.

PC: I think that you are one of the first new clutch of authors from Melissa Harrison’s excellent seasonal anthologies to have a book come out from there; who else would you like to see have an opportunity to write a book next?

MG: It’s hard to choose as there were so many wonderful writers in those anthologies. I am so grateful to Melissa and Elliott & Thompson for including me with them. I would definitely love to see more work from Nicola Chester and Kate Blincoe – two writers who have inspired and supported me.

PC: Do you have somewhere particular to write, or are you an author who can write anywhere?

MG: I can, or try to, write anywhere. I guess I’m nervous about putting writing on a pedestal. I am currently trying to sort out a better space at home but I do worry that if I only write in one place I’ll find it easier to avoid it!

PC: If you were to recommend three natural history books, what would they be?

MG: For me, A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold was formative, and I go back to it now. That line, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds” still resonates.

Notes from Walnut Tree Farm is probably my favourite book of Roger Deakin’s and again, something I often return to. It really evokes a wild life.

And, I’m not sure if I could call it a straight natural history book, but I often find myself thinking of Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. That sense of flight from the world, a keenness for adventure and experience is inspiring, even if does turn into a tragedy.

PC: Do you have second book in the pipeline yet?

MG: Yes, I’m really excited about it. It’s a project I’m working on with Elliott & Thompson and due out in autumn 2019.

PC: Which author(s) do you turn to for inspiration?

MG: There are many, both non fiction and fiction. Paul Evans (Field Notes from the Edge), Amy Liptrot (The Outrun), Roger Deakin. But also Annie Proulx, Graham Swift, Andrew Michael Hurley and Daisy Johnson.

PC: What book are you currently reading?

MG: I’m reading a couple. Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello, which is a wonderful collection of essays about different animals that have been named and immortalised by humans. I’m also devouring Daisy Johnson’s new novel, Everything Under, which comes out this summer. I love the sense of river damp it evokes. Takes me right back to the canoe.

Our thanks to Matt and Paul for this excellent Q&A.

The Pull of the River: Tales of Escape and Adventure on Britain’s Waterways by Matt Gaw
Elliot & Thompson 9781783963348 hbk Apr 2018

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