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An Interview with Matt Gaw

Today is the publication day of The Pull of the River by Matt Gaw in paperback. Here is the interview that I did with him when it came out in hardback and first appeared on NB Magazine.

Thank you for writing an entertaining book with a refreshing take on the natural world

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!


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

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.


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

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.


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?

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.


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

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.


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

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.


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?

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.

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

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!


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

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.


Do you have a second book in the pipeline yet?

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


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

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.


What book are you currently reading?
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.


Up by Ben & Marina Fogle

3.5 out of 5 stars

As Fogle sat down at the table for a dinner at the Festival of Speed at Goodwood, he noticed that the space next to him was empty. The name said Victoria Gardener, someone he had never heard of. About 30 minutes later the person who was occupying that seat ran in and sat down. Turns out he had heard of her, but she was better known as Victoria Pendleton, the multiple gold medal-winning cyclist. They got chatting and hatched a plan together to head up the highest mountain on Earth. To do this Fogle needed to do two things, the first was to find someone who could help them do it. That was fairly straightforward as he roped in mountaineer Kenton Cool. The second was to persuade his wife, Marina that it was a really good idea…

It took a little persuasion, but she gave him the green light to prepare for the expedition. They would need to train in the Alps and other high mountain ranges before even making an attempt on the mountain and the team headed to La Paz in Bolivia. The plan was to conquer four mountains, with the final one being the 6500m Illimani which is a significant portion of what they would experience on Everest. This would give them the time that they needed to assess their own and the other team members performance at altitude. This was essential as the moment they went above the death zone on Everest all that preparation would be the fine line between succeeding and death.

The driving force behind Fogle in all the training and over the seven-week expedition to the roof of the world were the promises that he had made with Marina as he cradled his stillborn son, Willem. To be positive, to inspire, to embrace each day, to always smile, to live brightly and something that his grandmother had taught him, to always look up. And knowing that his family were waiting at home for him to return, gave him the inner strength that he needed.

Overall it is not a bad travel book, but it is as much about his personal journey and the relationship he has with Marina and their two children. Their stability means he has the chance to take on some amazing adventures, this being one of them. Having part of the book written by Marina is a nice touch too, she writes eloquently about the stresses and strains of having a husband most of the way up a mountain. We get so used to hearing about that author’s adventure, that we forget the normal life they have left behind. Still, an immense effort to stand on the roof of the world and a fitting tribute to his stillborn son.

Me, My Bike and a Street Dog Called Lucy by Ishbel Holmes

3.5 out of 5 stars

Ishbel Holmes has had a rough upbringing. Her father left when she was young, and then her mother abandoned her because she didn’t seem to fit with her life. She was abused in the care system and survived through her tenacity. At the age of 21, she had a stark choice; die, or choose to live.

She chose the latter.

She made the decision to cycle the world even though she didn’t really have the resources or equipment to do it. Since then she has pedalled through 20 countries, cycled mountain passes and across salt plains all on a painfully small budget or sometimes no money at all. A spell cycling on the velodrome with the Iranian Team had some success but didn’t make her happy either. In Turkey though her solo ride around the world came to an end when a stray decided to follow her when she was cycling along. She assumed it was just following for a brief period of time. But it didn’t leave, even after she sprinted away, so in the end, she stopped and it caught her up. She set up camp, cooked food for herself and ate what she could. She saw the dog eating her leftovers and it lay down to sleep as she went to bed. Looking out the following morning, she couldn’t see it initially, but it was still there; perhaps she wasn’t going to be doing this alone after all.

So begins her adventures with this dog that she called, Lucy. She built a box to go on the front of the bike for her. The intention was to take her to an animal shelter where she could be properly cared for, and with the help of people all around the world on social media managed to get her there. However, there was something that didn’t quite add up with the shelter, so he headed back in the following day and took Lucy away. Now there were two of them for her to look after, once again people all around the world stepped in to help her and her new companion.

It is not the best-written book that I have read, but that is not the point of it. It is a heartwarming tale of a broken and abused woman whose four-legged companion opens her heart to a new world of possibilities. Lucy’s devotion to Ishbel heals her and shows her the positive side of humanity and this is what makes it a great book to read.


Green Noise by Jean Sprackland

4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

I have only read one of Jean Sprackland’s books before, her wonderful Strands, about her year of discoveries on a beach in the north west of England. That was non-fiction, but I have never read her poetry until this one.

The first thing to note is that the cover is very striking. At first glance, it looks like an insect, but on careful examination, you can see tiny brass cogs and gears. From that beginning, I knew that this was not going to be a conventional poetry book. This collection resonates with what she calls ‘Green noise’, some of the poems are seeking our place in the natural world, others are glimpses of a time now gone.

Has found instead a television

Flat out in the mud, and rimmed with moss.

He stands and watches a while

As clouds and crows flicker over the screen

It is quite something this book. This is the first of her poetry collections that I have read and this reinforces my original thought that Sprackland has an impressive command of the language which I had learnt from Strands. It draws from the undercurrents that are deep in the landscape and reflects our modern life. It is prose that deserves to be read out loud too.

Three Favourite Poems:



Human Things

The striking image on the front cover is from this artist:

The Innocent Anthropologist by Nigel Barley

4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

There comes a point in every anthropologist’s career when they have to stop looking at the academic papers or staring out the window and actually head out into the wide world. For Nigel Barley, a colleague posed the question, Why not go on fieldwork? He wasn’t sure if it was one of the perks of the job or a necessary evil like national service. Speaking to others in the department he would hear tales filtered through rose-tinted spectacles where the full horror of events in the field are tempered by time and probably alcohol…

But where to go? Africa was mentioned, and the island of Fernando Po seemed appealing, but the political situation there was deteriorating to say the least and getting shot at wasn’t on his list of things to do, so someone else suggested North Cameroon. A tribe there called the Dowayo, ticked lots of the boxes, strange coming of age rituals, pagan rituals, skull festivals and mummies. He began the task of doing more research and securing research funding. Barley needed to be stabbed by various medical professionals and two years after he started, he was on a plane to Africa.

On arrival in Cameroon, he had underestimated just how difficult it would be to get from the airport to the village. Forms were needed, lots of forms as well as being ‘aided’ by the officials who were more interested in reading the paper while the recent arrival slowly lost a large proportion of his wallet. Finally allowed entry to the country, he set about getting the provisions, an assistant and other items that he needed and headed off to the village. What he hoped would be a subtle entrance though, wasn’t when the whole village turned out to greet him.

There were lots of things that struck him immediately. Having been used to a more leisurely time of starting work in the UK, finding that the village was up and moving around 5.30 in the morning was a bit of a shock. And there was the language; he could not speak a word to begin with and as it was a tonal language he was going to struggle to do so too. But every so slowly he manages to master some of the words and amazed them by writing them down. The village slowly accepted him, almost to the point where he became an honorary resident. He started to understand more about the people and their way of doing things. Their rituals were quite unusual and one particular ceremony that made me wince quite a lot just reading it.

It is a really enjoyable book about a people that took Barley to heart as much as he did with them. He writes with a sharp wit and genuine warmth. One of the things that he speculates about is how the very act of observing the people you are there to study have an impact on the way they behave and hoehowe anthropologist can never be a passive observer. There are funny moments throughout the book, in particular, the accounts with the officials that he is dealing with and the exasperation at the speed of events in the constant battles against bureaucracy. Can highly recommend this.

A Plague of Caterpillars by Nigel Barley

4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Having failed to see the circumcision ceremony which marks the men of the Dowayo tribe transition from child to adulthood when he was there previously, Barley hears that it is due shortly to take place. Hot-footing it out to Cameroon again, he heads back to the village to see if he can witness this first hand. Re-installed in his square hut, that has been carefully ‘guarded’ by Zuuldibo, he picks up life there once again. It was almost like he had never been away, the friendly familiar faces popped by hoping for him to be a generous as he was the first time he visited…

However, details on the wince-inducing process of circumcision, like where it was going to take place and when, are very elusive so whilst waiting for the nod that it was on, he finds other things to do to fill the time. One on the list to do was a visit to the neighbouring Ninga tribe. It was said that the men did not have any nipples, but he felt that he needed to see this for himself and to endeavour to elicit some of the reasons behind this practice. However, his assistant, Matthieu continued to advise against travelling to this other village, but he persisted and finally got to meet the chief. He understood Barley’s desire to learn the customs of the village, but payment would be required; perhaps a large sum of francs for a goat?

This mini-adventure along with taking a primate to the cinema, the possibilities of solar power, a novel repair to his teeth, seeing the response of the village when the UN showed a short film about the perils of malaria and the influx of insects that gave the book its title. It has the same sharp wit of the previous book where we were first introduced to the Dowayo, but with a few more funny anecdotes and is a Thoroughly enjoyable sequel to his first book Like with all societies, what seems barbarous and cruel to us, is a way of life to another people. In the same way, a lot of our routines and habits are equally strange and mysterious to them and the humour that lies in the cracks and fissures of misunderstanding.

Not a Hazardous Sport by Nigel Barley

4.5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

According to Nigel Barley’s insurance company, anthropology was not considered ‘a hazardous sport’. This was reassuring to know as the small print had been as unhelpful as ever. Whilst he now knew it wasn’t a sport that didn’t seem to make it any less hazardous given the number of drugs he had spread out in front of him.  However, he now had it in black and white before setting off to Indonesia. He was heading to the island of Sulawesi to live amongst the Torajan people for the next few months and actually following the advice that he gave to students, that you should partake in fieldwork in places where the inhabitants are beautiful, friendly, where you would like the food.

Landing at Jakarta airport he headed to the queue for those with no visa, having been assured by the embassy in London that he would not need one. The official behind the desk frowned, then grinned and he was waved through. Tired he heads to the hotel and settles down to sleep, but at 4.30 in the morning his peace is shattered by the call of the muezzin, as five mosques in the vicinity called the faithful to prayer. To reach where he was staying though would involve further travels by boat, but he finally arrives on the island where the Torajan live.

Trying to understand the people he was with and what made them do certain things in a particular way and their own rituals lead to a series of amusing stories of his time on the island, the funniest of which was the antics when he was on a horse! In a nice touch and a touch of reverse anthropology, Barley invites four of the Torajan carvers to London to build a traditional rice barn at the Museum of Mankind. As you can imagine, the questions that they had about our society were as numerous as the questions that he had about theirs.

Of the three of his that I have now read, I thought this was my favourite. Written with the same wit and self-deprecating humour as the others, you can see how his writing has strengthened over the three books too. This, along with The Innocent Anthropologist and A Plague of Caterpillars are a little more in depth than the regular travel books, but that doesn’t make them any less fascinating way of learning about another culture and people.


An Interview with Nigel Barley

Nigel Barley was born in Kingston-on-Thames in 1947 and studied Modern Languages at Cambridge before completing a doctorate in Social Anthropology at Oxford. He taught at University College London and the Slade School of Art before joining The Department of Ethnography at the British Museum in 1988 where he remained for some twenty years. After several academic works, he wrote The Innocent Anthropologist in 1983. It contradicted so many cherished assumptions that it led to calls for his expulsion from the professional body of anthropologists. He remained, however, and now the book has been translated into some twenty-five languages and is often the first work embraced by students of anthropology in their studies. He left the Museum in 2002 and is now a professional writer, living in London and Indonesia. His most recent work is Island of Demons, a fictionalised treatment of the life of the painter Walter Spies.

Eland have just re-published two more of his books, A Plague of Caterpillarss and Not a Hazardous Sport to go with The Innocent Anthropologist that they republished back in 2011

1 Have you been back out to Cameroon since the books were written?

I went back some years later when there was a prospect of making a film about the Dowayos. The film never came to anything but there had been enormous changes.


2 Does the Dowayo society still exist, or has it been subsumed into wider Cameroon society?

There was a refugee problem, MSF were running a big operation and warring factions from Chad had all been lumped together in one place and were killing each other. With Boko Haram now operating further north and anglophone fighters further south, I imagine those changes have continued. For anthropologists, the world is actually a much more dangerous place than it was when I was young. There are more guns and more political resentments about.


3 You mentioned in the first book that you had to post the films back to the UK. Did you loose any when you did this?

Extraordinarily, I never lost a single film – though many arrived without stamps – these having been reacquired by postal officials along the way. Since then, I have lost many myself, having left them in university slide projectors or publishers’ offices.


4  Did you ever get to witness the ceremony that you went back out to Cameroon for?

I never did get to see the actual circumcision though I saw it mimed as part of other ceremonies.


5 Was the African bureaucracy one of the worst that you encountered?

Cameroonian bureaucracy was absolutely the worst as it was conducted with extreme bad humour. In Indonesia, I once spent three weeks getting an official letter from a ministry, confirming that I didn’t need a letter from that ministry but even the civil servants thought that was funny and we laughed about it.


6 Were there any stories that you had that didn’t make it into the book?

When I went back the last time, our luggage was impounded at the airport. We finally discovered that this was because our reason for visit was described as ‘making an ethnographic film’. The officer in charge read it as ‘making a pornographic film’.


7 Have you ever been on a horse since Indonesia?

Never! And never will again. I have been on an elephant. Much better!


8 Did you ever bring other people back to the UK to experience some of our life here, or were the Torajan the only tribe?

The Torajans were the only ones I actually brought back but, naturally, I have met lots of people from distant parts who happened to be in London. I once found a family of Indonesians from one of the more remote islands lost on the Circle Line and brought them home and they stayed for two weeks.


9 Are you still in contact with any people from the villages that you visited in the three books?

Not with anyone from Africa but I am still in contact with Torajans. I added a postscript to ‘Not a Hazardous Sport’ about that.


10 In the modern interconnected world, do you think that anthropology still has things to discover?

Anthropology is no longer about finding people who are still ‘uncontacted’ but of finding better ways of understanding what it means to be human. I’ve always been obsessed with the question of why anthropologists work on people they know nothing about as professional strangers rather than acting as their own ethnographic informants on the places they grew up in and know perfectly. One of the ways I tried to deal with that is in a book called, ‘Coronation Chicken’ trying to see my own childhood (50’s and 60’s Southern England) as a foreign country.


11 Do you think that anthropology will look at the tribes that now exist in the subcultures of cities?

It’s already doing that.


12 Are there any societies that you wished you had been able to visit in an anthropological capacity?

The real challenge would be ET. That would put all our assumptions, won over millennia of exploration, back in the melting pot.


13 If you have an opportunity to travel without doing fieldwork, where do you like to go to?

I always travelled seeking to find the place where I felt I truly belonged. For me, I discovered it in Indonesia. I love it and feel very much at home there. It’s beautiful, the food is great and the people are the nicest in the world.


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

Nowadays, I’m more a novelist than an anthropologist or a travel writer, so I like to travel in the imagination. For anthropology, it was Claude Levi-Strauss that brought me to the subject though I ended up approaching it from a very different angle than he did. I still feel we have much to learn from his vision of the world and I wrote a piece about that for his hundredth birthday. It appeared under the heading, ‘Levi-Strauss Lives’. Unfortunately, he had died the day before. The best novelistic travel writer is Anthony Burgess who spent years in Malaya and Brunei but with a very novelistic eye. His ‘Malayan Trilogy’ and ‘Earthly Powers’ confront the difficulties of intercultural understanding as well as any anthropology ever did.


15 If you were to recommend three books, what would they be?

‘Earthly Powers’ by Burgess, Totemism’ by Levi-Strauss and ‘Primordial Characters’ by Rodney Needham.


16 What book(s) are you currently reading?

I’ve just finished ‘Pagan Light’ by Jamie James about the place of Capri in the Western imagination and some of the extraordinary characters that it attracted.


17 Do you have a favourite place to write?

At home in London. I’ve always been baffled by authors who go off to the Outer Hebrides or Tierra del Fuego to write. I’ve tried that. You spend two-thirds of the day keeping yourself fed and watered and, after writing two sides, you find you simply cannot write another word until you go and look something up at the British Library or go to one to of the major museums to see something crucial in the flesh. An exotic location is just a distraction. At home, you have everything you need already about you and you just have to have the courage to face the tyranny of the blank page without alibis.


18 Do you have another book in the pipeline?

I’ve just finished a book called’ The Ethnographic Seraglio’ about a 19th century English trader in the Indian Ocean who tried to establish himself in his own kingdom on a desert island with his 14 exotic ‘wives’. It ended badly, but I don’t need to tell you that.


Thank you to Nigel Barley for taking time to answer my questions and to Steph at Eland for arranging it all.


Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch

4 out of 5 stars

The Faceless Man has been unmasked. Wanted for a list of crimes that seems to get longer and longer, the Metropolitan Police have finally got him on the run. Detective Constable Peter Grant and his partner DC Sahra Guleed are uncovering clues that show that Martin Chorley is far from finished.

Tracing him though is proving difficult, so they are chipping away at his contacts and associates. They visit a guy called Richard Williams to ask some questions. Before they can question him to much, Chorley ensures that Williams will remain silent.  What they find doesn’t really answer anything, rather it poses yet more questions. As they follow things up, Grant realises that he has discovered something that has been years in the making, something magical and dark that has its roots 2000 years ago from the pagan past and is something that could bring chaos to the capital city.

When the bell sings, who knows what will survive after.

This is another cracker of a book from Aaronovitch with all the regular characters as you’d expect. I thought that the plot was really strong, full of subtle moments and comic touches along with the threads going all the way back through to the first books. It finished in a fast-paced and dramatic way. Again I would like a little more of Nightingale as I think he is such a strong character with a lot to offer. Liked the threads that are solved in this book, and those link onto the next ones that he is still writing.

The World for Woman is Wilderness by Abi Andrews

3 out of 5 stars

Erin has been watching the likes of Bear Grylls having some wonderful adventures in some rugged and beautiful parts of the world for a few years now. Even though she is 19, she has hardly left the shores of England, but the call of the wild is too much to resist and why should all the men have the fun in the wild.

Her journey will take her from the comfortable life that she has known. Deciding not to fly and instead travel by sea and land, she heads off to Iceland, before heading across wild seas where she will see whales for the first time, across Greenland and then the vast continent of America before finding a cabin in the wilds of Denali, Alaska. Along the way she contemplates subjects as different as physics and mutually assured destruction as well as meeting some wonderful and the occasional slightly creepy person.

The isolation she has whilst living in her cabin means that she sometimes not sure what is real and what is her imagination, but she manages to survive and feed herself. The natural world flows all around her every day and occasionally spooks her, such as when she sees a bear’s footprint near her cabin. It gives her time to contemplate the mostly male and occasional female writers who have sought the same isolation.

There are a lot of things that I liked about this debut; Erin has a strong voice and sense of purpose and is a teen who questions the male hierarchy and vested interests. It was refreshing to have this type of adventure told from the perspective of a modern day earth mother. I didn’t think that the plot was that strong, but then this is a very focused journey to a particular place. Erin’s character does come across as naïve and quite vulnerable given the place where she is staying. Another thing that I thought was really good was Andrews descriptions of the land and seascapes that Erin crosses on her journey to the cabin. They are quite something else, especially when you consider she wrote them after countless hours of watching videos and youtube videos of the places in the book. Looking forward to reading more of her work in the future.

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