Book Review: The Pull Of The River

The Pull of The River by Matt Gaw published by Elliott and Thompson: paperback out now

You should read this while crammed onto a commuter train - it is the right kind of transporting. When author Matt Gaw's handy mate crafts a vessel 'the colour of Mae West's lips' an idea of escape and discovery is launched. The two embark on a mission to take time out for adventure, exploring Britain's 'vascular bundle of rivers and tributaries' by canoe.

The watery journey takes place in fits and starts - this book is honest about the demands of day-to-day life. Every moment is treasured: 'Following the meander is one of the most contented experiences of my life. It is deliriously beautiful'. Gaw experiences some lovely one-offs. A flock of lapwings tumbles out of a storm cloud. On a solo journey he falls asleep to the sound of a beaver gnawing a tree. In wild solitude he experiences a sense of being able to hear even the earthworms. This writer has good license to use a simili. A pike is a 'green torpedo packed with a mouthful of needles', a little egret the canoeist's 'dipstick'.

The vivid prose on water, weather, wildlife and location is a refreshing drench. It's also honest about the actuality of what the voyagers find. Waterborne detritus sometimes blocks the way. Gaw paddles through an Apocalypse Now of rubbish:  'He jabs at it again, dislodging it with a swirl of mud... It's a clay pigeon. They form stacks almost a foot deep, toxic orange and milk-white.' ... and shotgun litter: 'plastic cartridge cases lie in transparent drifts, thousands of them'.

The horror...the horror. At a time when the full impact of microplastics on freshwater and seawater eco-systems is only just coming to the surface I wonder if there's hope. Gaw's mention of using supermarket carrier bags to waterproof his kit already reads as a bit of an anachronism.

 There are sublime landscapes in this book, but thing aren't always pretty, even in a place that harks back to the Romantics. The writer is unimpressed by the concrete weir at beauty spot Byron's Pool near Cambridge. There is brutishness too in his hometown, where the River Lark, 'a place that should sing and burble in flight' is given 'concrete wellies rather than buried alive'. It reminds me of the song Wickerman by Pulp, an eight minute ballad about the industrial River Don in Sheffield.

Self-deprecating confessions of ineptitude and physical slapstick describe the writer's endeavours in an unconquered element. There is pants-down practicality, and battle with Scotland's midges. These smother the camping companions, excepting tatooed parts. Gaw doesn't take himself too seriously. Embarking on some scholarly research he admits to sniffing a dead man's Speedos, 'the Turin shroud of wild swimming'.

There are disappointments and dead ends as well as the sublime. The Pull of The River also examines the politics of  right of way: across England and Wales there is undisputed access on only 4% of rivers. Reading it I had sudden recall of the River Granta I played in as a child, barbed wire strung across its width in rude declaration of riparian rights. Descriptions of water's power and unpredictability are an eye-opener to anyone who has only known childish messing about. The pull of the river is deceptively strong; I think of swimming against the tide in the balmy Cam, the icy Vrynwy in Wales, the Dart and the Wye. This book makes me want to jump in again.

Bromance with beavers - or tender meditation on what we owe ourselves and what we owe the planet - The Pull of The River has broad appeal.

 Next on my reading list might be Alys Fowler's Hidden Nature: A Voyage of  Discovery