3 March 2020
David Gange is a published historian and travel writer.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your most recent publication…
A: My most recent book is The Frayed Atlantic Edge. It’s about people, animals, seascapes and weather on the coasts of Britain and Ireland and was formed around a long Atlantic kayak journey done over a year. I tried to treat my kayak as a research tool, believing that I couldn’t write a book like this without long immersion in Atlantic culture and nature; and the journey became the narrative thread to hold lots of different histories and geographies together.
One idea behind the route was to defamiliarize British and Irish geographies. The first seven months were all in Scotland, while only the very last touched on England; I travelled for five months before reaching the second town of more than 600 people; and a very large proportion of the journey was through regions where the English language doesn’t predominate, but languages such as Shaetlan, Gaelic, Scots, Irish and Welsh grow on scales unimaginable half a century ago.
These coastal regions also have very different histories from the rest of the island group. Few of the usual assumptions about what Britain is – about how narrative can be used to write modern history – work from the perspective of these coasts. The main aim of the book was to see from coastal perspectives, and to try and entwine the tale of dramatic Atlantic kayaking with a view of Britain from low in Atlantic waves.
Q: Do you think people should visit the places you write about, or is it important to preserve their isolation?
A: I’m cautious about terms like ‘isolated’ or ‘remote’. These regions have always been part of different geographies than London or Birmingham, but they’ve been richly interconnected with other regions. The sea is connective as much as it’s a barrier (except maybe in weather like the last few weeks). And I’d certainly never suggest someone shouldn’t visit Atlantic coastlines: after spending so much time there myself, that really would make me an awful person. But I think there are ways we can all become better visitors.
The future of coastal communities depends in part on us blow ins. Even the languages won’t survive without learners from outside. These are places with cultures that have, for centuries, developed differently from (and often in opposition to) English-language, growth-based, urban society. As each year brings new awareness of how damaging modern urban economies are, it becomes more obvious that there’s lots to be learnt from the ecologically-aware cultures embedded in Shaetlan, Gaelic, Scots, Irish and Welsh languages. So a traveller might start by downloading Scottish Gaelic duolingo and reading a book or two like Jim Hunter’s On the Other Side of Sorrow, or just explore the ways in which these are places with literature to rival Shakespeare, each mile etched with rich intellectual histories, and not just an empty playground for sightseeing and hiking (or kayaking).
Q: Do you like to make notes as you travel, or do you prefer to write when you return home?
A: I have little yellow waterproof notebooks that I carry with me as a I travel. I spend lots of time typing these up in coastal coffee shops. This serves a dual purpose, because the number of interesting meetings that happen in carefully chosen cafes is often remarkable. There’s no way I’d be able to work without writing as I go – I’d lose much of the specificity of individual places if I left time for memories to fade or get mixed up. I also carry lots of books in waterproof bags – a little kayak library – and being able to both read and write with books on the deck of a slowly undulating boat, often in the places the reading is about, really helps bring thoughts together.
Q: Tell us about your writing schedule when working on your book.
A: I’m one of those people, I’m afraid, who finds that writing the last tenth of a book takes the same amount of time as writing the first nine tenths. When I’m at the beginning of a project I’m usually ridiculously obsessive and focused, so (fortunately) get way ahead of schedule, but will then lose that advantage as I reach the closing stages and realise that finding a way to turn the imperfect thing in front of you into something like what you once imagined it could be is far harder than it reaching a wordcount had been.
I’m not a planner. In fact I’d argue (tongue only slightly in cheek) that extreme disorganisation is my key skill. While doing a project I sleep outdoors, which means I don’t have to book hotels that would tie me to specific places. I’m able to go wherever there are interesting people to talk to, or to take up interesting opportunities, even if timescales end up entirely different from what I expected. And when it comes to writing I don’t try to guess how long anything will take.
My day-to-day writing habits are to put lots of words down over the course of long mornings, with quite ridiculous amounts of black coffee and cake, then to take the afternoon off (or out in a kayak). But I usually come back to the morning’s work in the evening, maybe with a glass of wine, to tear it down to size. I often delete at least three quarters of the morning’s work. But I also pay much more attention at this stage to how the writing sounds than to its content. I’m a strong believer in the idea that almost no-one writes well, and that those who seem to write well are those who edit for longer than others.
Q: Your book covers the wild coasts of the UK, where do you plan to travel next?
A: My next project is called Afloat and is about small boats at sea. It starts in Ireland in May, writing about the South Connemara Báid Iomartha (rowed versions of Galway Hooker sail boats), then off to Fair Isle and Faroe, before Greenland, Newfoundland, Maine the Carolinas and the Caribbean: a North Atlantic arc from one end of the gulf stream to the other, which incorporates regions with wildly different, gloriously sophisticated, rowed and paddled boats. I’ll be taking journeys in wooden or canvas craft, and using their traditions as points of access to cultural histories. The idea is that seeing the world from small boats gives access to very different viewpoints than perspectives from big ships or land travel.
It seems, with this and The Frayed Atlantic Edge, that I’m only interested in writing the kind of books that leave me waking up in cold sweats convinced I don’t have the skills or time to make them happen…
Q: Which book or author has most inspired you and why?
A: This is such a tricky question, and the answer would be different every day. It’s tempting to choose classic non-fiction prose like Rachel Carson or Tim Robinson, or a novel like John MacGahern’s Amongst Women. But poetry is more important to me than prose (if I’m not writing poetry twenty years from now I’ll be extremely annoyed with myself). Predictably enough, lots of the poets I love have spent extended time on coasts and islands: Christine Evans, Norman MacCaig, Seamus Heaney, Vahni Capildeo. I find poets’ freedom to give entirely new meanings to places by leaping across centuries, in ways historical narrative isn’t at all good at, really inspiring. I love the outrageous (but perfect) metaphors used by someone like Jen Hadfield or Isabel Galleymore for the ways they make those kinds of leaps, both across time and between species. But the one book I’m going to choose is Roseanne Watt’s Moder Dy – a wander through Shetland land, sea, custom and speech that brings a place to life like nothing else I know. It’s also a book I’ve read since writing The Frayed Atlantic Edge, so the inspiration it offers is all for future work.
Q: What are you reading at the moment?
A: At the moment, I’m trying to understand an amazing little collection of Irish boat building books: Na Saora Bád (Shipwrights). They three volumes are An Húicéir Gaillimhe (The Galway Hooker), An Churach Adhmaid (The Wooden Currach) and An Churach Canbháis (The Canvas Currach) and they’re extremely beautiful little guides, with fold out diagrams to visualise the boats at each stage of their building. And I’m reading books about Canadian First Nations, such as Peter Cole’s extraordinary Coyote Raven Go Canoeing. I’ve also just read Moya Cannon’s beautiful new Donegal Tarantella. She’s another of my favourite poets and this collection, much of which is inspired by Donegal coasts and sealife, is full of extremely memorable lines and images.
Interview conducted by Diane Langford.