I lost a good friend yesterday. Matthew Power was on assignment for Men’s Journal in Uganda accompanying Levison Wood as he attempted to walk the length of the Nile. Matt fell victim to heat exhaustion, which is almost impossible to treat in the field. While I’m happy he died exploring, doing what he loved most, I’ve never felt loss so deeply and want to share my memories of Matt for friends and family.
In 2008, Matt published an article in Harper’s Magazine called ‘Mississippi Drift’ about his adventures with a group of teenage vagabonds as they built a raft and attempted to navigate it down the river. I remember reading the piece in 2008 and being struck not just Matt’s exacting and evocative style but by the brutal honesty with which he relayed the experience, threaded throughout with an unmistakable empathy for the kids on the boat that was, on one level, thoroughly unprofessional and on another totally refreshing. The article made me fall in love with the idea of one day writing tales with similar gravitas. But more than that, the article gave me hope because there was someone out there in the world who was living the life I had always dreamed of, adventuring and sharing tales that inspired.
I started my PhD, a deep ethnography with urban explorers in London, soon after and pinned ‘Mississippi Drift’ to the wall above my computer as inspiration. In moments of writer’s block or literary cowardice, I’d read a few paragraphs and it would put me back on track. In 2012, after four years of adventure and writing, PhD in hand, I got a call on my mobile from New York. I picked up the phone and the voice on the other end said, “Hey this is Matthew Power, I’m a journalist in the US and I want to talk to you about doing a story on your work”. I cautiously asked, “Are you by chance Matthew Power that wrote ‘Mississippi Drift’?” He laughed and bellowed, “Wow cool, you know my writing!” Weeks later, he had a commission from GQ Magazine to write the story and we started planning the trip of a lifetime.
I was supposed to meet Matt at Heathrow Airport on the 17th August 2012 – he was flying from New York and I was flying from Cambodia, landing times synced. But I never showed. My plane was halted on the tarmac and I was arrested by British Transport Police, who had read my PhD thesis and wanted access to my research materials. Matt waited three hours for me before deciding he had been burned and took a cab to my flat, furious and frustrated. When he arrived, he took this photo of my door which had been smashed down by a police battering ram while I was in a holding cell.
When I was let out on bail at 9pm that night, I found Matt drinking whiskey he had bought for me at duty free on a rooftop with my friends Marc Explo and Luca Carenzo. As I climbed up the ladder to the roof, mumbling apologies for not showing up, he wrapped his arms around me and said, “Dude, stop apologising this is the best start to a story I’ve ever had!” We went back to my house a few hours later, where, amongst the splinters of my front door, buried in a 2-month build-up of takeaway menus stuffed through the mail slot, was a job contract from the University of Oxford. Matt snapped photos furiously with his phone and said, “Seriously man, I can go home right now and write a killer piece, I’m done.”
That night we met Christian Lorentzen from the London Review of Books at the Falcon Pub in Clapham. It was balmy and we sat outside with sweating pints. While Matt was squeezing us for more details, his phone recording audio on the table, we were approached by a gaggle of girls who asked if we were the urban explorers that had climbed The Shard. When I said yes, they proceeded to sit at our table in turns taking photos with us. When they left, Matt and Christian were incredulous. All this happened in the first five hours of meeting Matthew and as I soon realised, we had set the tone for what was to be a pretty intense few weeks of exploration and adventure, filled with bizarre coincidences and strange encounters.
The first thing we wanted to attempt was to cross London from South to North through the sewers. We popped a lid in Dulwich and sent Matt down. He absolutely hated the sewers and complained pretty steadily for four hours or so, at which point we realised we were totally lost. We ended up in a particularly heinous dead end in the River Effra where an angular ceiling came into contact with a slopping mass of grey sludge. Rain runoff and rising water levels pushed air bubbles from this stinking goo, which were popped by the pressure against the grade. The ruptured bubbles echoed through the chamber, followed by a foul-smelling waft. Matt dubbed the place The Bog of Eternal Stench and begged to leave. Marc Explo pulled me aside and whispered, “Brad this is awesome, we’re going to break the great adventurer Matthew Power on our expedition”. We could ask for nothing more. When we finally popped open the sewer lid and climbed back into fresh air, Matt pulled out his phone to locate us and realised that we had miraculously exited the sewers, after four hours of walking, mostly lost, five minutes from my flat. He laughed and said, “I’m starting to think the world bends around you guys, I’m so glad I’m here!”
Matt slept on my floor for weeks through blistering late summer days with herds of binge-drinkers passing by the front window waking us constantly. We secured the smashed front door with a chair while we slept. Every night we trespassed, dreary-eyed and exhausted. We snuck into construction sites and cranes, explored more sewers (he thoroughly enjoyed it the second time) and crept into Battersea Power Station, Matt’s favourite part of the London leg. When the crew took off to Paris to carry on the adventure, I saw them to Dover waved goodbye since the UKBA had taken my passport and I was unable to leave Blighty. In Paris the adventures continued: Matt ran Metro, slept in a laid-up train, partied in the Catacombs and climbed Notre Dam. He was up for every adventure; he had an insatiable appetite for it.
Back in NYC, Matt wrote a beautiful piece in GQ about our work. I think it’s the best thing that’s ever been written about the practice. But of course I’d expect no less from Matthew Power – the man was a legend. The first time I read it, I bawled my eyes out. I felt like everything I had ever wanted in life was encapsulated on those glossy pages – it brought everything full circle.
Matt, out of sheer generosity, became a mentor to me over the next two years, reading my writing and encouraging me to publish in places I had only dreamed of years before. He reviewed my first book before it went to press and called me constantly with concern over the abuse of my rights in the United Kingdom (I still have no passport). He always told me that when I got my passport back, the first thing I was to do was fly to New York and show up on his doorstep in Brooklyn, unannounced, so that we could write the next chapter of the story. That’s never going to happen now and I can’t quite comprehend that.
Matt had a life anyone would envy. He travelled around the world, writing about all sorts of stuff he found interesting, from an explorer hiking the Amazon to the murder of a turtle conservationist in Costa Rica to a tryst he had with Allen Ginsberg to the shadow economics of Pilipino garbage dumps to water pollution in India to the Taliban’s detonation of stone Buddhas to the politics of post-Katrina New Orleans. And with all of these stories, Matt brought that same level of exaction and empathy that so enraptured me when I first read ‘Mississippi Drift’ half a decade ago. In hindsight, when I consider Matt’s comment about how he thought the world bent around our desires while we were exploring, I think it was actually his presence causing the bizarre cosmic collisions that made our time together so memorable. Amazing stories seemed to, uncannily, find Matt wherever he landed. We were lucky to be one of them.
There was no doubt that Matt became an urban explorer whilst writing the piece – he became a part of our community. He carried on exploring in NYC with Moses Gates, Victor Lacroix and Eric Ruggiero and explorers from the UK constantly showed up on his door stinking, asking to sleep on his couch, which must have driven his wife Jessica bonkers. They never turned anyone away though. I’m now realising, looking at Matt’s Facebook page where hundreds of people are posting similar stories, that he had deep relationships like this with many of the people he worked with and met over the years. I can’t imagine how he juggled it all. But I never heard him once complain because he clearly spent every single day doing what he loved. That’s why I respected the man so much.
I’ve lost a great friend and mentor. There was a distinct planetary pang when Matt passed away. He had a combination of generosity, curiosity, compassion and drive that is incredibly rare. The world needed Matt, I needed Matt, and I miss him deeply. The only way I know how to deal with it is to pour a large whiskey and write through it. I like to think that’s probably what Matt would have done too.