Luke Turner has no fear, except of the woods. They represent, in his adult flight out of London, the trauma and excitement of his boyhood. Priced out of the East End by rising rents, he moves closer and closer to the strange reliquary state of Epping Forest, a site so filled with otherness and sex that locals refer to it as “Effing Forest”. It is a place built on the dead, and out of dread. Constantly reshaped in human form out of its ancient origins, the forest was nearly entirely felled in the mid-19th century as the city spilled out, bursting its bounds. In six weeks in 1851, nearly 3,000 acres were felled.
What saved it was another overspill: the city needed somewhere to deposit its dead, and the formation of the City of London Cemetery made the future of the forest possible. Turner turns to the 18th-century Italian Enlightenment writer Giambattista Vico for vivid metaphor. Death and rotting regenerate; Vico points out that the humus of the earth allies with the human species, the one feeds the other. That cycle has been broken. “Now the dead are removed from the forests,” says Turner, of scenes of crimes and loss; “bodies are found, a coroner is called, a black zipped-up bag transports the physical form from the bright byre of the woodland.” It is a tangible symbol of our disconnection with nature.
Sex and death loom large in this work of queer nature, a small but distinct sub-genre whose progenitors might include Denton Welch’s neo-romantic subversions of the 1940s, and Derek Jarman’s interrogations of the natural world that he adopted in the 1980s. From cruising Hampstead Heath to observing swimming boys on a Kentish river, these works feed on memory and sensuality and the other.
This nature is implicit in the edgelands, the city’s interzone, where it bleeds into the country. Nothing is quite stable here. Houses are built on bare earth, and so badly that they are only kept up by leaning on each other. The gravitational pull of the city has an alternative, counterfactual force (ever more empathic as London and its rents become unliveable). “The city is our superego,” Turner writes, “rendered in bricks and mortar, concrete and glass. In the forest the id cavorts under the pollards.”
Turner’s extremely forthright writing has an unfiltered bravado. Mixing Epping’s history with his own, and with mysterious encounters with an unnamed “man in the woods” who is living ferally but ingeniously as a kind of destitute Thoreau, only with a cabin built out of plastic bags, Turner excavates a physical memory. It is one which is explicitly sexual, because he identifies as bisexual – another kind of in-between state.
In a manner highly evocative of the paintings of the contemporary artist George Shaw, which feature desultory urban woods strewn with ripped-up pornography, Turner’s freighted landscape is laden with condoms, underwear and soggy copies of Playgirl. His teenage otherness is found in this discard. Attracted to boys as well as girls, he bemoans the lack of queer role models in the early 1990s when he is growing up. He had no David Bowie, he complains; but he discovers Jarman’s films and the swaying decadence of the group Suede, and he tosses off a boy during a chemistry lesson – a literally seminal event in his erotic life.
In the weird disjunctures of the provocative and the quotidian that only suburbia can serve up, Turner also discovers that the art terrorist of industrial music, Genesis P Orridge of Throbbing Gristle (my neighbour when I lived in Hackney), had been to the same school as his father. All the while the Methodist socialism of his parents hovers over him. His father is a minister, who sends Halloween trick or treaters away with a sermon on the true nature of evil; his mother had been brought up as one of the Plymouth Brethren, and delivers lullabies speaking in tongues. Refreshingly, religion is not discarded in this headlong dive into hedonism. This may be the most truly shocking aspect of this book. God is with him, even on Grindr. Having broken up with his girlfriend, Alice, he is sucked into the disconnected network of app-arranged sex, which creates a new utopia of desire – illusorily physical, ultimately alienating.
The cyclical nature of Turner’s writing inevitably involves repetition. He keeps going back to the same issues because they are unresolved. He seeks resolution in the woods, as if their depths might provide a new home, a new identity. I don’t really care about his broken love life, however. What his book rejoices in is its fearlessness to address the way he came to be and what he came to be.
As he gets deeper into the forest, things get darker. Those teenage memories take on the air of abuse. At the time, Turner’s unresolved sexuality appeared to accept grubby assignations with overweight middle-aged men in town centre toilets. Only now, as he disinters his past, does come to realise how unacceptable they were. Understandably, he becomes polemical in the parts of the book that deal with this distressing story and the subtlety of the writing is faintly overbalanced by this necessary honesty. It left me with images I don’t care to remember.
Things fall apart. Genesis P Orridge turns out not to be the prophet Turner took him for. The forest itself seems to rise against him, its briars snatching at his heels as he loses his way. He needs space, but the trees close in. Just as he finds the culture of straight men to be always underlain by “the threat of violence”, he discovers the forest locals setting fire to the areas where queer men gather for sex; they’re “burning out the gays”, he is told.
But finally, the work resolves itself. Turner acclaims its therapeutic effect, in the way that it allows him to reject the binary world. “There is no duality,” he concludes, “it all just is, wood and flesh as co-conspirators against orthodoxies and rules.” In this sensual, problematic memoir, the author falls to the love that has been awaiting him all along: the “sap lust” of a tree feller, as a volunteer clearing out the old wood for the good of the new.
Philip Hoare’s most recent book is “RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR” (Fourth Estate)
Out of the Woods
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 288pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 23 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s running Britain?