Marcel Krueger confesses his cowardice over finding himself lost on a woodland trail.
Will Ashon, Strange Labyrinth: Outlaws, Poets, Mystics, Murderers and a Coward in London’s Great Forest, (Granta, 2017), 416pp.
I sometimes get lost in the forest. The last time it happened was when I walked across Ravensdale Forest on the shoulder of the Black Mountain in the Republic of Ireland, trying to follow the Slieve Gullion Way to Newry in the north. I was roughly aware of the direction I needed to go, but every smaller woodland trail I tried to follow always circled back to the main trail, leaving me unnerved and sweaty after an hour in which I barely covered one kilometre of a planned 15 kilometer hike. There were dark spots in the forest I walked through, pine plantations grown so dense that there was hardly any sunlight illuminating the thick carpet of dead needles on the ground left and right of the trail. Even though I was just a few hundred meters from families and dog walkers on the main trail, laughing and shouting, I felt unnerved and isolated, almost cowardly.
Cowardice, or to be more precise his own cowardice, is one of the main topics of Will Ashon’s first work of nonfiction, wherein he gets equally lost in a forest of his choosing: Epping Forest. An ancient woodland straddling the border between Greater London and Essex, this is a former royal forest, today managed by the City of London Corporation mainly as a recreational area. As Ashon describes, the forest was “saved for the nation” by the Corporation in 1878, “in effect making it the UK’s first national park”, but today mainly attracts dog walkers, joggers, and cruisers. Overall it seems like a tame, suburban place, nothing to be afraid of.
Will Ashon has published two novels, and his main job was operating the music label Big Dada, which he quit a few years ago. As he states: “I was trundling along, deep into my 40s, when I found myself plunged into that dark forest.” So he goes out to find meaning and maybe a way out of his crisis in the forest. Instead, he finds tree carvings, murder scenes and other artists that went to the forest in search of something, or to get away.
Ashon structures his chapter around these other contemporary forest dwellers: there’s sculptor Jacob Epstein, wandering the woods looking for medieval topiary while trying to escape his dominating wife, the 17th-century poet Mary Wroth from whom Ashon borrows his title, actor and writer Ken Campbell, and Wally Hope, who founded the Stonehenge Free festival. Many pages are dedicated to interviews with punk legend Penny Rimbaud, drummer in the band Crass, who has for decades lived in the forest in a farmer’s cottage named Dial House – “a Charleston for the punk generation” as Ashon puts it.
Robert McFarlane, that “dashing cavalry commander of the new nature writing movement” makes an appearance, as does the grey eminence of all British psychogeographers, Ian Sinclair. Ashon’s explorations of the artists are interspersed with a history of the forest, and his own timid meanderings.
I have to confess that I am slightly underwhelmed by the book. Judging from the fantastic cover designed by Joe McLaren (and I know one is not supposed to do so), I was expecting to find more darkness in here, or even a journey. Instead, Ashon tells the stories of Epping Forest in bursts and episodes, anchored in visits over time where he discovers and researches different parts of the woodland. There is a bit too much fragmentation going on, and that does not fit the book well. It even feels, in parts, formalised, following the by-now psychogeographic standard of exploring a piece of edgeland or cityscape by example of past outcasts and artists. And while this works pretty well in books like Rob Cowen’s Common Ground and Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, Ashon’s writing at times seem too formulated, too eager too please all those deep topographers whilst maintaining the cool swagger of someone in the know. And yes, Dick Turpin also makes an appearance.
Strange Labyrinth is not, as the title suggest, a book about getting lost in the forest – Ashon always knows precisely where he is, yet he is still frightened by the place.
But like him I’m a coward, so I could relate to his preference of exploring the place on the page instead of dashing barefoot through nettles. Like Ashon, failing to sleep in a tree, I was once scared out of the forest I had planned to sleep in by wild boar. His playing safe in here is well executed, the prose immaculate and engaging. So don’t expect detailed descriptions of the animals inhabiting the forest, but more of the canvas a suburban edgeland can become for those willing to get lost here, even temporally. If you’re not afraid to accept a coward as a guide, there are worse ways to explore the forest and its outcasts than this book.
Marcel Krueger is a writer and translator based in Dublin and Berlin who often writes about places and their history. His essays and articles have been published in the Daily Telegraph, CNN Travel, the Matador Network, Slow Travel Berlin and many more, and he also works as Book Editor for Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. ‘Berlin – A Literary Guide for Travellers’ is out with I.B. Tauris. More info about Marcel can be found at www.kingofpain.org