Sexuality and Self-Discovery in Epping Forest
We spoke to author Luke Turner, whose memoir 'Out of the Woods' traverses identity via the lens of the London-to-Essex sprawl.
Left: Luke Turner. Photo: Eva Vermandel; Right: A tree in Epping Forest marked with the words "I CUM ERE".
People have always looked to the landscape for omens, for clues to a better life carved into the earth and carried on the breeze. Perhaps this is because, in nature, we see a permanence that isn’t always reflected in the people closest to us – people who die, cheat, lie, leave and find myriad other ways to dismay and disappoint, whether maliciously or not. In his first book, the memoir Out of the Woods, Luke Turner seeks solace from the collapse of a long-term love affair and lifelong trauma amid the trees of Epping Forest – a 12-by-two mile strip of ancient woodland that snakes its way out of suburban east London into the motorways-and-millionaires muddle of modern west Essex.
The book feels like such an original merging of so many different genres that it's hard to know where to place it. Gradually, Out of the Woods reveals itself as a searingly candid autobiography that also acts both as a meditation on humanity's post-millennial relationship with nature and a cultural history of Epping Forest itself, a Big Topic book that never strays too far from Turner's subjective tussles with masculinity, Englishness, bisexuality, lost love and city living, all of which is back-lit by a childhood spent as the confused but cherished son of a Methodist preacher that ruptured aged 14 when he was sexually preyed upon by an old pervert in a public toilet.
At its heart, Out of the Woods feels like a meandering roadmap guiding its protagonist away from a very modern type of loneliness, a missive from any number of grey areas that eventually constructs a new kind of faith out of the parts of us that refuse to budge when the self-destructive lures of maudlin hedonism and wanton sexual misadventure come a-calling.
I spoke to Turner about his book, carnal compulsion, his ongoing relationship with God and his parents, the weaponised twee of the wellness-nature industry, the risks and rewards of prowling Epping Forest at night and a weird review in the Evening Standard that seemed to blame him for being abused by a paedophile.
VICE: How did the idea for the book come together?
Luke Turner: Originally, it was going to be a straightforward history of Epping Forest, which I’ve been obsessed with since I was a kid. All the old books portray it as this idyll that was saved from the evil clutches of the city by the Victorian upper classes. But the more I learned, the more I realised it's a place where very odd things happen.
How did your personal life find its way into the book?
As I was writing it, my life was fucked, falling to bits, so it became less a straight history and more concerned with the duality of the self, and how that’s represented in this eternal tussle between the city and the countryside – the idea of what is a "natural" way of behaving versus what’s not – and how that relates to sin and shame. My dad's a Methodist preacher, and I discovered he went to the same secondary school in Epping Forest as Genesis P-Orridge – the arch-provocateur, pandrogyne and arsehole who founded Throbbing Gristle. That blew my mind. They’re a similar age and have talked about Epping Forest a lot in their respective lines of work, but are totally different people. It’s a dichotomy that represents the forest to me.
You're very candid in the book about your sexual encounters with men and women. Did you have to warn your parents, who are both devout Christians? Was there a sit-down meeting?
Yeah, there was. The weird thing is everyone keeps saying the book is really nice about them. At the same time, I really didn’t want them to read it; there’s some pretty explicit and dark stuff in there. I was worried because I wanted to write an honest book – and they brought me up to be a good, honest Christian boy! – but once you start along that path of telling an honest story, you can’t go back. I had a conversation with my mum and she said, "You have to write what you have to write and I don't have to read it.” Which was an incredibly kind and liberating thing for her to say.
Your parents’ presence in the book makes it feel truer and more vivid.
The whole book is about concealment and, I suppose, for a long time I was brilliant at concealment. I was afraid, and the book’s about not being afraid, and thinking, 'I don’t have to conceal stuff.' And I’m really lucky with my parents because they’re incredibly understanding people. I didn’t wanna write one of these books where someone’s just hating their family and religion because that’s just not my experience. I had an incredible upbringing, with so much love and support. It just got confusing sometimes because it would feel as though God was there the whole time as a kind of third parent – and one who’s not so loving and forgiving.
I think the book benefits from that – it doesn’t feel like some formulaic childhood catharsis-memoir. There’s a lot of nuance to it.
That was important to me, because what has really messed me up – and I think this is true of a lot of people – is an absolute lack of nuance when, as a culture, we talk about things like relationships, sex, family, religion and morality. The natural world, too…
What do you think we get most wrong about nature?
There’s this huge nature-wellness industry, which encompasses writing, art, tourism, social media and stuff like Instagram-influencing, and there’s no critique of it, just a reductive blanket assumption that nature is this thing that you go off into and it makes you feel better – you get cleansed then return to reality with some pine cones for your bookshelf. Is that really accurate? It’s very classist, and is written from an urban perspective a lot of the time.
The other thing I think we get wrong is just how sexless our engagement with nature is. And that’s really strange, because the entire population was conceived in nature – pre-Industrial Revolution, everyone worked on a farm, so everybody grew up in these very small houses, with their uncles and grannies in one room and all the pigs in the other. Where do you fuck? You had to go out into the bushes, and so nature was this place of absolute randiness, of dangerous, exploitative and strange sex. The modern nature-wellness industry doesn’t acknowledge that at all. Go up Pole Hill in Chingford on a Sunday morning and there are always johnnies and knickers everywhere – people go drinking in Chingford, then up the forest for a shag. There’s a reason the locals call it "Effing Forest".
To what extent do you think the nature-wellness industry is dangerous?
If you go into the forest expecting to come out "healed" and then don’t, you might end up saying to yourself, "I must be beyond redemption; I’m so depressed, even the forest can’t save me." And it compounds the depression. I’ve not seen that criticism discussed, ever.
What do you think its proximity to London gives Epping Forest?
It’s weird; one minute you’re on the tube and, the next, into something that feels like a mystical fairytale. It’s not managed or grazed, so it’s very dark. It’s a shock to the system, that juxtaposition. But you can’t escape the city in the forest; you still hear it wherever you go.
What can you hear?
A lot of motorbikes. The M25 and the North Circular go right through it. The police helicopter base is there as well, and there’s a lot of people in there, even at night. It covers a very diverse bit of London, from a very non-white area in the south – places like Wanstead and Forest Gate – up through Walthamstow, then into Chingford, which is much whiter, working-class and suburban. The east side is Essex, where it’s more TOWIE – Essex-made-good people, from working-class backgrounds but now quite wealthy. Then there’s Debden, which is still quite poor, and on the other side it’s pretty much rural, and people have country accents.
Do people from different backgrounds tend to mix and use the same areas of the forest?
Well, you have the cruising areas, like the one near Snaresbrook – that seems to draw men from communities where there’s a lot of sexual repression and homophobia. At the cruising site in the north of the forest, you’ll find a lot of DIY professionals. It’s a car park in the middle of nowhere; why are there so many white vans? It’s a place that attracts another kind of repressed male.
There’s a nostalgic image of the countryside that’s being cynically weaponised at the moment, by political operators keen to exploit this idea of it as an untarnished and sacred idyll – "this green and pleasant land", etc.
I think because it’s so near London it does escape being used as this cypher-for-England, where other places, like Glastonbury Tor or the Sussex Downs, might not. The book was never meant to be a flag-waving thing. You can’t deny it’s the rural areas where people are voting Tory or for Brexit. You hear horrible stories, still, of gay people driven out of rural villages. Flagrant racism, too. I know a family who left their council house in London for Norfolk – they’re of Irish descent and were hounded by locals accusing them of thieving potatoes. That is the big divide: the metropolitan versus the small-town rural. But Epping Forest is a very specific place in England.
If I were to go down to the forest tonight would I see anyone?
If you went to the cruising sites around Pollard Ponds and Snaresbrook, a nice young man like you would see plenty of people! But no, you do often see people on night walks. That does shit me up: when somebody’s coming at you in the other direction late at night. I once saw a bloke sat in a tree in a balaclava, reading a book. On another occasion, I went in with a couple of friends with some bat detectors and ended up having to do a runner from some Chingford geezers who clearly didn’t have the friendliest intentions. It’s sketchy at night, but there’s always people in there.
Do you think any of your former schoolmates – such as "Tippex Boy", who you had a series of illicit, beneath-the-desk encounters with during science lessons – might find themselves in the book? And do you daydream about what their reactions might be?
It has occurred to me. I don’t bear them any animosity. It’s all been heavily disguised, so no one would be able to work out who anyone is.
What about Peter Kent? The one who inspired the graffiti "Peter Kent is very bent" you remember seeing spray-painted on a wall in your hometown?
Oh, that was real. But I don’t think people will remember it. I do, for obvious reasons. I went back to St Albans recently for the first time in 20 years. It has this joyless aggression to it, still – my school failed its Ofsted report a few years ago on the basis that it was rife with homophobic bullying. We supposedly live in this enlightened time when all the kids can be whoever they want, they can all be queer and out – well, no, you can’t, not in St Albans.
How important was it to retain a sense of gallows humour while you were writing the book? A lot of the dark stuff comes with a sudden, blackly comic punchline.
I love really wrong humour, though it’s possibly not always helpful. If you keep turning something into a massive laugh then maybe you’re refusing to deal with it on some emotional level. When I used to tell people about what happened to me in those public toilets as a schoolboy, I’d try to offset the stuff about noshing off pensioners by saying it was part of a "care in the community" scheme or voluntary work – which is quite a good joke. But then it is actually fucking bleak. You sort of reflect on it later and think to yourself, 'Maybe I shouldn’t be making light of that.'
The Evening Standard review, which talked about the abuse you suffered in that public toilet as a 14-year-old, was… very strange, wasn’t it?
I don’t want to slag off reviews at all, but that one was amazing because it proved why I had to write this book. There’s a total taboo of discussing the negative impact of the fetishisation of young people in gay culture. The fact that someone was able, in this day and age, to write an article in the Evening Standard – a major newspaper, edited by the former chancellor – calling a 14-year-old boy a "horny trollop"… it's just bizarre. This sentiment that, "Well, you were just a randy teenager and old men should be wary of boys like you." That comment basically legitimised paedophilia. It was the equivalent of saying, "Oh, she was wearing a short skirt, she was drunk, she was asking for it" – but about a 14-year-old boy. It took me years to work out in my head that yes, I did go into these situations, but they were coercive – when you’re 14, someone who's 60 has a huge amount of power over you. If I wanted the book to do anything, it was to say that, and to open up conversations around things that aren’t discussed – and if they are, it’s definitely not with nuance.
So you think it was indicative of wider social attitudes, rather than one man being strange?
I think so, yeah. You have in heterosexual culture an association of paedophilia with homosexuality – that attitude of straight people going, "Gay blokes are all bloody paedos, aren't they?" Well no, look at grooming gangs, or the fact that when you’re 15 it’s very hard to get a girlfriend your own age because they’re all going out with 25-year-olds or 40-year-olds…
…going out with a 40-year-old when you’re 15?
Yeah, that used to happen in St Albans. Some of my female friends have told me stories of going out with men that much older when they were at school. Also, there’s so much porn that fetishises school-age sexuality, and that obviously is hugely popular, so there’s clearly a completely undiscussed issue there. Because we have Yewtree and these big monsters like Jimmy Savile, people are comforted by the thought that something has very publicly "been done" about this problem. But it’s the common-or-garden, small-town, middle-aged creeps and public toilet lurkers who fly under the radar who are the issue. I’ve spoken to gay men who did stuff with older men at that stage in their lives, who told me it was their way into the gay community – so for them, it was a positive experience. My experience… you know, this wasn’t someone who was going to introduce me to the gay scene in St Albans – this was a snuffling, fat, little troll-man who was in his sixties… he wasn’t like, "Dear boy, come and watch some Derek Jarman films round at mine!" He was a fucking nonce. So yeah, it’s a person-by-person thing. Everyone reacts in a different way.
In the book, you talk a lot about your parents' faith and its presence in your childhood. Did you ever worry that, for you, religion might have become the same thing as nostalgia?
Faith isn't nostalgia for me, because it’s such a complex thing. I’m not really nostalgic anyway, even though I was brought up in this really loving family and the community of the Church. It's still quite difficult being a vicar’s kid, having to go to church every week knowing everyone’s looking at you. So I’m not nostalgic for that. Instead, that world and that feeling and a lot of the amazing stuff in the Bible has totally shaped my entire life. So I can’t be nostalgic for it because it’s a part of me.
A couple of times in my life I’ve thought, 'I should just reject all this – I don’t believe in God, I don’t believe in any of this, it’s all bullshit; all it’s done is persecute me for my sexuality.' But I can’t do that, and I don’t want to. Atheist bros make me really angry – if I didn’t have that faith, they wouldn’t make me angry. It’s quite simple, really.
Did you learn any "life lessons" while writing the book?
I don’t really believe in life lessons. I think that’s one of those pitfalls: a lesson is something you learn, and then it teaches you, and there’s something quite fixed about that as a process. Whereas what Epping Forest taught me about was chaos. I suppose there’s also an element of it teaching me strength in a way; I had to develop, or discover, quite huge reserves of resilience to tell my story and not take anyone else’s views into account. I had to be honest to myself. Given that had a huge impact on my family, my girlfriend, my friends… it was quite hard. I don't think it was selfish; there’s no abuse of anyone in there. But it has taught me absolutely that we need nuance and to celebrate grey areas. At this time of horrible binaries wherever you turn, dictating your behaviours and ideas and the discourse, what I really realised this book is about is finding your way through grey areas and accepting them in yourself, along with the contradictions – that you can be bisexual and have an element of faith; that sin isn’t defined by other people; that shame can be fought.
'Out of the Woods' is available to buy now.