This is a book to get lost in. It’s a memoir in which Luke Turner, best known as co-founder of the independent music website the Quietus, tries to explain – to himself as much as to us – how, over many years, he has resisted but also honoured his bisexuality. It’s an account of falling out of love with London and seeking both solace and newness in nature. It’s a social history of Epping Forest, a piece of woodland that, straddling London and Essex, is also bi. A disturbing trauma narrative, it’s also a work of delightfully low, pants-dropping comedy, and a learned meditation, influenced by 17th-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, on the nature of knowledge.
Out of the Woods is not an easy book to classify – God knows what the Dewey Decimal System will do with it – but the candour and insightful scholarship Turner brings to his subject make it a very worthwhile read. It’s an oddity, but a good oddity.
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...
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.
...it comes as something of a relief to read a book that is nuanced about what we might loosely term bad sexual behaviour... And he’s engaging on religious faith, too... Set against these things, however, are his book’s flaws, which are not small, and which made me wonder about some of the lavish advance praise Out of the Woods has received... It’s to do with the breaking of a spell. More than once Turner would almost have me in his grasp, only to lose me entirely with something just like this... a mere assemblage of parts where there should have been a living, breathing, unified whole...
From this social displacement grew a furtiveness, much of which is explored in Out of the Woods through Turner’s fascination with Epping Forest, a place rich with myth, fears and family connections. It’s also a book that turns the nature memoir genre upon its head. Those who go down to the woods today expecting bucolic rhapsodies will be jolted by what lies beneath this book’s exterior. Turner writes bravely about crude teenage sexual awakenings ‘on the slimy floors of grotty toilets’, only later realising that he was the victim of predatory pederasts drawn to a pretty boy in a school uniform six or seven years below the then age of consent. Shame and guilt are the legacy of these nameless, faceless snuffling golems...Out of the Woods is a book full of poetry and pathos. More than anything it is a bold and beautiful study of how to be a true modern man.
Turner is at his best writing about other people: his family, his ancestors and the denizens of the lovingly described Epping Forest where he wanders in search of answers (and, of course, open-air orgasms). He makes much of the fact that the word forest implies being outside (city walls, society, morality), but spoils it all by spouting the jargon that so often renders queer studies meaningless: “I wonder who was first to queer this landscape.”