Book of the Week: Out of the Woods

18 Feb|Luke Turner

Following a breakup, Luke Turner finds himself battling familiar demons – depression, shame surrounding his sexuality and confusion about his religious upbringing. Like others before him, he seeks refuge in London’s Epping Forest. Out of the Woods is a moving, original memoir about bisexuality, guilt and the human fascination with trees that also takes in Suede, Derek Jarman and Withnail & I.

Shortly after returning from Yorkshire I’d finally found a more permanent place to live, but it didn’t bring the calm I longed for. I struggled to get out of bed in my newly rented room as the hot sun stewed the fug of night sweat and mildewing coffee dregs in discarded mugs. The bright morning light outside the bedroom window glared through the white blinds, turning them into cold slabs that trapped me indoors. One morning there was a thump as a swift slammed into the glass. I could hear it flapping and screeching in terror on the pavement outside.

Often on days like that I’d give up and remain list­lessly at my desk, barely able to work. For a while that morning I pottered hopelessly around my room wear­ing one sock, the tick of my alarm clock methodically counting down another wasted day.

Eventually, with superhuman effort, I packed a ruck­ sack with an apple and sandwiches of homemade bread and cheese (the wholesome things, though by now it was way past lunchtime), and made it out of doors. I planned to walk the full length of Epping Forest, hoping that conquering the territory might ease the tension I was feeling between the nervous start of a new rela­tionship and the desire to continue in the promiscuous abandon of post­-break­up single life.

I’d chosen to start my walk at the more urban southern tip of the forest, hoping that unfamiliar sights might help shift my all too familiar mood. Taking a lungful of traffic fumes and turgid summer air and trying to set my mind straight, I stepped over the rough vegeta­tion at the edge of the road by Forest Gate Station and strode out. Heaps of freshly mown hay were scattered across the Centenary Path, golden in the sun and green in the shade. The ground looked bare around these islands, and the short stubble was strewn with litter. I nearly trod on a road­killed fox, its eyes and tongue rotted to nothing, the ruddy­brown fur blending with the grass, its flesh, blood and organs already dissolved into the earth. A discarded crisp packet sat just above its head, pricked up like an artificial ear. The bear on the label of an empty can of strong Polish lager growled up from a patch of mud next to a pair of pink panties that would have looked as if they were spread out for drying were it not for the crotch ripped by the mower’s blade.

On the far side of Wanstead Flats the forest is crossed by a huge and noisy A-­road interchange. The tunnel beneath it was full of crap and artificially lit even in the middle of a summer’s day. As I squinted into the sun on the other side, the snarl of the traffic above my head, what had been a quiet niggle started to get louder in the back of my mind. It was a thought that I’d tried to suppress – this was to be a purposeful walk, wholesomely fuelled by sandwiches and apples – but it was becoming harder to ignore as I left the subway and walked back onto the Corporation’s forest land. On the map I was just a few centimetres from Eagle Pond, adjacent to Epping Forest’s most popular gay cruising area. I ought to go and have a look. In the interests of research, of course. But my mind that day was no sanitised laboratory.

I wonder when this part of the forest became estab­lished as a place for men forced by law and religious prejudice into twilighting their sexuality to find a knee­ trembler under a hornbeam. How does Mother Nature call out to her dear boys? The first record I can find in the forest archives is a 1931 request to remove a hollow oak in Wanstead, lest it start being used for ‘objectionable practices’.

I wonder who was first to queer this landscape. It might have been long before the Epping Forest Act when two men passed each other with a brisk ‘Morning’ and noticed an urgency in widened pupils that signalled more than a polite greeting. They’d have paused on the path, the gentle sweetness of the vegetation and the birds receding as desire took control. I wonder what bravery it must have taken to slowly look back, to see if he was still there. Who was the man who led the way into a thicket, hoping that he might be followed but sick to the guts in case his pursuer might be a keeper, a thief or a psychopath? Was it clerk, pauper, soldier or woodsman who first felt the surge of excitement when his reaching hand encountered both stiff cotton and cock?

In a BBC programme called Forbidden Britain, former teacher Paul Lanning told researchers that before the Second World War, when gay sex was years from being legalised, Epping Forest’s notoriety was already wide­ spread. He was a regular cruiser at Eagle Pond because there was ‘no alternative’, and admitted that what he saw there was shocking. ‘Roman orgies . . . it was ugly in the extreme,’ he said, going on to describe the shame that he felt, forced into the undergrowth by the societal prejudices of the time. ‘You were always discontented when you left the place, always ashamed of yourself. It was very, very risky, absolutely promiscuous . . . trousers down, cocks up, cocks in . . . masturbation, sodomy, sucking.’ There’s a sad triumph in Lanning’s telling of his ‘chief achievement’ in the forest – the time he managed to seduce a police officer who would ordin­arily have been out to prosecute him. I wonder how much has really changed since the 1930s.

An extract from Out of the Woods by Luke Turner (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99). Buy a copy here.