“I never wanted this to be a cathartic nature book. It’s about rejecting the binary, accepting your contradictions,” says Turner
- TextAnna Cafolla
For centuries, the forest has been a home, haven and hiding place for bandits, adventurous children, rebellious teens and after-hours cruisers. In literature and popular culture it is a place of duality: life and death, the natural and the supernatural; enchanting and alienating at once.
Epping Forest reflects just that – a 2,400-hectare area of ancient woodland which swaddles the edge of London, with Epping at its north and Forest Gate at its south. For Luke Turner, author of the new memoir Out of the Woods, it’s within this hulking mass of urban woodland that he finds both relief and confrontation – the forest’s “vulgar chaos” raising questions of sexuality, identity, religion, and abuse in his own life.
Out of the Woods began when Turner attempted to write social history of Epping Forest and the community battles to conserve it, lightly interweaving his own family within the narrative (his Methodist minister father and mother grew up on its edges). “I was exploring how we see nature as something sentimental,” he says of his early work on the book, “but then everything in my life was falling to pieces.”
At the time, Turner’s relationship of five years was breaking down and he was grappling with his bisexual identity. “It was a time of bracing turmoil, and feeling very rootless,” he says – emotionally and physically, subsequently Turner found himself priced out of London, pushed closer to the looming forest. “I had serious issues around mental health, sexual compulsion, and sexuality,” he says.
Out of the Woods, then, became a devastating personal excavation; a journey that pulsates like a forest’s own thriving ecosystem. At its heart are questions of abuse: while writing a chapter about frenetic artist Cosey Fanni Tutti’s forest photoshoots and a history of gay cruising, Turner was confronted with disturbing jokes made by conservative mouthpiece Milos Yiannopoulos about older queer men who have sex with teenage boys. He responded by writing an article for The Quietus to challenge those dangerous views, receiving intense support for his frank writing about sexuality and his experiences with abusive men – a narrative which he continued in Out of the Woods.
“A lot of sex positive discourse won’t allow you to question anything, even if it were to become unhealthy. Between those extremes you must examine your own inner truth, which applies to bisexual people” – Luke Turner
“I don’t think people are honest very often when they write about sex and sexuality, anything from abuse, to bisexuality, or promiscuity,” he says. “I had begun to explore masculinity in the context of the forest, and I just thought I might as well go for it, the book would be better if I don’t hold back.”
With references from Derek Jarman to Throbbing Gristle, Suede, biblical parables and countryside maps, Turner unpacks being a bisexual man today, challenging his fascinations, idols, and a shrouded past with the forest as backdrop. He explores his periods of “abandon and misbehaviour” frankly – it’s refreshing to see typically ‘bad’ sexual behaviour written with nuance, reflecting a similar exposition of modern sexuality in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s BBC television series Fleabag. He oscillates from dating apps to sticky Berlin dancefloors, blustery hikes and the build-up to outdoor sexual encounters.
Pushing hedonistic limits didn’t give him the salvation he craved, though. “It was frustrating, as someone who grew up in a restrictive religious world, to find such a lack of nuance on the other side,” he says. “A lot of sex positive discourse won’t allow you to question anything, even if it were to become unhealthy. Between those extremes you must examine your own inner truth, which applies to bisexual people. You’re in this strange position where the straight world and queer world are telling you be one thing or the other.”
The bisexual character has long been both fetishised and feared, making the book feel increasingly vital. “I want nuanced, difficult role models,” Turner affirms. “Ones where sexuality and empowerment aren’t used to hang marketing campaigns on.” Bisexual representation is growing – from television series Killing Eve and Desiree Akhavan’s The Bisexual, to LGBTQ+ young adult fiction – yet a review of Turner’s book in the Evening Standard highlights the pervasive bi- and homophobia in mainstream media.
It focuses on a painful passage in the book – 14-year-old Turner cannot say no to a paedophile’s advances in a public toilet. He says it was almost unbearable to read aloud for the audiobook release, tussling with childhood trauma from an adult perspective, no longer a confused boy. The review victim-blames Turner – “weedy, needy, and seedy,” “the horny teen trollop” – and sneers at abuse. Examining serious issues in queer culture becomes more stigmatised by such stereotypes, something Turner rails against. “To get a complete character assassination brilliantly explained why I had to write this book,” he says.
“I moved to London to reinvent myself, but the forest doesn’t let you conceal you from you. It can be liberating, but turning in hard on yourself can be decimating” – Luke Turner
These are the kind of complicated questions Turner unpacks in the book, interrogating idols like Genesis P-Orridge and the teen boy-fixated oeuvre of experimental music group Coil. Abuse, though, for Turner is not just reserved for those in positions of public power – he asserts that we must give the same focus trained on the “celebritisation” of abuse – Weinsteins, Spaceys, Jacksons – to the everyday abuser, lurking in public loos and social networks.
The memoir isn’t without biting wit – gallows humour flecks the darker moments throughout. “I’ve always dealt with difficult things with humour,” he says. “I loved Kenneth Williams. I think it’s a British and queer thing. In books and comedy you’re playing with language, reframing experiences. I’m surprised dark humour doesn’t come out more in writing like this.”
His staunchly religious parents remain the book’s most vivid characters. “I know a lot of people who have fallen out with their parents over their sexuality and religion. I feel privileged it didn't happen to me,” he says. With his parent’s blessing, he was able to write freely – though he hopes they avoid his explicit chapters – and since then they’ve attended Christian LGBTQ+ events. “I find them an incredible example of Christian love and compassion. It surprised me that people have liked the positivity I have about religion in the book. I think faith is innately meant to challenge you.”
Returning to the capricious forest landscape, Turner highlights the natural world’s contradictions, and how it helped – and forced – personal appraisal. “I moved to London to reinvent myself, but the forest doesn’t let you conceal you from you,” he says. “It can be liberating, but turning in hard on yourself can be decimating.”
It’s impossible to ignore that many rural British areas are bastions of Brexit and conservatism. Epping Forest reflects the political and social spectrum – at one end it has a strong ethnic minority population, the other is white and well off. Turner hopes to offset its flat portrayal: “There’s this feeling the forest is just for white dog walkers, and that’s something that I would like to change. The forest ought to be for everybody,” he says. Working to make that so, Turner is curating a project about Epping Forest, as part of Waltham Forest’s London Borough of Culture 2019, and volunteers as a conservation worker.
We are never truly “out of the woods”, Turner says. “I never wanted this to be a cathartic nature book,” he says. “It’s about rejecting the binary, accepting your contradictions.” Those grey areas – a dark tree cavity, the shard of light through branches – are what we should hope for.
Out of the Woods: A Memoir by Luke Turner is out now.