‘I was looking for topiary when I found the skull tree’ is the opening line of Will Ashon’s non-fiction book, Strange Labyrinth, subtitled ‘Outlaws, poets, mystics, murders and a coward in London’s great forest’. The forest is Epping Forest, in the north east of London, described by Ashon as the simulacrum of a real forest. Caught between being a real forest, and one in which everything you’d wish to do in a normal forest (camping, having a fire, foraging) are all banned. It’s this contradiction which interests Ashon, who is himself caught between two selves, an actor him in the moment and a narrator him looking back on the whole thing. He starts off looking for topiary, but instead he finds the skull tree. Humans have carved into this landscape. Actually, it turns out, they have been doing so for hundreds of years.
Strange Labyrinth is in part a series of essays about walking through Epping Forest and investigating its history. It’s about the people who lived in and around it, from theatrical genius Ken Campbell, to Lawrence of Arabia. It’s also about Ashon, caught between his actor self and narrator self, trying to find a balance between the real and fictional. He walks the path of Dick Turpin, whom legend has reworked from a vicious thug to a charmer. He meets Penny Rimbaud of the band Crass and tells the story of Wally Hope’s death, full of truth and fiction mixing. The same can be said of all of the other histories in the book from Mary Wroth to Ashon’s own.
There has definitely been a resurgence in recent years of nature writing, from Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk, to Robert Macfarlane’s 2015 Samuel Johnson prize win for Landmarks. There are elements of these books in Strange Labyrinth, and you can also see the influence of writers like Iain Sinclair in there too. But this is no bad thing, and Ashon hasn’t written a knock-off or even a homage. This book is no London Orbital tribute band, and it isn’t trying to be either. It’s a very personal book about a place which has, for centuries, it seems, been a refuge for a very particular kind of person.
Strange Labyrinth fits nicely into the genre, but manages to carve its own territory. Ashon makes for a great, and often very witty companion through the forest. His self-deprecation, and forthrightness around his lack of interview technique (he forgets at one point which member of staff in a residential home tells him a ghost story) give Strange Labyrinth the feeling of the reader being a companion alongside him. That’s as true in the captivating histories that he tells as it is in the meandering walks through the forest itself. At one point he quotes Descartes, who wrote about being lost, saying that the best way out of a forest is to pick a single route and to follow it in a straight line no matter what. Almost immediately in the book this idea is torn apart and for good reason. Will Ashon doesn’t follow a straight line, and the tangents that he takes are sometimes that most rewarding.
Any Cop?: This is a great book. A fascinating work of non-fiction and nature writing. Ashon deserves to be up there with the best.