Strange Labyrinth by Will Ashon — Sean Preston

Epping Forest is as unlikely to pique my interest as Sherwood Forest, or any of the other British woodlands that I should be able to recall without using Google, but can’t, because greenery, thickets, trees, wildlife and fresh air bore me. Epping Forest fills me with an ennui; an unwelcome reminder of a hardening of youth in which I was cruelly ripped from the sprawling runway aesthetic of Newham’s Docklands and deposited into the (relatively) leafy Waltham Forest, and more precisely Leytonstone, where Epping Forest starts. The gatehouse to this forest, a twenty-four hour burger cabin for older siblings, stoners, truckers, people waiting for their someone to be born or their someone to die at Whipps Cross Hospital, and Swampy.

It’s not my fault. It was the nineties and there were more important things to concern ourselves with, like playing mum and dad off each other in the hope that we would get Sky. We were averse to what was forced on us, naturally. Everyone was always banging on about two things in Leytonstone: Epping Forest and William Morris. The latter meant indefinite walks around what can only be described as a dusty Carpet Right for old people in Walthamstow, the former, longer walks around Hollow Pond, which is sort of the start of Epping Forest, or school excursions to Debden to vaster expanses of the woods, or crap family day-trips out to the Essexy bit, where giant dogs came out of nowhere to try and bite or fuck me (and maybe that’s why I’m still scared of dogs?). No McDonalds in sight. Not even a Percy Ingle. Shit like Suntrap; boring hippy stuff dressed up as something better. Like a Tracker bar. And then, try as you might to escape nature and the woods: No, you can’t go to Scouts, but you can go to Woodcraft Folk, and then you get to Woodcraft Folk, and you don’t get to play any war games or murder any small animals, even though Dad got to shoot birds when he was a kid. Girls are there. Girls. Wrestling is not allowed. No way. And guess what? You take even longer fucking walks in the forest. And sticks aren’t allowed to be makeshift guns, even the sticks that have triggers. They’re not even allowed to be machetes. They’re just sticks.

Perhaps the author can forgive me then for that ennui resurfacing on hearing that his new nonfiction book was becoming as much about walking in Epping Forest as anything else. If it had also been about tapestry it’s unlikely this review would exist. My attitude towards these things hadn’t matured. He probably will forgive me, at least to my face. I’ve known Will Ashon for several years now, and whilst he holds a grudge well in that he buries it right down where you can’t see it, and can come across as a tad dyspeptic, he’s at the very least contemplative, if not gently forgiving, when you mess something up, like the italics in his guest editorial for your short fiction magazine. There’s a charm to that sort of character, and indeed that sort of writer, of course.

I discovered that the subversion and scrutiny that make Ashon’s fiction so attractive also permeate the lost-in-the-woods thread of this book, the bleak but appealing selfishness to his fiction now coalesced by lightness of touch, sensitivity in the emotional sense.

Strange Labyrinth, then, was quite a relief to this dendrophobic reader. The charm of the churl is present, it tempers his anxiety; his fear of getting caught taking an innocent stroll in the woods is confusing and relatable at the same time, because it is also indignant. Epping Forest is “a contradictory space” according to Ashon. I discovered that the subversion and scrutiny that make Ashon’s fiction so attractive also permeate the lost-in-the-woods thread of this book, the bleak but appealing selfishness to his fiction now coalesced by lightness of touch, sensitivity in the emotional sense. This isn’t just an “Epping Forest book”, or another psychogeography suite — it’s sort of both those things, sure — but it’s also a relevant take on one person’s experience in finding out more about other people, other things. It’s about fear (the author too is rationally petrified of hounds), it’s about selfishness still, it’s about selflessness also. It’s about what you do when you don’t know what else to do.

On his journey to address what he calls a minor crisis that is “part developmental, part existential, largely silly”, Ashon takes on enclosure. The concept and indeed deconstruction of enclosure appears frequently, as does Ashon’s reluctant but determined quest to converse and interview characters that might be able to help him along, or at the very least have something worthwhile to say about the book’s subjects. The book is at its most engaging when Ashon meets with Penny Rimbaud of Crass. There is something in that relationship and the ensuing chats that make for magnetic reading. It shouldn’t be, perhaps. At least not to me. It’s a middle-aged man and an upper-aged man intellectualising about Descartes and I and they and you and… well it confuses, and I’m not one of those that have taken to worship at the alter of Anarcho Punk’s most pronounced noisemaker in Crass. So it must’ve been something else to the association that drew me in. At times it felt as though the narrator was having his own conversation aside from the discussion on Cartesianism or Penny’s “fairly massive” heart attack in Rochdale. There’s something of Penny Rimbaud, or what we understand to be Penny from within the book’s pages, that is a sort of celestial Ashon, someone who has a slightly more phlegmatic approach to being confused, or not being confused. It’s confusing. It makes for engaging dialogue. Ashon’s regard for Penny is endearing.

“This is one of the lovable things about Penny Rimbaud, a streak of contrarianism so strong that even if he called it that he would immediately have to deny it.”

There’s a joy to the book’s outrage against systemic control.

Never quite escaping Crass, there’s a joy to the book’s outrage against systemic control. In this regard, statistics regarding our public spaces are well researched, and eye-opening if not eye-watering. But he’s wary of hippies too. This cynicism, appended with affection, cultivates the slightly-put-out grump in all of us. Ashon jokes of ghosts, and the forest is full of ‘em. He too, then, transcends narrative walls as an apparition, an intermittent companion on this trek, present fleetingly, otherwise resigned to the mysticism of the forest when we’re learning about Mary Wroth, Ken Campbell, Jacob Epstein, John Clare, or Wally Hope, a gentleman (probably not) named after the Wessex Libertarian League of Youth.

In Will Ashon’s debut novel Clear Water he writes:

“To Jimmy it felt more like the sea, with everything around it an island whose interior he couldn’t penetrate, eternally cursed to wander the thin stretch of beach looking at driftwood before diving back into the cold, rough water to examine once again the corpses of his long-drowned family.” 

And there’s a fair chunk of that feeling to Strange Labyrinth, I think. But it’s joined by resolve, a sort of excited pride in the heroes and anti-heroes of this book. Is that hope? Enclosure is bad, then? Maybe it’s not hope… it’s confusing. Yes, Strange Labyrinth is confusing for as long as you’re reading it. Perhaps this is the book’s lasting quality. Ashon’s apparent meanderings from the Skull Tree to forest reveries, landmark buildings, mini-biographies of the attractive rapscallions that called the forest a home, and history lessons are inculcated with something central to the anxious narration: we all zigzag, slightly distracted, slightly confused. Very confused.

Strange Labyrinth is encouraging. It’s comforting even. In my teens I tried to escape this forest, rejected it as a distraction from my germane urbanity. But I got lost in Epping Forest in a way that is inescapable should a book be this engrossing. It’s a very funny book, certainly if you’re partial to bottom-lip protruding sulks. And all the loathsome things about Epping Forest (I’m talking again explicitly of Suntrap and Woodcraft Folk, not the admittedly also not-nice mass-murder and mass-privatisation) are held aloft for ridicule, albeit affectionately. The book did not inspire a fondness for West Essex and East London biota, it doesn’t intend to, unless I got that wrong. But I found the lesson that there’s something to be gained in being lost — which is essentially different from losing yourself — a lesson that I wanted to learn, one that could make a reader feel better about despair. It encouraged me to think differently about being lost, eradicated some of that fear, and I have to assume it will do that for others too. We too should at the very least be aware of our spaces. What they’ve meant. We too can be intrepidly lost. Intrepid in our confusion.

So long as there are no giant dogs.

Will Ashon is the author of the novels Clear Water and The Heritage, both with Faber & Faber, Strange Labyrinth, published by Granta Books, and the micro-fiction collection Shorter, published as a phone app. @willashon

Sean Preston is the editor of Open Pen Magazine, a free shirt fiction magazine called “More like a shot of absinthe than a boring pint of lager” by Paul Ewen’s Francis Plug. @SeanPrestonLDN