Lost Bi in the Woods – Luke Turner

I’m in a Soho hole, contemplating a warren of past delirious and deleterious nights, when Luke Turner’s shaggy, innocent-eyed figure edges through the velvet curtain.

Fittingly, “Bi-Guy” David Bowie’s ‘Hunky Dory’ spins on the record player.  We’re meeting, somewhat nervously, to discuss bisexuality and religion in Turner’s literary memoir, ‘Out Of The Woods’.

I received a review copy of ‘Out Of The Woods’ with mixed feelings.

The Welsh Marches have been my home since I left London 9 years ago. Never have I been more appalled by how ‘Nature’ has become a fetish, a publishing commodity, a therapeutic mini-break without responsibility.  Authors mourn the disappearing patois and rites of a pastoral ‘British’ past, while ignoring the slashing of public services that makes it hard for residents like me to survive with our children in these Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty where such books are written.

Irresponsibility – to the land, at least – is not a charge that can be applied to Turner, a committed protector of Epping Forest, London’s 5,900 sprawl of ancient woodland, stretching from Forest Gate to Essex. The Forest largely provides the landscape for his enquiry into his family’s wood-dwelling ancestry, leading us into a richly-nuanced story of sexual abuse and confused sexual orientation.

This is Nature Writing for the clubbing generations, similar to Amy Liptrot’s bracing tale of recovery from alcoholism in The Orkney Isles, ‘The Outrun’.

Nonetheless, I’m prepared for a wrangle.  I hate ‘soothing’ Nature Writing that widens the gap between the urban and rural, the rich and poor. Never mind that Bi-Guy Bowie is now crooning about children of ‘Kooks’, bullied and gender-subverting outsiders, a description that fits the two of us hunkering at the back of this bar. And never mind that Turner is one of my bosses when I write for The Quietus. We disagree over The Beatles (“I bought Sergeant Pepper and returned it” he grins; “What? Why the hell did you do that?” “Just didn’t like it”).  We down sweet, citrussy, booze-free potions and slurp discs of those mollusk-like plates of ‘little dishes’ that I  imagine continuously crawl over the bar tops and squashed tables of the London I’ve left behind.

“There’s a massive grey area in queer sexuality that’s not being addressed,” says Turner. “Yeah, I feel judged for liking a big cock and loving a woman.”

“You should try being married, a mother and not completely straight,” I tell him.  “I can see the wariness in lesbian eyes when I dance up in a club.  ‘Oh Christ, here she comes, for her quim pudding’.”

“Quim pudding!”  The big man across the table guffaws, revealing an ever-present toothy boy. “You should use that.”

‘Out of The Woods’, a descent into Turner’s psychological soil, uses every writerly trick of humour, confession, etymology and hypnotic storytelling. A music-adoring teenager who loves his preaching, praying parents has nowhere to turn as his sexual longing for boys develops. Suede, Throbbing Gristle, dogging and depression hang upon the richly-fronded boughs of a book that, I admit, avoids the typical consolations of Nature Writing. The following conversation developed between us in emails since we parted, his coat flapping down Dean Street.

SG: In the opening pages of Out of The Woods, you describe a Victorian print in your parents’ home, of a hunched man tramping into the forest, an image you found beguiling and unnerving. Later, you say, “that man was me.” Why does woodland feel like an apt metaphor for your troubled sexuality?

It might seem strange but I’ve never consciously considered the woodland as a metaphor for my sexuality. It was more that being within Epping Forest at a time when I was slowly realising the impact of sexual abuse and failing to deal with deeply ingrained shame forced me to confront myself in a way that I hadn’t previously done.

There’s something about woodlands that deeply connects with who we are and allows them to become places for self-examination. I find this a lot more visceral than metaphor. So, when I think of that figure disappearing into the forest, it wasn’t just a metaphor for sinking into chaos, but a startling vision and realisation that it was me. There were quite a few uncanny experiences and visions like that while I was writing this book.

Site of a lost church in Epping Forest, by Luke Turner.

SG: Given some of the shriller voices in queer identity politics, do you worry about calling yourself bisexual, having never had a long-term relationship with a man?

Absolutely, and that’s one of the key themes of the book. It’s only now that I feel comfortable saying, “Yes, I am bisexual, I always have been, that is for me to define, not anyone else”.

Sexuality is proscribed and defined and judged as much by those voices you describe as it can be by religion and societal prejudice, especially for bisexual people. I have had deep romantic attractions to men but unfortunately those men have all been straight. I’ve not had that many gay men want to pursue emotional relationships with me, often I think because of prejudice against bi men. It’s ridiculous that sexual fluidity and preference is defined by who or what you haven’t done – I recall a very funny tweet from someone saying ‘bisexuals are the only people forced to show their sexual receipts’, something like that.

The numbers game is just daft – as it happens if we went along that route, the accountant looking at my sexual receipts would file my account under ‘actually gay’ as I’ve been a heavy spender in the department store of cock and arse. That’s a crass way of putting it, but it really is such an ignorant way to categorize people, and define who does or doesn’t get to be queer.

SG: You reject a straightforward route to the Nature Cure of much Nature Writing. For example, revisiting your boyhood fantasies of Yorkshire, you mount Stoodley Pike, frustrated, parched, fatigued and you feel that, “I had had no revelation at all.” Do the self-regarding representations of Nature – epiphany and solace – inherited from the Romantics, feel problematic, to you?

Oh yes. I am a privileged lower middle class white male. If I find a lot of those representations of nature exclusionary then I am quite sure that many others do.

I really felt it when I was trying to explore these places as a Nature Cure that we’re all told is so effective and they did nothing for me – or made everything worse. If Sacred Nature wasn’t working, was I completely broken, unfixable? So much art and thinking around the natural world is sanitised, twee and cosy, completely ignoring that essentially it is all sex, death and struggle for territory.

As sound recordist Chris Watson points out, the dawn chorus might sound beautiful to us, but it’s actually the birds in sonic combat during the spring nesting season. I believe we’d have a far better understanding of ourselves as part of, rather than separate from, nature if we embraced this more.

SG: Speaking of territory, I felt your descriptions of sex with women in the book included the sensual and emotional, whereas your encounters with men are relatively brutish (spit, cock and the railings of a London square). For me, there’s no homoeroticism, in this book, to match the hallucinatory ooze of a woman wrapping her legs around you, “her skin glowing in the green light” of an ivy-clad refuge in Tottenham to which, at one point, in glum turmoil, you retreat. Did you feel any pressure, as a bi writer, to present male sex as less rough and more tender?

That’s a really interesting observation. I must admit I thought some of the descriptions of sex with men, especially the early desk explorations and the disappointing fake Suede fan, were quite tender but I take your point, to an extent.

I didn’t feel any pressure to write sex with different genders in a different way, I just wanted it to be as honest as I could possibly be, and it so happens that the sexual encounters with men were always more fleeting and intense due to the way they came about – cruising, Grindr, saunas, etc etc.

I think that roughness has a magical element. They were often incredibly intense experiences, almost psychedelically so, and I regret none of them. It was only when the craving for the high of that became compulsive to the extent that it excluded the possibility of tenderness that I realised something was amiss.

The forest church where Luke’s ancestors are buried. By Luke Turner.

SG: Subsequent to ‘The War on Terror’, most liberal intellectuals seem to be expected to distrust religion. You walk a more interesting path.

The Methodist tradition of your parents historically welcomed outsiders – labourers and criminals – often shunned by other Churches. But being in a religious tribe is a powerfully communal experience. To what extent do you feel your sexuality pushed you outside the Methodist tribe and into dangerous situations of abuse? You speak of feeling confused over a sense of sin (“it’s not for nothing that The Pet Shop Boys… hit single ‘It’s a sin’ became my favourite pop song”).   What new ways have you found, since then, of embracing your sexuality and God?

Just today I read of a new book that reprints a 2008 conversation between Richard Dawkins and three others that apparently kickstarted the new atheist movement. It’s called The Four Horsemen, which I thought was absolutely hilarious, a perfect encapsulation of the macho self-righteousness of that particular philosophy.

I do find that the atheist bros are taken less seriously now, and we’re seeing an increasing interest in faith of all kinds. I wonder if that’s perhaps due to an increasing visibility of queer people of faith. I certainly grew up with a terrible sense of shame and guilt from my emerging sexuality, and that undoubtedly pushed me towards situations and behaviour patterns that became unhealthy – if one tiny sin is as bad as a huge one, why not go all out? It was so lonely feeling like I couldn’t be a part of that tribe, as you put it. They say God forgives all sins, but to see queerness, and therefore one’s own queer body as a sinful vessel, as a sin is brutally self-destructive. The process of writing the book has really helped with all of this, however, and I’ve been re-engaging a bit, going to evensong and following and speaking to queer Christians on Twitter – there’s quite a community out there. It’s a relationship that I expect to evolve, challenge, frustrate, enlighten until the day I die.

‘Out Of The Woods’, published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, is out now.

Twitter: @LukeTurnerEsq , @calcourtesan.


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