I wasn’t at all sure about Strange Labyrinth when it turned up – it looked like a book that didn’t quite know what it was supposed to be about – but once started I was hooked, enchanted even. It tells the story of Epping Forest, the six thousand acres on the edge of London saved for the nation in 1878, but that description barely scrapes the surface of this intensely personal, magpie’s jewel box of a book which introduces its readers to a diverse and colourful cast of characters who’ve inhabited this patch of ancient woodland.
Like so many of the middle-aged and privileged, Will Ashon finds himself in something of a crisis. He’s published two novels which have passed largely unnoticed, enjoyed a career as a music journalist and walked away from the prize-winning record label he set up fifteen years ago. He loves his wife and children but there’s something he can’t quite put his finger on. Dante’s ‘dark forest’ comes to mind as he fills his days wandering around Epping Forest, engaging in desultory research into the history of the woods and those who’ve lived there while telling his friends and family he’s writing a book. Eventually he stops ‘pretending’ and gets stuck in. What he finds is both extraordinary and entertaining. From sculptor Jacob Epstein and his endlessly patient wife who finds ways to tolerate his constant infidelities to Old Mick, a legendary protestor with an elaborately embroidered past, from Ken Campbell, the actor dubbed by Mike Leigh ’the outsider’s outsider’ to Penny Rimbaud, the polymath best known as founder member of that archetypal anarcho-punk band Crass, Epping Forest seems to have been a magnet for eccentric characters. Ashon walks the woodland paths, spotting strangely graffitied trees, assessing them for overnight potential and nervously avoiding dogs while pondering on the fear of authority that seems to be the root of his own malaise.
Impossible not to use the phrase mid-life crisis when talking about this book, a tired, overused, sitcom cliché which Ashon neatly avoids, but while it may have been the trigger it’s a quiet theme which underpins his research rather than a hammer with which he beats his readers over the head. Many of the denizens of Epping, both past and present, are anti-authoritarian figures to whom Ashon is drawn but although his admiration is clear he determinedly steers himself away from hero-worship. It’s a splendidly erudite but engaging book. Ashon is a self-deprecating and discursive guide, often very funny: ‘words dribbled out onto my laptop with all the force and confidence of an old man peeing into a cup’; ‘I watched two crows involved in a tussle which, as with drunks in a club, could’ve been dispute or courtship’. It ends with Ashon – after a good deal of nervous procrastination – climbing his favourite tree, determined to spend a night out in the forest, then experiencing an epiphany. A little too neat and tidy for a book which begins with its author’s angst, you might think, but it works. A wonderfully idiosyncratic, somehow very British book which delighted me from start to finish. And if you’d like to read about another man’s tangle with mid-life crisis and how he set about dealing with it you might like to pick up a copy of Andy Miller’s entertaining The Year of Reading Dangerously.