The name Strange Labyrinth comes from English Renaissance feminist Mary Wroth’s epic poem The Countess of Montgomery's Urania, about love and possibly also a metaphysical allegory about alchemy. Mary Wroth lived in the area at Loughton Hall and is just one of its unusual denizens Will Ashon writes about. Others include the sculptor Jacob Epstein, comedian Ken Campbell, founder of the Stonehenge Free Festival Wally Hope, poet John Clare, highwayman Dick Turpin, punk philosopher and activist Penny Rimbaud and burglar-turned-road-protester Mick Roberts. They are all people who in some way or another are rebels.
The book’s subtitle is Outlaws, Poets, Mystics, Murderers and a Coward in London’s Great Forest. Will Ashon casts himself in the last role – the coward. Following in the footsteps of people who broke laws or at least refused to be constrained by societies mores, Will sees himself as someone who wants to do the same, but is stopped by fears of the consequences of crossing no-entry signs. To be honest, I think he is being unfair to himself. Wariness about being arrested, set upon by an angry farmer - or worse - is quite reasonable in my opinion, but he does offer an everyman-type counterpoint to the truly remarkable and unconventional people whose lives he explores as he also explores the forest paths.
And this book is as much about the forest as it is about the people. Will names and gives personality to numerous trees you can find there – Skull Tree is the one depicted on the book's front cover. The history of Epping Forest is as much associated with rebelliousness as the people who have frequented it - from conflicts over land use and ownership to various divergent sexual encounters.
Yet Strange Labyrinth is much more than just a non-fiction book about places and people and what they got up to. Like Urania can be considered a metaphysical allegory rather than just a long poem about love, Will Ashon’s book is also an allegory about life and the choices we make – whether we choose to stay on the clearly defined roads of the city or venture down the dark and twisting paths of the forest, wherever they might lead us.
Publisher Granta Books says on its website:
In litter-strewn Epping Forest on the edge of London, might a writer find that magical moment of transcendence? He will certainly discover filthy graffiti and frightening dogs, as well as world-renowned artists and fading celebrities, robbers, lovers, ghosts and poets. But will he find himself? Or a version of himself he might learn something from?Strange Labyrinth can be ordered via Amazon or Waterstones.
Strange Labyrinth is a quest narrative arguing that we shouldn't get lost in order to find ourselves, but solely to accept that we are lost in the first place. It is a singular blend of landscape writing, political indignation, cultural history and wit from a startling new voice in non-fiction.
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