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Strange Labyrinth: Outlaws, Poets, Mystics, Murderers and a Coward in London's Great Forest Hardcover – 6 Apr 2017
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'Strange Labyrinth, a reckoning with the 'outlaws, poets, mystics, murderers' of Epping Forest, is interwoven with other elements in an account that soon shifts from documentation - a cultural guidebook [...] - to a delirious fiction of doctored memory and free association... [A] timely survey [that] honours some of those [characters of Epping Forest]' -- Book of the Week Review, Guardian by Iain Sinclair
'An anarchic hymn to the scruffy edgeland of Epping Forest, the ancient wood that sits on the boundary between London and Essex... Fascinating... [A] glorious book you'll enjoy getting lost in' -- Observer
'[A] twisting, [...] deeply satisfying exploration of the intellectual terrain covered by artists, writers and performers who share a connection to this place... with remarkable scope, unconstrained by boundaries of genre or style... a clever piece of work, a joy and an education... This is at heart a book about anxiety and fear, and our prospects of breaking through the enclosure our fears impose upon us... [Ashon] shows courage in taking on this ambitious project and deserves acclaim for pulling it off in such style' -- Spectator
'Ashon [writes] with verve and a winning candour about his own fearful nature, as he makes his meandering way between the trees' --New Statesman
'Ashon's acclaimed book ranges far and wide, from poets to punks, from the sculptor Jacob Epstein to the highwayman Dick Turpin... Roaming from memoir to nature writing, cultural history and psychogeography' -- Best Summer Books, Financial Times
'I can't begin to tell you how intrigued I am by this book... Ashon's strange brew of nature writing, memoir, psychogeography and punk history has a very anarchic feel to it' -- Bookseller
'Strange Labyrinth is a wonderful exploration of the tangled undergrowth of the psyche. Ashon is an anarchic Green Man; a puckish punk of the forests and here he has invented a new genre: Gonzo Romanticism' -- Jon Day
'Wilder than Macfarlane, funnier than Deakin and more emotionally engaged that Sebald, Will Ashon turns getting lost in the forest into high art, and great entertainment. By the end you'll probably be looking for a berth up a tree alongside him'-- Matt Thorne
'I found it mercilessly lucid, wildly expansive yet down-to-earth, and misanthropic as only books with real heart can be. There's tendency to treat psychogeography as a form of archaeology but he bypasses anything resembling fossils for a more intriguing, irreverant and animated approach. These are fragments of the past brought to life in the present, and a fascinating, cynical yet wide-eyed and inspiring, despite itself, present set in the greater scheme of things. A journey into the dark and terrible maze that is Englang with a guide much Minotaur as Theseus' -- Darran Anderson
'From John Clare to Crass, Will Ashon unearths magic in a forest that is more than mere harbour and hide-out for dissidents, dreamers, poets and outlaws, but which represents an entire narrative strand of an ever-changing England. Here is deep questing into both person and place, masterfully delivered' -- --Benjamin Myers
'Extensively researched and hilariously self-deprecating, Strange Labyrinth takes us on a journey that is funny, moving and fascinating' -- Idler
'Unlike any book about a landscape that I have read recently; it has a certain rawness and vulnerability to it as Ashon faces his fears... [His] interviews with those that have sat on the fringes of society are enlightening as they are interesting. It was well worth scrabbling through the understorey with Ashon to discover the ghosts of the past, the sounds of the present and the possibilities of the future of Epping Forest' -- Halfman Halfbook
'Magnetic reading... There's a joy to the book's outrage against systemic control' -- Minor Literature
'I was hooked, enchanted even... [An] intensely personal, magpie's jewel box of a book... Extraordinary and entertaining... a splendidly erudite but engaging book. Ashon is a self-deprecating and discursive guide, often very funny... A wonderfully idiosyncratic, somehow very British book which delighted me from start to finish' -- A Life in Books
'Strange Labyrinth treads its own path. It is a literary provocation, a defence of the disorderly narrative, and a call to get more lost' --Caught by the River
About the Author
WILL ASHON was born in Leicester in 1969. Having worked as a music journalist, he founded the record label Big Dada Recordings in 1996, which he ran for over fifteen years, signing acts like Roots Manuva, Wiley, Diplo, Kate Tempest and Young Fathers and, in the process, winning the Mercury Music Prize twice. He also published two novels with Faber & Faber, Clear Water and The Heritage. He currently lives in Walthamstow, north east London.
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I wasn't sure exactly what to expect but was very soon also lost in the woods. A surprising find from a very original voice and one that I have thoroughly enjoyed. Highly recommended.
It is not a light read, but the writing is good and very engaging. Probably I missed stuff, but I did not feel as though I had to concentrate too hard for too long at any one time. This was because the book seemed to move on from one short 'essay' to another. At times it felt a bit like watching over someone’s shoulder during one of those internet encyclopaedia browsing sessions where you end up down some fascinating rabbit holes. This comparison doesn't work though, because the author obviously did a lot more than just Wikipedia research. A vast amount more in fact, and it shows.
The 'essays' are all linked into an overarching midlife crisis narrative of how and why the book came to be written. It is quite likely that the book is cleverer than I am able to recognise, since I am shamefully shackled by relative ignorance of, and knee-jerk derision for, post-modern theory. The good news for anyone in the same boat is that you don’t need this to enjoy the book. There are call backs to previous chapters, and reminders of what we are meant to have learned, but these are not intrusive and don’t get in the way of the fun. Above all, you do get the sense that it was mostly good fun to research, act out, and write.
The author/narrator (we are reminded they may not be the same thing) claims not to be entirely comfortable with the fun. This is perhaps because of an ingrained sense that serious thought, like serious activism, is not meant to be enjoyed, it is meant to involve heroism and sacrifice. The obvious enjoyment that some of the characters he encounters derive from their outlaw identity makes him suspicious of hippy/punk/freewheeling anarchist/road protester/squatter ‘philosophy’. This is a rare bit of old mannishness i.e. ‘in my day activism were proper and grim-faced’. However, he’s completely aware of how close to the Four Yorkshiremen sketch that attitude is and self-mocks entertainingly about this and much else besides. The characters’ transgressive enjoyment is, on balance, life-affirming and it also makes him really want there to be more to it than that. He wants, maybe even believes it to be, more meaningful, part of a resistance to the injustices of the modern world or part of a growing antithesis. He wants it to dovetail with the progressive educational ethos of his secondary school, where the teachers had to entertain or fail (this was probably excellent for bright, motivated kids from educated backgrounds, possibly not so good for others). There is much more to the book, and loads of bits will stick with you. No spoilers, but look out for treats like the imagined eternal torment of Tony Parsons.
You could say the book’s argument is that atomising societal, psychological and geographical structures are the unwholesome product of Enlightenment individualism allied to enclosure of lands and minds and capitalism. Maybe it is better described as poetic insight rather than argument. I have a feeling - admittedly untested - that the argument might not completely stack up if arranged in dry numbered paragraphs showing the workings. But that feeling may be the product of thinking that is itself too rigidly enclosed. In the end the reader is reminded there is value and enjoyment in different outlooks, including in ones that naturally spark off in various directions, are not limited by everyday fences and hedges, and roam more imaginatively, even while we acknowledge that some transgressions may go too far and be harmful for ourselves and others. Life, eh? The book probably asks more questions than it answers, but is absolutely none the worse for that.
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