Trees that Tempt, Seas with Shameful Secrets
A review, of sorts, of “Out Of The Woods”, by Luke Turner
Image: Seaford Sunrise, Luke Dowding
“I know a thing or two about compulsion, a misanthropic autopilot suddenly taking control of my body and flying it into uncomfortable situations. I understand how these spirals run and how they end, rational decision-making dissolving, the eventual collapse requiring months, sometimes longer, of nervous rebuilding before the internal violence returns.” Luke Turner, “Out Of The Woods”, p.160
Growing up on the south coast it was not forests that dominated my surroundings, but the seemingly endless expanse of the sea – on clear days you can allegedly see France from the shores of Seaford beach, although I’m not sure I ever really have or whether it is my imagination leading me on one of its merry dances again. Forests were of course present though, the South Downs littered with them in amongst the rolling hills, chalky cliffs, and boggy fields. Yet despite my discernible lack of a connection to forests, Luke Turner’s exploration of the complexities of identity in his book “Out Of The Woods” reminded me of my own natural nemesis: the sea.
Now living in London, the largest body of water in close proximity to me is the murky and meandering Thames – a river with its own hidden history and plenty of sordid stories. Its muddy tides aren’t nearly the same as the roaring of the waves crashing against the stony shores that line the coasts of East Sussex, yet its tamed torrents are the closest I have to the waters of the English Channel.
I love the sea, for it represents freedom and fantasy – an edge to be guided by, to be protected by, to run by. One of my favourite literary passages is from C.S. Lewis’ “The Voyage of The Dawn Treader” where the ship of the same name reaches the Upper East, the very edge of the world, and the crew are amazed to see the Silver Sea, distinguishable as a rising wave; the water around them not salty, but sweet: "Where the waves grow sweet, doubt not Reepicheep, there is the Utter East."
I’m also cautious of it, respectful of the power it has to destroy and drown. After years of evenings spent in over-chlorinated pools as a child, in my adulthood I’ve lost my confidence in my swimming ability and find deep water to be overwhelming – the uncertainty of what lurks beneath to be all consuming when swimming out well beyond the shore. Growing up as close as I did to the infamous Beachy Head you’re also reminded with great frequency that for as long as humans have lived near the sea, we have had our lives ended by it, both by choice and by force.
“Out Of The Woods” brought all of this, and so much more, to the very surface of my tidal consciousness. At times I felt that Turner had somehow prised open my mind and watched the memories of my own disjointed sexuality, turning what he saw into beautiful and brash prose. Yet it seems that my experiences are not solely my own, they are shared by another, and with that perhaps seemingly obvious insight, I find myself asking: how many more?
How many more of us have grown into adulthood, storing secrets wherever we can find dark enough holes for them? Or in my case, seas stormy enough to secure them forever.
“I knew Jesus loved sinners. I knew I could repent. But God made me this way, so how could my sexuality be a sin? I was confused. It was as if a cartoon angel sat on one shoulder and a devil sat on the other, both screaming into each ear. If the thought of doing something was as bad as the act, then what choice did anyone have but to go ahead anyway? And if one sin was enough for damnation, then what was the point in resisting the temptation to do it again? It’s not for nothing that the Pet Shop Boys’ 1987 number-one hit single ‘It’s a Sin’ with its opening lines of ‘When I look back upon my life it’s always with a sense of shame’ became my favourite pop song.” Luke Turner, “Out Of The Woods”, pp.95-96
Shame. I’m sure the sea is full of mine, swirling hidden beneath the surface, yet always threatening to be washed up on the shore with the other detritus. But Turner has shone a light, like a lighthouse in the fog; a light he chose to shine on his own experiences, his own battles with the forest, but in doing so he has given permission for so many more of us to do the same.
For a faith that proports fellowship to be one of its great tenements, it remains nothing short of miraculous how many of us fall overboard into oceans of isolation. We need more honesty, more shamelessness storytelling, to conquer our demons and allow ourselves to thrive and not just strive.
Go and read “Out Of The Woods”, be confronted by Turner’s unflinching and captivating words, and then, perhaps, feel the fog begin to lift.
Luke Dowding, Executive Director