IN CONVERSATION: Luke Turner with Paul Flynn
Illustration by Jon McCormack
Paul Flynn is an author and journalist. He is Senior Contributing Editor at Love magazine and a columnist at Grazia and Attitude. His first book, Good As You, a personal and pop-cultural mapping of the thirty years preceding British legal gay equality in the UK, came out in 2017 published by Ebury.
I sat down with Luke Turner at 2.30pm one Friday afternoon at the back table of The Hackney Bureau, a nice E2 café, to talk about his first book, Out of the Woods. They’ll let idle patrons stew over a pot of tea all afternoon in there if it’s quiet enough. Three hours later, the place settings started arranging for the first evening sitting. Candles are lit. We emerged into the industrial pitch black of Cambridge Heath Road.
Due to the nature of Out of the Woods I chose the quietest table at the rear of the café to get deep within the knotted sex yarn of his book. It began in Luke’s head as a parable in Epping Forest. It ended as a throbbing argument with nature, nurture, bisexuality, Christianity and his search for belonging. I noticed the pot-washer adjacent to us raise his eyebrows only a couple of times. He got a right earful.
The day before we met, Out of the Woods received its debut reviews. There was a nice glowing number from The Spectator and an absolute drubbing from The London Evening Standard. At his day job as Editor of The Quietus, Luke is used to doling these out. The Quietus is one of the few music publications to retain the spittle-flecked singularity and conviction of their forebears. Luke knows enough about how these things germinate to be delighted with both reviews. A caustic, memorable takedown is frequently a more potent sales pitch than a bland rave.
He’d been serviced with both, anointing him early as a particular outsider at the start of the shelf-life of his brilliant book. I devoured Out of the Woods in three sittings over Christmas. Due to its complete expositional nature, of the inner workings of both his sex life and ecclesiastical quandaries, Luke became in my mind literature’s own Patron Saint of cottaging for the season. The initial reception threw some necessary holy water on his altar.
Luke is the perfect Queer Bible subject. He ticks both ‘queer’ (on account of his bisexuality) and ‘biblical’ (due to his Methodist Vicar father) boxes. At the outset of the book, he falls into a picture of the forest on the wall of his family home. He’s in his mid 30s and servicing two broken hearts, one for a recent girlfriend, another for the rebuilding of London as it sheds its oddness, throws out it’s weirdoes and becomes an irreligious shrine to status, power and money. He is stricken not just by his desire for women and men but by that unique curse of independent thought in a generic capital. He has tonnes of sex in the book, writing frankly and affectingly enough about it to make you wonder why so few other men do.
Cruising is not a new arena for art. Al Pacino made a film about it back in the 70s. Joe Orton took the cavalier approach and documented it all in candid diaries published after his murder. Derek Jarman shot one of his early short films on Hampstead Heath. Oscar Moore’s A Matter of Life and Sex, adapted from his newspaper columns just prior to his death, was full of his early dabbling with toilet trade. One of the decade’s best films, Alain Guiraidie’s Stranger By The Lake is an icy breakdown of the gay experience filtered through anonymous attractions. The fine artist Prem Sahib has replicated parts of London’s lost Chariots sauna as exhibition pieces in sophisticated galleries.
What singles Luke Turner out among these formidable artistic companions is religion and women. His journey through the forest forms an appealing, twisted shape as Out of the Woods turns into his road to redemption. A God-like figure emerges early, a man who’s broken London’s acquisitive rulebook and lives in the woods. Luke’s travelogue through the forest becomes the story of whether he has the emotional, physical and psychological capacity to opt in or out. Out of the Woods is reverent, feral and hot, a book that shows gleeful disregard, even at its saddest, for conservative convention. Luke is a fabulously unguarded storyteller. You’ll fall a little bit in love with him by the end of it.
Paul: At this moment, two weeks before publishing, how does it feel to make your private life public?
Luke: When I got the contract through for the book, it said ‘Memoir’ and I thought, I’m not writing a bloody memoir. This is a book about cities and forests. I realised as I was writing the forest story, I kept writing about myself. All the stuff in my life was getting more and more pertinent to the themes. It’s something that the subconscious does. I wouldn’t change anything. I think that review in the Evening Standard was absolute vindication of why I had to write the book that I did. That stuff is just not discussed. If there is an element of personal sacrifice, well, someone’s got to do it. Also, I’m a bit of an exhibitionist, possibly.
Paul: Exhibitionism kind of goes with the turf with cottaging, doesn’t it?
Luke: I wondered whether people would pick up on that. So much of that sexuality and so much of online sexuality is about exhibitionism. I’m quite proud that I’ve managed to write an exhibitionist book about it. It’s not confessional, because it’s not about sins. But it is an open book. These things are not separate.
Paul: This is the Queer Bible. You couldn’t be more of a perfect subject matter. You tick both the Queer and the biblical boxes.
Luke: [laughing] Yes, I even had an element of guilt because of the religious thing that comes with you.
Paul: Can you imagine the you that had been brought up without God?
Luke: No. That’s one of those problems when you’re trying to work out identity, where you’re wishing you could be someone else. [Religion] is as part of me as anything. I could, in a way, imagine myself having rejected religion completely. That would’ve been a choice. I have subconsciously tried to do that many times and that almost felt cowardly to me.
Paul: You’ve taken a tricky road with religion, where you still want a place in it despite there not really being one for you as a queer person. Do you believe in Jesus?
Luke: Yes. [pauses] People say, do you believe in God and then they look at you like you’re completely batty. But there’s tonnes in the bible I don’t agree with. I don’t want to sound woo-woo, but on a fundamental, mystical, spiritual sustenance level I do believe it. It does still cause tension and difficulty but the whole point of faith is that it’s challenging anyway. The bible doesn’t disguise that. The problem that we have is that some people do follow it completely unthinkingly. Or are in denial about their doubts. Or people who aren’t religious in such a secular society don’t really have any experience of religion apart from the reports of its hypocrisy.
Paul: What do you think organised religions can do to make sure the saddest parts of a story like yours doesn’t happen again?
Luke: Listen. I think that’s the biggest problem with most religions. They do not listen. It’s a lot of heterosexual men deciding what the orthodox view of that religious body is on people’s sexuality. A lot of it is to do with listening, or to do with encountering people in daily life who will change your mind. If a person is a good Christian and taking what Jesus has to say to heart, they will sit and listen and talk and seek to understand queer people. And I think it can happen. I see it happening in my family, in churches. There’s a very good network of queer religious people on Twitter. It just makes me really sad and angry, the way some elements of the evangelical church are to gay people. I don’t understand why they don’t want to listen, why they’re so fixated on sexuality and sin. Why that? There’s all of this stuff in the New Testament, the teachings of Jesus about poverty and class injustice. That’s where I get most of my politics from. So why are you so obsessed with sex? I’ve come to realise that this book is an address to religious peoples, saying that this is what your intolerance can cause.
Paul: It’s the strongest suite in the book for me.
Luke: Thank you. Were you brought up religious?
Paul: Catholic, check the surname.
Luke: Right, gotcha.
Paul: When you’re a writer that’s been around organised Christianity from a young age do you think that every story you tell is basically a version of the stations of the cross?
Luke: Hahaha, why do you ask that?
Paul: That was my first thought about Out of the Woods, that it’s the stations of the cross with cottaging.
Luke: Really? The Stations of the Cross was not something that I was actually terribly aware of. I think that’s more of a Catholic thing.
Paul: You’ve fucked my theory.
Luke: Just say it anyway. It’s superb. How so? Thematically?
Paul: No, literally. After you’ve fallen into the picture in the first chapter, we follow you with a cross on your back on this gnarly and epic road to redemption.
Paul: You find your God-like figure along the way, your Judas and your twenty pieces of silver. It’s all there.
Luke: I love this. That’s really interesting. That’s what’s weird about this book. About all books, I suppose. You end up with something that unconsciously you didn’t think it would be. You go into it and then suddenly all this stuff appears. That’s amazing.
Paul: When you’re going through that heart-breaking suicidal episode it feels very much like your crucifixion. There’s a wonky Easter Sunday moment at the end. It’s all about that journey towards rebirth.
Luke: I love this theological reading of it. But that’s Catholic. With Methodism, I guess it’s more the state of your personal connection to God and community. There’s a lot less of those formal stories. It’s more exposition from bible passages. My dad’s such an amazing preacher. He’ll have his bible verse and he’ll say friends, I have these three points to make and bang, bang, bang: there it is.
Paul: Is that where your storytelling capacity comes from?
Luke: I think it’s an inherited thing, yes.
Paul: And your exhibitionism?
Luke: I guess you… could say that.
Paul: You have a performer in the family.
Luke: He really is. And he’s brilliant. He’s an amazing preacher.
Paul: Do you look alike?
Luke: Yes. And what’s been very odd is that when I’ve been doing readings, I sound like him too. I did a proper lecture about forests and literature at Unsound Festival with a lectern and a microphone and I was thinking, this is really quite strange.
Paul: Because you are now your dad?
Luke: Yes. That’s quite bizarre.
Paul: From the way you write about him in the book I’d guess that would be a nice feeling for you?
Luke: It is. But then there’s always that thing where I feel a bit guilty and sad. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a vicar. I used to do little services at home. And that’s why it felt like I was such a disappointment.
Paul: Were you aware of how much religion was going to be in the book?
Luke: I wasn’t really even aware of it until I recorded the audio book. I still thought of it as a book about forests and what’s natural. No. This is not a book about forests at all. It’s about religion and sex and shame.
Paul: Have you at least partially freed yourself from that shame by writing about it?
Luke: Yes, to an extent. Writing it and having a very good therapist. Everyone feels shame and I think it’s one of those things that we don’t discuss. Have I got rid of the shame? I know how to deal with it now. Shame is such a rival of intimacy. It really gnaws at you in a horrible, horrible way. And then it leads you to self-abase more and more. Then it stops becoming kinky and just starts being depressing.
Paul: You talk about your first experience of cruising in the language of abuse. Before the internet there was literally no other way for us suburban teenagers to other meet gay people.
Luke: It all depends on individual experience. I think for some people those experiences can work and it’s fine. I was not in a position in any way psychologically to deal with that. That first guy was repulsive. It was grotesque. And he had the power. They all did, those fellows. They know if it’s a teenager who’s quite confident and sure of themselves. I was pretty obviously not. But I do think it’s unique for everyone. I’ve had gay friends who went through that and seemingly it didn’t damage them at all. When I wrote about it previously, on The Quietus, I got a lot of really moving private emails from people saying similar things had happened and it had totally messed them up. It’s listening to individual people’s experiences. And, at 14, it is technically statutory rape of a minor. It is legally rape.
Paul: You write about the happiness and sadness of sex really beautifully. The Berlin episode with its deflating anti-climax is such a new way of reading about sex.
Luke: Yeah. And it really was an anti-climax. I mean, he was literally the hottest man I’ve ever seen in that context. It was just mind-blowing. And then something changed. It was very strange.
Paul: Did you find writing about sex easy?
Luke: Yes, I did. Not the toilet stuff which, to be honest, I even find hard to read now. But the other bits, I quite enjoyed it. That’s the interesting thing with cruising. It’s almost like the anticipation and the lead up are the best bit.
Paul: The little rush up your spine and then, bang, game on?
Luke: Hmm. There’s no point after that.
Paul: Then you’re down the vortex.
Luke: That was the thing, when it became that I could not not go into the vortex. That’s when it became a problem. Hang on, I’m here? What am I doing? I wrote the cruising stuff to give voice to the people, those closeted people, the ‘straight’ men, the bisexuals…
Paul: I think ‘MSM’ is the technical term, at least in sexual health terminology.
Luke: What does that mean?
Paul: Men – meaning who identify as straight men – who have sex with men.
Luke: Right. In cruising, particularly now with apps, these are the people who can’t even have Grindr on their phone, because they can’t risk being caught. Why have you got dick-pics on your phone? Those spaces are such marginalised communities. There are people from the gay world who enjoy it and even fetishize it. There’s a car park up in Epping Forest at the Northern most part of the forest. I’ve never been up there cruising but I’ve done a lot of walks up there and the man who lived in the forest lives up there, so I’d be walking around a lot, thinking, you know what, there’s a lot of plumbers parked up next to the car park. Are there really a lot of gay plumbers in West Essex? I don’t think there are, are there? It’s that closeted straight bloke who goes cruising. I wanted to give, I wouldn’t say a voice to those people. But I wanted to give their side of this story.
Paul: Is bisexuality a culturally lonely place to live in?
Luke: Yeah. Bisexual men… I was really into Grindr when I first got it. I was just boom, download Grindr and off we go. I was on Gaydar way back. I wanted to talk to any bisexual men and I just hadn’t really met any out ones. I work in the bloody music industry. You’d think that would be the most fertile ground for it.
Paul: It’s very different for men and women, I think. There are so many super successful, smart and amazing women who talk about relationships with men and women, Cara Delevingne, Kristen Stewart, Janelle Monae, Nicki Minaj, Miley Cyrus, Stella Maxwell, Rita Ora, even Lindsay Lohan for a minute.
Luke: Oh yeah, there are so many. I follow Pink News on Twitter and there’s always some pop star giving an earnest interview about her bisexuality. Men? Nothing. Gay people would tell me, ‘give it a few years, wait til your parents die, then let’s see.’ Which really messes with your head. Particularly when you’ve come from a really strong religious upbringing. How deep is my repression? It’s only really been in the last few years, through writing the book and being in therapy that I haven’t had this constant feeling that I must just be a really repressed, messed-up homosexual who’s just sleeping with women and having relationships with women to please his parents or society. It just forces you into this really turbulent, self-divisive way of thinking. One of the weird things about being bisexual is that you do spend a lot of time thinking, I do wish I was just gay. I love gay energy. I love gay clubs. The shared community of it. The togetherness and the solidarity. But I never felt I could be part of it, because you’re 50%, and that’s not gay enough.
Paul: Did you not feel attraction toward having a relationship with a man? Was it only ever about sex?
Luke: I have done. There’s been really big, disastrous crushes on straight men. There’s one particular friendship which was incredibly close. I didn’t even realise it at the time but looking back I was massively in love with him. There’s been other guys. But there was never a big love. Actually, that’s something I’m quite sad about, to be honest. It’s frustrating to think that that’s a part of sexuality that I have missed out on.
Paul: What do you think sin is, Luke?
Luke: It’s definitely not what’s defined in the bible.
Paul: What is it?
Luke: I think it’s something that damages the self and others around you. That’s it. With sex and sexuality, I didn’t ask for forgiveness. Because that is not wrong. Don’t tell me to feel disgust at something society tells me is disgusting anyway. And where did that come from, by the way? I’m not asking for forgiveness for this because there is nothing to forgive. This is nonsense.
Paul: What is love?
Luke: I think that’s harder. My dad does a really good sermon on the different kinds of love. I don’t know, is the answer. That’s the hardest question. The hardest thing with love is that it’s been narrowed and reduced and turned into clichés. I don’t know what it is. It’s a feeling that’s incredibly complicated but not in a warm-hearted, emotional way. I think love can be quite challenging and disturbing and terrifying. I’ve definitely pushed love away because it forces you to confront yourself. It’s a surrender and an acceptance. And an awareness that it’s something that will be constantly negotiated and evolve. It’s such a short little word that’s been so ossified. When actually it’s a dynamic, fiery, awesome thing.
Paul: Which is exactly the way you write about the forest.
Luke: Exactly, yes.
Paul: Is it any accident that the last three words of the book are ‘mum and dad’?
Luke: What do you mean?
Paul: Did you write Out of The Woods for them?
Luke: Sorry [catches breath]. No, no. I mean… of course it is. But what’s very odd is I’m still in this do-I-want-them-to-read-it thing. It’d be difficult. It’s odd. It’s the one question I haven’t consciously asked myself yet. But yes, it is. It is. The thing with it is that it’s quite a live old thing emotionally for me, still.
Paul: They’re your mum and dad. The only thing they don’t know about you from the book are the details. You’re their son and you’re beautiful in the book and you’re consciously writing your beautiful self into it.
Luke: Thank you. I guess it is. I was really struggling with how much to put in, really wanting to put everything in. But what would be the impact on people around me? And my mum said, ‘you have to write what you have to write.’ She’s amazing.
Paul: The most Christian aspect of the book to me is the lovely way you write about them.
Luke: But they are totally my heroes. People see the vicar in him and he’s this powerful man and it’s patriarchal. But that’s not really the case with them. They’re such a team. They’re great.
Paul: Also, it’s your mum and dad. They are you. They shaped it.
Luke: For better or for worse.
‘Out Of The Woods’ is published by Orion on 24th January 2019
Jon McCormack is an Irish illustrator and storyboard artist based in Barcelona, Spain. His work focuses on surreal imagery, queer identity and absurd humour.