Hundreds of thousands of hardy souls are preparing for a few nights under canvas this summer, often facing sunburn or trench foot while giddily jumping up and down in a muddy field as bands maul their better-known hits. And yet, for most of these people, camping is something that they wouldn’t dream of doing except at music festivals, despite its convenience, lack of cost, green credentials and genuine sense of excitement and adventure.
This dichotomy, among many others, is explored with intelligence and wit in Matthew de Abaitua’s treatise on the values and social impact of camping. Subtitled ‘the history and practice of sleeping under the stars’, the book is roughly two parts an exploration of the history and background of camping and one part a personal memoir of de Abaitua’s own experiences. The obvious temptation would have been to have written a book that joins the slightly tired literary sub-genre of ‘writer indulges in unusual activity with hilarious/unexpected/heartwarming consequences’, but this is an altogether more sophisticated account.
In places it’s very funny (a description of food poisoning offers the cherishable observation, ‘there was the risk, what with my impending death, that driving might be beyond me’) but de Abaitua’s clear and passionate interest in camping for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end, ensures that his almost evangelical fervour for his subject is compelling and persuasive. When, in a chapter entitled ‘The perfect campsite’, he writes, simply, ‘My perfect campsite has a river running through it’ and goes on to write about the grace and fecundity of dawn choruses, solar-powered showers and even the ever-mercurial weather, he evokes a seductive rural idyll not a million miles away from Yeats’ ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’, or even the Romantic poets’ musing on the sublime.
Although Wordsworth and Coleridge were not known to be campers, happy or otherwise, many of their successors saw communing with the great outdoors as the most respectable way of casting off the shackles of bourgeois restriction and awaking the inner self, most notably a ‘Philosopher’s Camp’ in 1858, attended by such luminaries as the artist William James Stillman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and the scientist Louis Agassiz. As Stillman later wrote, ‘I think I gathered more insight into the character of my companions in our greener Arden ... than all our lives in the city could have given me.’
Not, of course, that camping was ever as unrestricted and free as that might appear. When the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a vast growth in interest and enthusiasm for camping, this was accompanied by movements both organised (such as Baden-Powell’s Scout group) and more mysterious, such as John Hargraves’ Kibbo Kift group, which arose out of his experiences in the trenches and featured ceremonial dress and symbolic naturalistic rituals. No wonder that, inevitably, the Hitler Youth featured camping as one of its central precepts.
De Abaitua is fully aware of all the ironies and difficulties in trying to whitewash camping as merely a wholesome and enjoyable outdoor pursuit, and to his credit he cites Orwell’s withering dismissal of the camper as ‘fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, nature-cure quack, pacifist and feminist’.
Yet his genuine engagement with both the idealistic and practical sides of camping (an appendix by his wife, Cath, provides a thorough packing list of necessities, a welcome and useful touch) means that this seductive account of the pleasures and benefits of a simpler life under canvas will leave all but the most craven with a desire to dig out their tents and head to pastures new.