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.