The Idler's Editor-at-Large Matthew De Abaitua on the art of camping
PUBLISHED: 15:20 20 September 2012 | UPDATED: 21:57 20 February 2013
Lewes writer Matthew De Abaitua, Editor-at-Large of The Idler magazine spends most of his days at his desk but loves the great outdoors. He talked to Veronica Groocock about his latest book and how Sussex helps his work
For a man who spends most days holed up in his study writing, Lewes writer Matthew De Abaitua is an unusually outdoors sort of person. But then his latest book is all about connecting with the land and he is not afraid of roughing it a little in the process. Called The Art of Camping The History and Practice of Sleeping Under the Stars, its an interesting mix of the practical and the quirky, focusing on camping movements of the past as well as the nuts and bolts of what to pack and how to cope with biting insects and mud.
Previous books on camping have tended to be how-to guides. Nobody, Matthew claims, has written a history of it before, and his is the first attempt to do so.
His passion for the subject began as a child growing up in Liverpool, and he recalls epic drives with his parents in the 1970s, from Merseyside through London and all the way down to the South of France. It took four days. Years later, he and his wife Cath did the same journey by Eurostar with a drink in my hand in an air-conditioned carriage. Perfect!
He became a committed camper. It was about having children and thinking what kind of life I wanted them to lead. I wanted them to enjoy the unstructured play that you get from nature. Also, Cath and I both like to be doing stuff I like making fires and camping is a holiday for people who dont like to sit on the beach.
And, although he does not pursue rain, he is no fair-weather camper. The book makes the point that to go camping and complain about the rain is like driving around London and complaining about the traffic!
At first, having no car, they did it the hard way on public transport. With their eldest child Alice, complete with tent, pushchair and all the gear, they headed for Ireland via bus, tube, train, plane, then bus again a tortuous-sounding experience which he recounts in the books opening chapter.
At the time they were living in Hackney, East London: a remorseless urban environment. Camping, he says, is a natural reaction to city life. People throughout history have chosen to get out of the cities, to experience weekends in nature. Thats what the origins of camping are about: leaving the city for a short time, then coming back again.
Five years ago, they quit London for Lewes and, basically, never looked back. In the early days, he travelled up and down to London four days a week a ruinous commute running websites for Channel Four. Now, as a more established writer, he is happily ensconced in a large rented flat in the centre of Lewes, with Cath and their three children: Alice (10), Alfred (5) and Florence (3).
Last summer they camped at numerous pop festivals, including Glastonbury and in Sussex West Dean, where they pitched their tent in the college gardens. There, he renewed his acquaintance with Tom Hodgkinson, editor of The Idler magazine, a radical publication dedicated to recapturing lost ideals and freedoms. Matthew is Editor-at-Large, and The Idler Academy had its own tent at the West Dean festival. He first became involved with the magazine during a stint as novelist Will Selfs amanuensis. It was a colourful period. We were living in Suffolk together in a rented cottage near Sizewell nuclear power reactor. I wanted to be a writer and he put me on to The Idler. They liked an article I wrote and printed it. He then spent six months doing work experience with the magazine - in return for oatcakes!
Lewes appealed to Matthew because of its tradition of resistance to authority and its long association with radical figures such as Tom Paine. The towns community spirit came into its own shortly before Florences birth. Matthew arrived back from London at midnight to find Cath in denial about being in labour. After a rapid phoning-around of local parents, a woman whom they hardly knew came over to pick up the other two children and take them to her home while a taxi rushed Matthew and Cath to the Princess Royal hospital in Haywards Heath.
He has found Lewes a much more creative place than London in which to work. My writing has been much better since Ive been here. I think its because London is just so incessant, and its hard to concentrate there, to do a long piece of prose.
His writing career began via a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, a prestigious springboard to success for any writer in the company of such literary luminaries as Malcolm Bradbury, Rose Tremain and Ian McEwan. He is currently working on his second novel. The first one, The Red Men, was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke sci-fi award, and negotiations are currently underway for it to be made into a film.
With the main camping season running from April to October, Matthew will be spending less time in his study than out of doors, under canvas, communing with the natural world. There are also plans for doing talks and curating events in London, some with Will Self.
And, since turning 40 last October, physical fitness has been very much a preoccupation of his. In the past I have put off stuff to do with the body and prioritised the brain. Now, Im realising that in order to get the most out of my mind as I get older, I will have to attend to the body as well. He takes the children swimming at Lewes Leisure Centre, and swims about four times a week: Forty lengths and 1,500 words per day is the plan, he says. The Downs are close by, and he intends to walk more. Thats a new development in my efforts to drop a dress size! he remarks, with a wry smile.
The Art of Camping The History and Practice of Sleeping Under the Stars, by Matthew De Abaitua, is published by Penguin, at 9.99.