Matthew de Abaitua (2011) The Art of Camping, The History and Practice of Sleeping Under the Stars Hamish Hamilton, London; 284 pp.; ISBN 978-0-14-196895-7
Matthew de Abaitua has written an idiosyncratic take on modern camping, specifically looking at the UK, US and Germany. The subtitle promises a history, but apart from the obligatory nod to stone age man in the opening chapter and the occasional mention of ancient military camps, this book only reaches back to the early nineteenth century, and then with a very selective touch. It is mainly about organised camping, that new form of recreation that began to appear two centuries ago and which has arisen alongside increases in wealth.
In the pre-modern world, in many poor countries today, and for the poor in rich countries, camping is still part of a life cycle rather than a recreation. Shepherds, cattle herders, and those transporting livestock or goods over long distances all camped out as part of their work. Where I live, farmers camp out in shelters to watch over ripening crops and workers camp out at mining sites, gravel dredging spots on rivers, building sites in towns and cities, rubbish dumps and recycling grounds – for a myriad of jobs that keep the economic wheels spinning. In the not too distant past in Britain and the rest of Europe, families from the cities camped on farms to work during crop picking seasons – and on the hop farms of Kent even took their stilts. For those expelled from the rat race, camping out on the streets is often the only option. None of this gets a look-in as far as The Art of Camping goes. Instead, we see the rise of modern camping as an escape from city life and a way of regenerating the spirit and improving ourselves before returning to our shackles as wage slaves.
De Abaitua looks at the differing interpretations of modern camping. For many it was a way of toughening up modern men and boys (and later women and girls) in order to counter the degenerative effects of civilisation. In this regard it was intimately tied to fears about the end of empire. Such a view usually took a militaristic bent, evident in large organisations like the Hitler Youth and the Scouts, with their uniforms, ranks and imposed discipline. Many smaller groups copied this approach. A common concern was avoiding idle time – a euphemism for the busy time of sin and pleasure – so worthy activities became an unavoidable part of camp routine.
There were also groups which sought an alternative to modern capitalism through camping and communal ways of being in the outdoors. The book looks at a number of groups which took socialism in various guises as their leading principle, as well as fringe groups of mystics and naturists. There is a clear lineage to the hippie movement of the 1960s. During the Great Depression, socialist groups offered camping and work to unemployed men in order to restore their confidence, and similar groups have since offered opportunities to young criminal offenders to give them a vision of other ways to be. The latter has also been a marketing opportunity for the more militaristic groups, as modern boot camps show (de Abaitua avoids discussing these).
So it’s a potted history rather than a rigorous study that we get in this book, but an enjoyable one nonetheless and one which is replete with satisfying anecdotes. (There is a useful bibliography for anyone wanting to delve more deeply into the history.) The chapters are arranged according to the camping cycle, from packing and pitching to eventually striking camp and going home, and de Abaitua includes stories of his own camping experiences: from boyhood through his lager lout years to responsible fatherhood. He provides some insights into why he enjoys camping and his musings show a mix of the militaristic and mystic strands he describes in the book, though a greater degree of self-reflection would have enriched what he has to say.
In the first chapter he details the ordeal of getting him, his wife and baby daughter through London’s public transport system in order to fly to Ireland for a camping trip. It’s meant to be amusing, but what struck me most was the weight of possessions they felt obliged to carry with them. Camping has become a rich vein for consumerism. Like many other aspects of modern life, it is an excuse for buying endless things – pieces of equipment, utensils and gadgets, fancy tents and bedding, designer clothing, boots and shoes (and then the cream to treat the blisters they cause). De Abaitua’s wife Cath writes an appendix to the book that provides an essential packing list for going camping and no doubt many will find it helpful, but I was exhausted by the end of it.
Behind my house, in a small south-east Asian city, there is an empty patch of ground where an extended family of several adults and children has been camping out for over six months in order to recycle plastic and glass waste. They work, sleep, bathe, launder, cook, eat and drink there, though mercifully go to the toilet in an nearby building. I think that all their possessions would fit into one or two shopping bags. In this they are no different from the millions of other poor itinerant workers in many parts of Asia or the wider world. Their simplicity, doggedness and good humour are both humbling and instructive. I didn’t see anyone like them in this book.
De Abaitua believes that camping allows us to escape the pressures of modern capitalism, or in Thoreau’s words, our lives of ‘quiet desperation’. It gives us time to contemplate, to be with others on an equal footing, and to restore our confidence by making us more self-reliant. These are the things that make camping worthwhile, but as the author describes in the wake of the Glastonbury music festival, much of modern camping is also about mass consumption, mountains of trash and alienation from both other people and our environment. It seems that the cancerous, soul-destroying nature of capitalism has infected camping just like everything else. To his credit, de Abaitua has a vision of a different way forward. It’s a bit blurred and self-contradictory, but at least he’s making the effort.
Endnote: perhaps inevitably, the author and his wife also have a website full of musings, practical tips and a useful map of British sites that allow campfires. It’s a handy resource, but also comes packed with the blather of self-promotion that the modern English bourgeoisie seems congenitally unable to resist.