The Art Of Camping, Matthew De Abaitua (2011)

An entertaining medition on the history and meaning of sleeping out

Hamish Hamilton 9780141968957 304 pp paperback £14.00

The histories’ of cycling and camping are inextricably entwined, as De Abaitua acknowledges. Thomas Hiram Holding, has a good claim to be the father of modern camping, for example. His 1908 book, The Campers Handbook, played a significant role in popularising sleeping under the starts, at least the the UK. And a quick perusal of this tome reveals it to be at least as much about pedalling to the campsite, as it is about making and pitching tents.

De Abaitua, on the other hand, is one of the legions who, as a general rule, drive to the campsite and, although that does skew slightly his concept of where camping begins and ends, it does not deflect from an enjoyable meditation on what it is to holiday under canvas.

The technology and sociology of taking a tent for your home, detain him only occasionally. Don’t pick up this book if you are looking to tips on what sort of canvas is best for a tent, or whether a three-season sleeping bag will keep you warm in the Cairngorms next spring. In their place is a rattle-bag of stories of some of the quirkier organised groups that have adopted camping into their liturgy, the Kindred of the Kibbo Kith, and the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry, among them.

Here too is the tale of the Philosophers Camp of 1858, when Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell and Louis Agassiz and others summered in the Adriondacks and through their subsequent writings, irrevocably changed American attitudes to ‘the wilderness’.

Like most history, this is the tale of that which was recorded – the great men like Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone, for example, who famously camped together – and were written up in the press. Or the groups of which histories already exist and for which archives are maintained. Those of us who have never joined a camping organisation, and very rarely used a formal campsite do not feature here.

The book’s format is now very familiar – blending, as it does, the story of an author’s quirky, personal fascination, with a journalistic history of the passtime. De Abaitua, however, is deft enough to deliver a compelling tale. It touched very little on my own campfire experiences, but was a distracting entertainment and did leave me yearning to get out under canvas once again.

TD Aug 12

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