Into the Woods with Will Ashon
As we sipped our beverages circumspectly under the most delicate rays of springtime (early summer?) sun, it struck me that Epping Forest, the subject of the author and former music journalist/label owner's latest, genre-splicing book, 'Strange Labyrinth', shared with the now Grade 1-listed library a certain well-contested element of controversy, as well as a slippery quality that lends itself to divided opinion and myth and counter-myth.
Billed as a loose-limbed interrogation of the cultural history and psycho-geography of the edge-lands of London's East End and the Essex countryside, Ashon's text is a smart, freewheeling hybrid that's part confessional and part exploration of the area's rich folklore and the myriad characters associated with it, halfway between a mid-life crisis tome and an existential dissection of man's doomed longing for wholeness. If that makes it sound a ball-breaking chore, rest assured that it's also stuffed with humour, much of it of the self-deprecating variety.
ASBO: How did the book evolve - did it become something different to how you imagined it at the beginning?
Will: I think so, yes. At first I thought it would be a pretty straightforward history of Epping Forest, but it quickly became something else. I think that’s partly due to my own personality but was mainly because of the central character in the book – the Forest. Once I’d established that character I had to come up with a form of book that suited it. The thread that links together the various people I write about in the book is a resistance to authority, which I think is characteristic of the forest itself. So I needed a non-authoritarian mode of writing. That also meant rejecting the figure of the ‘intrepid explorer’ which still haunts so much nature and psychogeographic writing.
ASBO: Are you drawn to cranky outsiders living outside the law or convention?
I suppose I am, though I’m certainly not one of them. And I’m definitely guilty of focussing on those people at the expense of other, more conventional figures. But then I think they’re most illustrative of what’s most exciting about this piece of land. And they’re also the most fun. I’m a magpie writer – I like shiny things and the book is made up of the shiniest stories.
The book derives much of its comedy from your self-avowed cowardice, not to mention your aversion to dogs?
It's a fact of life that if you go walking in Epping Forest you won't get further than half a mile without bumping into one. I'm genuinely scared, and they seem to sense your aversion. I really don't like Alsatians in particular. But it’s also a strategy. The main figure of authority in any book is the author, so it’s about taking some cheap shots at that authority, taking the piss out of that authority. As I say, I’m not interested in being the ‘intrepid explorer’ who tells you how to see and interpret the world. I’m too busy staggering about and running away from dogs.
One of the joys and ironies of the book, for me, is that it's littered with your slightly grumpy anti-hippy sentiments but ultimately your final, epiphanic conclusion could be construed as quite a hippy-like acceptance, an embracing of bifurcation and contradiction, that we don't 'find' but we keep on looking and searching, that incompleteness is the human condition?
Punk and hippy were two facets of the same thing, really, the same counter-cultural movment, the same anti-authoritarianism. When one exhausted itself another took over. That’s one of the things I learnt from Penny Rimbaud (of anarcho-punk legends Crass). As for the ending of the book, I think it's actually a bit more ambivalent in its conclusions than an 'epiphany', but I’m happy for it to be read that way.
ASBO: So what are you working on at the moment, your next project?
I am about half way through a book on the Wu-Tang Clan's debut album, 'Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)', which will hopefully come out in time to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of its release next year. I didn't want to write a standard, song-by-song, ‘making of’ treatment of the album. I’m hoping to create something more outward-looking, that places it in some kind of wider, wilder context.
ASBO: Since you left the music industry, the landscape has shifted irrevocably, hasn't it - what's your take on it?
Well for a start, I like the fact that I'm not constantly asked for 'opinion'! As an industry person every day of your working life is filled with having to hold an opinion on everything: this new album, that new video, this track, that technology. Now I'm away from that, there's something very liberating about not being part of it and not having to think about all that. From a musical point of view, I've been out of the game for four years and I'm so out of touch with the changes of those last four years. I love using Spotify and it's obviously incredibly convenient, but I find the connection between data (number of plays, likes etc) and which music gets taken up and promoted pretty depressing. Music used to be about gut feeling, now it’s just an algorithm.
Before the affable, erudite Ashon headed back to his Walthamstow stomping ground, he mused on the gentrification of London and the narrowing of the national curriculum before referencing an amusing interface with an audience member at the evening launching his book with Leytonstone's psychogeographer-in-chief John Rogers at The Wanstead Tap a few weeks earlier. As for writers seeking inspiration and guidance in their own quests, his parting advice for would-be authors is to "keep on writing, don't look back".