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A City is Not a Tree

Interview by Andrew Stevens.

Will Ashon is known to many as a novelist and founder of hip hop and grime label Big Dada – 3:AM caught up with him in a pub next to a roundabout to hear more about Strange Labyrinth (Granta), his ‘eccentric’ stumble around the wooded edge of London.

3:AM: Would you say Strange Labyrinth could be understood as ‘edgelands’ writing?

WA: I guess it could, yes. Certainly I’ve read the Edgelands book, though quite some time ago. In all honesty I’m not hugely interested in the taxonomy of books. If I was forced to pick a category, I’d probably prefer to think of it as an ‘eccentric’ book, where ‘eccentric’ is taken literally to mean ‘out of centre’ – I’ve always felt outside of any centre, even when I’m in it.

A category of ‘eccentric writing’ perhaps carries its own risks, though. What next? ‘Novelty tie’ writing? ‘Strapped to a husky while singing the Marseillaise’ writing? ‘Cutesy answers to serious questions’ writing? I resign from the Eccentricists.

3:AM: You say in the book that you’re not sure if you’re “entirely comfortable talking about using other people’s stories.  What is biography if not telling of another person’s tale?”

WA: In all honesty, I’m just not entirely comfortable.  It’s an authority issue, bound up with an ethical issue. Janet Malcolm would have something more cogent to say about it.

Green Man Interchange 1 (AS)

3:AM: You then begin the book in saying that your task as a writer on this occasion required ‘structure’ of sorts?

WA: I think – though I may have misremembered – I said it was my life that required some sort of structure, rather than my task as a writer. There’s an ongoing slapstick routine running through the book between me as narrator and me as actor in that narrative. I think the ‘structure’ line is probably me as narrator having a dig at me as actor – or the other way around? Beyond that, it was kind of a joke to start a book which is seemingly so structure-less with a plea for structure, though I’m not sure it’s one I got at the time.

3:AM: OK, so while you assembled some structure for your life while writing the book, it’s a piece of ‘assemblage’ writing: interrelated people, places, works of art, all have equal weight rather than one above all else?

WA: Assemblage is a good way to look at it, yeah. I thought of it as collage, which isn’t actually as good. Its strength – such as it is – lies in the interconnections, the resonances and echoes between the different stories, the way everything is joined together, rather than any dazzling originality of thought within any of those sections. I think that’s maybe more suited to me as a thinker than some grand theory or narrative.

3:AM: We both live close to the Forest, was the idea to write about it something that had bubbled under, perhaps while you wrote your novels? Why this rather than a novel set in the Forest?

WA: It actually came to me quite suddenly and I researched and wrote it in a fairly intense rush. As for why not fiction – I don’t know, really. It just felt right to do it this way. I think I’d kind of come to the end of the road – or the end of road – with fiction.

Also, when I wrote fiction I always felt that the point was to make it up.  Once I started researching I was doomed. Having said that, I think it reads in parts like a novel, and in other parts like non-fiction without authority, which is maybe a novel anyway…

3:AM: There’s not been a lot of books about the Forest in recent years, it’s mainly what you’ve indexed and the landmark old stuff like Percival’s London’s Forest, why do you think that is?

WA: I don’t know. I guess things come in and out of fashion. I just read today a review of Xan Brooks’ new novel, which is set in Epping Forest, I know Luke Turner from The Quietus has just sold a memoir that relates to Epping Forest, so maybe now there’s going to be a huge wave of them! Despite rather than because of mine, I should hasten to add. At the same time, I remember chatting to an agent about my idea early on and she said a book about Epping Forest was too narrow and that I needed to write it about lots of different woodlands, so maybe other people have been put off in the past.

3:AM: You mention the Forest’s owner and ‘conservator’, the City of London Corporation, its workings and recent history.  But if you go to the Forest now, there’s new signage which plays down the ‘City’ and highlights it being a ‘registered charity’, which sounds more benign?

WA: I gave a talk recently and blahed on about the Corporation, only for a very nice woman to come up to me at the end and say, “I’m from the evil Corporation.” She was very benign indeed.

3:AM: So its stewardship of the Forest is a good thing?

WA: Well, in an obvious way it’s a good thing – we still have the Forest.  One of the things that entertained me the most in the writing of this book was the way in which these contradictions reared up at every turn. I think, in fact, it’s hard to define what Epping Forest is all about without talking about contradiction, and the involvement of the Corporation is a great example of this. If you think of Crass‘s role in Stop the City during the early ’80s, the nucleus of activists at Claremont Road who formed Reclaim the Streets in the mid-90s and then the Corporation’s role in evicting the Occupy protestors from St Pauls, you kind of have the flawed dynamic of the book pretty much encapsulated. It’s similar to Robert Pogue Harrison’s suggestion that “an ecologist today cannot help but be a monarchist of sorts.” In which case, who the hell would want to be an ecologist?

Having said all that, you have to admire the sheer front of an organisation that has a stained glass window installed in its headquarters showing one of its former bosses slashing the throat of Wat Tyler. Their charitable work – such as managing Epping Forest – has to be understood partly as a centuries-old propaganda campaign to keep an independent power base for the financial sector, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the people actually managing the forest itself are anything other than sincere in their aims or motivations. It just means that their bosses like slaughtering rebellious peasants.

Green Man Interchange 2 (AS)

3:AM: The late, great and underrated Ken Campbell tip-toes throughout the book, making almost unprompted appearances.  You mention his connection to the Forest later in his life, but not the other aspects of Little Cornwall?

WA: Ken is indeed one of the central presences in the book – almost to the point of ruining my earlier comment about everything having equal weight. I think you’re right to describe him as underrated. A couple of people I told about the book early on were amazed I thought anyone should be interested in him. I think part of the reason for this is that while he always tried to be funny, he wasn’t always funny. But then he wasn’t necessarily aiming to be. The important thing was the formal decision to try to be funny and what that said about power and about the world. Actually being funny was beside the point – possibly even counterproductive. If he had always been funny, he would’ve been a comedian, and he wasn’t and didn’t want to be.

I don’t talk about Little Cornwall very much because while incredibly picturesque, it also seems a little bit posh – these days, anyway – and as such doesn’t seem to have quite the same disreputable brio you find clustering round Baldwin’s Hill, just a bit further north. I take my role as literary estate agent seriously and I don’t think Little Cornwall needs any help.

3:AM: I also like how in framing your territory beyond just what the legislation says, you manage to draw a line between the M11 Link Road protests around Claremont Road here in Leytonstone and the activities and history of Dial House.

WA: As I say quite early on, there are a number of forests in the book and only one of them is Epping Forest as it exists today. The territory I was interested in was a bit bigger, more diffuse, and also partly defined intellectually rather than geographically. Boundaries are boring.

I hope I managed to draw lines everywhere, but one was certainly between Dial House and Claremont Road.

3:AM: How familiar were you before writing the book with those protests/settlements?

WA: I didn’t move to London until the mid-90s so I really only saw the roads protest movement via TV reports etc. That being my route into it, I think I tended to buy into the ‘never trust a hippy’ rhetoric of the whole thing, and hence perhaps didn’t appreciate what it was about – that is, a resistance to enclosure (in this instance viewed through the prism of the car) rather than an attempt to ‘hug a tree’ – though there was some of that, too. Actually, as global warming accelerates and we’re all poisoned by diesel fumes in an attempt to halt the former – or at least hit emissions targets – there’s an argument that those protests are more relevant than ever. Plus, they’re an important waystation in the history of anti-authoritarianism in the UK, as well as a great example of politics as fun rather than joyless puritanism.

3:AM: Do you think they’re still relevant today?

WA: Who cares? Since when were writers the relevance police? I’m not sure I would’ve embarked on writing a book about a forest on the East London/West Essex border if relevance was my main concern. Do things have to be ‘relevant’ to be interesting? Isn’t that a rather worthy way to look at it?

3:AM: But your intent wasn’t to encyclopaedia the Forest, were you interested in any other characters in and around it who didn’t make the book?

WA: I was interested in everything but I also had to make lots of hard decisions. If you live locally and say you’re writing a book about something local everyone has something to tell you. Unlike a book, it’s endless. But there was a broader reason not to want to be ‘encyclopaedic’ – beyond temperament, which played a big part, too. I came to see the book as being about a stretch of land which is averse to authority. As such, I felt the book had to be averse to authority in some way, too. The biggest authority in any book is the author. There’s a tendency when writing, particularly in non-fiction, to cloak yourself in authority, in fake objectivity, to shut down discussion rather than open it up. So I wanted the book to be kind of obviously partial and one-sided and non-authoritative. It was important to be obviously incomplete.


Andrew Stevens is an associate editor of 3:AM and lives in East London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 28th, 2017.