Ancient Mariner of Acton Tells All
Local author to read and discuss new mystery novel
It's not every week you get an email about a local author doing a reading in the nearest large bookshop, so I was curious enough to request an interview with David Ashton and jumped on my bike to meet the Scottish Acton-based author earlier this week. I spoke to David about his writing career, his life, Acton, Ealing Council and singed sheeps heads.
It's not difficult to get this charming actor/author to talk. He has a gift for conversation which obviously spills onto his pen, typewriter or pc - whichever mode he uses to transfer his thoughts into print, onto the screen and the radio.
David started working life as an actor in 1967. He has had a long acting career and most recently played the father role in the movie The Last King of Scotland. Previous roles included Brass, Hamish MacBeth, Waking the Dead and The Voyage of Charles Darwin.
David started writing seriously in 1987 and won the Radio Times Drama Award for his play The Old Ladies at the Zoo. Since then, he has written more than a dozen original radio plays for the BBC. He originally created McLevy for Radio 4, as a four part series. It was broadcast in 2000. The series was a huge success and he has just been commissioned to write the sixth McLevy series. With one of the episodes attracting an audience of 1 million, Ashton has reason to feel confident about the McLevy character. There was even a 90-minute Christmas special broadcast last year in place of the usual Sherlock Holmes.
The McLevy novels - the first was entitled Shadow of the Serpent - were
inspired by the radio series but, Ashton says, "the books are different from
McLevy is played by Brian Cox (known as Scotland's answer to Marlon Brando) who flies across the Atlantic to record the role. Jean Brash, the brothel-keeper whom McLevy has affection for, is played by Siobhan Redmond.
The novels - and the radio series - are set in the 1880's but with contemporary relevance and are full of dirty tricks, politics and murder. Somehow, the word murder sounds so much better with a Scottish accent.
I asked David to tell me about his detective hero. "McLevy has a deep distrust of authority. He gets up in arms as soon as he sniffs it. He is mysteriously Catholic which he keeps secret, although obviously the reader knows that. The only thing he really believes in is justice. As his mother committed suicide when he was tiny he has a fear of madness and the inevitable guilt which goes with it. He also has a wild sense of humour and dances a nifty two-step. A man of many contradictions.
"His sex life is also a mystery. He has a healthy regard for the opposite sex. There is a femme fatale character in Fall from Grace. She was supposed to be incidental, but she kept banging at the door. The first time we meet her she's watching her husband's coffin being lowered into the ground." Ashton says he enjoys writing women characters. Don't ask me how, but when he tells me "I have a gift for writing them," it seems to me he's being modest.
I asked whether McLevy has much in common with his creator. "In some ways he's close to me, and in some ways not. His favourite food is singed sheep's head. He also likes salt herring and potato." This brings us neatly onto food. Ashton is a keen cook and is delighted with the Farmers Market. "I bought so much there last week I thought I was going to wrench my arms out of their sockets."
He moved to Acton (on the well-trodden path from Shepherd's Bush) 6 years ago and has "never regretted it for a moment. I really like the community here." He lives in Woodhurst Road "which is pretty much wall-to-wall arts and media." He took 3 months off a couple of years ago to write and direct a play at Derwentwater School. "It wasn't an easy play; the children had to rehearse after school, we were doing the whole thing at the same time as an Ofsted inspection and I was worried no one would relate to it. However, my reward was the feeling between the audience and the performers. They literally ate it up. It was a wonderful experience."
Writing and directing the play at Derwentwater seems to have given him a taste for bringing more of the arts to Acton. "I don't see culture as a divisive thing. Something like an Arts Centre in Acton would really bring the community together. People like Vicky Barker who runs the Apple project in Acton Park (and who helped him with the Derwentwater play) do amazing things for the community. I think we need to start a campaign for an arts centre on the site of the Oaks car park. A place where people could bring everything together from different cultures."
He gives me a warning: "Don't get me started, we'll be here for another three days. I'm like the Ancient Mariner bending the ears of councillors on the subject of Acton. I wish Ealing Council would actually do something instead of using Acton as a dumping ground for whatever they don't want. All we get is cheap housing. I approve of cheap housing. But why does it always get dumped in Acton? It's like a tale of two shopping centres. Look at the shopping centre in Ealing. What do we get here in Acton? The Oaks. And now they're building another one - in Ealing. Ealing gets so much and we get nothing."
He continues: "Acton used to have a distinct identity of its own. Did you know the 2nd great CND march in London started in Acton?" But before he can cast a mysterious spell over Acton, he sets off down what he calls the "alternative reality" of Churchfield Road back to Woodhurst Road to work on the new McLevy radio series.
November 2, 2007