Sallie Eden talks to Hugh Ashton, whose delightful book, ‘Mapp at Fifty’ is reviewed this month on Roseland Online
Now living in Lichfield, for many years Hugh lived in Japan, having developed an interest in the country after attending his best friend’s wedding there. He paid his way by writing an article for a magazine on the design and marketing of electronic musical instruments in Japan. That led to a two-year contract and a total stay of almost 30 years, most of it working as a freelancer. Along the way, he met and married Yoshiko, returning to the UK in 2016.
With a career and range of interests as wide as Hugh’s, it was difficult to know where to start but, as I’ve reviewed his latest book this month that seemed to be as good a place as any, so I began by asking him about his love of EF Benson’s Mapp & Lucia books.
He explained “I first discovered the inhabitants of Riseholme and Tilling while I was at college. Some friends introduced me to them, and I really enjoyed the stories, though a lot of Benson’s subtlety washed over me at the time. They have been a part of my life ever since – they are books that never really get old. The characters gradually reveal parts of themselves in a few casual words, or via a little aside by the narrator, and you fall in love with them all over again. Another thing about them is that they are not really novels, but rather slices of life, divided into little incidents which may or may not have a connection. As an example, take the closing sentence of ‘Mapp and Lucia’: ‘Then everyone began to talk in a great hurry’. Now, what sort of way is that to end a novel? But really, it’s an excellent way to end a chronicle of events, leaving the reader to wonder what happens next.”
“I decided to write ‘Mapp at Fifty’ as a sort of challenge or, rather, two or three challenges: one is the imitation of Benson’s slightly dated style, which needs a very delicate touch if it’s not to degenerate into parody. Then there are the characters – you must become as sneaky and mean as Mapp, as devious, yet lovable as Lucia, as generous and warm-hearted as Georgie, and as cynical as Irene. And then you need a plot, based on misunderstandings, social niceties, some of which are as period as the language (for instance, there is no modern counterpart to Diva giving Janet her dress to wear as a weapon against Mapp).”
I wondered what gave Hugh the idea to share extracts on Facebook and whether it was helpful.
“The Mapp and Lucia Facebook group was a real inspiration for me – so many people on there love Tilling, and there just aren’t enough Benson originals. I don’t read other people’s pastiches, for fear of accidentally stealing their ideas and plotlines. Putting little bits of the draft story on Facebook was a mixture of arrogance and uncertainty. I am sometimes proud of what I have written, yet also uncertain whether I have got it right, or got the right tone. And yes, it was asking for help and corrections, like the date of Mapp’s birthday, or the fish that Hopkins would sell at that time of year. So… thank you everyone who commented on these posts, or liked them, and pushed me towards writing THE END and getting the book out there.”
But Hugh doesn’t just write about and love the doyennes of Tilling, he also admires the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and has written several Sherlock Holmes adventures, very much reflecting the original style. As he says, “I sometimes describe myself as a “literary Zelig”, with little or no character of my own. I take on other people’s ideas and styles. I’ve written – oh dear, I’ve lost count – many such stories and they are very much welcomed by the Sherlockian community. I always try to make them stories mentioned by Dr Watson (the “Untold Tales”) such as the case of ‘Isadora Persano, the well-known journalist and duellist, who was found stark staring mad with a matchbox in front of him which contained a remarkable worm, said to be unknown to science’.”
“In addition to these adventures, which were purportedly found in tin boxes once belonging to John Watson, stored in a London bank and then presented to me, I’ve written a few stories about Japan and a couple of quirky thrillers, at least partly set there, a couple of alternative histories, in which the American Civil War was never fought and the Confederacy survives and some historical science fiction. I have also written some children’s books (the Sherlock Ferret series), written in collaboration with my Tokyo-based friend Andy Boerger, who drew some lovely illustrations for them. Oh, and I’ve written a few short stories (some of which are in a collection called Unknown Quantities).”*
I asked Hugh whether he always wanted to be a writer and he says “I suppose so. In fact, I’ve been a writer for a very long time, even though my first novel was only published about 12 years ago. My work involved technical writing, journalism, and so on which certainly give you the foundations of writing literate prose. I currently write at home, with a 27-inch screen and half-a-dozen programs running at the same time. I do a range of work – I’m a consultant/contractor for high-tech and financial companies and I am also a local councillor. After all, I need to stay in touch with the 21st century, even when I’m walking down Porpoise Street or taking a hansom cab along Baker Street!”
You’ve heard the expression ‘if you want something doing ask a busy person’, well Hugh is obviously just such a person. Not content with his technical writing and his splendid books, he also recently appeared on Mastermind#. He says “I’ve always been a know-it-all, so I applied for Mastermind, thinking I stood a chance. A few telephone general knowledge quizzes and a face-to-face interview later, and I found myself in the black chair in Belfast, where it is now produced. Mapp and Lucia was a great subject – even though I made a complete hash of the first question because I wasn’t tuned in properly to the questioning. I had enormous fun and enjoyed meeting all the other contenders and the staff – one of the great things about the show is how well everyone gets on with each other. I am Facebook friends with five of the finalists, for example. I made it through to the semi-final but missed the final by a gnat’s whisker – so next time I hope to do even better – and there will be a next time, I hope.”
So, what else? Hugh and Yoshiko attend Litchfield Cathedral regularly and are very much involved in the local community. “I try to give something back in my role as a City (parish) Councillor. I do a few other things too, including helping with the night shelter for rough sleepers, and something called Places of Welcome, which provides tea and a chat for lonely people.”
“I play music (keyboards and a few other instruments), and read quite a lot of non-fiction, tending to admire books rather than authors, although Benson is obviously one I do enjoy, also Susanna Clark, Edgar Wallace, Christopher Marlowe, Dashiell Hammett, Arthur Conan Doyle and Ruth Rendell. I tend not to like fictional TV or films, but I have a few favourites, although I’m rather out of touch with modern pop culture. Living abroad for the best part of 30 years can do that to you!”
Finally, I asked Hugh what he is planning next. This is what he said:
“Planning? What is this ‘planning’ of which you speak? I’m working on a sequel to Mapp at Fifty. Other than that …..
*The full list of Hugh’s books is at https://hughashtonbooks.com
#I watched it on tv. It was incredibly stressful