William Ash and Brendan Foley

William Ash remembered at Writers’ Guild Awards

The following speech was given at the Writers’ Guild Awards 2015 ceremony by Brendan Foley, pictured above right with William Ash (1917-2014)

“Even in the Age of Tweets, it’s hard to sum up 96 years in five minutes, never mind the remarkable life of my friend and co-author Bill Ash. But here goes.

“Born at the same time as the Russian Revolution, a fact he never accepted as coincidence, by the age of six Bill was already fighting playground battles against bullies in Dallas, Texas. He was once goaded by older boys, some as old as seven, to fight his best friend. When his pal burst into tears, Bill turned around and clocked his largest tormentor. He was of course battered in return, but his path in life was set.

“Growing up in Texas and New Mexico, by the age of eight he had a mentor, George Coe, a whiskery old-timer with an index finger missing. He’d had it shot off in a gunfight when he rode with Billy the Kid and our Bill inherited his love of storytelling and adventure.

“He grew up in the hungry 1930s in genteel poverty, ‘not so much white collar as frayed collar’ he once said. But he managed to put himself through the University of Texas at Austin, including his first publishing venture, a Who’s Who of students with the only qualification for entry being the student’s ability to give Bill Ash three dollars.

“After college Bill ended up as a hobo, riding the rails in search of work. He briefly got a job as an elevator boy in a bank where he bumped into a former professor who asked if his employers knew he had an arts degree, with the highest honours. ‘Yes’, said Bill, ‘but they’ve agreed to overlook it.’

“Then came the war and Bill replaced his cattle car with a Spitfire courtesy of the Royal Canadian Airforce. His US citizenship was revoked for joining up while America was still neutral. His arrival in England in 1941 started a lifelong love affair with his adopted country, and a few love affairs of a more traditional nature as he and his fellow pilots partied in Blitz-torn London at night and risked their lives for us over the English Channel by day.

“In early 1942 Bill’s luck ran out and he was blown out of the sky over the Pas-de-Calais. Losing altitude, his engine on fire, he turned his beloved Spitfire towards his enemies, but his guns were dead. As the enemy guns blazed he found himself closing his eyes, pressing the gun button and shouting ‘Bang! Bang’

“He crash-landed, escaped and made it to Paris with the help of the Resistance, but there he was captured and tortured by the Gestapo. When they said they would shoot him unless he gave them the name of one French person who helped him, he shopped his French teacher back in Texas. He was saved from the Gestapo by the Luftwaffe who put him in the Great Escape camp Stalag Luft III. He thanked them by escaping 13 times over three years, events told in our book Under the Wire.

“His frequent trips to Solitary when recaptured made him the real-life Cooler King, and though he liked the movie The Great Escape he complained ‘In real life there was never a motorcycle around when I needed one’. Unlike Steve McQueen he spent his time in the Cooler not with a baseball and glove, but writing his first novel on scraps of paper while on bread and water punishment. And we complain about writer’s block… When he had finally finished, a guard came in and tore it into shreds of confetti in front of him. Bill was never a fan of censorship. He was however, a big fan of freedom.

“After the war he became an unusual combination of an MBE for his escaping activities and a Marxist because of all he had seen of fascism, exploitation and inequality. He had what he liked to call a ‘reverse career trajectory’ at the BBC, starting as their top man in India and retiring as a freelance script reader in the radio drama department. But if his battles and politics didn’t please his bosses, his kindness and willingness to help fellow writers made sure that every time he was booted out he was smuggled back in by former colleagues. He once met a former BBC Chair of Governors who asked him ‘Aren’t you Bill Ash and didn’t we fire you years ago?’ Bill exited the elevator with a smile – ‘Close, but no cigar.’

“He poured his enforced spare time into writing, ranging from his seminal The Way to Write Radio Drama, to political novels such as But My Fist is Free and The Longest Way Round, described by Anthony Burgess as the work of ‘a very considerable novelist’. Most sold modestly and he joked that future collectors would battle to find a ‘rare unsigned copy’. He edited the newspaper of his party the CPB (M-L) and he played a pivotal role in the fight to save the Soho Theatre. He was active in the Writers’ Guild and became Co-chair on two occasions in the 1980s and 1990s where, as always, he encouraged a new generation. He was a driving force behind the introduction of Candidate Membership. He was devoted to the children of his first marriage, Juliet and Francis, and to Ranjana, the love of his life.

“My five minutes is up. William Ash: hobo, fighter pilot, escape-artist, revolutionary and, above all, writer. The WGGB salutes you.”

Brendan Foley is a writer, producer and director and member of WGGB.