This is my tribute to Joe Ashton: long-serving Labour MP, journalist, novelist and playwright – and one of my first writing and editing clients. He was diagnosed with dementia several years ago and sadly, he has passed away today.
His daughter, Lucy, who is a journalist at the Sheffield Star, has written a wonderful tribute to her dad: Lucy’s tribute to her dad, Joe Ashton.
When I first became a freelance writer and editor, I met Joe Ashton, who wanted someone to type, edit and organise the second volume of his memoirs, Joe Blow, concentrating on his vivid memories of his childhood in 1930s Attercliffe and during wartime.
Working with Joe on his book was sometimes a frustrating, time-consuming process, with lots of chops and changes, but also with an excitement and enthusiasm about words. I learned a lot about writing and how to communicate from Joe. In the end, together, we produced a book to be proud of. Many people bought it when it went on sale in the Sheffield Star shop, and the proceeds raised hundreds of pounds for the Salvation Army, Joe’s favourite charity. Here is a taster for the book which was featured in the Sheffield Star in 2014: The Bread and Dripping Generation.
At first, not knowing much about dementia then, I wasn’t too concerned when he said he was “losing words”, but after a while, it was clear that there was something seriously wrong. I was working with people with dementia by then, so I could recognise some of the symptoms. I haven’t seen him for several years, due to the deterioration of his symptoms, but I always thought of him fondly.
During this Covid 19 crisis, my usual part time job working with people with learning disabilities has transformed into a different sort of care job, working with vulnerable older people in their own homes, several of them with dementia. I’ve naturally been thinking of Joe a lot for the past few days. Hearing the news of his death is something I’ve been expecting for a while, but particularly poignant to hear it on BBC Radio Sheffield’s lunchtime news today. Lots of love to Joe’s family and friends.
Red Rose Blues – for Joe Ashton
This is the story of a good Labour man,
With a bad case of Red Rose Blues.
Born in the back streets, knowing the price of coal
Was too high, in the hungry thirties,
In the smoke-black terraces of Attercliffe,
Where even the sparrows coughed,
And the kids shivered and starved.
In a city where the Don was empty of life,
He could find a spark of soul in anything,
Even in the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Blitz,
When he watched his house burn down,
And they rescued their wireless from the flames –
But left its hire purchase bills to burn.
As he rebelled against grammar school life
In the posh part of town, refusing to wear uniform,
He learned that words were tools, weapons, an escape hatch.
Writing down the bones; telling the truth;
Even lying through your teeth could make the world a better place;
A way of escaping outdoor lavs and tin baths for everyone;
Words could weave streets in the sky, a shiny new city,
And make them come true, in glorious Technicolour.
His heart was stolen by a red-haired, red-hearted girl,
Who matched him word for word through good times and bad.
Together, they fought for a better world,
And sometimes, each other. But there was always love;
It always ran deep in him, like the fire to keep fighting.
He was born with a wild mind, collecting the small details of life
Like garden seeds germinating in his pocket.
By old age, it contained lost streets, theatres and picture palaces,
Spiralling out of him like tendrils of bindweed,
Like the corners of his eyebrows,
While the words he reached for escaped him like racing pigeons.
In the end, he got lost in his dreams.
In his mind, he was always still a snot-nosed kid with a holey jumper,
Running through Attercliffe’s broken wartime streets
A pile of scuffed library books in his arms.
By Anne Grange.