21 March 2023

‘It’s almost like a puzzle. You have to construct in your head what’s going on.’: an extract from Will Ashon’s ‘The Passengers’

Posted by Will Ashon

The Passengers by Will Ashon, shortlisted for this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize, is a portrait of contemporary Britain told through a patchwork of voices, collected by Ashon over a period of three years. This extract, taken from the beginning of the book, gives a glimpse of the extraordinary collective portrait woven from these disparate, anonymous voices.


I want to stay and stay and never go.


So that’s the thing. Like you said, it’s interconnected. Everything is interconnected.


Life is a flux. It’s constantly moving. It’s like a river – it just carries on, it happens and moves, it changes.


It’s beautiful to share, you know. I think we are here to share. Share happiness, share love, share our things. Our things are not for ourselves. They are better when we share them.


We stopped next to these fir trees and my daughter said, What’s that noise? What’s going on? We’re looking around for this strange buzzing sound, for this noise. And eventually we looked up and the trees were covered, literally covered, in bees.


There’s so much room for projection. You can read anything into anything. Sometimes when I’m sad I’ll text my boyfriend and then, whatever he replies it will read as unsympathetic. You know what I mean? It doesn’t really matter what it says because you’re in that headspace.


I see a bit of mopping up ahead. I do think it’s had an effect on some people’s mindset, in terms of going out, doing normal things. It’s really affected people’s mental health, a lot of people. What’s next is very much, I don’t know how to put it, but almost realigning ourselves back to day-to-day living.


I tried killing myself. I tried hanging myself after I come out. It actually helped with my PTSD because I’ve got brain damage to me memory, so I can’t remember a lot of me time in the army, do you know what I mean? It kinda worked, kinda helped in a way, yeah [laughs]. I was hanging for that long that I damaged me memory.


I’m moving waste, so regardless of recession or them putting the walls up or closing borders or making it difficult for trade and all the rest of it, it doesn’t really affect me that much. Because London produces waste and it’s always going to. Do you know what I mean? It’s got to go. It doesn’t matter what state of the economy or what affairs are going on, waste has got to move.


It’s almost like a puzzle. You have to construct in your head what’s going on. Which can be different things, depending on what you see. You don’t know what’s going on and it’s like this is a message for you. This is the note that tells you what’s going on and you need to understand it but then you can’t really read it. It’s like a message in a bottle. It doesn’t say something about a particular time in history but it’s like a construction of that period instead.


I believe that there are people in life who you meet for a certain reason – and people can bring out certain aspects of your character that maybe you didn’t know were there. You’ve met them for a reason and they’re beneficial to whoever you become or whoever you’re destined to become. At school we moved classes, so I got split up from my friends, but actually it turned out to be one of the best things that could’ve happened. I met so many new people who I feel really changed my life. People come into your life for a reason, because of fate.


I’ve been living here for a couple years but I’ve visited many times. Before I was born my parents lived here in the community. My parents actually met in the community and moved away when my mum was pregnant. They visited multiple times with me when I was growing up, for a week here and there. Some of my earliest memories are just randomly playing around the island. All the gardens have granite walls around them, and almost every young, active child who comes here wants to patrol the walls and walk around all the tops of the walls, around all the gardens, around all the houses. I remember doing that a lot when I was young.      


There’s not a lot of stuff that you can do about it to be fair. You’ve gotta try and rationalise it yourself. Speaking to people about it really helps – getting your feelings out and talking to others. I try and play a lot of sports. I play a lot of tennis and things like that just to try and calm me mind and whatnot. But yeah, it’s just really, really difficult. You’ve got to really try and keep yourself busy. And in my job it’s difficult, to be fair, because I spend so much time driving. Things just pop into my head for no particular reason whatsoever and then you’re sitting on your own re-thinking about it, re-thinking about it. And the craziest thing about it is you’re always questioning everything you do.      


His mum dreamed it was the Resurrection Day. The end of the world. She was out on a beach with the whole family and all of a sudden the waves of the sea were going all on top of us. And the whole world, every single person in the world, just came to where that sea is. And the water was going on top of us. I was running, trying to get to shelter or whatever. But there was nowhere to go – except that sea. In this particular dream, while everybody is running into that sea and getting under that particular wave that’s coming through, she was saying, Repent to God, repent to God, repent to God. Cos what’s about to happen is worse. In our religion we do translate dreams. It’s like a shaken message, y’know? It just shakes you, type of thing.      


It looks like it’s wobbly. The ground looks like it’s shaking or something. Because the pieces don’t quite fit, so it looks like it’s wobbly. The person might be wobbling. It looks like an optical illusion, because she’s standing but it looks like she’s sitting down at the same time. I think he took a picture and then maybe split the picture into pieces, like maybe gradually cut it and then fixed it together. It looks like it is one thing but then you realise it’s lots of little pieces. Like, this would be one country, that would be another country, that would be a different country. It would look like it’s one picture, but it would be lots of different pictures. Then you can kind of tell a story, cos there’ll be lots of ideas. Otherwise if you actually know what’s happening, it’s not that interesting.


Extracted from The Passengers by Will Ashon (Faber) which is shortlisted for the 2023 Rathbones Folio Prize. The winner is announced on Monday 27 March.

​​​Join Will Ashon, alongside the Rathbones Folio Prize judges Ali Smith, Jackie Kay and Guy Gunaratne and a stellar line-up of other shortlistees, at an event at the British Library on Sunday 26 March. Find out more and book tickets here.

Books mentioned in this blog post