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Robert Ashton

A Self-Portrait

Photo of Robert Ashton

Emergence

For almost 50 years now (perhaps longer if I thought whilst n my mother’s womb) I have been wondering who I am and why I am here. Of course I know that I am the product of my parents’ sexual union, but that was an act I could not influence. The randomness of my creation, the chance meeting of my parents, their romance and subsequent couplings, of which one resulted in my emergence into what we call the world.

In fact my parents shaped my early years more perhaps than they would today have wished. Conformity and discipline had defined their own upbringings at a time when war placed societal constraints on almost every aspect of the sense of freedom we now take for granted. That’s not to say that I feel that the war was won or lost, merely that the conflict which turned fellow Europeans against one another, created a backdrop of tension which to my then adolescent parents would have appeared to represent normality.

It is not perhaps surprising therefore, that in my early years the urge to rebel was suppressed only by a growing feeling that I was in some way incomplete and thus not capable of insurgence unless somehow, it was directed against myself. That feeling of inadequacy was I suspect derived from my parents’ own lack of self confidence as hand in hand, they faced the bewildering range of choices in the fast changing post-war era. Transport, technology and tradition was rapidly evolving, forcing them to flee, trapped between yesterday’s expectations or the present time’s reality.

Encouraged to play alone, I later learned to prefer my own company and to avoid incidents that would place me in any shade of limelight. School was where this could most easily be achieved and by choosing not to achieve, I managed the twin objectives of remaining unnoticed and of rebelling against the parental desire for academic achievement.

Evolution

By a process of following the course of least resistance (literally!), I studied agriculture and did just enough work to leave college with the necessary piece of paper. My choice had been determined solely by the fact that I enjoyed my weekend job on a local farm. The subsequent career, selling to farmers, enabled me to develop some basic interpersonal skills. Luckily, farmers are not themselves a particularly outgoing group so my lack of confidence, which largely mirrored their own, became in a perverse sort of way, as asset. I continued to return at weekends to the farm where I had enjoyed so many school holidays, eventually marrying the farmer’s daughter.

Shortly before our wedding, my father died suddenly having endured a very unhappy two years alone since my mother died, also unexpectedly, leaving him to fend for himself. His GP, who had been on holiday at the time,  confided that he suspected suicide, but in fact it was simply the cumulative effect of 40 cigarettes and a bottle of whisky a day, coupled with carry too much weight and a total lack of exercise and an ever growing burden of guilt.

With no father to rebel against, I continued to compete and threw myself into a progressively more challenging sales and marketing career. The desire and ability to influence others grew strong, although outside the context of work, I remained unconfident in the company of others.

I became daring and left the relative safety of my employer of almost ten years, to join a smaller firm in an industry I did not know. Through sheer hard work and determination I succeeded there, although towards the end, the pressure of my self imposed regime led to cracks appearing. Paradoxically, my success was also my downfall for I became increasingly intolerant of the inability of those around me to see the business world through my eyes. Redundancy was the result.

What followed was a retrospect of my career thus far, but this time experienced from the context of self-employment. Two successful marketing businesses later, one sold to a partner, the other to the team, I find myself at the brink of a new career as a writer, thinker and recognised small business expert. The bruises gained in building businesses, where mistakes were only marginally outnumbered by material gain, gave me a unique perspective that I now share.

Emotions

My emotional development was chaotic. It would be too easy to lay the blame at my parents’ bedside and indeed, for many years I did just that, balancing my professional outward self with an inner turmoil driven by the need to prove something to parents now unable to acknowledge me from their respective graves

Puberty, for most of us a time of trial, for me coincided (or perhaps even triggered) the opening of a decade of deviant behaviour by my father that tore him apart as he wrestled with the beast that consumed him from the inside. Subsequent textbook research during a three year period of psychotherapy enabled me to recognise that I was not unique and that in reality, my parents early deaths were a blessing for us all.

Seems odd that before dealing with my past, I had managed to marry and stay married, together with Belinda raising two high achieving and seemingly balanced children. Life for me was rather like driving 300 miles blindfolded and only when the engine stops, realising how close you must have come to disaster so many times along the way.

Emotionally, I am now more open and capable of the feelings so long concealed within the prison of my mind. This dimension of me gives me now a tremendous tolerance of those around me, many themselves coming to terms with themselves. Whilst emotionally cautious, I no longer regard myself as damaged.

Experience

Small business is today my specialist subject. Entrepreneurship has the power to unlock personal potential, deliver dreams and gild the lives of those who embrace it. Furthermore, accepting that wealth is a transient, abstract thing, success in business enables true philanthropy, patronage and positivity to emerge.

Having managed to find myself in so many ways, I have chosen now to make my living helping others ride the rocky rapids that inevitably disrupt the flow of small business establishment and growth. The past two years have seen the commissioning and completion of four business ‘how to’ books, published by Hodder & Stoughton, Hamlyn and Prentice Hall. These, along with some focused marketing effort, have led to a fast emerging career as a business speaker. To avoid my fear of losing touch with the reality of entrepreneurship, at any one time I have a small portfolio of businesses where I join the team at the coalface and pick up my share of bruises as we batter our way through the growth barriers.

Expression

Mid life, if 49 can be thus described, presents ample opportunity for reflection and the re-appraisal of previously appealing objectives. The perceived risk of living life like a clichéd character in an Alan Bennett play, or worse to follow the path to a personal Armageddon, perhaps different to my fathers but no less fatal, looms large and loud. Do others of my era and nature feel these same fears? Of course they must do, even if they choose not to share them. Thus this period of my life marks a philosophical journey, where discoveries are made and perhaps shared through words, considered, written and perhaps spoken. It is as if the work with small businesses that pays the bills, is in fact simply a rehearsal for the real thing. That thing, yet impossible to clearly see or express, has to be my final and long awaited emotional, spiritual and physical integration into that community we call people. No longer can I hide with animals, as in my early years. The façade of commercial endeavour does no more than fuel the journey. What then is my destination?

Of course traditionally, this is the point for exploring religious beliefs and rudely thrusting my life’s baton into the hand of a convenient if non-existent leader called God. Alas, my faith rests within myself and although pre-described deities are as convenient and comfortable as new jeans from the high street, I need to tailor my own spiritual suit to cover the nakedness of my non-belief. Humanism and the thinkers who offer their own edicts to mark the path to self fulfilment, is currently where I have chosen to rest awhile to ponder. Do I simply become another who offers ideals and ideas? Do I re-format the words of others and voice them as my own? This for me, as my 50th birthday clicks daily closer on the countdown of life, is the point I need to muse. It is the question that prompted me to seek out and listen to the words of Theodore Zeldin, to read ‘Conversation’ and to consider his stance on the point of it all.

Eternity

My final chapter is not yet written, for first the pen must pass between the hands of those who know me, before finally, a biographical ink trail is laid on crisp white paper. My view is that my 50s will be my finest decade for it will combine maturity with freedom, self knowledge with empathy and will be the decade when I will achieve true emotional security. My children will emerge from university and embark on their own career journeys, indeed they are already beginning to voice some fascinating ambitions which demonstrate a surprisingly mature commitment to balancing work with play.

I have chosen to enlist the help of a man called Martin to provide a foil for my self-understanding. His own death, on 19th January this year revealed a wealth of personal writing that through good fortune is now in my care. Researching and writing Martin’s story and the opportunities for comparison its publication will provide, will enable me to predict my own destiny and prepare to undertake the tasks for which my life thus far has prepared me.

The past few weeks have shown me that in fact Martin’s story will be to an extent a retrospective study of my own emotional development, presented with his against the backcloth of humanity’s struggle to find love in a world burdened by self inflicted pain. This project is huge and needs to be taken one step at a time. I am currently planning a book that explores some of the physical paradoxes we face in our lives as the 21st century presents a confusing array of choices to each and every one of us. This work will take me on the first step towards success as a ‘creative’ non fiction writer. The working title is in my mind, a pile of reference material growing beside my desk and a publisher identified, but not yet approached. My future is upon me today.    

November 2004