By Jonathan Sale
Thursday 25th November 2004
Ashley Walters, aka Asher D, is the So Solid Crew rapper who served seven months out of an 18-month sentence in a young offenders institution for illegal possession of a firearm. He appeared this year in Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads at the National Theatre, and his television work includes Grange Hill and The Murder of Stephen Lawrence. Sticks and Stones, his Channel 4 documentary on racist language, will be broadcast on Monday.
My dad spent a lot of time in prison; we were friends rather than father and son. Mr Quarless became like a father to me and a lot of the other boys; he was my first black teacher at St George’s Primary School in Camberwell, south-east London, where I grew up and still live. He was distinguished, well spoken – he drove a Range Rover! The rest of the school became jealous of our class; we were so close. He’d tell us stories; we would sing, play drums and go on sponsored walks. We always did our work; don’t get me wrong. He’d say: “Thirty sums – then you can have that story.”
We would go out to the playground when everyone else was in their classrooms. One day another teacher followed us out into the playground and – there may have been some tension between them – they squared up in front of us. Then Mr Quarless just laughed. He stood his ground but didn’t retaliate. He must have been sure of himself to be that calm.
My mother was – and is – a very strong woman; very strict. She was a serious mum; a feared parent. I’d think: “I’ve done well this year,” but there would be something wrong and I’d go to hell and back; she expected me to be 10 times as good as any other kid in the school. She never hit me, never smacked me, but there’d be mind games. Mental torture, man. Sometimes, if she was disappointed in me, she wouldn’t speak to me for two or three days. It was good for me but not a lot of fun at the time. She made me understand that nothing comes easily.
My mum put me into the Sylvia Young Theatre School aged four, and I’d go there at weekends. We would go for auditions. I was in Children of Eden at the Prince Edward Theatre and Oliver! at the Palladium. We would go for castings for adverts; I used to get the videos of my ads and the teacher used to make everyone watch them. Then I went to Pimlico [mixed comprehensive]. It has a good reputation for music but wasn’t that good then. I liked English and tolerated everything else. I did quite well [at GCSEs]: I got the highest grade in English, A* – and a B in French and food technology, but an E in science. I got a D in maths; I regret not having this knowledge. Quite a lot of the time the teacher doesn’t really get a chance to find out if everyone gets what he means. But I do know how to add, subtract and count my money.
I went to a branch of the City of Westminster College in Maida Vale to do drama, sociology and English literature. I stayed for three or four months. At the time I was very concerned with acting, music, making money. It was a lot of strain, doing those things at the same time.
A year later, I enrolled in another college, City and Islington, where I studied the same subjects and stayed approximately the same period. Then I got myself a four-week film shoot in South Africa and [my girlfriend] was expecting my first child at the same time. I decided to give my career a go.
I loved English and I tell kids that without English I wouldn’t be able to rap. I disliked a lot of lessons but knew that I had to be there to do what I do today. I tell the kids: “I went to school, man!”