AWF18: Alex Wheatle at Schools Fest

Novelist, poet and DJ Alex Wheatle talked about his life and the stories that created it in this rich and entertaining session in Schools Fest.

alex wheatle
His mum had five kids in Jamaica, then left the violent relationship she’d been in to come to London. Alex was put in a children’s home in London when he was 3. He had a tough early life, in the home and foster care. He went to prison after the Brixton Riots for fighting the police.

They say write what you know – his childhood and teenage years certainly informed his fiction. He was, as a teenager, employed as a runner for a local crime lord. Lamar (Little Bit) is like he was, falling into crime and gang life without being sure it was the right thing to do, but feeling valued for the first time in his life doing these things.

Alex isn’t well-known in London as a writer, he is a youth worker. A mum once came to him and asked him to help her son out of a bad situation. He brought him into his youth club and did his best by him. Near Christmas they were due to go on a residential (canoe & rock climb), and this particular kid was really looking forward to it. He didn’t make it to the bus, then didn’t turn up at the club for four or five weeks.

An aunt came by the club and let him know what had happened – he had been stabbed and was fighting for his life. This is the reality of South London.

When Alex was 18, he went to court and all his friends had their families with them. He looked into the public gallery – he had no family, and this saw him to go prison suicidal. He went to Wormwood Scrubs, where he was pushed into a rank-smelling cell. On the top bunk was a rastaman, long white dreads,  one eye and no teeth. Next time this bedside cabinet was a pile of books. These books saved Alex’s life.

Alex was in a bad state by day 8, because every night this guy woke him up with a song, a psalm from the bible. He had the shakes, and a voice came to him, telling him all he needed to do to get some sleep was stab the rastaman. So that night, 3.30am, the torch goes on, the bible opens, and rastaman starts singing.

He didn’t know the guy knew karate.

After he was beaten, he cried. He told the rastaman his sad story, and he asked him ‘What have you done to change the situation.’ Nothing. The next day, the rastaman took him to the library and helped him choose a book. He got The Black Jacobeans by C.L.R. James.

After prison, he kept reading, and realised then he wanted to write about people like him. He first did this as a DJ in the clubs, then wrote plays, adult-oriented fiction, then the YA trilogy he is here to promote.

Throughout the session, he read from each of his three books, and that was when the audience’s attention dropped. As long he was story-telling without reading, they were captivated.

The audience had great questions. One asked whether he still knew the rastaman from prison – he does, and he sends him all of his books, where he lives in Jamaica. Each time he sends him a book, he gets back 10 page letters about how he could have done it better.

Another teen asked him how he made good. How he went from being a criminal to becoming a youth worker and writer. He said ‘Once somebody had faith in me I figured I could do good.’ He had been a victim of a cruel system.

He wants teenagers to know they are heard, that he sees them. I came away from the session with a lot of respect for him.

Alex Wheatle is part of a couple of events at the wider festival, the details of which are below. He is a genuine talent, with compassion to burn.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The trilogy is the Crongton trilogy, the third of which is:

Straight Outta Crongton

Go and see him in: Can we be Frank? with Erin Donoghue and Eileen Merriman
Friday 18 May 2018, 4-5pm

and in Best Best Showcase, with several other writers
Friday, 18 May 2018, 8.45 – 10.15pm


AWF18: Chris Riddell, at SchoolsFest

Written from notes taken at the Intermediate schools session at AWF18 SchoolsFest.

chris riddell insta sketch
Every time Chris made a mark on his paper it was bound for the centre of his story. I have never seen anybody tell stories and draw simultaneously with quite as much success as Chris. While there were dog-legs galore, at no point did he lose track of what he was saying, on words or in illustration. I guess that’s what comes of doing what he does for 30-odd years.

All of the students at this session seemed to know who they had come for, which speaks volumes in terms of how successful the teachers were in preparing them for this session.

Chris told the story of how he began his illustration career, with an image of him as a 3-year-old, drawing on his father’s Study walls with crayons. After that, his mother knew to keep plenty of paper in stock at all times. She used his love of drawing to her advantage, too – his father was a Vicar and he liked to cause mischief in church (he drew his mischief as he went). Loud mischief. So she bribed him – if he was quiet up until the sermon, she would give him a pencil and paper and let him draw: and there was a counter-bribe in the person of Mrs Stock, who would give him wine gums in return for his drawings. (I suspect these will turn up on Antiques Roadshow in about 50 years, when somebody realises their significance).

The result of this formative experience was that he realised early on that he wanted to draw, and be given wine gums for his drawings. Which, as he noted later, is exactly what he does – he is regularly met by fans with wine gums after his sessions (HOT TIP FOR THOSE ATTENDING TOMORROW NIGHT: WINE GUMS).

Chris was taught to draw – well, to illustrate – by Raymond Briggs. He particularly enjoyed drawing Alsatian from the Narnia books. He was an adult before he realised it was Aslan all along, and later put Alsatian the Lion Cub into his Goth Girl books. This story segued into how he had to live decorate a Snowdog (from Snowman and Snowdog) for charity, and decided on fur all over, realising too late that this would mean a bare bottom. A problem he solved with undies on the dog, with a sign ‘nothing to see here.’

If you have read Tara Black’s interview with Chris Riddell, you will know that when he shopped his books to publishers one eventually said ‘but where are your stories’. He promised to come back the next day with one, and spun out his first picture book Mr Underbed as a result. Thank you, Klaus with the mobile eyebrows, for appreciating his talent! (If you haven’t read Tara’s interview, do click through above. You’re welcome.)

An Editor at The Economist read The Trouble with Elephants to his child one night, then called Chris up and asked him if he’d like to do some political cartoons. Chris asked how much it paid ($$$!) and said YES PLEASE. So this stream of his work was born. He stayed there 9 years, and continues to work for The Guardian as a political cartoonist, an aspect of his work which he will engage more with tomorrow evening.

I can’t urge you enough if you haven’t got a ticket, to go and get one. Chris is a true raconteur, one of those rare beasts you meet often enough at Writers Festivals, but only occasionally in the real world – or at least here in New Zealand. He even managed to weave a story around how he became a social media afficianado, beseeching the audience to keep his endorphin spikes coming by giving his posts ‘Lots of Blue Thumbs.’

The kids at the session were respectful and thoughtful with their questions, asking the usual standards – what his favourite book he’d illustrated was (Coraline, by Neil Gaiman), whether he could draw Trump (he has actually drawn him into Goth Girl & The Sinister Symphony, which comes out here in October) and what his favourite type of book to illustrate is (Goth Girl / junior fiction because it has a lot of pages).

He gave long interesting answers to what were simple questions, and I think everybody walked out of there feeling emotionally attached to this regular-joe-looking illustrator with the brilliant mind.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Ottoline and the Purple Fox
Published by Macmillan
Released 17 May 2018

Chris Riddell will be at the school sessions tomorrow, and doing a public session, about which you can find out more below.

The Sketcher: Chris Riddell
5.30pm, Wednesday 16 May, ASB Theatre
Auckland Writers Festival 2018