The Air Around Us, a real Battersea story

I went to see a play tonight. The Air Around Us is produced by Lightbox, a London based theatre company that specializes in 'untold or overlooked' stories. Here is my review:

In a circle of light, a man wanders in a litter-strewn alley, gazing at the rubbish in an almost childlike way. Yoghurt pots, newspapers, cast-off headphones, offcuts of wood, a trunk, a typewriter, an old-fashioned dictaphone, he takes it all in, wide-eyed. He seems a little lost.

Like Vladimir or Estragon waiting for Godot, this vagrant has all the time in the world. Time to sit and think and roll his own cigarettes. Time to imagine, time to reminisce. He sits down on the trunk and notices a ragged piece of paper at his feet. He picks it up. He starts to read aloud. “To understand a place, you have to live it, breathe it…”

And thus the vagrant – let’s call him Estragon, why not? – begins to discover the story of George, an 80 year old resident of Battersea who understands the area as only someone of his generation can. Estragon mediates George’s story to us, by reading from bits of script strewn around the stage and pressing play and pause on the dictaphone. Through this dictaphone we hear George’s real voice, no less – REAL George who REALLY lives in Battersea, and (how meta is this?) happens to be sitting RIGHT BEHIND ME in the audience with his wife Margaret.

Estragon starts to find meaning in the litter around him. A duffel bag becomes an RAF parachute. Postcards from abroad tell of George’s posting in Malta and return to Battersea. He picks things up, handles them, listens to George’s words and experiences the full impact of each true story. Sometimes Estragon speaks George’s words along with him. Sometimes he carries on where the recorded voice leaves off, for he is becoming George, and so are we. Mischief, fear, joy and grief chase each other across Estragon’s face. The terror of the Blitz. The excitement of courtship and marriage. The birth of a daughter, Karen. And weaving in and out of George’s story is the the starkly beautiful poetry of Battersea itself: Chelsea Bridge. Albert Bridge. Battersea Bridge. Wandsworth Bridge. Clapham Junction.

The Air Around Us has the authenticity of a documentary and the emotional impact of a Beckett play. For a heady hour the audience can sit and think and get to know George and fall in love with Battersea. The play avoids sentimentality – the saddest parts of George’s story are related with a matter-of-factness that is almost shocking – but at the end, as George/Estragon stands at the window of his flat on the tenth floor of an apartment block soon to be pulled down, his eyes brim suddenly with real tears.

This is a brilliant performance – strong, confident and totally authentic. Liam Smith is the one-man cast and he communicates George’s story with feeling, humour and sensitivity. Great stuff.

If you live in Battersea, you need to see this play! It’s on at the Omnibus Clapham on Wednesday 24 and Thursday 25 June (tomorrow and the night after). Starts at 7.30pm. Tickets available here or at the door.

Here is the show’s director Emma Faulkner talking about the production:

Books for Keeps BLOOD & INK review

It’s not just Ali and Kadija who leap off the page but their friends, family and neighbours too. The story is gripping, full of excitement, romance and heart-stopping moments.

BLOOD & INK got five stars from Books For Keeps and is currently their Book of the Week. Read the full review.

They asked me to write a short feature to accompany the review: an introduction to BLOOD & INK.

TIMBUKTU film review

Watching the film Timbuktu last night was a strange experience, both beautiful and painful. The film is set against the backdrop of real historical events — the al Qaeda occupation of Timbuktu in 2012. It is precisely the same backdrop I used for my new novel BLOOD & INK, which comes out this Thursday.

In April 2012 jihadists invaded Timbuktu. A harsh form of sharia was imposed within the city. Human rights were violated. World Heritage sites were systematically destroyed.

In early 2013, French and Malian forces succeeded in repelling Islamist forces in Mali. Citizens of newly-liberated Timbuktu began to tell their stories to the world’s media – stories of persecution, yes, but also of resistance. We heard about moments of short-lived, fiery protest (women marching against the imposition of the veil) and about ingenious smuggling operations (thousands of priceless manuscripts being spirited away from Timbuktu, hidden under crates of cabbages!). Sarah Pakenham at Andersen Press drew my attention to one particular BBC article by Naveena Kottoor How Timbuktu’s Manuscripts were Smuggled to Safety and I responded glibly that there was ‘a novel in there somewhere’. Sarah took my reply seriously and a book contract was drawn up before the week was out.

For three months I researched, plotted and outlined, and by the start of NaNoWriMo in November I was ready to write BLOOD & INK. Back then the novel’s working title was ALI AND KADIJA, because of the novel’s Romeo-and-Juliet-like plot. Ali is a jihadist, Kadija is a singer, and their love is as intense as it is impossible.

Whilst I was working on BLOOD & INK, Mauritanian-French filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako was working on his film TIMBUKTU. I’m glad that my book was complete before I even heard about the film, because there are striking similarities. As I watched TIMBUKTU last night, there were two or three moments that gave me literal goosebumps, so exact was the convergence of our stories. I saw Ali clearly in the character of the teenage jihadi chauffeur, and I saw Kadija in the character of La Chanteuse (beautifully played by Fatoumata Diawara). Kadija in BLOOD & INK and La Chanteuse in TIMBUKTU both get lashed as punishment for their ‘crimes’; both respond to their punishment in the same incredible way.

I should say right now that I loved the film TIMBUKTU. I have reservations about it, which I’ll come to later, but first here are some of the (many) things I loved:

1. The invisible football match and the jihadi World Cup banter

All the reviewers are talking about that invisible football game, and rightly so. It’s one of the cleverest pieces of cinema I’ve seen in ages. The boys of Timbuktu play football outside the city, but football is banned, so they play without a ball. The sequence is beautifully choreographed and the music is wonderful. A penalty taker lines up the invisible ball and waits patiently for a donkey to walk across the pitch before taking his shot. A young lad in a Messi T-shirt scores a wonder-goal and wheels away celebrating. Two jihadis pass by on a motorbike and the teenagers stop their game and pretend to be stretching and doing situps.

In Sissako’s film, the jihadists outlaw football, sure, but they still can’t help talking about it! In one scene, a group of them discuss the World Cup. “France has never won anything in football,” says one fighter. “What about 1998?” says another. “Ah but that was against Brazil,” retorts the first. “Brazil is a poor country. France gave Brazil a boatload of rice and Brazil let them go two goals up in the World Cup final.” Their conversation is utterly bonkers and (for anyone who knows the Sahel) totally authentic.

2. The good imam


TIMBUKTU has some very strong writing, and nowhere more so than the scene near the beginning of the film where the Imam of Timbuktu (played by Adel Mahmoud Cherif) tries to reason with jihadist Abdelkerim. Here is that speech in full, in all its defiant, rambling glory:

Who am I to say renounce jihad? I don’t take care of others’ jihad. I do jihad to myself. I swear I don’t have time for other people’s jihad. Were I not committed to my moral improvement, I’d be the first to join you. I pray to Allah, the Almighty, hoping that He’ll forgive me and that He’ll forgive you. May he Help us reject vanity and pride. Stop this! You cause harm to Islam and to Muslims. You put children in danger in front of their poor mother. You even hit the mother of two children without any good reason. Before you came, a woman was here to complain that you forced her to wear gloves — here they are — without any explanation, without convincing her of their usefulness. Remember the words of Allah, the Almighty: So pardon them, consult them in the matter...Speak with them, and once you’ve made a decision, put your trust in Allah, for he loves those who rely on him. Where is leniency? Where is forgiveness? Where is piety? Where is exchange, exchange? Where is God in all of this?

3. Stunning cinematography


The cinematography of TIMBUKTU is simply outstanding. Soft light on desert-hardened faces, clouds of dust from the hooves of cattle, turbaned silhouettes at dusk, an uberwide lens on the great River Niger, rich colours inside a Tuareg tent, this film is a real looker, a celebration of the Sahel’s rugged beauty. It would have been even better had it been shot in Timbuktu itself, with its striking sudanic architecture, soaring mosques and fine carved doors, but that was not possible for security reasons.

4. Hauntingly beautiful soundtrack

I have mentioned Fatoumata Diawara’s appearance as ‘La Chanteuese’. Her song ‘Tombouctou Fasso’ was written specially for the film.

The song is in Bambara, but here are the words in English.

This is Timbuktu, my homeland,
Where the children are mourning in gloom,
This is my land, Timbuktu ‘the Maliba’,
The land of love,
The land of warmth,
The land of dignity,
This is my nation.
Why are we crying?
Why are the children crying?
Why are the young crying?
Because of injustice,
Because of violence,
Fearing the future.
Here is my home.
Stop crying!
No matter what, Timbuktu will remain.

Okay, here are my only reservations about the film TIMBUKTU:

1. The myth of the noble Tuareg

Dear old Kidane lives on his pristine dune with his wife, his daughter, his guitar and his favourite cow called GPS. All he wants is a quiet life, but he has somehow been caught up in the horror of the jihadi occupation. Ah yes, the myth of the noble Tuareg, the romantic ‘blue man of the desert’, that inscrutable, turbaned, photogenic, peace-loving pastoralist and family man. Sissako’s film panders to French obsession with the Noble Tuareg and completely ignores the historical events which led to the takeover of Timbuktu. The MNLA (Mouvement National pour la Liberation d’Azawad) was entirely made up of men like Kidane, except they wielded Kalashnikovs rather than guitars. The MNLA and AQIM were behind the takeover of Timbuktu. They executed scores of Malian soldiers and committed terrible atrocities during the occupation. So it is a bit rich to see a picture postcard Tuareg herder playing the victim in this film.

2. The myth of the cuddly jihadist

Sissako rightly refuses to demonize the jihadists. He dares to show them as real people – totally human and even at times sympathetic. But I think he goes too far – these fellows are just too likeable.

Sissako says: “The most terrible thing is that [the jihadists] are people like us. It’s always hard to say. But they are.” In humanizing the jihadists, Sissako has avoided the most obvious pitfall. The ‘normal’ course (and the one Hollywood would definitely have taken) would have been to make the jihadists two-dimensional monsters – unremittingly evil and barely human – whereas Sissako has done something much more interesting and courageous. But has he taken it too far? Consider the jihadist fighter Abdelkarim.‘The fact that his daughter will soon be an orphan upsets me,’ Abdelkarim remarks to his translator, ‘but don’t translate that.’ Abdelkarim listens patiently to criticism from the imam and does not pass comment of any sort. He even turns away from the lashing of La Chanteuse. Why? Is it too violent for his taste? Abdelkarim and his cronies seem muddled about sharia, embarrassed by their own behaviour and somewhat sad that events in Timbuktu have come to such a pretty pass. Even during the stoning (the most shocking moment of the film) Sissako cuts away to a jihadist dancing barefoot on a rooftop – a beautiful, floaty, desperate dance, so out of keeping with the horrors going on below. Poor chaps, having to enforce sharia law, when all they really want to do is ballet.

3. Where are the manuscripts? Where are the mausolea?

According to an ancient saying, the soul of Timbuktu is not in its city walls, but in the writings of its scholars, the tombs of its saints and the worship of its God. Worship of God is dealt with in this film, certainly, but the manuscripts and the mausolea are conspicuous by their absence. The smuggling of ancient manuscripts out of Timbuktu and the destruction of ancient mausolea by the jihadists are crucial elements of the story of Timbuktu 2012, and Sissako should have included them. Instead he has gone for a herder-fisherman story as the central conflict of the film. I don’t get it. Conflict between nomads and settled people is as old as humanity itself, and is totally irrelevant to the story of the city’s jihadi occupation. Our hero Kidane decides to take a handgun to a confrontation with a fisherman. His wife Satima tells him not to take the gun with him. She tells him to think of his daughter Toya. He ignores her and takes the gun, kills the fisherman by mistake, then spends the rest of the film admonishing judges to think of his daughter Toya! Hmm. It’s a personal thing, but I’d rather have seen less focus on Kidane’s story and more on the plight of La Chanteuse.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Sissako’s TIMBUKTU, wonderful though it is, would have been even wonderfuller had it been made two years later and been based on BLOOD & INK.

Haha, there, I’ve said it!

Timbuktu is in UK cinemas now, and is also available to rent on Blinkbox.
BLOOD & INK comes out on 4 June and is published by Andersen Press.

Timbuktu movie released in UK

I am so excited that TIMBUKTU has finally been released in the UK. With its Academy Award nomination, great reviews on the Guardian and Independent sites, and 99% ‘fresh’ rating on Rottentomatoes, it seems set to do extremely well.

It is an extraordinary coincidence that the film should come out just six days before my novel BLOOD & INK. When I completed the novel last year I was unaware of Abderrahmane Sissako’s upcoming film. It’s a different story, but with the same historical backdrop.

I’m hoping to watch TIMBUKTU on Sunday night, and will post my own review of it next week.

DON’T SPILL THE MILK Kirkus starred review

Most people haven’t heard of Kirkus reviews, but authors obsess about them, along with Amazon rankings and book festival invites and whether or not to #retweetpraise. The main thing about Kirkus reviews is this: they are notoriously tough. They don’t shy away from pointing out naffness in all its forms. And the thing about Kirkus STARRED reviews is that they are elusive little beasties that hide in the forest most of the time and aren’t prone to gathering for picnics. When you encounter one, you have to take photos and blog about it, because it could be several decades before you see another one.

You've been a long time coming, Monsieur Etoile.
You’ve been a long time coming, Monsieur Etoile.

Animal Tales from the Bible review

Animal Tales from the Bible: Four Favorite Stories about JesusAnimal Tales from the Bible: Four Favorite Stories about Jesus by Nick Butterworth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a firm favourite with our three year-old daughter Libby. The tales, each of them narrated by a different animal, are utterly charming. I think the magpie tale is my favourite – the magpie (a thieving bird) meets Zacchaeus (a thieving man) in the branches of a tree, moments before Jesus turns up. Libby likes the mouse’s tale: the calm of the still lake, with the mouse curled up next to Jesus, and then the sudden flash bang wallop of the storm. The cat’s tale – an under-the-table cat’s eye view of Jesus’ first miracle – has a great sense of atmosphere and something really special about to happen. Hey, the fox’s account of the birth of Jesus is great, too. They are all extremely special, and written with such flair that they are a true delight to read out loud. The illustrations fit well with the text and spotting the animal in each picture is fun. Highly recommended.

View all my reviews

Marcello Mouse and the Masked Ball

Marcello Mouse and the Masked BallI love this book, and more importantly, so does my two year-old daughter. The illustrations are art in the best possible sense – they are rich and evocative and they stir the imagination. Marcello is a great gutsy little character. Our favourite bit is when Marcello slips into the ball and the words say HOW DARING, HOW BOLD – you probably have to see that in context, it’s great fun, really it is. A real treat of a book. I’m always glad when Libby chooses it for storytime.

Checek out the book for yourself – some of the pages (not all in order!) can be viewed here.
Marcello Mouse and the Masked Ball by Julie Monks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Not Now Bernard

Not Now Bernard by David McKeeI was in the children’s section of the library the other day waiting for the launch of Storylab, and I started to browse the picture books. On the librarian’s recommendation I had a look at the newly published It’s a Book in which a precocious pinch-and-zoom cybermonkey struggles to use a paper book. Very funny, and timely, but probably more so for parents than for children.

Then I saw Not Now Bernard by my Andersen Press stablemate David McKee, creator of Elmer the Elephant, Mr Benn and King Rollo. What a great story! Not Now Bernard is about a boy whose parents are so preoccupied that they don’t notice he is being threatened by – and then eaten by – a monster.

So far so funny. But what I enjoyed almost as much as the book itself was this hilarious and hyperbolic review of the book, claiming that Not Now Bernard is “five times as disturbing as Silence of the Lambs and the entire Saw franchise combined.” I quickly clicked on the reviewer’s name to see whether he has contributed any more Amazon reviews, but unfortunately this is the only one so far. Here’s the review in full. Read, enjoy and buy the book to see if you agree!

I can only assume that the 23 five-star reviews of this horror story are suffering from some kind of sociopathic disorder. This book is in no way appropriate for children.

Not Now Bernard used to terrify me as a child. A couple of days ago I stumbled across a copy and decided to look through it, believing I’d be able to chuckle at how silly the five-year-old me was to be so petrified by an innocent children’s book (after all, I used to have an irrational fear of the Moomins too). No, there was nothing irrational about my fear of Not Now Bernard: this story is about five times as disturbing as Silence of the Lambs and the entire Saw franchise combined. It is as is some madman has transcribed the absolute worst nightmare of every single infant, illustrated it and then sold it to their hapless parents.

The story is chilling: a little boy strolls innocently out into his garden whereupon he encounters a monster that declares it is going to eat him. The illustrations of this encounter are rendered in a creepy colour palette – the sky has an apocalyptic orange glow, whilst the characters appear grey and dreary. Bernard wears a permanently blank expression on his face, and the monster has a look of pure evil about him: his eyebrows slanted, his pointed teeth gritted, and his fists clenched. Bernard desperately tries to tell his parents that this garden-demon is about to devour him, but they simply do not care – dismissing him with the titular phrase “Not Now Bernard”. Rejected by those who are supposed to be looking after him, Bernard walks back out into the garden and is promptly eaten by the creature. This is tantamount to the child committing suicide – the horrific undertones are that this innocent kid had literally nowhere else to go other than into the waiting jaws of the beast. The monster then calmly wanders into the house and proceeds to assume Bernard’s identity – with their child’s remains still dissolving in his stomach acid, Bernard’s unfit parents go on to prepare dinner for the monster, let him watch their TV and put him to sleep in their dead son’s room. The monster seizes upon this opportunity to systematically destroy all of Bernard’s toys.

That’s it. That’s the story. There is no moral here, no repercussions for the killer, no acknowledgement of a child’s death. How can anybody read this twisted tale of undiluted horror to their kids? What message are they supposed to get from it? A child is killed and his parents do not notice or care, and then everything he owned and loved is smashed to pieces and his murderer goes to sleep peacefully in his bed.

To counterbalance that strong anti-NNB opinion, here’s a positive review of the book by someone whose little girls “cherish” the book. And here’s a very readable and interesting 2700 word scholarly vivisection of Not Now Bernard, which puts an entirely different interpretation on the story. Two quotes:

Bernard is not lured by the monster. He is not destroyed by the monster. He is subsumed by it, but returns to live as Bernard in the house. Bernard is inside the monster.

This is why the book is reassuring for children – not because of what it says about parents, but because of what it says about children. A child is not interested in what an author has to say about adults. A child is interested in what a book says about being a child. And if the book says ‘it’s OK, you’re not the only monster’ (no point saying ‘you’re not a monster’) and ‘life will go on anyway’, that matches their experience and reassures them. Bernard is not blaming his parents for making him a monster, even if that is how guilty, self-obsessed parents read the book. Bernard is struggling with the feelings of anger and resentment that are brought up by his parents ignoring him. This is where the child reader recognises himself or herself and finds comfort in the book. It is a book that holds the infant monster-hand and says ‘here’s your teddy, here’s your milk, go to bed.’

Amanda Craig GOGGLE-EYED GOATS review

Amanda Craig reviews the Goggle-Eyed Goats by Stephen Davies and Christopher Corr

Amanda Craig’s Easter recommendations in the Saturday Times contained a pleasing review of THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS. Some lovely-sounding words in there. Ebullient, anybody? Rumbustious?


“Easter always brings a fine clutch of tales about chicks, pups, lambs and eggs. While the list of classic picture books remains small, good new ones are as welcome as spring. They need to withstand repeated rereading so don’t go for the obvious.

The Goggle-Eyed Goats (Andersen £10.99) is an ebullient tale by Stephen Davies and Christopher Corr. Old Al Haji Amadu lives in Mali with three wives, seven children and five extremely naughty goggle-eyed goats that munch, gobble and chew whatever they can find, which includes his wives’ clothes. Getting rid of the goats, classic embodiments of a child’s interest in food, becomes pressing. But the children protest and follow their father to market. The book’s rumbustious, rhythmical feel for language, packed with internal rhymes, makes it a pleasure to read aloud, and the colourful pictures of the Amadu family and their surroundings have the unselfconscious charm of primitive art. The ridiculously long-lashed goggle-eyed goats have a small surprise to spring on their exasperated owner. One of the best new picture books published this year, it should be read before the Easter Egg hunt, not after!”

Joyful and Dotty – Goggle-Eyed Goats review

Fama Rama and Sama - three wives in THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS

‘Joyful and dotty’ was Julia Eccleshare’s opinion of THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS over at Lovereading4kids. She also calls it ‘the ultimate triumph of pester-power’! I hadn’t realized that, but I guess she’s right. Hey ho, at least she didn’t call it ‘the ultimate triumph of polygamy’.

GOATS has been chosen as one of the Lovereading books of the month.

If you’re still waiting for your Amazon copy, fear not – their supply problems are being sorted out and your book should be with you on Monday or Tuesday at the latest.