An award-winning author has told Cramlington teenagers how he began a career in crime when he was just their age.
Alex Wheatle was three-years-old when he was abandoned by his parents. He grew up in a children’s home – where an investigation into abuse is still being carried out – and was expelled from school three times.
At the age of 14 he was recruited by a South London crime lord and by the age of 18 he was serving an 18 month jail sentence for his part in the 1981 Brixton riots.
In prison he shared a cell with a one-eyed middle-aged Rastafarian and – to Alex’s painful surprise – an expert in karate, who helped change his life.
“I was suicidal,” said Alex. “When you’re hustling on the streets you haven’t got time to think. In prison you have the time and I thought I had nothing to live for.”
But, the writer of young adult fiction told an audience of 250 Year 9 students at Cramlington Learning Village, little did he know that a pile of books of on a bedside cabinet in that cell would save his life.
His cell-mate convinced Alex that reading and education would provide him with a future. He became a voracious reader and continued reading after his release. He started writing song lyrics and poetry until a friend – who had shared with him the hardship of the children’s home – convinced him to write a book. “My grammar was terrible and it was really difficult to learn it in my 30s,” said Alex.
But just over 20 years later he is the author of works including Brixton Rock, Liccle Bit – from which he read an extract to the students – Crongton Knights, which last year won the prestigious Guardian Children’s Fiction Award – and his latest novel Straight Outta Crongton. In 2008 he was awarded an MBE for services to literature.
“I use my life story as an example, how it was informed by somebody mentoring me to read and educate myself,” he said. “Hopefully the students take on board that reading really can change lives. Whatever you study it’s so important that you read and comprehend really well. That comes from reading from pleasure and reading really changed my life.
“I’ve been presented with the opportunity to talk to impressionable minds so I should try to tell them the value of good reading. It’s so important. It’s up to us the writers to provide them something to engage in.”
Cramlington students, who queued up to buy Alex’s books, are not alone in their passion for reading. Sales of children’s books last year rose to £365m, contributing to record UK book sales of £3.5bn.
Cramlington Learning Village librarian Eileen Armstrong said: “The idea that young people spend all their time playing video games and not reading is a myth. You could have heard a pin drop as our Year 9 students listened to his story. They will never forget it.”
Student library assistant, 14-year-old Amy Langdown – who last year received a Northern Writers’ award – said Alex was inspiring. “Even if you don’t want to be a writer you can do something,” she said. “His message was that everyone has a talent at something. You just need to find what it is.”
Alex’s mentor is now 87, a retired cabinet maker living in Jamaica. Alex, once known as the Brixton Bard, is writing his latest novel and – he revealed – audiences who prefer watching television might soon be able to enjoy his stories as well.