The life story of Alex Wheatle is the focus of a Small Axe film on BBC1 on Sunday night (6th December), created by Steve McQueen, and the author told The Bookseller he was “honoured” to take part.
Wheatle was part of the Small Axe writers’ room a few years ago but it was only when McQueen said he wanted to tell the story of a young, Black man who had been through an institution, that Wheatle’s own life story (he spent his childhood in a Shirley Oaks children's home and was later sent to prison during the Brixton riots) came under discussion.
“Steve said ‘Alex are you holding out on me’ and for the rest of the day I told my story,” said Wheatle. “He said we have to do it. At first I was overwhelmed but then I thought if I could ever choose a director to write my story it would be Steve McQueen.”
“There are so many stories out there and sometimes we never see the origins of a writers’ journey. To see that initial spark, or what inspired a writer to get creative... we hardly ever see that. It’s such a privilege.”
"Small Axe: Alex Wheatle" will air this Sunday (6th December) and shows Wheatle in the care home where he was physically abused, his journey to Brixton, and then to prison, where he met the man who became his mentor, Simeon. Simeon was an avid reader and “very well educated” and took his young cellmate under his wing.
“He saw I was a bitter, angry young Black man and he invested time in me. I came out much better read, especially about my culture,” said Wheatle. “The Black Jacobins was the first book he gave me to read, then I gobbled up his bookshelf. That was the spark I needed to believe in myself. He instilled a belief in me that I could be anything I wanted me to be.”
The film ends with Wheatle promising a friend he is going to find a family and write a book, both goals that he later achieved in real life.
Wheatle said he was closely involved with the script (although he didn’t want to write it and revisit the trauma over and over again) and he hopes his life story can inspire young people today.
“There are still people in children’s homes, kids who don’t know where they belong, they need inspiration. If they can see me and see I made it they might feel they can do the same. That means so much to me.”
Wheatle said he will be tuning in on Sunday to watch the show, “with the bass turned up”. Workwise, he recently published Cane Warriors, a novel about the slave rebellion in 18th-century Jamaica known as Tacky's War, and next month Barrington Stoke is releasing his first book for a younger age group, The Humiliations of Welton Blake. Moving forward he wants to focus on middle-grade fiction and says to expect more books from him for this age group, and perhaps more humorous books. “Kids need to laugh and so do I,” he said.