About twenty years ago, while I was still living in Brighton and struggling with my first novel, Mortal Engines, I took some time off to work with my friend Brian Mitchell on a musical called The Ministry of Biscuits. It was a 1984-ish affair, set in a parallel post-war Britain where biscuits are strictly controlled by the eponymous Ministry (sensible biscuits such as the digestive and the Scotch Abernathy are permitted, of course, but dubious exotic confections like the gypsy cream and the jaffa cake are suppressed with the full power of the state). But when Cedric Hobson, a meek junior biscuit designer working on the recipe for a thinner, drier Rich Tea Finger, falls hopelessly in love with his new secretary, he resolves to win her heart by creating the most delicious biscuit ever imagined…
Brian is a much better writer than I am (the plays he writes with Joseph Nixon are all little masterpieces) and I learned a lot from working him. He’s also a very good composer, and he filled the show with songs which draw on the British Light Classical tradition, emphasising the wonky 1940s/1950s quality. (I didn’t really have much to do with the songs: I just provided Brian with tea (and biscuits) and watched him pace about my living room inventing lyrics, occasionally chucking in a suggestion when he was stuck for a rhyme.)
I think The Ministry of Biscuits was the moment when I found my feet as a writer. I knew while we were working on it that it was better than anything I’d done before. I suppose I could say that I had finally ‘found my own voice’. In fact, what I’d found was Brian’s voice, and it was such a good voice that I had to up my game considerably to try and match it. He understood things I hadn’t yet grasped, like the importance of a consistent tone, and how a scene can sometimes be funnier if it isn’t stuffed full of jokes. The lessons I learned from him helped to shape Mortal Engines, and I think there’s a hint of Mortal Engines in The Ministry… too; a kind of broad, retro sci-fi flavour which I brought to the proceedings. (Ideas flowed the other way, too: Chudleigh Pomeroy and the other senior guildsmen in Mortal Engines would feel right at home in MiniBic.) But, like any successful collaboration, now that it’s finished I find it impossible to say for sure which bits were mine and which were Brian’s. It’s simply The Ministry of Biscuits, and I’m very fond of it.
It was staged several times in Brighton in the late 90s/early 2000s, did a small regional tour, and played at the Edinburgh Fringe, but nothing much has been heard of it since. UNTIL NOW… because The Ministry of Biscuits is being revived this winter by the Foundry Group, at the Lantern Theatre in Brighton.
Much has changed since we wrote The Ministry… Back then, the idea of the government trying to control what biscuits people liked was an absurdist fantasy – now Public Health England is probably busy drafting stringent dunking regulations. How will this whimsical bit of lightweight political satire from the liberal late ’90s fare in the age of Brexiteers and Corbynoids?
The Pug-A-Doodle-Do launch party at The Alligator’s Mouth children’s bookshop last weekend was great – you can read Sarah McIntyre’s full account here. And here’s a list of other events I’ll be doing this autumn. Click on the links below for booking details etc. (I’m still waiting for details of a few, so I’ll update this post when I get them.)
Saturday 7th October: Cheltenham Literature Festival.
Thursday 12th-Saturday 14th October: Dun Laoghaire Library family fun day (details tbc)
Friday 13th October: Deptcon, Dublin.
I’ll be doing an evening panel event, talking about Railhead and Black Light Express – more details when I get them.
On Saturday 28th October I’m planning to be at Bristolcon, my favourite SF convention – I’m not doing any events there, but lots of lovely and interesting people will be, so it’s well worth a look if you’re in the area. And if you’re desperate to get your copy of one of my books signed or just want to say hello you’ll find me wherever the coffee is.
It’s difficult to blog about the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai because there’s so much of it. When I go to Hay or Edinburgh or Cheltenham I’m usually only there for a day or two, and only actually in the festival for a few hours. In Dubai I got to live in the hotel where the festival was being held for almost a week.
It’s a very fine hotel, with huge conference rooms, which sits at the hub of a complex called Festival City on the banks of Dubai Creek. A little further along the waterfront was a huge fountain which looked liked like an unlikely submarine surfacing. It remained moribund until about 2pm each afternoon, when it would spring to life, blaring pop music and squirting jets of water into the air in a not particularly interesting way. But it turned out that this was just its warm-up act. On the last evening of the festival I wandered outside after a long signing session just in time to see the fountain do its thing. There was dramatic orchestral music, dancing water jets, laser beams slashing lines of red and green and lilac light through the spray, and – the designers having realised in a stroke of deranged genius that what most fountains lack is fire – actual flamethrowers. For five or ten minutes the peaceful creekside vista was transformed into one of the livelier bits of Apocalypse Now. It was very Dubai.
When I first went to the festival three years ago it was this sci-fi atmosphere which stuck in my mind afterwards (some of it found its way into Railhead). Dubai is a strange mixture of brash bling and deep conservatism, where giant portraits of the ruling sheikhs gaze down from the walls of skyscrapers on gorgeous cyberpunk metro stations and flame-throwing fountains, while weird megastructures loom through the haze in a Simon Stålenhag sort of way. This time I didn’t see much of the city, as I had far more events to do, both on my own and in my capacity as sidekick and straight man to international show-off Sarah McIntyre. (There’s a video here of some of the stuff we got up to.) We took a trip down to Jumeria Beach one evening with fellow UK author Smriti Prasadam-Halls, but mostly we stayed in Festival City, so this year’s memories are much more about the people we met there.
They aren’t joking when they call it an international festival of literature. The Brit contingent included Piers Torday, Abi Elphinstone, Frances Hardinge, Patrick Gale, Michael Foreman, Andy Miller, Tanya Landman and Candy Gourlay (who lives in London but comes originally from the Philippines and was greeted with wild excitement by Dubai’s large Filipino population). But we were surrounded by writers and artists from all over the Arab world and from India, the U.S.A and the Caribbean. I don’t think I’ve ever found myself in such cosmopolitan company, and it was brilliant. I particularly enjoyed talking to the Egyptian author and journalist Ibrahim Farghali (I’ve brought home an English translation of his novel The Smiles of the Saints) Emirati children’s author Asma Kalban, and Jamaican poet and academic Kei Miller – no, it’s too dangerous to start listing everybody, since I’m bound to forget someone, and there were some people whose names I never even learned, but it was good to be among their conversations, and hear news and views from places far from poor old Brexit-blighted Britain.
Sarah McIntyre and Ibrahim Farghali
The audiences are just as mixed. Dubai has a huge ex-pat community so there were lots of Britons, Americans and Australians at our events, but lots of local Emiratis too. One group of boys from a school in Fujeira drove for three hours to see Sarah McIntyre and Emirati writer/illustrator Maitha Al Khayat doing a wild and wonderful English/Arabic pirate comics jam. (I missed that event as I was doing one of my own. I missed almost all the other events for a similar reason – if I wasn’t doing an event I was preparing for one, or signing, or knackered – but word reached me of wonderful things going on in other rooms – a brilliant poetry reading, a great session on travel writing, and a picture book event where Smriti Prasadam-Halls managed to move the adults in the audience to tears with an account of how her relationship with her sister had inspired one of her books.)
Maitha Al Khayat, McIntyre, and fans.
All the kids were great audiences – enthusiastic and keen to join in without getting too rowdy, and full of intelligent questions. We heard again and again how much they look forward to the festival and the chance it gives them to meet authors. Eleven-year-old Viraaj and his sister Vritti came to nearly all my events, and after the last one Viraaj gave me, Sarah, Piers and Candy copies of this bookmark he had made for us.
I hadn’t planned to return to Dubai – I had a great time on my first trip, but I hate travelling, don’t like hot weather, and seldom get much sleep in hotels*. Then, last year, the festival was targeted by campaigners who want writers to boycott it because of the Emirati government’s human rights record and the fact that the festival is sponsored by an airline. I’m broadly in favour of airlines, so the second argument was never likely to move me. I’m completely in favour of human rights, but the idea that boycotting a litfest will generate anything more positive than a cosy glow of righteousness in the breast of the boycotter seems absurd. The spectacle of British writers attempting to improve another country by trying to shut down its main cross-cultural arts event convinced me that I ought to go back and support the festival. I’m very glad I did.
Many thanks to Isobel Abulhoul, Yvette Judge, Mary Ann Miranda, and all the dedicated, patient, unflappable, book-loving volunteers who run the festival.