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.
A while back I mentioned the Emirates Flight Time Stories competition which Sarah McIntyre and I have been involved with. There were loads of entries, and lots of them were brilliant, but the overall winner was a story called Monkey Goes On A Plane by 4-year-old Maddison Penney, and Sarah and I have used it as the inspiration for a picture book. Since 99% of the work is Sarah’s, I hope I can say that it’s lovely without sounding big-headed. Here’s the cover – I love the impact of that big red arrow!
You can read Sarah’s blog about it (and see some more of her pictures) here.
Lucca is an ancient city in Tuscany, its central grid of mediaeval streets crammed with churches and towers and ringed by an impressive defensive wall. But last weekend it was invaded! Huge pavilions were pitched beneath the ramparts, and comics and games fans from all over Italy crowded in through the city gates, many wearing bizarre and/or elaborate costumes. I don’t know the names of this chic Dalek/TARDIS pair*, but I kept seeing them all over town and they always looked wonderful! Here they are posing for my wife Sarah’s photograph. (*News Just In – they are Lisa and Silvia!)
(There were lots of Star Wars cosplayers too, but unfortunately none of them had dressed up as Sandpeople, so I never got to use my ‘Tuscan Raiders’ joke. UNTIL NOW.)
I was in Lucca as a guest of the festival, thanks to my Italian publisher Guinti Editore, who have just published Railhead in Italy (where it goes by the name Capolinea Per Le Stelle). Here I am signing copies at the Giunti booth…
The festival spread all through Lucca, with big comics and film-themed tents in many of the public squares, events at the Teatro Comunale, and a big exhibition in the Palazzo Ducale featuring some of the attending illustrators and comics artists. Wandering around the streets, I couldn’t help marvelling at the number of shops selling comics, geeky t-shirts and strange Japanese toys – but it turns out that many of them were pop-ups, renting space from other shops for the week of the festival. They all seemed to be doing a brisk trade. Outside the walls, in the biggest marquee I’ve ever seen, hundreds of fans were busy playing tabletop games, buying rulebooks, cards and miniatures, and admiring the work of visiting illustrators. I took this partial panorama on the first morning, when people were still setting up – it got a LOT busier later (on one day they sold 80,000 tickets!)
I was delighted to find out that one of the visiting artists was Karl Kopinski, whose work I have been following on Facebook for years. He started out as an illustrator for Games Workshop, but as well as fantasy and SF he does a lot of military history and some great paintings of cyclists. He can really draw, and it turned out that one of the things he had been drawing was this portrait of Nova from Railhead/Capolinea Per Le Stelle!
Photo: Duccio Locatelli
This was a collaboration with the Italian artist No Curves, whose medium is adhesive tape. (Check out his website – he’s amazing!) I got to watch while he and Karl collaborated on two more Railhead portraits – of Zen and Flex – and it was fascinating. Karl would begin the drawing, then No Curves would accentuate it with carefully placed strips and blocks of different coloured tape, then Karl would draw some more on top of the tape… Karl’s style is quite traditional and No Curves is more avant grade street art, but they clearly enjoy working together and the results are brilliant; Karl’s faces were full of character and the streaks of tape suggest the speed and light of passing trains…
…the finished image.
Two other people who enjoy working together despite very different styles are me and that Sarah McIntyre, so it was great to meet the team from our Italian publisher, Editrice Il Castoro, who also had a booth in the Games Pavilion. Oliver and the Seawigs is the only Reeve&McIntyre Production to reach Italy so far (where it’s called Oliver E Les Isolas Vagabonde) but fingers crossed that they’ll translate the others, too! And I was pleased to see that they also publish Gary Northfield’s fantastic Julius Zebra… Here are Chiara, Paola and Laurie, who are all lovely (and not at all blurred in real life).
Of course, there’s no way I could have found my way through this maze of strangeness without help, and luckily the festival organisers provided it. Duccio Locatelli was my guest-sitter for my time in Lucca, and knew all the ways of the festival as well as all the short-cuts and all the best restaurants. Here he is with my editor from Giunti, the wonderful Fiametti Giorgi.
Fiametta is the editor who first brought Mortal Engines to Italy (as Macchine Mortali.) Copies are in short supply there at the moment (I’m hoping the news about the forthcoming movie will change that) but it does have some devoted readers who brought their copies along to be signed. Here’s Fulvia, who made me a Macchine Mortali keyring!
One of the illustrators exhibiting in the Palazzo Ducale was Tony DeTerlizzi, who I knew mainly from his work with Holly Black on the Spiderwick Chronicles. It turns out he also has a long association with gaming, having done all sorts of work for Dungeons and Dragons, etc. Here he is doing some live drawing in the artists’ ‘performance area’.
Tony started out much as I did, copying Brian Froud pictures at the dawn of the 1980s, but unlike me he went on to develop a mature style of his own, drawing on the tradition of Rackham and Froud but adding to it too.
It was great to get a chance to see Tony’s original paintings, and I pushed my baggage allowance to its limit by bringing home a huge book of his art, Realms. I really enjoyed the time we spent with Tony and his family. We did a panel event together one morning, and I could happily have gone on talking with him for hours. (The images I’ve used here all come from diterlizzi.com)
I also did a larger panel event with some very big name fantasy writers – Brandon Sanderson, Steven Erickson, Terry Brooks and our own Joshua Khan. I’m not a big fan of epic fantasy, but I have read some of Steven’s Malazan series, which have immensely impressive world building and a nice sense of mystery, and I remember reading Terry Brooks The Sword of Shannara when I was about thirteen. It’s a very Tolkienesque quest saga set in a very Tolkienesque world, the twist being that it’s actually our own world ages after some devastating war – I wonder if that’s one of the seeds from which the world of Mortal Engines sprouted. Nowadays there are loads of Shannara books and it’s been turned into a Netflix series which is actually weirdly watchable despite being possibly the campest thing currently on TV. Mr Brooks was charming, anyway: here are Josh and myself paying our respects.
Among the costumes crammed into the streets of Lucca some of the most detailed and impressive were the Steampunk creations. I’m always a bit bewildered by the popularity of Steampunk, but thanks to Mortal Engines my name seems to be linked with it forever, and I was called upon to judge the Steampunk Cosplay Competition. This took place on a massive stage on one of the bastions on the city walls. Once, huge cannons occupied this strongpoint; now it housed two considerably louder presenters, whose banter seemed to go on for hours while the Steampunkers queued up behind the scenes.
Eventually they introduced me and I ran out onstage under the gaze of about 10,000 people who all went, “Philip who?” Luckily I wasn’t the only judge: I was accompanied by the President of Steampunk Italia, Antonio Vulcano Salvi, who was so splendidly costumed that he came with his own standard bearer.
Also on judging duty was Benny Bao, a top prop-maker who I think designed the Iron Man suit for the Marvel films, but I may have misunderstood – there was a bit of a language barrier in the judge’s enclave. So I was extra glad of the fourth judge, Gianluca AKA Lord Ashram (below), without whose English translation I’d have looked even more bewildered…
The standard of entries was superb, and there were a couple of groups who looked magnificent, but I was awarding the prize for best costume to individuals and duos, and I chose these two – mainly because of the intricacy of their mechanical face masks, and the way they had cheekily incorporated Star Wars stormtrooper masks into their shoulder armour – neither of which you can really see in Sarah’s photo, but it does show the impressive detail of their outfits…
…and here are the masks, in a poor-quality snap taken on my phone while we waited to go on.
Most of the time, of course, Lucca Comics and games provided me with an official interpreter, so thank you Laura, Lucy, Anna and Chiara for making me understood! And thank you Silvia, Andrea, Nicola and everyone else for organising things and me and my family feel so welcome! I should have got photos of everyone, but either I forgot or there wasn’t time or the light was no good. I did get this snap of Chiara yesterday, having coffee with us before we left for the airport, and showing off a page from her own beautiful sketchbook…
And I haven’t even had a chance to show you the city, or the Tower With The Trees On Top, or tell you about the Mutant Goats, so more Lucca-related bloggery soon!