Return to Dubai


At the Etihad Museum

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.

All the pictures in this post were taken by Sarah McIntyre, or at least on her phone. WordPress assures me that they are all aligned centrally (WordPress is the main reason why I don’t blog much nowadays). You can read Sarah’s Epic Dubai Blog (and see many more of her photos) here.

With Nonny and Tarini, who introduced our Reeve&McIntyre events

*For once, tired out by all the events, I slept perfectly well!


Monkey on a Plane

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.

And you can read an online version of the book here.

I’ll be monkeying about on a plane myself tomorrow as I’m off to the Emirates Festival of Literature in Dubai. I’ll be doing a lot of schools and family events with Sarah, a solo Railhead event, and a panel with Frances Hardinge and the Egyptian author Ibrahim Farghali. There’s a schedule of my events here.


Henley, Picadilly, Marlborough, and the Book Cave…

It’s touring time again. This week I went to Henley Literary Festival, where pupils from some of the local schools came to the beautiful Kenton Theatre to hear me talk about Railhead and Black Light Express. I’d planned a simple talk, but when I saw the Kenton’s facilities I realised it would be a pity not to show some of the videos I made last year to accompany Railhead readings, and the excellent festival technician Matt was able to link my laptop to a projector and get it going with amazing speed and efficiency. (One of the signs of a well-run festival is technicians who a) know what they’re doing, and b) don’t mind doing it.)  Thank you for having me, Henley Lit Fest!


Then I was straight off to London, where I did an evening event at Waterstones Picadilly with the author L.A. Weatherley. We were both launching sequels, me with Railhead and L.A with Darkness Follows, the first sequel to her novel Broken Sky, in which a neo-1940s future world settles its differences not with war but through aerial duels between young aviators in Spitfire-like fighter planes.  The idea was that we would be discussing genre: I’m not sure whether we cast much light on that subject, but it was a good talk, and a nice chance to meet a lot of people who I mainly know from Twitter. Oh, and Sarah McIntyre wore horns…


More McIntyre to end the week in Marlborough, where we did our first Jinks and O’Hare Funfair Repair show as guests of the  Marlborough Lit Fest . Our event was on Saturday afternoon but, since trains were few and far between, we had to go up on Friday evening. I’m glad we did, since we were able to attend the opening party, and sit in on a talk by the fiercely funny and intelligent Lionel Shriver, and met the historian  Tom Holland, who is equally funny and intelligent (but didn’t seem fierce). I’ve just been reading Tom’s book on King Athelstan, and I enjoyed the talk he gave about it on Saturday morning. He speaks and writes with great passion and affection about Athelstan as the first true King of England, and about Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, whom he convincingly hails as the most significant woman in English history.  However, Sarah McIntyre has a better hat.


Meanwhile, McIntyre was doing a solo event about her work at a lovely little gallery space behind the White Horse Bookshop on the high street. And when that was over we headed back to the Town Hall to get ready for our joint event. This was the first time we’ve done a show based on Jinks and O’Hare, but I think it worked out all right, assisted by a great audience who were happy to help us hook the Ducks of Knowledge and come up with ideas for the giant funfair race game.  The new outfits seemed to go down well, too! Once again, huge thanks to the tireless festival organisers and excellent technical crew.


(We’ll be performing again on Sunday, 16th October at the Turn the Page festival in Totnes!) Lots more about our Marlborough adventures on Sarah’s blog…

In between Henley and Marlborough I nipped into Nicolette Jones’s book-cave to record an interview for a series of videos she’s hosting for the Sunday Times. Nicolette is one of the most respected children’s book reviewers in the country, and in times like these, when kids’ books are struggling to get any review space in the media, it’s great that she’s doing this.


The videos are only going to be three or four minutes long, and you don’t have to be a Times subscriber to see them – you just need to register your e-mail address. My one should be up in a few weeks, but the first, about illustrated children’s non-fiction, is already online.


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