This is where I tell you a bit about myself. My publishers think it might interest you… So, here goes! I grew up in some pretty remote parts of West Africa and didn’t go to any proper school until I was almost twelve. That was because in most places where my father worked there just weren’t any. My mother taught me the basics at home together with a love of reading, for which I will always be grateful.
The houses we lived in were usually surrounded by wilderness. Fifty metres from the front door, the bush began: mile upon mile of red earth and boulders, of elephant grass and thorn bushes and towering ant hills. I was allowed to explore so long as I kept within shouting distance of home.
There were plenty of animals living there and I learnt to recognise their tracks in the dust. There were troops of baboons, who were really dangerous and best avoided, warthogs and antelope. The most frightening thing of all, I thought, were the columns of driver ants which sometimes came racing out of the bush looking for food. They would swarm over anything they found and devour it. Every animal that could got out of their way in a hurry.
Closer to home there were always scorpions hiding under stones. You could tease them with a long twig. Some places were very bad for snakes. A spitting cobra once fell out of a small tree just in front of my father. As it reared up, our old dog went for it, barking furiously. The snake’s venom hit him on the side of the head and he subsequently lost an eye. Poor old thing.
The other type of snake you had to be very careful of were the puff adders. These are heavy, powerful snakes with very long fangs that can penetrate most animal’s hides. At one house we had in The Gambia, they used to lie up under a large bougainvillea bush during the heat of the day. When I felt particularly daring, I sometimes got friends to help me beat the bushes. When a snake crawled out, we’d run, gasping with excitement.
I’ve spent a long time describing my childhood but it’s where I got my fascination with animals and Africa.
After school in England, I joined the Army and served in places all over the world. I next went to work for an advertising agency in Toronto, Canada. I had ten happy years there and whenever I could, spent most of my free time living in the wilderness in a small weekend cottage, close to Georgian Bay, Ontario. The mosquitoes were dreadful. The worst I’d ever come across. And in May each year, swarms of black fly arrived to make life worse. Their bite was so fierce it left a spot of blood behind after they had fed on you. There were stories of moose being driven insane by their relentless attacks and smashing their antlers against trees.
But it was all worth while when I discovered that my nearest neighbours were a colony of beavers who were building a large dam nearby. I was told that beavers loved apples so I used to leave some out for them, whenever I went their way. Over time, I built up a rapport and was able to observe them quite closely. It was this experience that gave me the idea of writing a book about them. And in due course, my first children’s book BRUNNER appeared.
I was by now back in England where I wrote my next book TORN EAR. This is about the life of a fox. It gave me a huge amount of pleasure to do the research and to observe foxes in their proper rural habitat. It was very successful and its French translation – Oreille Dechiree – was voted Book of the Year, by children across France. It won the 2000 French Tam-Tam prize.
I’ve written eight other books since then, almost all of which describe the survival of a particular animal species in today’s man-dominated world. They range from badger baiting in Britain; the slaughter of Indian tigers for their body parts; life in a wolf pack in rancher country, Wyoming USA to ivory poaching in Africa.
My last book, PIRATES was set in the South China Sea. I was with the Royal Navy for two years and we used to patrol up and down the Malacca Straits, looking out for pirates. It was an amazing place.
My new book is the toughest one I’ve ever tried to write. It’s called DEAD BOYS’ CLUB and it’s about Child Soldiers in Africa. It’s quite likely that even as you’re reading this, children of your age in little villages across the huge landmass of central Africa, are being rounded up and dragged off into a new form of slavery. It’s a ghastly business and has been going on for over twenty years with still no end in sight.
The idea for writing it came while I was taking part in a book fair in the east end of London. I had greatly enjoyed meeting and talking to a large group of children and their parents, when I suddenly noticed that many of them were missing hands or arms or even their feet. I then discovered that they all came from Sierra Leone or neighbouring Liberia. They were all refugees. In both countries, local war lords had fought ferocious struggles for power and their foot soldiers were children, kidnapped to order.
DEAD BOYS’ CLUB is an attempt to inform children here at home of what horrors can happen in other places. I hope it’s not too bleak and that sometimes there can even be hope. The book’s hero is a twelve year old, happy-go-lucky boy, Sam M’bali.
What happens to him is the real life nightmare that tens of thousands of children are facing right now. I’d like you to meet him.