The Penguin Podcast: Alex Wheatle on the book that changed his life

The Cane Warriors author speaks to Nihal Arthanayake about Steve McQueen’s Small Axe films, The Black Jacobins and growing up in Brixton

A black-and-white photograph of Alex Wheatle
Alex Wheatle. Image: Simone Padovani/Awakening /Contributor/Getty

In the latest episode of The Penguin Podcast, guest Alex Wheatle gives an insightful and poignant interview about seeing his life brought to the small screen and the book – and person – who gave him the confidence to be a writer.

Wheatle, known for writing Brixton Rock and the award-winning children’s book Crongton Knights, among many others, grew up in the care system before moving to Brixton, south London, at 15. As an author, he drew on his experiences in his early novels, but a screenwriting collaboration with Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen a few years ago led to Wheatle’s life being turned into a short film.

“It’s so rare to see that vulnerability in popular culture for a young Black man… in British TV. It’s so rare to see that vulnerable side where we are fragile at our most lowest,” Wheatle said of Small Axe, the series of five short films directed by McQueen for the BBC. The author said that it was during conversations with Simeon, the man he shared a room with while in prison in the wake of the Brixton Riots, that he experienced the fragility captured in Alex Wheatle.

“I had no choice but to express that, and from what [Simeon] was trying to achieve with me. It made me feel so small at first, it made me open and I felt there is no point trying to resist what I was feeling inside. And my expression came out in a lot of tears, a lot of emotion, but it was very healthy because I’d never really had that before.”

It was Simeon who gave Wheatle a copy of C L R JamesThe Black Jacobins, about the first successful slave revolt, in Haiti, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. “It blew my mind,” Wheatle told Arthanayake. “I just thought, ‘Wow, they did not teach me this at school’. I didn’t really engage with history that much, but for the writer to feature a Black man leading a rebellion, a respected Black man, who was a hero, it was just incredible experiencing that. I’d never had that experience in fiction before. It was a gamechanger for me, it made me hungry to seek out any other narratives that spoke about my ancestry or the black diaspora around the world.”

Wheatle said on the podcast that he had “always wanted to write a story similar to that”, having been “fascinated by Jamaican history and the slave revolts that occurred there”. With The Cane Warriors, Wheatle said he had “come full circle, from reading The Black Jacobins almost 40 years ago”.

You can listen to the conversation in full on the latest episode of The Penguin Podcast or by pressing play below.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more