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When the cell door slammed shut, all he had were books.

Sentenced to 12 months in Wormwood Scrubs for assault during the Brixton uprising of April 1981, the 18-year-old squeezed his eyes shut as the reality of prison confronted him.

He opened them to find a Rastafarian cellmate two decades his senior offering him a cup of tea. Alex rejected the proposal.

“I wanted them to let me squirm in my own self-pity,” he admits today. But his cellmate, Simeon, had other ideas. After several tense days, Alex, who had grown up in care after being born in London to Jamaican parents, opened his heart to the older man.

“I had a very traumatic young life.

Living in fear in a children’s home was normal,” recalls Alex, now 59. “But even though I had a lot of trauma, I was a very proficient reader. It was my secret weapon.”

It was then that Simeon handed him a book on black history and encouraged him to read. Having been raised in a primarily white children’s home, Alex knew little about his heritage. The encounter, and the sense of identity that followed, was to change Alex’s life.

Today, he is an award-winning author and playwright, his young adult books have inspired generations, and he is proud to support the Daily Express Christmas campaign for Give A Book.

“My own experience is an example of how reading can change lives. Reading is a great leveler, especially in this cost of living crisis,” she insists. “Anyone can go to a library and raise their expectations. Everyone can bring empathy into their lives just by reading. Simeon was a well-educated man whose hunger for knowledge had drawn him to black American literature.”

Addicted to comics, Alex didn’t have much access to books until he was hospitalized for chronic asthma at age eight and was loaned a copy of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. “I found a place I could escape to in my mind,” he recalls. “It was the first novel he read and, from then on, every time he read a book, and cape s. hen, it gave me an escape from my harsh existence, ”he recalls today.

Growing up in the notorious Shirley Oaks Children’s Home in Croydon, South London, reading had proven to be an emotional and intellectual sanctuary from the deprivation and abuse that underscored her daily life.

“Simeon encouraged me to rediscover my love of reading,” he says. “He told me that I had a lot more to read to discover my own story. Growing up, I was hungry to read about my own experiences, but my life was absent. I remember enjoying Kes, Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit and Martin Chuzzlewit, but where? Was there the young black man who lived in a house in Brixton and was struggling to find his identity? It didn’t exist, so I decided to create it myself.”

His first novel, Brixton Rock, took five years to write and received 30 rejections before finding a publisher. It won the London Arts Board’s New Writers’ Award and was later adapted for the stage.

Alex has now written a stack of titles for teen readers. In 2008, he earned an MBE for Services to Literature, having become a passionate spokesperson for the difference reading can make in life.

Now he goes to prisons and schools to inspire others, which is how he met Give A Book, Express’ Christmas charity partner, whose goal is to promote reading in the hardest-to-reach places.

“There was a book group at Wormwood Scrubs and I was really excited. These guys were trying to prepare for life in the great outdoors.” As for his former mentor, Simeon dedicated his last years to introducing more young people to literature until his death seven years ago.

“He was a reading champion in elementary schools,” says Alex. “I am still grateful for the opportunities that came my way while in prison.

“Meeting Simeon accelerated a process that allowed me to realize my creative potential and having him as my mentor helped me become the man I wanted to be.

“Reading books can inspire you and it can also help you figure out how to make a valuable contribution to society.”



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