I guess it was from my Dad I inherited my lifelong fascination with all things foreign.
My Dad, a true Scot to his accent, attitudes and jauntily worn Tam ‘o Shanter was, as was his father, grandfather, and all his dozen brothers, a shepherd. Not one of them could ever remember the names of nephews and nieces but the blood line of each other’s sheepdogs could be effortlessly recalled through four generations.
Through the negligence of an English officer my Dad lost a leg and all his comrades, on the last day of the Second World War. After several heroic attempts to return to work on the land, he finally accepted medical advice that to continue was to face certain death and ended up a storeman in an Army base to which troops from newly independent Commonwealth nations would occasionally be posted.
Whenever such men arrived my Dad, with an outsider’s sympathy for fellow foreigner, would invite them back to our terraced Council house, where I’d sit and stare in wordless wonder as nervous Ghurkhas and self-conscious African Riflemen juggled tea and Jaffa Cakes on their knees sunk deep on the sofa in the sitting room. That, sadly was the extent of my early taste of the exotic and the far away.
My Dad died the year I went off to study History and Law in London, where I discovered that a West Country accent prompted everyone to go ‘Oooh, Arrr!’ and chortle. It took me a little over three weeks to lose mine. Then, speaking near to BBC English, I met the person who shaped the course of the rest of my life: a fellow student, from Kenya. We married in 1977, at which time I adopted the name Dawood Ali.
I joined the Civil Service on graduation, worked aimiably and held various posts, all of which sounded much more exciting than they actually were.
In 1981 we made our first visit to India. We stayed in what had once been the Princely State of Gwalior where I first heard about an Italian family who had lived as noblemen there for the best part of two centuries. We returned two years later to research their story and record over 30 hours of interviews. Maharajas. Noblemen in decaying mansions. Courtiers, servants and soldiers. Bandits in prison and rescued sex workers in a refuge. From their stories my first novel, The Lords of Alijah emerged. It was also the disastrous start to that first visit, trapped and abandoned in a bitterly cold Heathrow Airport, that inspired my Novella The Peacock in the Chicken Run. In 1993 I started volunteering with a charity working in government offices across Africa. In 1997 I joined the charity full time. In 2001 a colleague and I set out on our own to pursue accountability and anti-corruption work, especially in the justice sector. Together we have worked in many countries in Africa and elsewhere, in particular in courts, prisons and police stations.
It is on the exposure and insights this work has allowed me (and for which I will forever be grateful) that both my third story, Taz and my fourth, The Final Charge, draw. I continue to do this work, with recent assignments with the judiciary of Sierra Leone to establish a specialist anti-corruption court and with the Court of Appeal in Nigeria on a range of skills enhancement. In 2017, The Institute of Information Management, Africa very generously awarded me a Fellowship in recognition of this work.
In recent years I’ve also tried to communicate and share my belief in the Commonwealth and my love of Africa through articles and talks. As well as being a member of The Commonwealth Society and the Royal African Society, I am a judge in The Queen’s Essay Writing Competition, the oldest, and largest such competition in the World. To read the work of a future generation of Commonwealth authors is a huge privilege.
For my latest tale, Mrs A’s Indian Gentlemen, my storytelling has come full circle, returning to the town in which I live. It draws on my own experience of more than half a century of this amazing place as well as, more importantly, the memories of my Mother of living and working there during the Second World War, when the story is set. Fittingly, the book that emerges is dedicated to her.