Teacher dedicates debut novel to murdered pupil who was 'full of promise'

Nicola Garrard

Nicola Garrard has dedicated her debut novel 29 Locks to former pupil Mahad Ali who was murdered in 2017. - Credit: Shoot Me Now

The murder of a well-loved pupil has inspired his former teacher to write an adventure novel which reflects the difficulties of teenage urban life.

Talented boxer Mahad Ali from Hornsey Rise was stabbed to death by a gang of youths in 2017, but no one has so far been jailed for the crime.

Nicola Garrard felt so angry at the 18-year-old's lost potential that she has written a YA novel about a 15-year-old who moves from Islington to Hertfordshire when he falls at risk of gang grooming and his single mum is jailed for drug offences.

"Mahad was such a lovely boy, one of my favourite students. He was in my year 6 class at Duncombe Primary school, then I taught him English at Highbury Grove. I saw him grow up from the age of 10 and knew he had a loving family and a positive attitude. His death was hideous and brutal. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and it absolutely knocked me for six. He was full of promise and wanted to be a professional boxer."

When Nicola moved from Finsbury Park to West Sussex to teach in a rural comprehensive she realised "the lives of kids in the countryside, rich or poor, are safe and protected compared to London".


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"There are still problems of drugs in villages but there isn't any violence. Kids in Sussex don't go to school fearing for their safety, thinking their trainers will be nicked, or worried about moving in the wrong postcode like the kids in Islington. They are able to be teenagers and can approach education in a totally different way."

"I know if Mahad had grown up anywhere else he would be alive today pursuing his dreams. I wanted to write about what was happening in north London and the differences between children's lives."

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29 Locks, which refers to the number of locks on the Regent's Canal between Hertfordshire and King's Cross, sees mixed race Donny fostered to the countryside where he meets posh Zoe, whose dream of being a model puts her in danger. Together they plan to steal a barge and sail back to London, Donny to find his mum, and Zoe to attend a dubious "audition".

"In the country Donny gets a different perspective about institutional racism and the structures that keep people in poverty. I've smuggled a political novel into a YA (young adult) action story," adds Nicola.

Mahad Ali, 'the kind of person everyone liked'. Picture: Tariq Rahman

Mahad Ali wanted to be a professional boxer and according to friends was 'the kind of person everyone liked'. - Credit: Tariq Rahman

"So many of the kids I taught in Islington were affected by poverty and violence. The book is a love letter to them, to celebrate their resilience, their humour and bravery. Things are stacked against them yet they are loyal and hard working. I wanted to give them a read that showed them as heroes - Donny solves some serious problems by the end of the novel."

Nicola criticises the media response to Mahad's death. "I couldn't believe it wasn't in the news apart from the Islington Gazette. Because he was Black it cheapened his value. There was no public outrage about a very young man being murdered. People weren't thinking and talking about it. It might have had a different outcome but no one has been convicted or held responsible."

Nicola, whose children are mixed race, has been careful to ensure representations in her novel are "fair and tested, and challenge negative representations" about how Black boys in particular are typed as figures of fear as they grow older.

She's "proud" of helping to turn around Highbury Grove from "quite a difficult school to a wonderful school" and "very proud I have written a book - I didn't see myself as a writer".

"I've dedicated the book to Mahad, it was written in his honour. Hopefully people will read it and see things differently, that some of those that society runs down and is frightened of, have heroic stories and have overcome extreme odds. We should be celebrating their achievements."

29 Locks

29 Locks by Nicola Garrard is published by Hope Road Publishing - Credit: Courtesy of Hope Road Publishing

29 Locks is published by Hope Road Publishing on September 30.

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