Jonathan Falla: author & teacher

Jo Hugh-Jones-1
Photo by Tina Norris.


Jo Falla was born in 1954 in Jamaica, where his father lectured in English Literature at the University of the West Indies. The family returned to England a year later on a boat laden with bananas.

Jo grew up by the Thames in West London, and in North Wales where the family had an old mill house. He was at school at Bedales (Hampshire), and then won a scholarship to read English and Art History at Caius College, Cambridge from 1973 – 1977. He was closely involved with the establishment of the Cambridge Poetry Society and the first Cambridge Poetry Festival in 1975, and organised readings by (among others) Basil Bunting, Hugh Sykes-Davies and Richard Murphy.
In 1978 he went to Java to work for an Indonesian publishing company, editing an educational magazine in the mountain city of Bandung. The publisher was also a printer, and Jo learned to print on venerable letterpress machines. While there, he spent much time studying the music of Sunda (West Java), learning to play the kacapi (zither), following the wayang (puppet) troupes and exploring the country. This time in Indonesia is at the heart of a novel, The White Porcupine, concerning the war of Independence, published as a fine press edition in 2014.
In 1981, Jo was hired by Oxfam to go to Karamoja (Uganda) during a famine relief operation. The often farcical nature of this formed the basis of a play, Topokana Martyrs’ Day, which was produced at the Bush Theatre (London) in 1982 with a cast including David Threlfall and Jabu Mbalu. The play has now had six productions in London, Salisbury, Los Angeles, New York and on BBC Radio. It is perhaps unique: the only successful comedy about an African famine. It won Jo a vote as ‘Most Promising Playwright’ from London theatre critics (in Plays & Players magazine).

The Karamoja experience prompted Jo in 1982 to begin nursing, firstly at Oxford, then at the London Hospital for Tropical Diseases, and finally at Aberdeen Hospital for Sick Children. In 1985-6 he was in Burma, training village paramedics in the Karen rebel free state of Kawthoolei. This strange encounter led to the ethnographic study True Love & Bartholomew: Rebels of the Burmese Border (Cambridge University Press), in print now for thirty years.

In 1991 he was Save The Children’s medical coordinator in Darfur, West Sudan, at a time when the opening stages of the current Darfur crisis were being played out. This difficult time is at the heart of the novel Poor Mercy, published many years later.

During the 1990s Jo was writing drama. A BBC feature film, The Hummingbird Tree, was shot in Trinidad with a local crew, and went on to win several awards. This helped Jo to gain the first Fulbright/T.E.B.Clarke Fellowship to study at the film school of the University of Southern California. The script that he wrote there concerned the Chinese occupation of Tibet. It was never filmed, but became his first published novel, Blue Poppies. Other drama productions included Down the Tubes, a play for community theatre in Edinburgh, and River of Dreams, a musical for children with composer Gordon Murch. He was also translator and scriptwriter for Diriamba!, a co-production between the Edinburgh Theatre Workshop and Teatro Nixtayolero of Nicaragua which won a ‘Fringe First’ on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Other novels followed: Poor Mercy, Glenfarron, and The Physician of Sanlucar, then The White Porcupine and Good News from Riga.

He has written many short stories which have been both published and broadcast, and in 2007 was shortlisted for the National Short Story Prize. He has also written numerous essays and book reviews for publications including the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist, London Magazine, Minnesota Review, The Scotsman and the Scottish Review of Books. He teaches humanities for the Open University and previously at St Andrews University, where he was Director of the University’s Creative Writing Summer School from 2009-2019.

Jo’s interest in tropical healthcare has taken him to Nicaragua and El Salvador, Brazil and Nepal, and he has also travelled in Chile, overland to India, in West Africa and through much of Europe. He continued in nursing until 2006, but then became a Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund, attached to Dundee University as part of an effort to raise standards in academic writing. In 2007 he was awarded a £30,000 “Creative Scotland” prize for work on a new novel. This project stems in part from his long involvement with a professional Early Music quartet for which he played lute and woodwind and sang baritone. The group made three CD recordings of 16th century music from Spain, France, England and Scotland, the most recent of which was an ‘Editor’s Choice’ in The Gramophone.

Jo married his wife Rona (a doctor) in Edinburgh in 1992. Their son Kit is now a music student in London. They live in rural Fife where Jo is a serving member of the Scottish Children’s Panel.


15 thoughts on “Jonathan Falla: author & teacher”

  1. A final and for me, remarkable point; from the passage on page 72 mentioning plate 5 it seems very likely that the individual NCO closest to camera is my Uncle, about to inspected by King George. Does that make sense to you? Of course it doesn’t change the tragedy of the whole thing but it’s an amazing piece of family history, so thank you for this.

  2. Hi Jonathan, assuming you are the correct Jonathan Falla, I was directed to your Father’s memoirs “Luck of the Devil”, by a Google search on my Uncle: Alex Grieve, Dasher.
    Your Father recounts, second hand, Alex jumping from the Dasher. I’m really just hoping for confirmation that Alex was a definite name in you Father’s account, as I wanted to be sure of the accuracy of this.
    Alex was one of five brothers, four of whom served through the war. Alex was the only one who did not survive. He is well remembered in our family so its poignant to discovery an account of his last moments.

    1. Good morning,Chris – yes, you have the right author. And I can confirm that Alex Grieve is the name given in my father Robert’s typed memoir (although I now see that I’ve allowed an S to creep onto the end – my apologies for that). So it would appear that this was indeed your uncle Alex. I can imagine how poignant and perhaps startling it would be to come across that.
      They were all such young men – Robert would have been 23 at the time of the sinking of Dasher, and I expect your uncle was much the same. Robert escaped the disaster only by complete chance, and for a long time felt ‘survivor guilt’.

      1. Thanks Jonathan, it was a strange feeling to encounter this. Not sure what my Dad would have thought. The passing of relatives and artifacts of war service has made these events much more in our thoughts recently. I’m enjoying your Father’s book a lot. Best wishes.

  3. Hi Jonathan, I really enjoyed the concert, last night. It was pure magic! And it was brilliant to meet you. I sent a few pics of the concert to Gordon. I hadn’t realized that I’ve read one of your books – ‘ Blue Poppies’ – which I found very moving. I’ll download the rest when I get home to Penrith. Best wishes for your future projects. Cheers, Julie.

  4. Hi Jo, David Weber. I was sitting here working on a script set in Africa and thought about you, and realized that of course it would be easy enough to find you in cyberspace. I still remember fondly the last time we saw each other, when you took me to Glenducky (sp?) Sounds like things are going well and as usual, you are carving your own successful path. Speaking of which, were you aware that your classmate at SC, Cinco Paul, wrote the Despicable Me movies, among others? If you’ve seen them I’m sure you’ll recognize the humor. Best, Dave

    1. Hi Dave – how nice to hear from you. I’ll email at greater length. Despicable Me is a Falla family favorite, and my son loves the reflected glory of saying “My dad knows the Cinco who wrote that.” It really is funny, and very Cinco.

  5. What a truly amazing book–your Blue Poppies! I was with you in Tibet. You took me there. Thank you.

    1. Well, thank you, Colleen. Actually, I’ve never been to Tibet proper, although my brother (an anthropologist) has worked there. The nearest I’ve got is Ladakh (or “Little Tibet”) next door in the Himalaya, which has a very similar culture and brand of Buddhism. My wife and I walked through a few valleys up there with a string of pack ponies.
      But it’s not as remote as it once was. Nowadays, trippers come up from Delhi by air for the day! So as to be able to say they walked about in the high Himalaya, I suppose. What would Jamie have thought of that, I wonder?
      All the best, JF

  6. Hi Jo
    Its is Wieger. you know , the guide from the Netherlands. Nice website. Looks really good. How is your work going on your book on the Molukken? If it will be available somehow i would be interested to read some day. you can contact me at Well hope to hear from you nd your work Say hi to Rona and Kid for me
    Greetings Wieger

  7. Hi ~ What an interesting life you are leading. I happened upon your sight while I was doing some geneology research for my Family.
    Are you related to the Falla Family that adopted Ruby Dumont in the early 1900’s in Jamaica? I believe that their names were James ALexander and Rose Falla..they had one son named Lloyd Alexander Falla

    Thanks for any help that you may have.

    1. I am the daughter of Lloyd Alexander Falla. My grandparents were Rose and James Alexander Falla. I would be interested to know if we are related. Thanks for any information you may have. Vivienne Dec.10 2012

      1. What is your connection with Tandy (below)? My family had no connection with Jamaica at that time.

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