My Name is Why (2019) Lemn Sissay

Lemn Sissay writes his memoir from a position of power. On the back cover, he lists some of his awards: BAFTA nominated, honorary doctorates, an MBE for services to literature, Chancellor of the University of Manchester. The last line is the killer. ‘He is British and Ethiopian.’

In other words, he’s a black man. He was the illegitimate son of twenty-one-year-old Yemarshet Sissy, a student at a Baptist Bible College in England, and he was born in Wigan. He was taken into care when he was seven weeks old, and placed with foster parents, Mr and Mrs Greenwood. His mother had to return to Ethiopia to care for her dying father. Her attempts to contact Social Services and bring her son home were rebuffed.

Classified as one of ‘the shit countries’, by the moron’s moron and former US President Donald Trump The Conservative Government’s current attempts to redraft what it means to be a British citizen, a stepwise projection in creating a hostile environment, with, ironically, Asian heritage, Priti Patel as cheerleader, which resulted in the Windrush Scandal. In another, less successful life, Lemn Sissay would have deported to Ethiopia as an illegal immigrant. His mother, if she was still alive, would fifty-two years after his birth, finally have had her wish, her son being sent home to the Amhara people. Lemn in the Amharic dialect, the author tells the reader, means ‘Why?’

There’s lots of whys that need answered in this short book. A hero’s journey doesn’t usually begin when they are seven-months old. Mrs Greenwood sung to him, ‘you are my sunshine, my only sunshine’. And it was to this paradise he always wanted to return.  

The Greenwoods were childless and Baptist Christians. They were doing the right thing.  Lemn was given a new identity, Norman and he was their sunshine. But then they had three other children. Christopher born when Lemn was one-year old.  Lemn was no longer their sunshine, his radiance was short-lived.

Child cruelty, or abuse, takes many forms. January 1980. Lemn was around twelve-and-a-half, and his foster parents—the only patients he knew—contacted Wigan Social Services and demanded he be removed from their home. Their cruelties compounded by making Lemn say he didn’t love them, and he wanted to leave.  He’d entered the system.

 ‘At fourteen I tattooed the initials of what I thought was my name into my hand. The tattoo is still there but it wasn’t my name. It’s a reminder that I’ve been somewhere I should never have been. I was not who I thought I was.

The Authority knew it but I didn’t. The Authority had been writing reports about me from the day I was born. My first footsteps were followed by the click clack clack of a typewriter: ‘The boy is walking.’ My first words were recorded, click clack clack: ‘The boy has learned to talk.’ Fingers were poised above a typewriter waiting for whatever happened next: ‘The boy is adapting.’ ’

His memoir is leavened by extracts from Wigan Social Service Reports. Grim reading. But try living it. Woodfield Children’s Home. Gregory Avenue. And the daddy of them all, Wood End. Wood End was notorious among  those in the know, children in care. It was the end of the road, where the bad boys went. It was where Lemn was sent at fifteen when his placement at Gregory Avenue had broken down. Like others he’d committed no criminal offence to morally or legally justify his incarceration. A Dickensian prison run by sadists and child abusers. Many of the residents would graduate to the larger prison system and a life thwarted by drugs and drink.

Miracles do happen. Lemn Sissay escaped from a total institution and flourished. An exception to the rule does not create the rule. Local Authority Care in Crisis, now where have I read that before?

call me Dave.

dave from the hood.jpg

Beveridge’s giants to slay: ignorance.

I’ve shown quite a lot about discriminatory bias in the past. (It’s the economy stupid!) And I’ve written quite a bit, perhaps too much, about how those nice Conservative gentlemen in government, who won an election victory fair and square (well, kinda and not even kinda in Scotland) are simple folk who want to make the world better by handing increasingly large sums of money to rich folk to help poor folk get richer. But it’s Pantomime season and I like this story. I’m sometimes not sure who is the back end of Dobbin, David Cameron or George Osborne. The latter pickpocketed money from poor folk, but perhaps he hoped they wouldn’t notice his weasley scheme, and if they did, he’d be Prime Minister himself by them and could blame someone else. Now, even I’m flabbergasted.

John Niven, in the Sunday Mail, shows David Cameron really must believe that when we pull back the curtain and he’s peddling furiously, moving the scenery and shouting, telling us where we went wrong and how we can make it right – that he actually believed it. The Conservative Prime Minister writes to a Conservative council leader Ian Huspeth in Oxford and asks him why he’d made such dreadful cuts to ‘frontline services’ such as care of the elderly. Couldn’t the councillor made savings by sacking some dreadful working-class people that weren’t needed, not hired people that were needed, and sold off some surplus land and council properties. But Dave says Councillor Huspeth I’ve already sacked 2 800 staff, sold off all our ‘surplus property’ to try and make up our £72 million deficit because we get 37% less from central government than we got last year. Surely you can see that? And we’ve not even made inroads to the cuts needed for this year.

‘Sure,’ said Dave. ‘Don’t tell your mum and I’ll slip you the odd £100 million.’

[Hint: I made Dave’s reply up]