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?