Lunch with Lemn Sissay
After confronting the trauma of a childhood in care, life for the poet is now sweet
When I arrive at Benares, the Indian restaurant on Berkeley Square in London, Lemn Sissay has got there first and is on the way back outside for a smoke. I’ve never met Sissay, but he has the true poet’s gift for immediately making you feel like an old mate. We stand outside the Bentley showroom next to the restaurant – this isn’t any old curry house – and he explains with his broad grin why he chose to come here this particular day: “When you said the date for lunch, I immediately thought it had to be an Indian place!” he says, “Seventy years this morning since independence and partition – we couldn’t let that go by, could we?”
Sissay’s own complicated heritage is Ethiopian, by way of foster and care homes outside Wigan, in streets where the only other outsiders were Indian or Pakistani. “Those Lancashire villages were incredibly hostile to the Indian community who had come in originally to work the mills at night because no one else would,” he says. “When the mills closed they opened shops that stayed open late and got worse stick for that. But the food they have brought to our country has changed our idea of food forever.”
There are few better places to celebrate that fact than Benares, which belies its appearance as a marbled hotel lobby to bring Punjabi soul food out of its tandoori oven. We’re seated in a side room that has a plate glass window on to the kitchen. It has the feel of a pod in the Big Brother house. The confessional layout seems appropriate in that Sissay is all openness.
He’s come straight here from a meeting with some TV people at Channel 4, a “beautiful meeting” he says, if such a thing exists. He’s in talks to create a show
‘Families are like clever PR companies, protecting their monopoly of the idea of what it feels like to be loved’
or a series about orphans and foster children – he reels off a list: “Cinderella, Batman, Heathcliff, Harry Potter, Jane Eyre, Moses.” The idea will involve linking those characters with kids currently in care. “Families are like clever PR companies, protecting their monopoly of the idea of what it feels to be loved,” he says. “But dysfunction is also at the heart of all families. And a child in care is walking proof of that. People fear it might be contagious.”
If there is one man who can deconstruct that belief it is Sissay. His Ethiopian mother was a young woman who had come to study in Britain and “found herself ” pregnant. She was placed in a mother and baby unit and encouraged to put her son into care. She refused to sign adoption papers – but Wigan social services ignored this wish (Sissay eventually discovered the letters to prove that). He was renamed Norman by his social worker – also called Norman – and placed with a local family with strong Christian beliefs. By the time he was 12, his new parents had three kids of their own. Sissay has previously said, “They were good people who did bad things.” They believed the devil was in him – he used to raid the biscuit tin – and returned him to social services. Throughout his teenage years in care homes Sissay was subject to psychological and physical abuse, eventually ending up in
a remand centre, though he had committed no crime, where he tried to make sense of things.
His route out was poetry. He published a book of poems at 21, Tender Fingers in a Clenched
Fist, and sold it where he could, in pubs, at political marches, any place he could stand up and perform. That voice has grown into something subtle and pointed – an evolution captured in Sissay’s new selected poems
Gold From the Stone. He has a magical stage presence, and has used his past to articulate both his own history and to give a voice to others parented by the state. Four years ago he started an initiative among artists and chefs and social workers to give proper Christmas dinners to groups of young people just out of care. Two years ago he was elected chancellor of the University of Manchester, beating a hard-campaigning Peter Mandelson, a fact which still makes him laugh out loud. His creative work never stops.
“I wish I could coast,” he says, in smiling desperation. “I can’t coast!” After we have eaten he has to head over to the Royal Court Theatre, where he is currently taking the irrepressible narrator’s role in the revival of Jim Cartwright’s definitive 1980s play
Road (“Alan Bennett for punks”). Before that there is food to eat: a chargrilled platter starter, of prawns and sea bass and chicken tikka, at which his eyes exclaim. He says, not just about the food: “You know, I think I’m enjoying my life. It’s quite exciting!”
Is this the first time in his life he could honestly say that?
“It is,” he says, “and I’m 50. I don’t live in luxury or anything. It’s more like maybe for the first time I feel myself making things happen. The Christmas dinner is the best thing I have been a part of ... And Manchester, the university. I’m enjoying my life because I feel I have a purpose, a reason.”
He gives me an example of how things have changed for him. The day before our lunch he lost his computer. He hopes he may have left it at the Royal Court, but he thinks not. The laptop had loads of writing on it, not backed up. And also in the bag were legal papers for the court case he is about to bring against Wigan social services for the abuses he suffered in care.
The point is, he says, the loss is no longer the end of the world. In the past something like losing his computer would have quickly led him to think “I’ve got no family, no one cares, and I’m in a black hole”. But now simple problems don’t collapse his whole mental house of cards. “That is my criteria for success in myself,” he says.
Part of that change has been an insistence on telling his story. Earlier this year, in an extraordinary one-off performance, he opened the psychologist’s file on the effects of his time in care. His first hearing of those case notes came in the voice of the actor Julie Hesmondhalgh (Hayley Cropper from Coronation Street ) who read the lot out to him on stage. It was by all accounts a profoundly affecting event. “I did it like that because in some ways I feel safest with an audience,” Sissay says. “I felt so much love in that room.” The file is a key element in his case against Wigan social services. “Hopefully it will open some doors for others. People in care are supposed to get to
their adult lives and pretend it didn’t happen. It’s like: ‘You’re fine, don’t spoil the party.’ I’m not prepared to do that.”
More food – a main course of tandoori lamb and salmon cooked in coconut, with dal and naan, brings talk back to the intensely flavoured world beyond Wigan.
Sissay used the little money he earned from selling poetry to find his biological family – his mother was working for the UN in Gambia; his father had been a pilot in Ethiopia, who died in a plane crash in 1972; he had brothers and sisters in Addis Ababa. The reunion was not a happy one, as he has explored in his play Something Dark .
Where is he up to with his family now?
“They don’t talk to me. My sister in Ethiopia I speak to maybe once a year. But then, imagine somebody coming into your house, your front room and saying, ‘Right, you don’t know me but I’m your eldest brother and I’m going to sit here.’ I guess that is hard for people to deal with.”
In Amharic “Lemn”, means the question “why?”. “In Ethiopia, I have become the lost boy called ‘Why?’ who has finally found the answer to the question in his name,” he says. “The country has taken to that. And Ethiopians are all over the world. I’ll be going through security at Boston airport or whatever and a security guard will shout: ‘Lemn!’ But my family doesn’t like that question. It’s like: ‘Who are you to mess with my mum or the memory of my dad?’
“It has let me know that this is what family is. I really am part of the family now, and I know it for a fact because they aren’t talking to me.” He roars with laughter. In his recent poem “Fallen”, he finds the language to forgive his mother their past: I am your son! And you did not fall, And I did not fall from you At all, not at all
“Family is also about letting go of things,” he says, evenly, when I mention the poem.
Later, after he has left the restaurant to prepare for that night’s show, he sends me a message that he has found his bag and computer: life is good! Gold From the Stone (Canongate, £9.99) is out now in paperback
They ate Tandoori ratan, £27; changezi chaapein, £36; tandoori macchi aur kekda, £32; dal £9.
The Table Benares, 12a Berkeley Square, London W1J 6BS; 020 7629 8886 They drank Moksha and mango wood cocktails, £9.50 each.