I first heard Lemn Sissay talking about his childhood experiences on Radio 4 in 2009. At that time he was still fighting Wigan social services for sight of the official dossier on his years as a child in care, fostered at first and then dumped back in the system and institutionalised in care homes and then a remand home. Eighteen years of his life stored in an Iron Mountain data facility. He’d been asking for his files, the story of his life, since he came of age.
It was not easy to forget that programme; the banal cruelties of the system and Sissay’s resolute dignity in talking about them. At 18 he was told that the name he had been given by his foster parents was not his birth name. But it was too late: at 14 Lemn had had his initials tattooed on his arm, using the first name given to him by his first social worker, whose name was Norman. It’s still there. He was also given a letter by his mother in which she asks: ‘How can I get Lemn back? I want him to be with his own people, his own colour. I don’t want him to face discrimination.’
Sissay’s career as a writer and performance poet has never flinched from observing the way that children in care are treated, with not enough attention paid to the confusion, absence and loneliness at the heart of their individual stories. Now he has written a memoir, My Name Is Why, fuelled by his determination to make things better for other children in a similar situation and by the quiet courage and relentless honesty of someone who has not stopped feeling bitter but won’t let it destroy the rest of his life. He read passages from it on Radio 4 this week (produced by Elizabeth Allard), giving us disturbing insights into how the welfare state has treated him.
Lemn’s mother (who fell pregnant while she was in the UK on a student visa) must have the gift of prophesy as his name happens to mean ‘why’ in Amharic. Lemn has never stopped asking questions, wondering why he was ‘chocolate’ and everyone else he knew was white. Why that made people angry with him. Why no one told him he was ‘the same colour as Martin Luther King’.
He now at last has been given the four packed files that chart his years in care. But, if anything, he is left with more questions. ‘Maybe I was loved?’ he wonders. ‘Maybe my mother didn’t want me? Maybe it was my own fault?’
Word of Mouth is one of those Radio 4 programmes that’s been in the schedule for years (since 1992), is easy to dip in and out of, and is often taken for granted. Yet it’s always fascinating and speaks directly to us, whether it be about how the Vikings changed the English we speak now or the history of ‘the most powerful word’ in English, ‘the’. It’s also the kind of programme that makes an excellent podcast; a focused conversation, exploring new thoughts and ideas through an established format. It was developed by Frank Delaney and Simon Elmes but is now presented by Michael Rosen (and produced by Melvin Rickarby), who in last week’s episode talked about dialect and Dickens with the Vauxhall-born writer Gabriel Gbadamosi.
Gbadamosi grew up with a Nigerian father who spoke Yoruba and a mother who was Irish and spoke with a strong brogue. The house was always full of people who at times might speak standard Nigerian English, pidgin English, south London, street London. While at school he also came across formal English through listening to BBC schools programmes. As a child, Gbadamosi recalls, he could veer back and forth through all these dialects as if at the sweep of a dial. If he was stopped by the police as a teenager during the 1980s when the sus laws were in force, he would switch into his poshest voice, dumbfounding them with an Eliza Doolittleish ‘Good evening. Can I help you?’
He learnt early on how to shift between worlds through language, a skill that proved useful when he went to Cambridge University, where he did not meet another black British person. At school, he had been introduced to Dickens and the way the writer develops characters through how they speak, their back stories revealed through their different dialects, intonation and vocabularies. Rosen reminded us how Dickens taught himself shorthand at 15, got himself a job as a freelance reporter, and spent his time in pubs overhearing conversations and noting down exactly what was said. Gbalamosi added that he was also a parliamentary sketchwriter, listening to MPs and learning ‘the language of power’.
Reading Dickens helped Gbadamosi to see who he was — a south Londoner. ‘Through the novels,’ he said, ‘I got immersed in it [the street life of Vauxhall]. I can be in this world and I can feel; I can afford to feel. I don’t need to be frightened. It is possible to be a Londoner. So he made me a Londoner.’ The best argument for Dickens you will hear in a while.