Lemn Sissay: poet

2 Jun

Everyone has a story. The quick-witted poet Lemn Sissay, whose brilliant poem ‘Adventure Flight’ was shown as a film at the FA Cup Final 2015 (which Arsenal won 4-0!), moved to Islington a year ago. But he’s been here before – in fact Islington was the very first place he came to in London, back in 1986, as a care-leaver who needed to get questions answered. Now Lemn Sissay’s a regular on BBC Radio 4 and thanks to a coveted student nomination is currently in a head-to-head battle with Lord Mandelson and Sir Mark Elder to become the next Chancellor of the University of Manchester. Interview by Nicola Baird

Lemn Sissay

Lemn Sissay: poet and campaigner. He wrote Adventure Flight for the FA Cup Final 2015 in Brighton, while in the process of moving out of Hackney and into Islington.

Lemn Sissay is undoubtedly the most famous of all the people who’ve been interviewed on Islington faces.

He’s an award-winning poet and playwright, an MBE, a fellow of the Foundling Museum, an associate artist of the Southbank Centre, inaugural trustee of World Book Day, official Olympic 2012 poet and a patron of The Letterbox Club and The Reader Organisation. He might even be a shoo in as the next Chancellor of the University of Manchester if the popularity of the Vote for Lemn facebook page predicts the results (due on 22 June). You may have heard his voice on Radio 4 or Emirates Airline radio. But this also might be the first time you’ve come across Lemn – unless you love poetry or are a footie fan.

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“I’m really proud of my FA football poem. It encapsulates that energy – the equality of dreams. It doesn’t matter who you are or how rich you are. We all deserve the capacity to dream. ‘We are all equal in our dreams/ of underdogs and over achievers’,” says Lemn Sissay – whose last name means blessing in Amharic, one of the Ethiopian languages.

Compton Terrace

Compton Terrace

“I first came to Islington to the Children’s Legal Centre next to the World’s University, 20 Compton Terrace,” says Lemn just days after seeing his poem was all over TV screens and played at the FA Cup Final at Wembley. (Arsenal’s magnificent 4-0 win against Aston Villa was his very first FA Cup Final match.)

Because this is Lemn Sissay, it wasn’t an ordinary journey.

“I was 17 and walked barefoot down Upper Street,” says Lemn who found the Children’s Legal Centre thanks to a woman who used to visit him in a children’s home in Lancashire telling him about it.

Starbucks at 30 Upper Street is where I get skinny latte. Lemn keeps doing interviews here – it’s a place he can work and keep an eye on what’s happening

Starbucks at 30 Upper Street is where Lemln gets skinny latte.

Back then his bare feet were about setting new boundaries. “It was summertime and I just didn’t see the point of shoes,” he says laughing at his younger self. He still looks every inch a character – with wild hair, black jacket and bright green trainers. Around his neck is an Ethiopian necklace and an Ethiopian scarf made from raw cotton.

Lemn’s heritage is Ethiopian, but brought up in foster care, until he was 12, and then children’s homes he knew little about this.

“When I was 21 a woman at Highbury station stopped me and started speaking in Amharic. I didn’t understand her, but she was spooked because she obviously knew I was Ethiopian – I looked Ethiopian – but I didn’t know the words or what she wanted. Even now I still get excited when I see Ethiopians and Eritreans. I enjoy seeing people who look like me in the street. Most people in the world have facial recognition of each other – when you’ve not had that as a child it is a very deep loss.”

“The Children’s Legal Centre was very important to me. It provided a space to meet and talk with young black kids in care and was the first recognition of some of the abuses that happened to us in the care system in Wigan, 200 miles away. After coming out of care we were like deer blinking in the headlights. There was lots of bad practice – we were farmed out to parents who were ill-equipped to look after us.”

The action he took with about 20-25 others, from all over the country, led to the making of a video called Black & In Care. “It became a rallying call. We symbolised everything that was wrong with the care system.”

This was back in 1986 and has made a real difference – but what a time it’s taken for Lemn personally. “Just two weeks ago (May 2015) I had a request to meet, as a precursor to an apology, from the director of Wigan Social Services via the BBC,” Lemn says.

The Afghan Kitchen opposite Islington Green.

The Afghan Kitchen opposite Islington Green.

Places Lemn Sissay likes in Islington

  • The Afghan Kitchen at 35 Islington Green is one of the great restaurants of London. It’s small, very specialised and has beautiful food, service and authenticity. My friend Hardeep Singh Koli names it as one of London’s greats.

  • 20150601_163553There are moments when I look at the name Angel and think what a beautiful place to live in. In Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere The Angel Islington is a real angel.

  • Starbucks at 30 Upper Street is where I get skinny latte. Lemn keeps doing interviews here – it’s a place he can work and keep an eye on what’s happening

  • I used to like the Ethiopian food at Menelik, 277 Caledonian Road – but it’s just shut. Ethiopian food is delicious and reminds me of my family. They live all over the world. Everywhere but here.

Back to the future
For the past couple of Christmases, first in Manchester and then East London, Lemn organises a very special gift for a group of 18-25 year old care leavers. “Memories are never more intense than on Christmas day,” he says. “Everyone has gone back to their families but care leavers are left alone, so I throw a Christmas dinner with the best venue, the best food and the best presents. Last year Arsenal gave tickets to the Boxing Day match.”

Although Lemn has lived in Manchester and Hackney for long periods, he seems content in Islington. “I moved to Barnsbury, last year (2014). Now for exercise I run past Compton Terrace – where I first went – on the way to Highbury Fields.”

“Where you live has a profound effect on you. I was born in Lancashire and my experience is no worse than anyone else’s in care. I’m not defined by my scars, but by the incredible ability to heal and I cherish that process,” he says.

You can find out much more about his thinking about home on Lemn Sissay’s Homecoming recently broadcast on BBC Radio 4, see here.

Lemn Sissay (c) Greenwhich Library

Lemn Sissay (c) Greenwhich Libraries 2013

Speaking of home
Lemn is known for his inventive words and delivery – he’s the one who writes poems on walls, or beams them on to buildings, see here . Even so he was still thrilled to know his poem was part of the FA Cup Final 2015. “People were so excited for their team that they weren’t watching the film of Adventure Flight. I like poetry to be part of the noise – at the FA Cup Final it was part of the melee: a beautiful thing.”

Lemn is the ultimate piece of work, as Shakespeare put it.

He’s a stunningly talented wordsmith, with heaps of ideas, humour and a real passion to improve the lives of kids whose own families haven’t been there for them. So, if you have the chance to help him do this – or anyone in that situation – please do. You can find out abut Lemn’s Christmas 2015 plans for young care leavers on his blog here.

If you enjoyed this interview you can read about the Islington-based Ethiopian singer, Hanisha Solomon here

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you.

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook or join the Facebook group. Even better follow islingtonfacesblog.com (see menu top right) or follow me on twitter @nicolabairduk

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola



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