Lemn Sissay tells Angie Gough about his Christmas Dinner initiative

For years before I met him, I’d spot poet Lemn Sissay in his gold bicycle helmet, coat tails flying, zipping through Hackney on his bike. When he agreed to become an Artskickers judge and I got to meet him in person, nothing could’ve prepared me for the “Lemn effect”. He’s dazzling and magnetic, one of those people who inspires you to be a better person.

Lemn’s story is both tragic and redemptive, heartbreakingly documented in his poetry, plays and broadcast work.

Born in Wigan, baby Lemn was placed in care against the wishes of his Ethiopian mother. His adoptive parents put him back into care at the age of 12 and Lemn was then in and out of homes until finally being ejected from the system, alone and penniless, at 17. His search for the truth about his life began then, but it was only earlier this year, shortly before his 50th birthday, that his social services files were released to him. The Report was read to him live on stage at The Old Vic theatre in June.

“There are things that I’ve done that I’m proud of, but of all the things I’ve done, The Report was the piece, the sweet spot, the ultimate in stage performance. I was here but not here, absolutely present and NOT.”

The Report did much to shine a light on the failings of the UK care system. To many, Lemn is a beacon of hope, a powerful advocate and role model.

“It’s an honour to be a role model but I don’t set out to be that. To not carry the shame of children’s homes – that’s a very deliberate thing,” he says.

Lemn Sissay holding christmas pudding

Photo: Tom Pilston

That feeling of shame is thrown into sharp relief at Christmas, a reminder to care leavers of everything they never had. For a young person in care, Lemn has written that “the onset of Christmas is like playing pass the parcel to the tune of Jingle Bells and knowing there’s nothing in the box”.

“Christmas Day is the worst day of the year,” he says. “Everyone disappears into their own dysfunctional families. Mum drops the sprouts on the floor, Auntie Alex drinks too much, Uncle Gerry is ill, but still smoking… it’s all about STORIES, the compounding of memories of Christmases gone before. Christmas for care leavers – there is no story. You feel the nothingness very sorely on Christmas Day.”

In 2013, Lemn held the first Christmas Dinner for care leavers in Manchester, with 45 guests and a core team of 12 volunteers.

The following year, it happened in Hackney, where 70 guests sat for dinner and a proper Christmas knees-up laid on by local volunteers.

Lemn at the Old Trafford Mural. Photo: Jessica Lishak

 

This year, with the support of generous sponsors including the Co Op and a contingency fund administered by the Lemn Sissay Foundation, dinners are planned on Christmas Day in Leeds, Liverpool, Oxford and Scotland.

“We’re lighting up the country like a Christmas tree,” says Lemn. “The dinners are creating positive, powerful, memories of love and community and abundance, memories to look back and build on.”

It’s no surprise to Lemn that the Christmas Dinner took off the way it did in Hackney, his home for 15 years and counting.

With support from the borough’s can-do creative population, the commitment of Hackney’s care leaving services and a large dose of the “Lemn effect”, this year will be another memorable Christmas for everyone involved.

Lemn’s Hackney loves

*Its radical past and the fact that Hackney elected the country’s first black female MP, Diane Abbott.

*Palm 2 corner shop in Clapton – when a supermarket chain opened next door to him, owner Abdul stepped up, his deli flourished and so did Clapton. He’s a symbol of what Hackney is all about. You can become friends with your shopkeeper!

*Bread and Butter café on Kingsland Road does the best breakfasts and there’s no park in London to beat Victoria Park.

*Its people – so many people who just get on and make stuff happen.

What you can do to support the Hackney Christmas Dinner:

DONATE what you can on Crowdfunder at crowdfunder.co.uk/the-christmas-dinner-2017

BUY a gift using the Hackney Christmas Dinner Amazon gift list

FOLLOW @xmas_dinner on Twitter and Facebook (HackXmas) for all the details

For referrals and guest queries, email hackneyxmasdinner@gmail.com

 

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