Author Lemn Sissay shares his childhood in Wigan and discovering the truth in new book

Lemn Sissay. Picture by Hamish Brown
Lemn Sissay. Picture by Hamish Brown

Poet and broadcaster Lemn Sissay is already known to many for his words, but Wiganers could be particularly interested in his new book.

For his memoir My Name Is Why tells the story of his childhood in our borough.

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The places described will be familiar to many, from being born at Billinge Hospital, through his years in foster care in Ashton and children’s homes in Leigh, Lowton and Atherton.

And despite his tough upbringing and his fight for justice later - which included taking legal action against Wigan Council - he still considers the town to be his home.

The book details how Lemn spent the early years of his childhood fostered by a family in Ashton, attended RL Hughes Infant School and went to services at Bryn Baptist Church.

He said: “My first few years in Wigan, I was very happy. I explain the beautiful time I had in Ashton-in-Makerfield. It features heavily in it.”

But he then spent six years in care homes in Atherton, Lowton and Leigh, including the notorious Wood End assessment centre.

At the age of 17, he moved into his first flat on the Poet’s Corner housing estate and was given his birth certificate.

It was then that he learned his name was Lemn Sissay, not Norman Greenwood, as he had been known.

He also discovered his mother, who was from Ethiopia and studying in England when she gave birth, had pleaded for his safe return.

But it was several decades before Lemn finally got all the files relating to his childhood.

He says he was even told while making a documentary in 2010 that they could not be found or had been lost.

It was a “great relief” when he finally received them and was able to find out more about himself, with excerpts from those files included in his book.

Lemn, who was awarded an MBE by the Queen for services to literature, said: “I wrote the book primarily because in 2015 Donna Hall, the chief executive then of Wigan Council, sent to me four folders which amounted to 18 years of memories of me, from the day I was born until I was legally an adult at 18 years of age.

“At that time, the government was my parent and that meant Wigan Council was my legal mum and dad. The memories of me in those 18 years are held in these files.”

He said it was “incredibly important” to him to get the documents, as no-one had known him for his whole life, and the last item in there was a letter he sent to the council when he left care at 18.

When he got the files, Lemn sued Wigan Council for what happened during his childhood.

He said: “The moment we finished, as we settled out of court and I received an apology for 18 years of transgressions, I did a Christmas dinner in Wigan for care leavers between the ages of 18 and 25.”

It was then that he started to write his memoirs.

Lemn says his life has always been public record due to those files, so he wanted to use them for the book.

Each chapter begins with a short poem, before Lemn shares the story of his childhood through those papers.

There are heartbreaking moments throughout the book, such as the circumstances around him leaving his foster family.

His time in Wood End is particularly difficult to read, with the book including comments from other people who stayed there and shared their experiences after Lemn wrote a blog about the centre.

He said: “I wrote the blog but I did not know that so many of those young men from Leigh, Atherton, Tyldesley, Wigan, Astley, Ince, Billinge, from all around, would then share their own horrific stories of being in Wood End.”

He believes the police did a “thorough investigation” into allegations of both physical and sexual abuse at the centre.

Lemn chose not to take part in the class action as he wanted to focus on getting an apology for his whole childhood.

He is pleased with the finished memoir, which was proving popular among book lovers before it was even officially released.

He said: “I’m getting a really powerful reaction from this whole country. It’s really extraordinary what’s happening right now.”

Lemn still visits Wigan several times a year and recently interviewed a foster mother and child in the borough for a radio programme.

He said: “As my journey grows, I get the opportunity to promote good practice and there’s good practice in fostering in Wigan and I proved that to the nation.”

Lemn remembers people in Leigh and Atherton describing children’s homes as where “the naughty boys” lived and wants to change perceptions.

He said: “Most children go into a children’s home because they are traumatised. We need to think differently about our young people in care and that’s what part of my mission is.”

While his moving book is already proving to be a hit with people around the world, it is his hometown where Lemn hopes it will make a difference.

He said: “This was not just a book for the sake of a book, it matters to me. It matters that the people of Wigan can see what happened. They get an inside track on what happened.”

Lemn could even return to the borough to share the experiences in his book.

“I would love to do a reading in Wigan,” he said. “I’m reading all over the country, I’m reading all over the world, but I would love to come to Wigan and do a full public reading and a Q and A. I don’t know why that’s not happened. If it doesn’t happen, I will make it happen.”