Lemn Sissay: Younger self 'would never have believed' OBE honour

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Lemn Sissay said it was "a wonderful thing to be recognised as somebody who has got my kind of past"

Poet Lemn Sissay has dedicated his OBE to his younger self who he said overcame a "dehumanising" time in care.

The University of Manchester chancellor and broadcaster grew up in foster care and children's homes in Wigan.

He said his younger self "would never have believed" he would become an OBE, which was conferred in recognition of his services to literature and charity.

He added that he had felt obliged to accept the honour because it was a "big deal" for people who were in care.

Sissay was born in 1967 to an Ethiopian mother shortly after she moved to England to study.

He was taken into long-term foster care in Wigan and named Norman Greenwood.

After being reunited with his mother aged 18, she told him he had been named Lemn, which meant "why" in Ethiopia's Amharic language, and she had made unsuccessful efforts to get him back.

He went on to fight a 34-year battle with Wigan Council to get hold of his records and settled a court case against the authority over his treatment.

Media caption,
Sissay told the Today programme how his childhood mischief was seen as "evil working within me"

Speaking after his investiture at Windsor Castle, he said when people get honours "they usually say 'I can not wait to tell my mum or dad, because that will make them proud'".

"I did not have that and that is a direct result of my story - but that is just the way it is and it has an even more profound effect upon me in lieu of family," he said.

He said becoming an OBE would have astonished his younger self.

"If I had said to him that one day, you will be in Windsor Castle to receive an OBE from Prince Charles, I would never have believed that kind of magical story - almost fairytale - would happen," he said.

He added that he had to accept the honour for the boy "who lost his family, who left children's homes at 18 years of age and didn't know anybody for longer than a year at that age and had spent all of those Christmases alone".

"If you were going to say to that child 'in your adulthood, you are going to be honoured for what it is that you do and who it is that you are, but you have got to turn it down'.

"I just could not do that to him."

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Image caption,
The poet received his honour from Prince Charles in a ceremony at Windsor Castle

Sissay, who published his first book of poetry when he was 21, detailed his experiences in the British care system in his autobiography My Name Is Why.

In 1995, he made a BBC documentary, Internal Flight, about his life, and his one-man show Something Dark, which detailed how he was given up as a baby, was adapted for BBC Radio Three in 2006.

He became an MBE in the 2010 New Year Honours and took up his post as chancellor of the University of Manchester in 2015.

He said it was "a wonderful thing to be recognised as somebody who has got my kind of past".

"It is really important for me to be able to represent all the young people who have been in care so they think 'I can do that'," he said.

"They can think 'I can be a lawyer, or a doctor, a hairdresser, or just go where he has gone'."

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