Lemn Sissay: ‘For the first time, I’m enjoying my life. I feel I have a purpose’
Life begins at 50 for the acclaimed poet, who’s overcome a traumatic childhood in care. Next up: more theatre and television projects
Sunday 17 September 2017 07.30 EDT
When I arrive at Benares, the Indian restaurant on Berkeley Square in London, Lemn Sissay has got there first and is on the way back outside for a smoke. I’ve never met Sissay, but he has the true poet’s gift for immediately making you feel like an old mate. We stand outside the Bentley showroom next to the restaurant – this isn’t any old curry house – and he explains with his broad grin why he chose to come here this particular day: “When you said the date for lunch, I immediately thought it had to be an Indian place!” he says, “Seventy years this morning since independence and partition – we couldn’t let that go by, could we?”
Sissay’s own complicated heritage is Ethiopian, by way of foster and care homes outside Wigan, in streets where the only other outsiders were Indian or Pakistani. “Those Lancashire villages were incredibly hostile to the Indian community who had come in originally to work the mills at night because no one else would,” he says. “When the mills closed they opened shops that stayed open late and got worse stick for that. But the food they have brought to our country has changed our idea of food forever.”
There are few better places to celebrate that fact than Benares, which belies its appearance as a marbled hotel lobby to bring Punjabi soul food out of its tandoori oven. We’re seated in a side room that has a plate glass window on to the kitchen. It has the feel of a pod in the Big Brother house. The confessional layout seems appropriate in that Sissay is all openness.
He’s come straight here from a meeting with some TV people at Channel 4, a “beautiful meeting” he says, if such a thing exists. He’s in talks to create a show or a series about orphans and foster children – he reels off a list: “Cinderella, Batman, Heathcliff, Harry Potter, Jane Eyre, Moses.” The idea will involve linking those characters with kids currently in care. “Families are like clever PR companies, protecting their monopoly of the idea of what it feels to be loved,” he says. “But dysfunction is also at the heart of all families. And a child in care is walking proof of that. People fear it might be contagious.”
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