London 5am. It’s a clear morning in Hackney. I am in the car ready to travelto my home county of Lancashire. I choose the poem for the workers of the South Bank Arts Centre in London and press send. Hundreds of workers from the Security Guards to The chief executive, shall receive the poem in their inbox on Wednesday. It’s a piece Iwrote called Childrens Home. “Care” is a one word oxymoron. There are sixty thousand children in Children Homes in Britian. There are sixty thousand adults in prisons in Britain. One third, one whole third of that number in Prison are adults who have been in care. Ask yourself which group of sixty thousand people do you hear about on a weekly basis in the national newspapers. In other words if you take care of the children in your care you can improve the state of prisons. How bizarre.
I take the five hour hour journey from one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world toLilliput. I have two matchsticks holding my eyes open. The moment the car moves skirts off the motorway it is as if I have moved into my past. Memories are everywhere, onevery street corner of leigh, this angry little town. It’s the kind of place that people in the cities are barely aware of. But it’s towns like this one that T Hatcher was determined to break in the eighties – the mill town and pit towns. My towns.
Now the town’s pedestrianised and almost unrecognisable to we at it was. It’s been emasculated. The open market which was the heart of the town, where I worked on a stall selling homemade bleach and washing up liquid, is now a red brick warehouse with the words NETTO in black and yellow. The corridors of this shopping wharehouse arecalculated to within a penny of their potential profit. That people may talk and catch up on the weeks news, as they did in the market of yesteryear, is nothing more than a block to the cash flow of the multinational. The market that was by the people for the people is no more.
If you cut out all those open markets and local shops then replace them with supermarkets you can calculate the VAT of towns and villages as if they are cash machines and the people mere conduits for the cash flow. Now the whole country is an open market, the traders are multinationals and the consumers are not individuals but entire towns, villages and cities moving along the aisles like zombies caught in night time. The tanoid music gives the sense that we are stuck in one flew over the cuckoos nest.
I move through leigh past the independent shops that now have original names like PoundStretcher, past the pubs which are still many and large. My school by Green Hill’s been raised to the ground. I take the journalist past Woodfields a childrens home which has also been raised to the ground. I look out across the country road to Lucky Hollow the pond that I spent a lot of my childhood winters skating upon. It is circled with a grey council fence.
And there’s marshes farm where Mr Marsh used to employ us children each year to do the hay bailing – five high. We could do five bails high and ten wide. He was a quiet man Mr Marsh of Marshes farm. We’d cut off our arm to work that summer job! Cutting off the arm would have made us useless for hay bailing but you see what I mean. I remember sitting on top of the bails as if on top of the world, chewing straw, sweat (and straw) sticking to me forehead, laughing with other friends as the tractor chug chugged us through the fields and to the Barn at the farm. All of us from the childrens home loved it: The responsibility, the money we were paid, the laughter and the Freezing cold lemonade and sometimes cider breaks with thick doorstop buttered bread with plowmans lunch made by Mrs Marsh. I’m full with memory, brimming with it and dressed all in black for a funeral. Black suite tie shirt and shoes.
I have hardly any memories under the age of eighteen. Because there was no recall. That is what family is the constant lifelong verification - recall. It’s all about context. It’s all relative. All birthdays funerals and weddings are are people verifying your existence. Without family throughout childhood how would you know you existed. Whether family is good or bad is beside the point.
The Journalist is shock d at how green this area is and spacious. Hackney it is not. London it is not. This is Lancashire. There is so much space in Leigh and Atherton,so few cars. There’s horizons all over the place. I can even see Manchester (twenty miles away) across the Lancashire plain, glinting in the distance as the sun catches all those “shiny tall buildings”. As a teenager I used to stand on the rutkins (large hills of earth thrown up through the Pretoria pit disaster in the early 1900s) and watch the sunset shadows crawl across Lancashire. And the tower that stabs the skyline is fromstrangeways in Manchester. It’s a stark reminder to us in the childrens homes of where many will be heading. We were not criminals we were children in care through no fault of our own. Strangeways indeed.
We arrive at Howe Bridge Cemetry on Lovers Lane within ten minutes of the beginning of an end of someone.. I am so glad that I don’t drink anymore. I have left the Vehicle Pass from the latitude festival on the left hand side of the front window of the car. It’s from The Latitude Festival where I was a couple of days ago and it says “ACCESS ALL AREAS. ARTIST” . There are manicured bushes next to the car park. There’s a crowd in shadow and I know it’s Andrews. It’s a beautiful day.
I join this queue with the Journalist. She is supportive without being imposing, a difficult balance for anyone to undertake. I’m not nervous, nor inhibited. I know why I am here at this most intimate of events. The person who died was Andrew McGinty and hewas as he saw it “a younger version of myself”. He too was the only black in the village and in Wigan Boroughs notorious Care system. He went into care at 18 months old and was there until 18 years of age. I went into care at eight months old and left at seventeen years of age. He was eight years younger than me and fostered by a lovely kind family from 18 months . He left them in his teens which as he entered the childrens homes is where I first heard of him.
The last place he was in after being in a succession of children homes was the lastplace I was in. It was called Wood End. Wood End had a terrible reputation in the Wiganarea and was often used as a sort of clearing house for children whom the social service had enough of and for children who were in their adolescence and leaving care. It was run like a military camp and was also used for children on remand.
After the social services had messed up children to the point of dysfunction over seventeen years they, to typify the summary of their care, placed us in “wood end assessment centre”. After seventeen years we needed assessing. And because we had been in care such a long time there was no recall by anyone on the outside. It was a closed shop and I remember being conscious of this at the time it was happening. It waslike being trapped in a mirror. Wood End was run like a blorstal by an ex army officer who hated children. We had to march down corridors and shower in groups, all this in a degrading uniform. Because I had no family and therefore nowhere to go, they kept me locked up in there for six months and nobody except them, knew. Very clever. Very scarey. I made a documentary on BBC2 in 95 where I revisited the place and filmed inside it, helping to expose it for what it was. It was in that experience that my social worker told me tht he believed I should never have been in there.
I’ve said before and shall continue to say until my own funeral, the experience of a child in care, the true impact and the trauma of that experience is not evident until adulthood and the time when the child is no longer in the system. I want to know how many children who have spent the majority of their childhoods in “care” do what Andrew has done - commit suicide. Ofcourse there’ll be no figures.
I realise that two of the men stood next to me are staff members from Wood End. I shakehands and smile because I love my life and time passes. I have said before I was very angry with what had happened to me. And I was angry at the time it was happening. Whereas my anger was flailing, it is now defined and definite. My mere presence was enough to make the statement to these not so gentle men. They were jocular and took solace in humour. It is humour I know so well. The sort of small town humour that hasmore edge than a butchers knife. Oh How we Laughed.
I am the same as I was in care, constantly improving myself in the knowledge that nooneelse will help me. I remember in care realising that if I told a lie it would come back only to me and therefore I never told lies, not because I may be punished, but because in not having any family I believed that lies would be the poison that would kill me. I am the same to this day and it does me no favours and it does me all favours. The truth is all I had
I did meet a wonderful man though as we wound out of the funeral – he was the deputy ofWood End - Mr Barry Sharples. “you were just too intelligent” he said smiling “ and you should never have been in there anyway”. .
It’s not called Wood End Assesment centre any more. It’s called The Jenny. When Andrew left care he became a bouncer. He was a six foot tall black man in this small town – a tower of a man and of hurt. He was hurt. After years working the clubs he leftthem. He was self destructive in his relationships - I know what that’s about, He had a temper and he was a drinker which released it. I don’t have a temper. It’s very rare that I lose my temper and if I do it’s only unleashed in words.
In towns like Leigh (same in the cities really) alcohol is a rites of package. No doubt there would have been drugs and I see packs of doormen (bouncers) at the funeral, skin headed men with tears in their eyes. We’ve moved into the church now and Andrews coffin is beside the preacher. It’s a white coffin. “it was his favourite colour – white. He loved to wear it” says the preacher man. Later on The Journalist, who worked for years in fashion, tells me the fashion rule that “white always brings out the tan and tone of the darker skin”.
His mother is here. His real mother. She’s Egyptian. He was Egyptian. He was from that great great country that gave mathmatics to the world and written language and fed the greeks with knowledge that they would then take to Europe. I never knew this. It’s unmeasurably sad. And the person who organises his funeral is someone he has known for two years – his girlfriend. There is no speech from anyone who was his blood. Not even his foster family got to say anything and I really don’t know if his opinion of themdeteriorated in his blinding rage.
He died at thirty two years of age, hanged himself after a drunken night out with hisfriends who now feel guilt that it maybe something they said - it wasn't. His girlfriend reads a poem for him. And the preacher takes us through Andrews life peppering his speech with religiosity. Here he is the churchman gathering up the emotionally vulnerable and trying to pack them into the back of his god truck while they are drugged with grief. But the grey bearded preacher ends his speech which I wanted to get a copy of, by saying “Andrew acted in the way of the bible “Love thy neighbour as thy love thyself””. I havea quiet chuckle to myself. How could you say such a thing about a suicide, unless we the audience are going to be slaugtered.
Maybe it was a set text that the preacher used for many funerals. I saw him realise what he had just said “Andrew acted in the way of the bible “to love thy neighbour as thy lovethyself”. And he continued and corrected “But he clearly didn’t love himself”. I’d go so far as to say he hated himself.
After Andrew finished being a doorman (I guess in his late twenties) he, as many children in care do, became a care worker. Six foot tall. A gentle giant. The care home was for the psychotic and mentally disabled. He was apparently loved by everyone there. Ofcourse none of those patients that loved him so well could come to the funeral - but the staff did. Grief is not the preserve of the mentally disabled, apparently. The staff of that place came to mourn their grief but not those whom Andrew served. Think of the distress it might cause to the home. That home that was Wood End Assesment centre is called The Jenny. It is the exact same palce that Andrew was brought up in. I am reminded of the man who showed me around Robben Island Prison. This man had lived in the prison for 22 years with nelson mandella and somehow this was home not the newly liberated southafrica across the water. The funeral parlour is packed and I am stood by the window. Realising where Andrew worked is too much. I am stood by the window at the side of a pugh in floods of tears.
He went out he got drunk and he came home, fell out with his girlfriend who was also a care worker at the same place and hanged himself at 32 years of age. It’s not ironic. It’s preventable. There should be some process where children who leave care have therapy. That’s what he needed! He died because he couldn’t live with himself and was plain drunk!
Everyone talked of what a lovely lad he was, how he had a lovely smile and would doanything for anyone. Anyone except for himself. How we fall into these patterns at thesetimes. “it’s the second funeral I’ve been too this week” says the staff member I never liked. He’s looking at the crowd “Popular lad wasn’t he” he says with a peevish sense of surprise and gossip. The funeral is over and I am told that the wake is at Leigh MinersClub. Everyone has gone and I am in the designated area for flowers. It’s by the car park and next to Andrews grave is a little plaque like one of those paper holders that people have on their desk. It’s a piece of steel as plinth and protruding from it is a metal rod. It’s about knee height. There is an oblong piece of paper at the top of it. It reads Monday. There are seven minature spaces for flowers and this one is Monday.
I drive to Leigh Miners Club. The same club I got drunk in at many times. It’s where yougo as a teenager to learn to drink at other peoples 21st birthday celebrations. And it’s where many people here will get drunk today. I say a goodbye to Amanda and her sister, the people who informed me of his passing and the ones who were the closest family Andrew ever had.
Before I leave I visit The Jenny and I visit another home that is still there. I go in. A member of staff at the home knew Andrew and in fact was at the funeral. “the garage is full of pictures” she tells me. I long for pictures of my past. She takes me into the garage opens a filing cabinet and randomly pulls out a photo album. It’s the 1970’s I can tell by the collars on the school shirts. There’s thousands of children in this cabinet in folders and albums. “brent” it’s a sharp scratch of memory. My good friend Brent. And then I realise that he is so young in the picture that he too must have been in care most of his life. I never knew. The pictures frighten me. Hundreds ofthem. “I was going to go through them and can’t bare to throw them away”. Says the manager. Our stories, filed away in no particular order – the randomness of it. Our memories, our discarded moments in a file in a cabinet in a garage in a home on the edge of a village. Who will return to claim