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4 September 2017

Lemn Sissay Q&A: “As I grow older, I must step up“

The award-winning poet, playwright, actor and broadcaster answers our questions. 

By New Statesman

Lemn Sissay MBE is an award-winning poet, playwright, actor and broadcaster. Born to an Ethiopian mother in Lancashire in 1967, he described his upbringing in children’s homes and foster care in his play “Something Dark”.

What’s your earliest memory?
Holding my arms out in a pram, wanting to be picked up. Whenever we were playing sport in school and I fell to the ground, I always thought there’d be ropes to lift me up. I was falling through to the memory
of wanting that to happen as a baby.

Who are your heroes?
Macavity the Mystery Cat. Everybody blames him when things go bad or go missing or there’s a problem. But I think Macavity just happened to be there and was strong enough to take the blame. And Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She was fostered and she fought for justice on her own terms. I find her anger incredibly beautiful.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?
Caribbean poets – they were the people who prepared the ground for my career.

What politician, past or present, do you look up to?
Diane Abbott. I’m really proud of her, and it’s good to know that one of the first black MPs was a woman. What she does on the ground in Hackney is quite incredible. She’s going to grow into a grand old age and be talked about for many years when many politicians will have been forgotten.

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In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?
Addis Ababa in the late 1960s. The jazz musicians used to play for Haile Selassie in the daytime but at night they would play in the clubs. Ethiopian Airlines was at its best, and life, for certain people, was good. It was the bridge between old Africa and new, and Addis was cooking on gas.

What TV show could you not live without?
I’m afraid it’s Family Guy, which is just a whole street of wrong.

What’s your theme tune?
The Scots Dragoon Guards playing “Amazing Grace”. I was fostered by a part Scottish family and I first heard it in my childhood. But when I went to give a keynote address in Addis Ababa, on a baking hot day, to a host of dignitaries, the ambassador said: “Oh we’ve got a surprise for you.” And two Scots Dragoon Guards walked onto the grass and played, perfectly, “Amazing Grace” with bagpipes.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
It was from a film-maker at the Workers’ Film Association at Old Trafford in Manchester in the mid-1980s: “Take it easy but take it all.” It took a lifetime to realise how difficult but how necessary that is.

What’s currently bugging you?
Truthfully, it’s that I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing in response to stuff that’s happening on our streets. Near where I live in Hackney there was a march for a young black man who died at the hands of the police. And I should have been in some way connected to that event. I think, as I grow older, I must step up. Because that’s what we need now:  compassion and empathy and anger.

When were you happiest?
Now is always the best time to be happy. Happiness as a memory is a little bit lost.

Are we all doomed?
I don’t think so. I’m not religious, but I have faith in my fellow humans.

“Gold from the Stone: New and Selected Poems” is published in paperback by Canongate. Lemn Sissay is performing in “Road” at the Royal Court, London SW1, until 9 September and “Something Dark” is on tour from 15 September 

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This article appears in the 30 Aug 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire