Lemn Sissay and Valerie Bloom look back: ‘I was a wild child when she met me’

The poets recreate an old photograph from when they first bonded – and reflect on more than 30 years of friendship

Poets Lemn Sissay (on left) and Valerie Bloom in 1992 and 2022
Lemn Sissay (on left) and Valerie Bloom in 1992 and 2022. Later photograph: Pål Hansen/The Guardian. Styling: Andie Redman. Archive photograph: courtesy of Lemn Sissay

Longtime friends and celebrated poets Lemn Sissay and Valerie Bloom were introduced in the late 1980s. Through Bloom’s encouragement and connections, Sissay was able to publish his debut collection of poetry, Tender Fingers in a Clenched Fist, in 1988. It was the start of an illustrious career which has documented his search for identity and the abuse he suffered during 18 years in the care system. Born in 1967, Sissay was the child of an Ethiopian mother who was forced to give up her son against her will; he was fostered by a white couple from Lancashire who sent him back into care aged 12. In 2015 he became chancellor of the University of Manchester, and his latest book, Don’t Ask the Dragon, is out now. Bloom’s Christopher Brown: Accidental Detective is out in July.

Lemn Sissay

I never thought of myself as a hipster, but there’s a slight 90s Madchester vibe with my clothing in this picture. As for the other details, I have no recollection at all. What I remember is how much Valerie meant to me. And that humour has always been part of our relationship.

Valerie and I are from different places – she’s from the Caribbean and I’m from Lancashire. When I first came to Manchester, she represented a kind of cosmopolitan international culture which I was discovering for the first time. She would have been one of the first older black women that I had known. That was important.

The villages of Lancashire are all monocultural. As a child, I had no family who were of colour. My explicit reason to come to Manchester was to see more people who looked like me, to find out what they were like – and possibly what I was like. While I didn’t know my biological family, I knew my parents and brothers and sister must have been of colour. I thought: “These people look like them, in this big city on the horizon. I want to be there.”

At the time, Manchester had a powerful energy running through it; you could put your hands on the ground and feel the bassline coming out of the Haçienda. As well as the flourishing music and comedy of the time, there was a surge of Caribbean poets like Valerie, James Berry, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah. There was me thinking: where do I go to do poetry? Where do I meet people who look like me? Then I discovered Val – it was as if it was written.

I was excitable and very much trying to be loved. There’s a vulnerability when someone is overworking their “like me” buttons, and Val could see that. She became a beacon; a luminous magnetic point that shone to me.

Not having a family meant I didn’t really know how to connect to friends. Family is a set of documentary-makers, all with their own films, arguing in the editing suite about what shots to use to describe any given part of the journey. There’s nobody arguing in my version. It’s why I enjoy the chaos of such a peripatetic career. But I’ve realised there are solid people who remained consistent throughout. When I was younger, I probably wasn’t the easiest person to connect with, but there were people who had a depth to them and could absorb it, and Val was one of them.

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Her disapproving look can go a long way. I was a bit of a wild child when she met me. I don’t drink any more, but there was a point where I was losing my way. As someone with my kind of story, there are a lot of pitfalls when it comes to alcohol. Val’s light was always there. I could call her up and she would still give me a smile, a “Hey, are you OK?”, and that was enough for me. I can get by on very little, but without that very little I would never have got by.

Valerie Bloom

This photo is Lemn and I larking around after a gig at the Harris Museum in Preston.

I met him when I was working for North West Arts and one of my co-workers told me: “I’ve got someone I think you would love to meet. His name is Lemn and he has written a little booklet, and has a manuscript and wants to have it published.” I told her to send him in. Lemn arrived with a cheeky little grin, just like my brother. It was love at first sight.

I was so moved by the power of his poetry. It needed shaping, but his words touched me. One was called She Read As She Cradled, a lovely poem about a mother. Each verse ended with: “Every mother wants a baby like you.” I’d just had my son and found it so moving. You could see straight away that there was talent there, and very deep emotion.

Lemn had just left care. As we spent more time together, he told me more about his story, about his childhood. I will never forget when he phoned me to say: “I found my mum!” Each time I hear him recount the story of his life, in his writing or on the radio or television, it is just as painful. These days I am relieved to find that he has more comfort and closure about his past.

From the start I wanted to look after him, a bit like a mother. I often tell him off and he’s always saying: “Sorry, Val!” He started smoking when he was 11 and I am told that he has recently stopped. He says he’s been counting up the hours since he last had a cigarette. One thousand, apparently.

When Lemn and I would perform together, he would be telling a lot of jokes on stage and I’d have to say: “Lemn! Poems!” These days he is much more mature. He’s a chancellor now, of course! He says he’s not comfortable in suits, but he’s settling into the role so beautifully. You would never know.

When I left Manchester to live in St Lucia for three years we were not in touch so much, but I always followed his development and I’m so proud of him. Each time we meet up it’s like no time has passed. We are still crazy together.


Harriet Gibsone

The GuardianTramp

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