There were many jobs that helped me pay my way through university. Selling leather jackets on Camden market, a very bad wedding DJ and a bartender in more places than I can remember. One of my favorites was driving a private-hire cab in North London. It had downsides: Nauseous drunks, exhibitionist backseat love-makers and menacing football hooligans who wanted to know which team I supported. But in general, it was a decent gig.
It was rare then for someone from state care to go to university. A fragile milestone on a long journey from one world to another. At times it felt like a no mans land. In my rear view mirror there was a world that seemed dysfunctional and full of violence, poverty and pain. Just across the horizon I imagined somewhere bathed in prosperity, purpose and safety. A university degree would be my rite of passage.
Driving a cab at Christmas, there was one thing worse than the small number of horrible customers. It was the much larger number of nice ones. They would jump into the back of the cab, armed with gifts, en-route to relatives or for Christmas drinks. After a few sherries they would sing Christmas songs and exchange shared memories of Christmas past.
Their joy illuminated what I lacked. I was so focussed on getting through that stage of life, I had not yet developed an adequate vocabulary to describe my life to myself. I now realize that no mans land was an unfathomably lonely place. I was 22, but had already had 25 addresses. It felt like there was no single thread tying it all together. The early roots of friendships and relationships that would endure for a lifetime were beginning to take shape. I was lucky enough to be one of the few care leavers who now always had a Christmas dinner invitation. The awkwardness of being an outsider at Christmas and a festive novice was brilliantly captured in the recent film ‘Alex Wheedle/ Small Axe’ by Steve McQueen. I am still a bit of a Christmas novice, but maybe a slightly improved one!
I guess my heart told me the world was divided into two. Those who someone cared about and those who nobody cared about at all. Deep inside I felt I was one of the second group and there because I was unworthy. What I didn’t know was that this a completely normal feeling for someone from my background.
The whole field of attachment psychology started in the 1940s when John Bowlby interviewed young offenders in London. He noted that many self- blamed for being abandoned by their parents and felt similarly unworthy. This research led to decades of work which helped the world to understand the way that childhood experience shapes adult outcomes. Inconsistent or absent affection in childhood may affect up to 40% of any given population. The situation of young people from care is just the most severe and manifest part of a much more widespread social problem that otherwise had remained taboo.
Our modern, idyllic image of Christmas comprises jolly people singing and feasting around a warm family hearth while snow falls outside. We owe this partially to Charles Dickens whose Christmas Carol did much to shape the identity and aesthetic of Christmas. His formative childhood years coincided with a rare decade of snowy London winters and a spell of abandonment and child labour at the age of 12 , as his parents languished in a debtors prison. Christmas Carol is ultimately a joyous tale when Scrooge overcomes emotional poverty and trauma and finds his place at a Christmas hearth. Many popular Christmas songs represent an aesthetic of the return to this hearth.
In the UK there is now a movement to de-Grinch Christmas for Care Leavers. An army of volunteers make sure that careleavers across the country have a Christmas dinner. Sophia Alexander Hall sensitively created a list of care-leaver Christmas films that don’t go overboard on the whole family thing. Less sensitive was Paperchase’s ‘comedy’ greeting card featuring a Mommy rabbit demanding a refund from the orphanage for a young foster rabbit who spilt milk. Sophia and Lemn Sissay led an online protest and the card was withdrawn.
Though my young feelings of being unworthy were normal, they were also false. As the years went by, I also understood that the world is not divided between the cared for and uncared for . The land across the horizon of university degrees, suburbs and families is also broken. There is addiction, violence and emotional poverty there too. Care leavers are worthy. I saw that people will wait for us, come across town to see us on a bus or keep us in their thoughts or prayers. Through the beauty of human acknowledgement and connection we can recover and build our own hearth.
Recently a UNICEF colleague (namecheck Aleksandra) visited a juvenile detention facility, as Bowlby had done over 75 years earlier. She commented that most of the problems the young people found themselves in, happened because they had no-one to turn to. For them, any small challenge could quickly morph into something much greater. The cost of running the juvenile facility and the the crimes committed are way higher than the costs of prevention.
If the idea of a return to a safe and warm hearth is so central to our main annual holiday and therefore to our national culture, should it not also be central to our social policy? Could we guarantee a safe place of return for every child? A place of love, safety and belonging. Of shared memories and a soothing sense that one matters as an individual. If this sounds ambitious, just remember that in Dicken’s time the idea that we could do anything about childhood disease, hunger and illiteracy was considered fanciful.
The solutions are known. The evidence shows we can reduce neglect and abandonment through parenting support and social protection. We can also invest in resilient communities and schools We could realistically arrive at a point where it is simply no longer culturally acceptable or imaginable that a child would live or grow in such isolation. Even for pre-epiphany Scrooge types, the return on investment is compelling and cannot be dismissed as humbug.
It was once said that ‘safety, is not just the absence of violence, it is the presence of relationships’. This Christmas lets reimagine a world beyond the pandemic where every child has a safe place to return.
This Blog is part two in the ‘Because I Grew Up in An Orphanage’ Triology. Part one is here