The first thing I said to The Book Trust who administrate the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for fiction which they wanted me to judge, was No. I found some excuse about being on tour. But the truth is this: in my head it rang out “you didn’t go to university you friggin fraud”.
That I have written four books edited one faded into insignificance. That I’ve read in the most named universities of Britain and travelled the world as a writer faded into insignificance. That I’ve judged both the Arvon Prize for poetry and The Macmillan African Writers Prize faded into insignificance. That my first book was published at 21 meant nothing. That I have been a writer full time for my entire adult life meant nothing. I was carrying the cross welded onto my back by the Baptists foster parents. And it’s my cross and I’m clinging to it. Then there was the childrens homes. The statistics for the university attendance of children who are in children’s homes/the “care” system is atrocious.
Such as it is, this contradiction, is never far from my mind. Not that I lack confidence, just that it equalizes with my past which says i’m all smoke and mirrors. This manifests in that I am constantly either proving I am not smoke and mirrors or giving the finger to anyone whom I perceive to be saying that I am. In other words I spend alot of my time shooting myself in the foot.
When the Guardian covered my first book Tender Fingers In A Clenched Fist in 1988 beneath the headline it read something like “ Lemn Sissay proves that there it is not just the Oxbridge set that get through”. For the next seven years I secretly looked for the university called “Oxbridge”. That is after reading at Ruskin in Oxford Jesus college in Cambridge and many more of those two cities. It was a gentle click when I realised that
Oxbridge was a mixture of the two. Thankfully I hadn’t told anyone and it was my secret.
“No I said. I can’t” I was on tour of America and Canada and realised that I couldn’t read the forty or so novels. “That’s no problem” said Tarryn the overly cheerful Book Trust Employee. “We can pay for Excess Baggage”. And so it was thus that with absolute dedication to the prize the book trust the judges and my enjoyment of reading I lugged forty books on tour around America and Canada, pretending that I had time to read.
Writers who did not go to university? There are many. But I couldn’t be bothered doing the research to list them all. The previous sentence was a joke! Not funny I know, but a joke all the same. The list would include Yates, Edgar Alan Poe and Gore Vidal and as women were only relatively recently encouraged into education I expect that previous to a certain time there were no intelligent women at all who would neither want to vote or contribute to the culture of Britain. Please post me names of writers and artists who did not go to university.
Truth is that my not going to university was a systematic, albeit unsaid, approach by government through its social service, knowing that at 18 years old I was out of their hands and they had no legal social or emotional obligation towards me, to stop me pursuing education. And what was important to me was what I was told was important to me. Get out get a flat and get a job. A stones throw away from dickens depictions.
In the days of singledom when a woman says “what car do you drive?” I take pride in two things. Firstly in saying I don’t drive, I immidiately opt out of the “how much do you earn” stupidness. And secondly I got an insight into who she was. All while simply listening. Likewise education. A black Oxbridge novelist once said to me “so you’re the competition”. In that I was a poet and he a novelist clearly showed himself up for being – how can I put this – an arse. Even as a joke it didn’t work. But the sadest thing was, that this same writer signed his book to me in Latin – a language which, however beautiful, he knew I could not read. Neither did he translate.
Education, in whatever form should be a right for all. But it is few that come to know it, such as I, as a gift. I am thoroughly educated. How you define education will and should reflect upon what and how much it means. I must remember to claim back the cost for excess baggage. I kept the receipts.