My version of the “no room at the inn” story came when I was about ten years old: a small kid sunk into a big chair at the back of the town hall. A social worker was calling round various kids homes in the area and I felt her temperature rise as she tried more and more places. I didn’t understand at the time but later I realised it was because the further she got down the list, the worse the places were going to be; the less suitable, the less safe
The details aren’t important really. My dad left soon after I was born, my mum struggled, and then her new boyfriend wasn’t exactly nice to us, and nor were his friends. Eventually the government came to get me, and it came in the form of a social worker called Pat. She was an unlikely-looking superhero, but that’s real life I guess
Pat must have rung two dozen places before she finally found me a bed. Actually it was a blow-up mattress on the first night
I was the youngest boy, the smallest, widest-eyed and softest-cheeked boy in a new world that was so stunningly different to everything I’d known that my ears buzzed for the first four days. Then I toughened up fast. I started stealing. I started fires. I learnt about sex and drugs and playing the system. I learnt that adults couldn’t be trusted. I learnt to question everything
Cutting a long story short, I moved from place to place, from small homes that were a bit like extended families to institutionalised units with different staff every day. There were places where everyone had sex with everyone. There was a churchy place, a hospital bed – I was literally all over the place. Some were ok. Most were terrifying
Then one day I was sent to the country. They told me it was a boarding school. They told me it was a therapeutic community. I didn’t know what it was, but I got my own room and my own bike, there was land with a pond and ducks, and there were swings. Plus I could have a hamster
Even more amazing was a lady called Marie. She was there when I arrived and she was there the next morning. When we went for a walk in the afternoon, I asked her when her shift ended and she said never. She’d already told me she lived at the school, but I didn’t understand. It took a few days to sink in that we all lived here together, the grown ups and the kids – this was the place we all called home
To be taken into care by the state is rich in symbolism. I used to write letters to the queen actually, and her lady in waiting wrote amazing letters back. Apparently the queen was touched to hear of my blossoming fortunes and it didn’t occur to me to doubt this. A psychoanalyst might say I thought the queen was my mummy now
When I arrived at the school, one of the first things I found out was that the Home Secretary, The Right Honourable Michael Howard MP, had said we didn’t deserve this place. He said there were better things for the government to spend money on
I’m tempted to use dramatic license and say his pronouncements broke my little heart but actually I don’t remember caring what Mr Howard thought. On the other hand, I still remember thinking about it. Would the memories be so clear if I really hadn’t cared?
“Sometimes you need to believe in people, even if the cost seems too high. Because the real cost of not believing in people is huge”Over a couple of years at the school, I learnt to cook for 50 people. I learnt to take care of horses. I learnt to plant things and make things and I learnt to care about people and trust people and make my own choices about what to do and who to be. I passed three GCSEs a year early without reading a text book, and I started a school newspaper that won an award from the Daily Telegraph, even though I’d never read a newspaper, let alone the Daily Telegraph
I made cakes every night for a while, and I made bread. Lots of bread. It’s amazing how much bread a school can eat
We travelled to Germany to see a concentration camp and Checkpoint Charlie. We went to Turkey and lived for a week with families in a little village. We sang with a choir in Denmark, helped to run a massive jumble sale in Sweden and went skiing in Norway
Eventually the school was closed down for being too weird. Or possibly for being too corrupt. It cost a lot to send us to the school but the living costs were quite low since it was a community and nobody really got paid. Some of the money was apparently funnelled to other schools and projects in Africa. My guess is other people got helped too, but who knows? Money often messes things up
The thing is, everyone I’m in touch with from that school is doing ok. They’re looking after themselves and being good friends to people, and many are looking after their own kids now. But everyone I know from the other homes? All the ones I know about are in prison. Some of them hurt people. Most have stolen things. Many are long-term drug addicts. In general, people like that cost society thousands of pounds every year for most of their lives, and it’s almost always preventable
I want to say to Mr Howard that my friends and I weren’t a waste of money. Even if we have to reduce all of life to a balance sheet, the investment will pay out many times over in the long run
More important, it’s better to live in a country where kids grow up happy and healthy. It’s better to be part of a society where people are volunteering rather than stealing, where we live with hope rather than cower in fear
Sometimes you need to believe in people, even if the cost seems too high. Because the real cost of not believing in people is huge
Kids who get help tend to spend the rest of their life helping others. Kids who were let down tend to harden and let others down, passing on their burden to another generation
I was lucky, I got lifted out of hell. But what about the other kids? What about the kids living in hell today?
Politics is easy if you frighten people, but frightened people don’t make good friends and neighbours. It’s a slippery slope and politicians from all parties have been doing it for too long already. Blaming is easy. Turning people against each other is tragically easy. But wouldn’t it be better if we confronted our fears, came together and built a world that works for everybody?
I mean for real, not just as the spin? I believe it’s possible. We start by caring about each other more than we fear
Dedicated to Marie
Please share this article. I’d love it to reach Michael Howard