One in a million, and sadly one in over one hundred and seventy thousand.
This is a letter I began writing over a year ago and which I finally feel able to finish. Part of this letter appears in the intro of Yusuf’s collection of poetry and art which has just been published (details at the end) and which will be added to the Care Experience & Culture digital archive. It’s a beautiful collection something he would rightly have been stupendously proud of. I attended the launch a couple of nights ago on what would have been the big man’s birthday.
They say if a person dies and you want to speak to them you should write a letter. So I am.
The first thing I remember after hearing the heart-breaking news was the thought, but we still had so many conversations to have and you still had so much more art to produce.
It felt as if our relationship was in its infancy but there is no doubt it was an important one and we’d already covered a lot of mileage. Starting with our first meeting, your calm presence filling the space as we chatted about creativity particularly writing and painting. Already your poems had touched hearts at the first Your Life Your Story back in 2017.
Your Life Your Story 2017
We spoke of how weird it was that the special weekend was held in a place that was once a children’s home. I silently prayed that the children there had not gone through what we had. And at the end of the weekend, when we said our goodbyes that we knew were really hellos, you asked if you could send me some of your poetry.
Poetry in motion
You had been busy you said over the past few years and had cried for days and days while processing the pain and hurt from your oh so sad childhood. I cried too – reading your words. I was pretty good though and said I can give you feedback on the first three chapters and this was what I did, gave feedback, even though I wasn’t a poet but I do have an eye and I sent you my thoughts. You were too polite to say whether or not I had got it, got you. But, I hope I did. And, I don’t know if I told you this, I read every word.
Two weeks before you left us, you had finally completed your collection of poetry. So unfair.
I can’t wait to hold that compilation in my hands and read your artistry. (I received my copy a couple of weeks ago – it’s beautiful and illustrates your amazing talent, your unique style. Turning the pages, I of course I had a Rosie moment.)
At the time, I had said I could only read three chapters because I have a PhD to finish and often find myself doing stuff for others rather than concentrating on that. This then became part of our conversations. You became my self-appointed conscience. How are you getting on with your PhD? You always asked in a certain tone – wanting to know and giving me the gentlest of nudges. You do make me laugh, I said. And you said I made you laff too, out loud. I was pleased about that.
Dame Rosie, Sausage Smuggler Extraordinaire
Of course, you weren’t always perfect! In fact I seem to remember you could be quite rude and outrageous at times. Somehow you always did it when I was least expecting and I would burst out laughing. I so loved you for that and your wickedness. I can’t remember now if it was you who started the sausage saga or Dave, but you both teased me mercilessly. It was the weekend of the second Your Life Your Story, I was late for breakfast (as usual) and there was hardly anything left – no toast! So I had to make do with a sausage and croissant except we weren’t supposed to have the cooked element and as the sausage had somehow got hidden under my croissant, you said I had stolen it. Oh, you were so naughty and The Dame was most displeased.
You can take the child out of the home but you can never take the home out of the child. You were always saying this and loved it when I had a swearing fit so you could say it again. I know it made you laugh.
I have lovely memories of the weekend we stayed in Amanda’s cottage by the river – she made sure we had sausages. We had such a giggle and in such a short space of time turned my life around with some excellent advice…I thought we’d be friends for years to come.
Our next adventure was the Care Experience Conference. Would I get involved? Sometimes being in the care community can be difficult, all those memories and trauma that trigger mine. At times it is just too painful. Eventually I said I would, but only if it was something to do with art. An exhibition. I had already seen the power of art, its capacity for healing. I knew personally how it could be managed through the process of creating to become golden seeds and explosions of colour on the page. And how that process could be a safe space to explore, metamorphosise, let go. Little did I know that you were thinking the same. We linked up and darling Rod Kippen joined us. Initially we emailed but eventually we met up at the Manchester City Art Gallery to discuss how we would curate the care experienced art exhibition. I was so excited. I don’t think we made any plans at that first meeting as all we did was chat about anything and everything. You and Rod, try as I might just would not be organised. But you both went along with my plan for spreadsheets, the ultimate for us control freaks – okay just me then. They are so neat and tidy and you can add colour – wonderful! They would organise us all.
Yusuf, me & Rod doing our thing at the Care Experience Conference 26th April 2019.
You were so patient. Rod was lovely too. You both put up with me and for that I’m ever thankful. We were a fabulous team, I had so much fun. I hope you did too.
Organisers of the Care Experience Conference 26th April 2019.
You taught me some important lessons in life for which I am grateful. A writing friend told me about a film preview she was attending and thought I might enjoy it too and would I like to attend. I went along to the first screening of Be-longing after discussing it with you and Rod as a potential for the art exhibition. The screening was held at the Lexi Cinema, Kensal Rise a small intimate building perfect for the showing of such an emotive film. The lights went down and it was pitch black which was just as well because even though this was only a fifteen-minute film I cried a lot. The lights went up and the director, Mike Mckenzie, his nephew Casey McKenzie, who played Khoji in the short film, sat on the stage and were interviewed. Mike was talking about the foster care system it’s positives and how he had photos in the living room of his family and foster children so that when new children arrived they could see they were part of a larger family. I thought of how when they moved on they would perhaps feel they would not be forgotten and that they would be held in the memory of Mike and his family. I could feel the tears beginning to run down my cheeks and then one of the members of the audience asked a question. I can’t even remember what it was now but I do remember the anger was overwhelming and later that evening when I was at home on my own I shouted at the walls, raging about the foster care system and how it should be abolished.
Belonging by Rosie Canning
The following day you and I had one of our conversations and you explained how you were caring for a two-year-old baby. You told me all the wonderful things that you had done and were doing for this baby. How his/her vocabulary had improved and he/she was learning to love books. You didn’t know at the time or maybe you did, but I was holding back the tears. We had many more conversations about foster care and one day I remembered that I too had been cared for by a foster mother as a two year old for a couple of years. I had to accept if we didn’t have foster care I would not have had that experience. I would not have the comfort that I too had once been loved. Ideally every child should have a home of their own. It is really sad when you have to leave a family that you love but I thought that if you had a good experience you could take that with you and maybe, just maybe it might help. And this was how I thought of the children that had been in your care. To have experienced love, to have been nourished, and cared for, to have had fun, to have been respected and listened to, these were all the things worth having and a child would be richer for.
A week after the awful news of your passing I was looking at the special painting you gave me. How I cried at the unexpected gift – another ‘Rosie moment’ as you called them. You had been saying ever since we first met that you had an image of me in your mind, a small child sat on a huge chair in a library lost in her world of orphan tales. And that one day you would paint it. And you had, and gave it to me and I hugged you. How I miss those hugs. You were such a good hugger. Oh, you so got it, dear Yusuf. I will so miss you. And now, back to the dark, dismal day of the painting. Because back then the days were so grey. I was having counselling (by Zoom) I had been talking about how you had died. I grabbed the painting. Sharing physical things is not something we usually do but I felt this was important. I was explaining about the painting, how you’d included some of my favourite books and that the little girl was reading Stig of the Dump, one of your favourites. I was glad you’d included that and how the painting was more than just an image of me as a child but included you and your love of books too.
I’ve digressed a little but that’s okay as you would say…I can hear your dulcet tones as you gave examples to make things okay for others. Just as you reminded everyone you were their brother, we were part of a larger care family. It wasn’t even a choice, the connection just was…So, back to the tag! There I was talking to the counsellor about you and me and us and art when suddenly it hit me. The tag on the painting: Return to Muswell Hill.
Yusuf, you had captured something I had totally missed up until that moment. I had been writing about other people, their yearning for home – something that never existed. How I had adopted the word Hiraeth for the care experienced community. And suddenly I got it. My Hiraeth. The place I came from. The place I wanted to belong. The place where I put the pink cat on the mantlepiece as a symbol of home. The place of my imagination. The place where I met an artist who taught me how to draw faces, who came every week for weeks and who I had missed desperately. And yet really that bed with its yellow candlewick bedspread, that corner of the room that was mine, that suburban house on the corner, the house that I have tried to re-create… Yes, I had once lived there but that was it. That was what the tag represented, a Hiraeth moment you had captured. Return to Muswell Hill.
I so wanted to go home but in reality, it was never my home, staff came and went, we had to adapt to their moods while reminded that one day we too would have to leave. We lived on our nerves. Always ready to run. And all the while my counsellor was listening. I had made the connection, my Hiraeth, which could possibly become an ending – to my thesis! All those questions and nudges and reminders from you, came full circle. Perhaps you already knew.
And I thought of how you had sent so many people your hand-made Christmas cards, a tag had fallen out of mine…
Tags were your art thing, they covered the jacket in your first art exhibition – No Colours For My Coat – they were powerful, raw and full of the hurt experienced by you and so many other children in the uncaring care system. The tags spoke, no shouted, the lack of care experienced. Treated worse than the way some humans mistreat animals, no ordinary human could look at those tags and not feel the outrage. You were testimony to the unfairness of it all. And yet you were so full of caring yourself, for others, your heart was huge. I will never forget the power of your images or words.
We spoke about doing some art stuff in the future and another possible very exciting art exhibition. The future was bright and orange-coloured but then Covid-19 stopped everything in its tracks including the possible exhibition, and finally you.
As with most things in life there are beginnings, middles and ends and so it is with letters too. I’m coming to the end of this letter to you, about you and because of you. There will be such a huge gap in my life and others collective lives too. How did that happen? One minute you were here and the next ‘puff’ gone, into legend, myth and fairy story – one of my favourite people disappeared. The gentle giant with the huge heart and capacity for love. I took you for granted. I let my guard down. I forgot that life is unpredictable. I forgot the lessons of my childhood. I relaxed, stood down. Which is what you do with friends and family and you were both. But, I am richer because of it. I enjoyed you dear Yusuf, the lessons I learnt from you, the healing I had because of you. The fun! I will miss you.
Goodbye dear friend until we meet again. I know you will be there waiting for me when I leave this world too. At last, someone on the other side I want to see again, I’m looking forward to meeting you in that art studio in the sky, one day. The only bit of comfort from your passing.
Until then, dear brother, adieu.
Marks of an Unwanted Rainbow by Paul Yusuf McCormack
Paul Yusuf McCormack was known as a giant of a man in the care experienced community. He grew up in care homes during the 1960s and 70s, although Paul never described this as ‘care’. Whilst there, he was subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse which had a far-reaching and lasting effect on his adult life. It wasn’t until he was 52 years of age that he finally released the torrent of pent-up pain that had been trapped behind the defensive walls he constructed during his traumatic childhood.
Paul channelled this outpouring of emotion into words and paintings, creatively capturing the experiences of his early life. A collection of these works is encapsulated in this book, 52 poems and many more pieces of artwork chart Paul’s incredible and inspiring journey. Paul died of covid-19 just weeks before the book was completed. His friend and colleague, Siobhan Maclean has worked with his friends and family to complete the book and share Paul’s work with the world. Paul called for us all to BE the difference.
You can buy it direct from Kirwin Maclean here – UK postage only.