One of the most dominant aspects of my life as a neglected and abused little boy was the relentlessly gnawing hunger that I carried inside of me everywhere I went.
My father and stepmother locked me in a small bedroom at almost all times, except to go to school, where I’d feel a hopeful stab of anticipation as I carried out my daily routine of excusing myself from the classroom so that I could furtively rifle through my classmates’ lunch boxes and steal a sandwich from each to keep me going until lunchtime; the feast of free school dinners which were always the highlight of my day.
At weekends and in the evenings, I was given almost nothing at all to eat, and, if, full of shame, I hadn’t managed to persuade one of my friend’s parents to invite me to join their family for lunch or dinner, I’d have no choice but to forage to survive. I was emaciated and my growth was stunted through lack of nutrition. I was always the smallest, puniest boy in my class. I must have elicited puzzled observations from strangers who may have caught sight of me eating handfuls of grass from the village green, or tearing pages out of books to eat, sometimes smeared with toothpaste to make them taste nicer.
I vividly recall spotting a Mars bar, ground flat into the pavement, spread thin like pastry, and covertly peeling it up off the street to eat. Yes, I stole, too. Not just out of friend’s lunch boxes, but their fridges in their homes, packets of soup from a cupboard in school that I’d tear open and hungrily eat as powder, and sometimes even money, if it happened to be lying around someplace and I thought I could get away with it. Not much. A quid here, a couple of quid there, and every penny was spent on food.
I was then just eleven years old. It was the year 1984. Poignantly, some of us reading this will remember Band Aid's release of the single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ to raise funds to help those in Africa who were starving to death in a famine in Ethiopia at that time.
The TV images of dying children with skin stretched as taut as cling film over agonisingly prominent ribs; flies buzzing around their eyes, to weak to bat them away, are etched on my memory, and so, thirty years ago exactly, that is a time that will punctuate my life forever, not only because of my own intense, never-ending hunger, for in that year, organised by whom I may never know, the villagers of Upper Broughton, near Melton Mowbray, on the border of Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, and more kind souls in Hickling and Kinoulton, clubbed together, aware of my plight, and bought me a great bag of Christmas presents.
On Christmas morning, 1984, my stepmother unchained the door to my bedroom, which reeked pungently from the almost overflowing bucket that I was forced to use in place of a toilet; she set one foot inside and scornfully dumped a black plastic bin liner on the floor. Wordlessly, and without even looking at me, she then slammed my bedroom door closed and replaced the chain which held me captive.
For a minute, I looked at the black sack, uncertain, even afraid. I had no idea what it was. But when my stepmother sounded out of earshot, I quietly crept forward and opened the bag. One after the other, I found gift upon gift, lovingly wrapped by neighbours, the village butcher’s, Johnny the Grocer’s, and many others that I just cannot remember anymore.
I felt as though I had won the lottery and for the rest of that Christmas Day, I was lost in a world of delight and felt like the luckiest boy in the world. I look back now on that event, the most generous of several, in which the people who I lived among as an abused, neglected and starving kid, somehow broke through the wall that separated me from the rest of the normal world, and collectively summoned the courage by risking the foul, drunken mouths of my childhood abusers, to thrust their generosity, love and kindness into my world of cruelty, incarceration and starvation.
By doing so, they transformed one day in a little boy’s life from utter, abject misery into a world of excitement and wonder. I am now 41 years old, and it’s exactly thirty years later. Thankfully, I survived the first 12 years of my life until I was rescued by a social worker, still another year and a half later, and that was in large part through the kindness of strangers.
Unlike millions of others a world away in Africa, I managed, with their help, and my own guile, to keep from starving to death, finally be taken into care, and make it to this present day, despite all the odds being stacked against me. This Christmas, three decades later, I would like to give thanks to the people of those villages in rural Nottinghamshire, some of whom I am sure are no longer with us, as well as my childhood friends who I am still connected with today, that also helped me to survive with food and bags of second hand clothes.
I would also like to give thanks to all foster carers, then, in between, and now, as well as our national army of social workers, so often maligned in mainstream media, and all others involved in child protection or the rehabilitation of adults coming to terms with their dark pasts, for doing the immensely valuable work that you do. Together you were the angels that saved my life before I was taken into care, and today I know you are doing the same for today’s abused, neglected, abandoned and traumatised kids right across the country. Thank you, thank you, and thank you again.
I’ll close on this: those children who have been rescued and are this year perhaps enjoying their first real Christmas dinner with eye-popping awe, they are the lucky ones. They are now in safe hands. I urge us all to search our thoughts for those youngsters living now, in the many pits of despair that exist invisibly among us, to be just a little bit braver than you might usually be and offer a helping hand where in your heart you feel it is needed by a child in similar circumstances.
If you really can’t think of a child you know who might be in need, perhaps make a small donation to ChildLine, which was launched in the 1980s and which I used then in times of absolute desperation for support.
Happy Christmas to you all.