'Reach for the stars,' says poet Lemn Sissay on success and Christmas Dinners

Hackney poet, playwright and author Lemn Sissay OBE. 

Hackney poet, playwright and author Lemn Sissay OBE. - Credit: Slater King

Poet and playwright Lemn Sissay, who spent his childhood in care, wants Hackney’s youth to “reach for the stars” and work hard to achieve success.

Lemn, who lives in Hackney, has achieved much in his life and career.

He was the official poet of the 2012 London Olympics and has been chancellor of the University of Manchester since 2015.

The author and broadcaster was awarded an OBE for services to literature and charity in 2021 and, yet, he is ever grounded and humbled by his experiences growing up in the care system in Manchester.

After making the Queen’s honours list, Lemn said: “Any other young kid in Hackney who is brought up in care or who’s not brought up in care but who sometimes struggles.

“If you would have gone to my 17-year-old self and said, you know, you’re going to get [an OBE in 2021]. I would have said no way.

“So it’s worth believing but It doesn’t happen without hard work.”

Most Read

Lemn’s childhood, and a Christmas dinner held for a young boy in south London who took his own life, inspired him to set up the Christmas Dinner Project.

The project now sees people from communities in Hackney and all over the country volunteer to provide care leavers with a Christmas Day every year. 

Hackney care leavers' Christmas dinner

Hackney care leavers' Christmas dinner - Credit: Archant

The poet, who was awarded the 2019 PEN Pinter Prize, says he thinks of the “artist as activist".

“That’s our responsibility, to give back,” he said.

Last year, 19 Christmas Dinners were held in cities and towns across the country, all socially distanced due to the pandemic.

“Hackney last year was just incredible – It is a coming together as a community,” the poet said.

“There’s just so much love put into action, not only by the volunteers but all Hackney residents, and also by the people and companies of Hackney who have given presents and gifts."

Lemn Sissay - Hackney care leavers' Christmas dinner

Lemn Sissay - Hackney care leavers' Christmas dinner - Credit: Archant

Lemn hopes stories and projects like his can inspire young people to challenge themselves and achieve.

He said: “Reach to the top of the tree and you might get to the first branch, but reach for the stars and you might get to the top of the tree.”

"And so that’s success for me, that’s reaching for the stars – everything else is gravy.”

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter