Can you introduce yourself please?
Hello. My name is Rosie Canning. I’m a senior library assistant in a medical library at a hospital in North London. I’m co-founder of Greenacre Writers and Finchley Literary Festival. I completed an MA Writing at Middlesex University and am now a Doctoral Researcher at Southampton University, investigating the representation of Care Leavers in Literature.
I live in London with my three cats, Waffle, Muffin and Sophie.
Do you mind telling us the reasons you went into care?
Back in 1958, many babies who were born ‘out of wedlock’ as it was then called, were either put up for adoption or put into care. I spent the first six weeks with my mother and was then sent to a residential nursery. My grandparents were staunch Irish Catholics and told my mother she couldn’t bring me home. As a baby I knew none of this! My first recollections of life are at about three years old. I was staying with a woman who I called Aunty Joan. She had been recently widowed and had two older sons. I remember wanting to call her mum. Unfortunately I was then sent back to my real mother. I was four and half. By then she had married and I had a brother, mixed race – though the stepfather was an Irish white man. This was England in the sixties! I feel as though I could write a whole book about this! So I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.
My mother had mental health issues and the stepfather was an alcoholic. I had the worst two years of my life and by six and half was severely damaged and traumatised.
I was then sent to live with a foster family. My brother went back to live with my grandparents. The foster family were pretty evil. Such was my little brain back then, when they told me they were moving to the seaside to live, I wanted to go with them. Thank God they decided not to take me.
I was sent to a very large children’s home, about fifty children in all. Run very much like a boarding school. Boys one end, and girls the other. Two beautiful Georgian houses joined in the middle by a glass corridor.
I stayed there for a year and was then moved, on the advice of an eminent psychiatrist, to a smaller children’s home in Muswell Hill. Foster placements just would not have worked for me. By now I was eight years old and stayed in that house until I was sixteen. I then moved to various places, bedsits, friends’ houses, flats, live-in-jobs, whatever it took to stay alive.
At 23, I got married and went on to have five children. I got divorced when the youngest was five. My ex had a drink problem and I had a problem with drink. Of course there are those who will be thinking, why get married then? I ask myself the same question! I do remember that the vibe in society was to be married, to have your children within ‘wedlock’, and I did. I was a good society girl.
A couple of years before I got divorced I went to university. For many years previous to this I worked in something called Prestel which was a forerunner to the Internet. It looked a bit like Teletext, if you remember that. I was lucky because I could work at home and care for my family. But technology was changing and having a degree meant I could get a better job. The idea at the time was that I would become a teacher.
Going to university was the start of the rest of my life. To be on a university campus, to be amongst learned people, to be learning myself, was an absolute miracle in my eyes. I know now that education changes you and can change your life which is sort of what happened to me. A bit like Educating Rita, except of course I was Rosie.
Going to university was the start of the rest of my life
Overall, what has your care experience been like?
I think the eight years in the children’s home in Muswell Hill were relatively stable. Of course staff came and went, and us children had to get to know a new ‘Aunty’ or ‘Uncle’ and learn all over again how to be around them. I learnt from all the people that were involved in my life. And I learnt how not to treat people when I grew up.
What is your favourite childhood memory?
Sitting in the library reading books and travelling to many other worlds both on earth and elsewhere.
What is your biggest achievement?
My achievements are not finished yet.
I’ve started a PhD in English and am writing a novel loosely based on my own leaving care experiences. But somewhere along the jagged line of my life, the protagonist, Marianne begins to live out her own experience on the page. For example she was at the first Sex Pistols performance, I wasn’t.
Having learnt more about the system in previous years, some children in today’s system have parents who themselves were care experienced. I now realise I was very lucky to have kept my children, not that social services were ever involved in their lives.
What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?
Getting divorced was a big challenge. At the time, I had a group of female friends who I gathered around me and whom I could call on at anytime of the day or night if there were any problems.
Self care has been another problem. Not really knowing how to look after myself, my mental health, and just basically giving myself a good life. I know how to do this now. For example, I have work tomorrow (boo hiss) and have had a busy couple of weeks, so today, once I’ve finished answering these questions, I will curl up on my favourite chair and read a book. That to me is a wonderful luxury and healing time.
Has your past had a positive or negative effect on your future?
I can’t really answer this as I have nothing to compare it too.
My experiences in the system have stayed with me throughout my life. Intimate relationships are difficult. I’m always trying to improve them and have recently started counselling again. Trying to be a good-enough mum to my grown up children, trying to be a good-enough OH to Mike, my dearest friend and partner, and a good-enough friend to silver and gold friends.
My experiences in the system have stayed with me throughout my life. Intimate relationships are difficult. I’m always trying to improve them ….
What has driven you?
I have a fierce competitive streak in me and that drives me but that is not always a good thing. Plus I have always wanted to succeed. Whatever that is. There is an old photo of me, I must have been about fourteen. One of the other girls from the children’s home and myself are by a huge lake. There are swans swimming towards us, they know we have food. My arm is outstretched as far as it will go. I am determined they will take the bread from my hand first. That is inside of me.
But, there is something else too. And that is a fierce understanding of injustice. I will fight for justice for whoever needs it to my dying day in whatever form that manifests itself.
Who is your role model?
What keeps you going?
Love set me going like a fat gold watch and love keeps me ticking by… (Inspired by Sylvia Plath)
Have you ever felt like giving up?
Oh, this question! What does this mean? Giving up what? Chocolate? Never. Cake, possibly. As long as I am on this earth I will never give up, I may rest at times, I may get down in the dumps, but my lust for life is infinite.
How much have you changed since you left care?
I think my core is the same. I have learnt how to exist in society. I have learnt to have relationships. I love Mike, my OH, even though it is difficult at times. I loved my children from the moment they were born and (possibly corny but true) I will love them until my last breath on earth. I have learnt about love. Something I didn’t have growing up in the system.
I have learnt about love. Something I didn’t have growing up in the system.
Do you think you were ever judged or labeled for being in care?
Oh yes! And nearly sixty years later I’m still being judged. But it’s okay because the times they are a-changing. And I’m contributing to that change through my relationship with others and my PhD which I hope is changing the #SingleStory. So watch out people! Having said that, there is also there is a huge part of society that wants the orphan, the protagonist, the care leaver to succeed. We all want that happy ending.
When did you start to believe in yourself?
I have always believed in myself. I was lucky that I could read at a very young age, four years old. And with books as my friends and family, I was always going to have an adventurous, an awe-inspiring and love-filled life.
Did you ever feel alone?
Yes, often and I wrote terrible poetry all about it!
What’s your message to children in care?
Get educated and learn about the amazing world we live in.
If you could change anything about your life what would it be and why?
I think I’m already doing this in my fiction…
How did it feel proving people wrong?
I don’t live my life by proving people wrong, it’s not a good sentiment to live life by.
What do you think about care now?
I can remember when I first went to university in 1993 and was astounded when I began to realise that things in care hadn’t changed. Another twenty years, 2013, I met Ben Ashcroft, Ian Dickson, Lisa Cherry and Ed Nixon and we started the Every Child Leaving Care Matters campaign precisely because things still hadn’t changed and in fact had become worse. How on earth can you take children in care and split them into two groups:
– those on the left can stay in their homes until they are 25 and those on the right…
– well you lot can just get on with it and as soon as you reach 16 possibly 18 – if you’re lucky – you’re out !
Since joining the ECLCM campaign, I’ve made even more care-leaver-friends and I’ve learnt so much about the care system and how it is still failing the most vulnerable children in our society.
2017, there is change, people like Lemn Sissay, are changing the narrative. But, it is sporadic and governed by individuals rather than generic. Understanding that children in care are there because of abuse, sometimes because of tragedy, is the first thing that those who write the ‘rules’ need to really understand. Not just on an intellectual level but in the same way nurses are trained – compassionately and empathetically as well as therapeutically. Second is healing time, allowing children the space to heal. I would love to see healing centres where children who first go into care, undergo art therapy and any therapy that helps them understand themselves and gives them the tools to live a bearable life. I can’t understand putting children in families over and over again and watching as they get attached and then moving them on again and again. It’s cruel. And thirdly to understand that the behaviour of those in care is led by trauma. Once this is really understood and worked with, then children in care will have a chance to live fulfilled lives.
How do you become successful despite a care background?
How do we rate success? To love and have relationships? To get up everyday and go to work? To give your own children a good enough life? To iron your clothes every time you go out? (I don’t iron by the way but I heard a story about a young care experienced person who did and it gave that person a huge sense of pride in themselves – a marvellous thing.) Having said that, I think possibly Self Care. If you care about yourself, you will care about others and that to me is a hugely successful life and on the way to creating a wonderful world.
What is your message to professionals and foster carers?
This is the same message I would give to anyone who wants to become a writer. Practice your craft , learn from others and read , read, read.
I’m proud of lots and lots of people and things in my life
Is there something you’re most proud of?
Only one thing?
I’m proud of lots and lots of people and things in my life. My daughter training as a Nursing Associate, My sons: builders, architect, refuse collector. Their lust for life, their sense of humour. Mike, my friend and partner, the freedom fighter of Finchley. My talented granddaughter, and grandson. The literary festival. The writing groups. Being part of the community team that saved Friern Barnet Library with the Occupiers! And two other things, myself on the rare occasion I don’t lose my temper with bureaucrats. And being part of this year’s National Care Leavers Week (NCLW), where Lisa Cherry and I ran a workshop for care experienced people aged 18-59! It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I got to meet fantastic, talented people and listen and learn about their experiences of the system. In my humble opinion (IMHO) lol, those with trauma often have the biggest capacity for helping others. The care experienced family I have got to know over the years have some of the biggest hearts and capacity for care, healing and love. In spite of their often traumatic pasts.
Thank you for inviting me to reflect on my life and aspire to more.