Making choices that often only a young mind would make, Ben tells his story and memories of being in the social services system from eleven years old, as well as 1990’s London street life, as a missing runaway sleeping rough.
From angels, predators, shocking times to heart-warming moments, Musician and now debut author Ben Westwood gives an insight into the mind of a rebellious-spirited youngster trying to find his own way in the world.
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Hello there, Ben! It’s wonderful to be chatting with you about your 60-poem poetry collection, “Poems from a Runaway.” To kick this interview off, I’d like to ask you about the source of inspiration that brought this entire book into fruition.
Well, to a lot of people it’s a sad story, but for me it’s just reality. But my childhood, I suppose. My journey just wasn’t normal, but at the same time, it could have happened to anyone, and it does.
I grew up in a former mining town in Staffordshire, in the West Midlands of the UK. It had once been a bustling town full of cheerful miners happy to provide for their families, but when I grew up there, all the pits had been closed down, so it turned into a somewhat depressing nowhere town for a while, where people just drank and fought. Even the neighbours were often at each other’s throats.
There’s a lot more to it than that, but I won’t give away too much just yet. However, at some point, my life had gotten a bit lonely and I ended up running away from home at the age of nine, and going missing for weeks—sleeping out and stuff. By the age of thirteen, I had gone through three foster care placements and was living on the streets, halfway down the country, in London.
The whole book is not only inspired from some of the childish and naïve choices that I’d made being the young lad I was, but also the cases of the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s not often enough that you find people that really step out of the box to make a deep-felt impact on the lives of people living out on the streets. I was lucky enough to meet a lot of beautiful people, as well as go through some stuff that a lot of people might find shocking.
My important teenage years though, until I was around late sixteen, were often spent sleeping in doorways and begging on the streets of Central London. The story isn’t just about me, lying to everyone about my age and making up fake names to stay undetected by the police or anyone that might have informed on me, but the whole other world that had been opened up that I’d like to share, through the eyes of the young person I was.
All of that sounds highly intriguing, and it’s amazing that you’re bringing awareness to such an important matter. What you went through may have had its challenges, but now you’re using what you learned to inspire others, or at least help them through their difficult times. I feel like you’ve already depicted your journey quite a bit to us, but I’d like to know a little bit more about your journey from a creative standpoint.
Mainly, I’ve been known by people for my music. For many years, I was a street entertainer and would play my own songs on the street with a guitar, as well as a few popular classics. For some reason I seemed to love the feel of a lot of the old Ska and early Bob Marley sort of stuff. A lot of people tend to hear that sound out of me the most, but I perform all sorts… It’s a real big mix-up of styles.
During the late part of 2016, I decided I was going to start writing down my memoirs in poetry, and then not too long after, decided to make a whole book. A few of my friends that have heard some of my stories said I should write a book about it all, and I tried to write it normally as in a novel but it just wasn’t working for me.
Not only did it start to get a bit boring, sometimes going on about myself and then reading it again, but I’d often be unaware of how reliving some of the moments would malfunction me, and then I’d simply stop writing. But getting it all down into poetry, for me, was a completely different ball game. I was enjoying focusing on making nice-sounding rhymes and fitting sentences together so I could speak them musically. I even got prepared during the darkest of the poems, for a big malfunction to happen, and had planned to take a couple of weeks out if I needed to. But I never did need to… I was enjoying it all far too much.
So now, in mid-December, when the first edition of “Poems from a Runaway” is printed, I guess I will be an actual self-published author. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve really enjoyed it.
People like me often don’t get the chance to go to university because we’re so pre-occupied with just keeping ourselves going due to limited support and messed up circumstances. But in this day and age, the internet has completely changed that for a lot of people, and I feel really lucky to have learned so much, and thankful for all of the people putting the free information out there on how to make things happen.
It certainly hasn’t been easy writing this book. It’s perhaps one of the hardest things I’ve ever really done and dedicated myself to. But I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it every step of the way.
Wow. You’ve definitely been through a lot to get to this current point. How inspiring! This goes to show that dark times don’t have to define us for the rest of our lives. So, to get a little more specific here, what themes pop up in this book?
Family conflict, drug addicts, prostitutes, Central London, Piccadilly Circus, homeless people, bag ladies, bizarre events, angels, predators, mental health, and social services.
You sure cover a lot of ground! Sounds like quite the impactful read. Ever since you started your journey as both a musician and a writer, I’m sure you’ve run into several muses (at the very least)… Who are your muses? Or what are they?
Artists that talk about the real stuff going down, without trying to be all gangster about it. I’ve also had a massive flavour for UB40 over the last few years since I’d brought one of their more recent albums from a charity shop. I couldn’t stop listening to it. There’s some real truth in those lyrics.
My first biggest inspiration in music was definitely John Lennon. I’d got somewhat obsessed with The Beatles at age seven or eight because of a school play that we did about the sixties.
Definitely Bob Marley who of course speaks with the voice from us all.
And the ex-England goalkeeper David Seaman was a big impact on my childhood. He was my icon in my early years growing up playing football.
It’s safe to say you’ve been fueled by a ton of inspiration along the way. So, imagine you’re sitting down to write right now. How do you tend to go about it? I know it may depend, so suppose this is an ideal situation.
I like to keep myself busy often, and because I’ve got heaps of half-finished projects here and there with “Poems from a Runaway,” I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of me completing it, so I went at it like a steam train.
Sometimes everything flowed out reasonably easily, and then other times, I was spending a couple of hours trying to make the end line or two of a poem fit nicely into the piece. And lots of speaking it out to myself… I’m sure the neighbours must think I’m full-blown nuts.
But yeah, I pretty much write until I can’t write anymore, or until I know I need a break. During my breaks, I go and make another drink, have a stretch, and maybe five minutes of light exercise to get my back and spine feeling comfortable again. And then I watch a bit of YouTube or something, and catch up some rest—usually at some really embarrassing hour where I think everyone thinks that I’m being anti-social.
If I didn’t do it that way, it would have never gotten finished.
I love how down to earth you are. Your creative process showcases that wonderful quality. We had touched on themes a bit already, but I’d like to delve into that more deeply. Did you have any particular aims in mind, or messages you wanted to send out when writing this book?
When I first started writing this book, my main thoughts were to document some of the characters I’d met along the way. However, the more I kept writing for the book, the more reasons I had felt I wanted this to get complete.
I want families to see past all the needless drama that too often divides them. I wish that when it’s like that, people can see that being there for each other can be prosperous. Unfortunately, not everyone sees that, and today, twenty years on, there seems to be many more sixteen or seventeen-year-olds walking the London streets. So it’s obviously a problem that isn’t getting any better.
Also, I wanted to highlight some of the things that people end up finding out about themselves while living on the streets. It can be really saddening what people have to put up with out there at times, but also, there were some really beautiful moments too.
“…being there for each other can be prosperous.” That’s definitely going to stick with me for a long time. However, I’m afraid we’re reaching the end of this interview… But before I officially wrap things up, do you have any final thoughts that you’d like to leave the community with?
Yeah, a message to the world: Let go of your grudges. There is strength in forgiveness. There is treasure in love.
Those are the perfect concluding words. Thank you so much, Ben! May any creative endeavor you take on yield success. 💚