One morning when I was five years old, my father who was a lorry driver went to work and never came back. My parents had moved from Aberdeen to live somewhere near Wolverhampton. When my dad disappeared my mum was in a bit of state, as you can imagine. She couldn’t keep the house and raise 3 young children on her own, so she had to get back to Aberdeen, it was around1953.
However, my mum was kind of ostracised despite having a big family. They were not keen to look after us. After a while, my mother met another man who was my stepfather and had 2 more children. I was 7 years old at that time. We lived in 2 rooms. Me and all my siblings were in one room so I had to share a bed with my sister for years.
My stepfather was very violent and abusive and hurt my mother a lot. It was hard to hear your mother cry and shriek from the next room and not been able to help her. Alcohol was a big part of it too, especially for my stepfather. Things came to a point when my mother attempted suicide. After that attempt, she went to a mental hospital and got electric shock treatment. Soon after that, she did another unsuccessful attempt.
My mother was lost and was looking for help for sure. In the 50s, a mental hospital wasn’t a good place, it never is a good place. When she came out of hospital she was never the same person. Life was never the same for me either.
Addiction, Crimes, Imprisonment
When I was 15 my stepfather tried to throw me out of window from fifth floors. It was a trauma and a shock that has stayed with me until now. I felt I had enough and hitchhiked to London which took me 2 days to get there. I didn’t know anyone in London but for some reason I congregated with people who had similar backgrounds and broken families, mostly Caribbeans, Irish and Scottish. It was the time of ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’.
Life in London led me to drugs and crime and I was sent to a borstal (young offenders prison) when I was 16 for fifteen months. After that I took more drugs and ended up again in prison for another 15 months. When I came out the whole hippy thing had kicked off and I started taking LCD, mushrooms, etc, etc which led me into the life of crime, addiction, dealing, and smuggling. This went on for next 40 years.
During one of my prison sentences, I tried to harm myself. I was withdrawing from heroin and set fire to my cell with me being in it, and I didn’t care what would happen. I was rescued but I could have been badly burned or died. Over forty years, as a drug addict, I injected heroin, cocaine, etc, maybe ten, twenty, thirty times a day going to the limits of how much my body could take and there were times that I overdosed.
I was arrested once again and this time was sentenced to18 years for drug smuggling. For the first 2 years, I continued using heroin because you know you get anything in prison. One day, I received a letter from my daughter who wrote , ’Dear daddy, I love you but why don’t you give up this life of crime and prison?’ I had heard this many times in my life but this time something struck me, like a catalyst for change, like a detox.
I had a bag of heroin for 3 days and I can’t tell you how many times, maybe hundred and fifty times, I wanted to take it and reached for it but stopped. I never took heroin anymore. I thought my daughters did’t deserve this mess, neither did I, and this had to stop.
Another life changing thing in my life was meeting, Bali, a prison counsellor who helped me by talking and listening to me. Sometimes we just sat and didn’t speak. She played a crucial role in my recovery. During that time, Prison Phoenix Trust helped as well, so I started doing yoga and art.
At Prison I also discovered Quakerism when I met a Quaker chaplain. At that time, I didn’t know what quakerism was but we had several meetings and in one of those meetings, she told me, ‘Walk into the light’ and ‘Be in the light.’ And I thought to myself what was she on about? What light?
After some time I understood it, right or wrong, as a kind of inner light which is there for everyone but not everyone sees it .So being drug free, I was more open to that and joined Bamford Quaker Community in the Peak District. I felt I was walking the right way and had found a place that could help my recovery and I felt free. Call it God, spirit, whatever you want, but I felt a sense of something more than me.
During the visits of other groups to the open prison I asked one of the tutors if it was possible for me to go to Doncaster college for an adult access in art, or I was too old for that? To cut a long story short, they agreed and after 7 years of being locked up I took a bus on my own thinking it was marvellous, given up drugs, the light within, I was saved.
The college was full of very young people and I was nearly 50 years old. I remember the man who interviewed me asked, ‘Well Norman, you are near your 50s, you are serving a prison sentence for 18 years for drug smuggling, you were a drug addict and now have come to Doncaster collage full of young people? Why? I said, ‘I am here to learn.’ It was the beginning of my journey as an artist. Over the following years, I got a BA and then a Master degree in Fine Arts from Sheffield Hallam University.
Recovery From Stroke and Loss
In 2018 I had a severe stroke that damaged parts of my brain and I lost memory and the ability to speak. However, during that time in hospital, I felt a new kind of connection and communication with the world. I became more aware and more open to spirituality. My surgeon said there was hope and I lived on that. I eventually recovered but it felt like recovery from loss, recovery from way back.
Throughout my journey, I had strange encounters and moments that affected me forever. There were moments that I recognised ‘spirit guides’ in different forms and different places that made me feel I would be saved. One of these strange experiences happened when I was in Pakistan. I was staying in a friend’s house when I encountered a man with the most piercing eyes. He looked at me and said something which I didn’t understand but I felt a kind of connection.
Later I found out this man lived on a mountain and looked after the graves of two Sufi saints. I decided to go and visit him. On the way I came across a horse that was mistreated, abused, lost—like me. My host and I rescued the horse and fed it and looked after it. Something powerful between me and that horse happened, a kind of non-verbal conversation, and without a doubt I knew I would go to the same place as the horse—a place of rescue.
I am no angel but I believe in peace, equality, simplicity, and truth , whether you believe in God or not, that’s your choice. Personally I don’t know what God is but hope is always there.
There were moments I had given up hope, but it was always there, ask and it will be given. From shit, from addiction, from loss, hope still emerges.
Artwork by Charles
August 25, 2023