That case resulted in a judgement that has had far-reaching implications in opening data on our lives for care leavers. Here, Graham’s friend and author of a biography on him, James MacVeigh, talks about Graham’s life and his journey in accessing his files.
The Life of Graham Gaskin, by James MacVeigh
I first met Graham Gaskin in 1980. My girlfriend had left me and I was alone in my Bristol house when I turned the radio on one morning and the voice of a Liverpudlian teenager came into the room to haunt me. Graham had just been released from a Detention Centre, where he had been sent for trashing the house of a care worker who had sexually abused him. He gave clear, verbal snapshots of the horrors of his life up until then: put into eleven foster homes by the time he was eight, running away, sleeping in cardboard boxes behind Tesco’s, and, at nine years old, being incarcerated in an adult mental hospital where he was given forcible injections of largactil. A strictly regimented Boys’ Home followed and, when he escaped, his life’s pattern was set at ten years old: abuse, escape, sleeping rough, capture and return to even worse forms of repression. At fourteen, Social Services had given Graham into the ‘care’ of a wealthy man who turned out to be a predatory paedophile.
He clearly had no idea what he would do next and this made me remember my own youth, when a move to a different environment could have saved me from serious trouble. I wrote to Graham via the programme and days later opened my door to a tall, handsome nineteen-year-old who was bursting with intelligence. In a normal life, his good looks and charm would have been assets, but as I got to know him it became clear to me that they had merely made him the target for the unwanted attentions of a succession of paedophiles. His bitterness about this, though seldom mentioned, coloured all aspects of his life. It was Graham’s idea that I should write his biography and that first book, GASKIN, was made into a BBC film starring Paul McGann.
The ravages of a lifetime of abuse on Graham’s personality soon began to show themselves in appalling acts of violence, usually drunken and often unprovoked. I was better able than most people to handle this, but the constant conflict between us still wore me down. He moved in with an older woman, but the police were in the habit of raiding my house in search of him, and this went on until he waved goodbye to the UK and departed for Europe, leaving a legacy of cheque card fraud, broken bones and damaged lives behind him.
I saw little of him then for several years, though there were occasional flying visits which left the same carnage in their wake: fights in my local pub, a massive phone bill after Graham had spent hours making international calls and the arrival of the police in a dawn raid after he had left. I once said jokingly to him, ‘Graham, you’re an emotional gypsy. You arrive in a place where all is order and peace, and leave devastation behind you.’ He laughed understandingly. As far as self-knowledge was concerned, he was always top of the class.
We met up again in Strasbourg in 1989, when the Court of Human Rights ordered that his Social Services file be opened, a milestone victory for all people growing up in care. He was living in Germany by that time, and he showed me the special pockets he had sewn into his overcoat for shoplifting. Disturbingly, in view of what was to happen later in Manila, in the Philippines, he was carrying a dismantled handgun in one of them.
The visits stopped as he moved further and further abroad, but I still got occasional letters, and phone calls, from Manila. In two drunken conversations, he told me he had thrown someone to his death from a rooftop, but both versions were different: in one the victim was a Filipino policeman, in the other an Australian federal agent. Graham was not a fantasist, in the sense of making things up, but he moulded events in the telling so that they showed him in what he considered to be the best light. Later, I received a desperate letter from a prison in Germany, where it transpired that Graham was awaiting extradition to the UK for the murder of a sex club owner in Manila. He asked me to get in touch with various influential people “in case they disappear me” and I did so, learning in the process that because his victim was British he could be put on trial in England. In the event, the jury were unable to agree on a verdict. At his retrial Graham defended himself, but he was found guilty and given Life.
I visited him in the top security Long Lartin prison, where the staff painstakingly felt along the seams of my clothes and asked me to open my mouth and lift my tongue. There Graham told me a third and final version of the story about throwing someone off a roof, and the hairs on the back of my scalp rose because I knew I was hearing the truth. He always attracted people, and when a guy from a bar where he had been drinking had tagged along when he went up onto the roof to smoke a joint, Graham had thrown him off simply because he knew he would not be caught. There, in a nutshell, is the effect that the abuse of a child can cause.
We had always had a stormy friendship, with violent ups and downs, but I left the prison that day firm in the belief that it would be our last meeting. A few more letters passed between us, especially when he found he was HIV positive, and I was able to put a mutual friend in touch with him who visited him up to the day he died. He left her his autobiography, A BOY CALLED GRAHAM, a testament, at once passionate and chilling, to the destructive effects of the care system that shaped him.
Anyone wanting to read GASKIN, my book about Graham’s childhood, can email me direct.