Former criminal turned poet and community worker in bid to become Lambeth councillor

A self-confessed former criminal turned prizewinning poet and community worker is to stand for the Green Party in Lambeth Council’s Coldharbour by-election this Thursday.

Activist Michael Groce, 55, who calls himself a ‘Brixtonian through and through’, turned his life around after his mother Cherry Groce was accidentally shot by police, sparking rioting in Brixton in 1985.

Mrs Groce was left paralysed from the waist down and it is believed the bullet fragments lodged in her spine contributed to her death in 2011.

Mr Groce said: “It taught me that my life can have an impact on others – and that can be negative and positive.

“When my mum got shot it would have been easier to just blame the police but I couldn’t do that because of my lifestyle, it was my lifestyle that created that attention.

“It doesn’t matter if it was an accident or not, I was involved and pro-criminal.

“There comes a point where you have to take responsibility for who you are.

“And I owe this to my mum, to this woman that got shot for me.”

Poetry was the start, which led to a complete transformation for Mr Groce.

“I didn’t even care if I was good at it or not, I just wanted to live and call myself a poet,” he said.

“That was the thing, that was the only aim I had, to one day see my name in a newspaper: Michael Groce, poet.”

In 1998 he won a Cheltenham poetry prize and his life has never been the same since.

It led him to get into community work. “Someone invited me to give kids encouragement, let them see that someone has made it in poetry and that bug got into me,” he said.

Mr Groce’s mother was very supportive of his new path, although she never said it to him directly. A big picture of Mr Groce performing on stage hung on her bedroom wall.

“That was a crowning moment for me that she did that,” he said, his eyes smiling.

“I was making her proud,” he added.

Asked for the best advice he got from his mother, the poet responded: “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”

When he once escaped from court and was on the run, his mother managed to find his hiding place and ‘talk sense into him’.

“She said: ‘You’d better get down here and go back to prison now, you’ve done the crime so do your time!’” he recollected, laughing and impersonating her voice.

“Whether I win or lose [Thursday’s by-election], people can acknowledge the journey, they’ve seen the journey, and it gives hope that things can happen if you do the right thing.”

If his mum were alive today she would not recognize Brixton, he said.

His first memories revolve around his family home there, a bedroom he was living in with his mother and siblings.

He said: “I remember signs saying ‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs’. It was tough.”

“You can’t live in the tough conditions that we had before, something had to give,” he added, though he said inequality and social injustice were still a big problem.

For more than seven years, Mr Groce has been a guide for Brixton’s Hidden Treasures tours.

“They can ban me but I’ll still find a way back to Brixton, I just love it, it’s my place,” he said.

The Brixtonian’s favourite places in the area include the library, well-known club Windmill, where he used to go a lot in his youth, and Brockwell Park.

He said: “When I had some tough times I would bunk off school and just hide in there.”

Most of all, however, he loves strolling down Brixton’s streets and through the market, greeting fellow residents.

“You’ve got the West End and East End, now you’ve got the Best End which is Brixton,” he said.

“Dangerous and edgy, but it’s the Best End.”

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