Last week I spoke to four former London gang members to see if their experiences tallied with the media depiction of the city's gang situation. They were all interesting characters, but one guy in particular struck me as having a story to tell that went way beyond his involvement in gangs.
After developing a heroin habit and being kicked out the crew that he had once led, Paul Hannaford finally got himself clean and decided to leave his life of crime behind. The only issue was that he had no qualifications and no way of earning a living. Being a resourceful guy, however, he used his past to his advantage and hired himself out to schools and youth clubs as an example of how drugs can fuck you up.
The tell-all nature of Paul's talks set him apart from other anti-drug speakers—i.e. police officers and charity workers—and he soon found himself doing up to five sessions a day; grossing kids out about the horrors of hard drugs had become his full-time job. I was impressed not only by how he managed to turn this into a proper career, but also by the fact that he was willing to divulge information that most former addicts would want to keep hidden.
His life story made for a drug talk that would have certainly put me off hard drugs for life if I'd heard it as a child. I caught up with him again on the weekend to delve a little deeper, putting the focus on his role as a professional drug casualty.
VICE: How did you first get into giving these talks?
Paul Hannaford: One of my pals was doing the odd talk to kids and I thought, I'll do that. I turned up at this youth club, spoke to ten kids, and they loved it. They went back to school the next day and told their teacher. He contacted the council, the council contacted me, and then I did an assembly. From there, it kicked off, and now I've spoken to quarter of a million kids, some aged just six.
I assume you tone the content down a bit for that age group?
Of course. When I go into primary schools, I don't tell them about cutting my wrists and smothering myself in shit. These kids wouldn't understand those things.
Covering yourself in shit?
Yeah, I had a bad relationship with the police, because I was pissed off when they nicked me, so I'd fight with them. There was one situation where I tried to punch a custody sergeant, and the other coppers chucked me in a cell. I thought, I'm going to get bashed up here. Let's even things up a little bit. So I stripped off, shat on the floor, picked my own feces up, smothered my body in it, and as soon as they came back to beat me up, I ran at them. They ended up begging me to wash and get out of there.
Another time, I was coming out of Debenhams when the police arrested me and took me to the police station. I was really pissed off that I'd been nicked and was withdrawing from heroin and crack, so I thought, Right, I'm going to escape. I pressed the buzzer in the cell, and when the copper came I said, "Can I have a shower and a shave?" He said, "Alright, I'll be back in a minute." An hour later, he opened up the cell doors and said, "Come with me." I followed him round to the shower and he gave me a bar of soap, a towel, and a razor, and said, "Hurry up. Have a shave and a shower and I'll put you back in the cells." I got the razor blade, snapped it, busted it open, stripped down to my pants, walked up to him a few minutes later and slashed my wrists in front of him. "Sort that out," I told him. There was blood pissing out of me. The police took me to the hospital, where I was operated on. When I woke up, the police weren't in the room, which is what I'd been hoping for. I snuck out of the hospital that night and escaped.
So your plan worked?
It worked, but I mutilated my body and nearly died to get out and use.
I guess it's not too much of a victory, when you put it like that. What other incidents do you tell the kids about?
Well, I just tell them how it was. Within the first year of being on heroin, I lost five stone (70 pounds). Within two years, I'd started injecting. I started off using little needles. All the veins in my hands started to die, so I injected my arms, neck, penis, toes, everywhere. Then I started smoking crack. Crack cocaine is washed up with ammonia or bicarbonate of soda. When that hits your bloodstream, after a while, your veins go really hard, and I had some needles snap off in me and didn't go to hospital until weeks later. When I went to hospital to get them removed, the doctor told me I'd got infected. After that, I started using a two-inch-long syringe needle. Hold on, I'll show you the needles. I've got them in my bag.
[At this point, Paul took some syringes out and plonked them down on the table in Starbucks.]
I started using this little needle, but ran out of veins, and the doctor said, "The only place you've got left to inject is your femoral artery." The femoral artery runs deep inside your leg, through your groin, into your heart. The best way to access it is through the groin, but that needle was too small, so I had to start using one of these [he picks up the biggest needle I've ever seen in my life]. By that point, my drug habit had risen to £400 [$600] a day.
You use a lot of graphic imagery in your talks, like the photo of the wound on your leg with all the maggots in it. What's the story behind that?
You're meant to use a needle once and chuck it away, but I'd use the same syringe 50 times. By the last ten hits, it'd be blunt and I'd have to force it in my groin. As I was ripping it out, membrane and blood would squirt out my legs, so my legs got blood clots, and they blew up like balloons. When you're on crack and heroin, you scratch yourself a lot, which created a little scab the size of my fingernail. To heal something, you need a blood flow, so because the blood clots wouldn't allow the blood to get near my leg, the scab went from being tiny to being a hole down to the bone that spread out from the bottom of my knee to my ankle.
Paul's damaged leg still bleeds regularly, nearly nine years after he stopped using.
That sounds horrendous.
Yeah, it got so bad that I couldn't walk any more. I'd been running out of shops with racks of clothing to get my money, but now I was struggling to even walk, but still needed £400 seven days a week. When I was a gang leader years and years before that, I had a revolver, and I'd buried it behind a fish and chip shop. I dug it up and it still worked, so I started robbing dealers. The West Indian crack and heroin dealers that I was robbing were no mugs, though. They made it known that when they caught me, they were going to nail me to the floor, torture me, then kill me.
One day, one of the bags I robbed was pure heroin. When I took it, I overdosed and had a heart attack. I woke up in hospital hours later, and a doctor said, "You were clinically dead for two minutes. We started your heart again." I said to him, "Where's my clothes? I'm going." He said, "No you're not. If you leave, you're going to die. You've got septicaemia and pneumonia." I pushed him out of the way and left, because I'd left the bag of drugs I'd robbed in a crack den, and knew in two or three days time someone would find it, sell it, or use it. I thought, I'm not having that! That's my gear! I went to go and get the gear, but on the way there I had to walk past the police station. I was wanted there, but thought, This is it; I can go on to the crack den and die, or into the police station and live.
I hobbled into the police station, walked up to the desk, and burst into tears. They arrested me and took me back to the hospital, where they put maggots on the hole to clean away the dead tissue. After that, I contacted a rehab in Somerset and slowly recovered. I've not had drink or drugs now for coming up to nine years.
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Would you say the buzz that you get from helping kids stay on the right path has replaced the buzz you got from drugs?
Yeah. I'm lucky to be alive to do the talks. A doctor once told me that the chances of surviving seven stabbings, two overdoses, and spending a million pounds on crack over the years was one in a million.
What's the story behind the stabbings?
Gangs and owing drug dealers money. Sometimes it was only over £50 [$75] as well. They'd stab you in the arse or the leg. I've also had my finger nearly severed, been stabbed in the right hand, stabbed right through my arm... I've got holes all over me. If you become heavily involved with gangs and become a heroin addict and a crackhead, then that's the life you're going to lead. It's going to be violent, it's going to be dishonest, and it's going to be brutal. That's why it's my job to make sure these kids don't end up doing what I did.
You can follow Paul onTwitter.