Who Are You Now?

Brian Searle

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I was stuttering. She said, “Slow down. Speak slowly. Get your words out.” That just shows you how caring she is.

1 Sixteen

Listen to Brian's story in our podcast series here.

The last thing I remember is hitting the side of the lorry.

I was coming down from Hackney Marshes on my motorbike, and as I came towards the bridge the lorry pulled out from a yard. I let go of the bike and apparently my helmet cracked in half, which is why I’ve got this lump on my skull. Because I cracked my skull it relieved some of the pressure in my brain. I was sixteen years old.

It's like time's stood still for me there, looking at this picture. This is me a few weeks before my accident. Everything changed after that

I think they put me in an induced coma. When I woke up I thought, ‘what am I doing here?’ My mate was looking at me. He was riding with me at the time of my accident, on another bike. It could have been him that got hit, but it was me. He told me what happened. He said I’d been there a month. I thought it was just a couple of days. No, a month. I didn’t believe him at first. My legs weren’t healed and my arm was still in plaster. I thought I would just get up out of bed and walk out. He said, "no you can’t, you’ve got pins in your legs. You can’t do that." And reality hit home. I started to realise what had happened.

2 Jigsaw pieces

My childhood memories don’t exist. They really don’t. I can’t remember nothing. From the age of eight upwards it’s patchy, but below that – no. It’s like a jigsaw, but it’s not jigsaw pieces that fit. The pieces don’t fit properly. It seems like I’ve spent all my life trying to fit those pieces.

I was born in Hackney and I’m 54 now. I’m from a family of nine. It was an up and down sort of family. I had to grow up fast. It was a difficult time – a yo-yo of a time.

On Cable Street. I'm on the right – a real East End boy

I didn’t get much education. I was twelve when I left school and started working. I learnt my trade as a carpenter, making furniture. Learnt fast. That’s when I got the skills I have now, the skills you need to make things. I got a job as an apprentice in Hackney. I’ve lived and worked there most of my life. To get that job as an apprentice, at twelve, was an achievement. I didn’t have any writing skills or reading skills. In the wood trade you don’t need them, so it was alright, I could get away with it.

I’ve always worked hard. My father was a wood machinist – that’s where I got it from, being in the wood trade. We used to work for the same firms. We had an up and down relationship, as fathers and sons do, but it never stopped us working at the same place. It was the height of the industry then. You had to build a reputation about your skills, but if you had that reputation, you'd always have work. There’s no wood firms in Hackney now. No one wants to make furniture now. Those days have gone. It’s all pre-packed in boxes. Boring!

The lads in wood firm – I’m in the red jumper. The trees would be brought down the canal on the barge, and we'd lift them with a crane onto the yard

After the accident I was in hospital for about seven months. My friend who’d been with me when I had the accident was always by my side at that time. If it wasn't for him – well, I had no one really. When I left hospital I stayed with him. After a while we went to the United States, to stay with his father in Boston. We were just hanging out there. I suppose it was a good time to go somewhere different, to get my head together. But the friendship faded out.

After my injury, the person I’d been before sort of disappeared. Even my friends at the time said it’s almost like talking to a different person. They almost didn’t recognise me. My friend who was with me when I had my injury found that really hard to cope with. The relationship we had before disappeared. I saw him for about a year after that, through my rehab and in Boston. Two years later he went back to the United States, and he died there.

3 Speaking gobbledygook

I had physiotherapy for a couple of years. I was in a wheelchair for a year and I thought, 'sod this – I’m not having this.' I was determined to get up and walk again. I had to relearn how to do it. After a year I was back on my feet. I walk with a stick now: I have arthritis in my joints because of the broken bones. I had to learn to speak again too. Part of my speech pattern was gone. That was really hard. Almost like you’re speaking gobbledygook. My tongue didn't want to move – tongue going one way, brain didn't want to register. It was horrible. I used to stutter a lot after my accident too. You can’t get your words out. Quite frustrating. I had to speak very slowly, choose my words. I used to hate the stuttering.

4 Scars here, scars there

A year and a half after rehab I was back at work. In those days there wasn’t Headway around. I could only manage three days a week. I was so tired. My gaffer at the time told me to take it easy. He was really understanding of my situation. So I slowly built it up, four days a week, back to six days a week – what I’d been doing before my accident.

At that time I was sleeping rough. It was rough and all [1]. I did some bad things, things I regret. I used to drink one or two bottles of vodka a day. It was a way of coping with the pain. It gave me that adrenaline, helped me work faster. It was a hard lifestyle. You'd do your hands in, in the winter, winding up the machines, winding up the sanders in the morning. If the belt snapped and you got your arms in the way, you'd cut your arms. I've had my thumb hanging off – scars here, scars there. No health and safety in those days. You'd just carry on, or there'd be no money.

On the Ocean Estate in Stepney – me and my wife's first home together. The East End's changed now – I hardly recognise it

I cut down the drinking when I met my wife. I had to leave all that behind. After the injury, I didn't know which way I was turning. It's hard to put into words how I was feeling. I was in a horrible place. But I came through it by meeting my wife. If it wasn't for that moment, things could have gone horribly wrong. Just change that one moment in life!

5 "Who's that? Can I have her phone number?"

I was eighteen at the time, and she was twenty-one. I was passing through to see my father – I had to have some clean clothes. All I had then was the clothes I stood in. I didn’t want to stay with my dad – he had his new wife, and a couple of kids, you know what I mean? So I had nowhere to live. Sometimes I’d stay on my sister’s sofa, or I’d just walk the streets, and sleep where I could. In those days you could just squat down for the night. That’s what I was doing after my injury. But luckily enough I went to my dad’s that night. And that’s where I spotted her.

It’s quite complicated. Me and my step-mother are nearly the same age, and my wife and my step-mother went to school together. So I turned up at my dad’s and I see her for the first time, my wife, and I thought: “nice.” She was really attractive. I said to my step-mother, “Who’s that? Can I have her phone number?” I phoned her the next morning. I turned up at her workplace in Liverpool Street. I waited outside until she finished. I waited a few nights, to try to get to see her. Finally she came out and said, “What are you doing here?” I asked if she fancied coming out for dinner. I was stuttering. She said, “Slow down. Speak slowly. Get your words out.” That just shows you how caring she is.

Our wedding day. Nine weeks from meeting each other to being married. Crazy. But something in your heart tells you it's right. It's a gut feeling

It went from there. Nine weeks later I asked her to marry me. We’ve been married 36 years. My wife taught me how to read and write. Learning to read really helped with the stutter. It helped to get my words clearer. It was quite weird really – I would read alongside my daughter. We had her when I was nineteen. We were both learning at the same time, reading the same things. Janet and John, things like that [2]. Raising our daughter, we didn't see my injury as an obstacle or something in the way. We wanted things to be as normal as possible.

My daughter has the same name as my wife. Even the same middle name. The reason for that is that my daughter was a premature baby. She was only 3 lbs 7 ounces. At the time, if you didn't name the child straight away, and she died, you couldn't give her a proper funeral. My wife couldn't come down to name her, so I had to name her, and I gave her my wife's name. My wife didn't have a choice!

My son came along six years later. My daughter wasn't happy that he'd taken the attention away from her. But he was building a relationship with her from the moment he realized she was his big sister. They've been close ever since he learned to say her name. I don't remember a time when they argued or fought. They're close – we all are, and that's what's important.

Becoming a father meant everything to me, because, in a way, I didn't have a childhood. I think my kids would hope that I would have had a better life, growing up – and I want to give them a better life. I wanted to give them the childhood which I lost. I have hopes for them, and they have hopes for me. I think my difficulties, the injury and all of that, have made me as a father. It's made me closer to people. Life's not always easy. It's a big world.

Our daughter in hospital

6 ‘It’s not me’

Before my injury I’d been in trouble with the law. I had a criminal record. At fifteen years old! I did burglary. Stole cars. Fighting people. There was so much anger – towards my family, towards other people. After my injury I was a different person. Almost like this flick of a switch. It’s just like that other person’s gone, you know what I mean? Really gone. That anger went. That trait went. And after, I was almost tranquil. Sort of like you’ve turned the switch and completely gone. Quite surreal. .

I didn’t miss the person I was before. Definitely not. When I look back at things I’ve done, I think to myself, ‘Why? Why did I do those things?’ I hardly recognise that person at all. It’s not me. When they did a background check – a criminal record! No. It’s not me. I feel embarrassed.

I became a Christian in 1990. Since then I’ve always looked back at my life and assessed what’s happened to me – analysed and processed what’s happened and the things that I’ve done, and thought about what’s gone forward. Don’t keep looking back. Keep looking forward. In steps, you know. And being at Headway has always been about going forward. I’ve been here eight and a half years now. It’s a new life for me.

I’ve had a few backwards steps since my injury too. My wife’s noticed the changes along the way. I’ve had my mood swings, my depression. For a long time I was still coming to terms with my injury. I felt sort of strange and uncomfortable. I was suffering a lot of headaches, and my joints always hurt. It used to get me down. For a couple of years I had this really bad, deep depression. I wouldn't go out. I just couldn’t get out of the door, not at all. My memory of that is very vague. I don’t know what it was. I don’t know if it was post-traumatic stress. It really was scary.

My wife was understanding about that – she helped me to cope with it. And I saw a psychiatrist at that time. She used to come to my house – she was brilliant. Eventually she got me out the house. Thank God. Over the years I’ve had bouts of depression again.

It’s strange how it just comes and goes.

7 Switch off and go

I still suffer from headaches. The headaches are always here. I can’t take painkillers for them. Painkillers don’t work with the drugs I’m on for epilepsy. What the painkillers do is coat the brain, and that stops the epileptic drug reaching the brain. You just learn to cope with it. My memory’s terrible too. I don’t go to the GP on my own – if I have a conversation with my GP, by the time I get to the door, it’s gone. It’s like “What did he say? Oh my God, what did he say?”

I had another accident on my pushbike when I was still working. I think it was in 1991. I done my neck in. I was hit by a car, and I was in the Royal London Hospital for 8 weeks with my back in traction. I went 10 foot in the air and landed on my back and fractured two disks in my neck. That didn’t help. So I’ve got a curve in the spine and in my neck. The helmet saved my head. I think God’s looking out for me somewhere.

I can’t get on a bike at all now, because of my seizures. No more bikes! It’s quite tough, having seizures. It’s only in the past couple of years they've started. They get me down. Especially if I get long bouts of them. It drives you mad. Walking round London, I get strange looks sometimes – you get a strange look when you want a seat on the train. I have to plan my routes because of my seizures. When I go on the train I make sure it’s a journey that finishes at the end of the line, so if I have a seizure I know that I’m not going to go any further than that.

When I work at home I do my paintings or drawings. I see my grandchildren. I have three of them, a girl and a boy from my daughter, and a boy from my son. My family look after me because of my seizures – if we’re out, they know that in a split-second I could suddenly switch off and go on a walk-about. I’ve done that a few times. Switch off and wander. No memory. Switch off and go. Or I have a conversation, and it stops. Then between one and five minutes later the conversation starts off where I left it. And in that time, I just sit quietly. Eyes open, just stare. The doctor said it’s quite surreal. I said, “It aint surreal for me though is it?”

8 Out there in the world

You have to have a sense of humour. You’d go mad otherwise. I have more humour now than before my injury. I’m more confident now, especially when I’m at Headway. Headway has made me a better person. In the past I found it difficult to be myself out there in the world, but there's people like me here. I can talk to people here about how I feel – they can understand me and I can understand them. Having confidence here gives me much more confidence being out, to carry on and cope with the world out there. I still get the odd occasion when I don’t want to do things, when I haven’t got the confidence to go to the shops, to do something. I don’t know why. But the last eight and a half years of coming to Headway have made a massive difference.

'Decoding', Brian Searle

9 Pride

I've always done art at home, as far back as I can remember – always picked up a pencil and drawn, self-taught. Art means everything to me. When I moved on to the estate where I am now, someone at the estate community centre noticed I was drawing and painting. She said “Why don’t you go to college and do an access course and get on to university?” I thought, 'no, I can’t do things like that.' So I told her, "I haven’t got time." She said, “You’ve got plenty of time”.

She got me on a Foundation course in art and design. I'd never have done that if it hadn't been for her. In a way, my life's been by chance.

I done a two year course and I passed with flying colours. And that got me an interview at London Met University – I passed that and got in there. I done a BA with honours in Fine Art, and got a 2:1. I also got the top prize in screen-printing – the Owen Rowley Prize for Fine Art.

The studying was quite tough. You have to do a 21 page essay. When you’re dyslexic, that’s quite tough. I was impressed myself. I loved it. I didn’t want to leave.

For the printing I did a series on the seven deadly sins. I thought that because I’d lived rough on the streets, I’d base it on that. Living rough, you see a lot of things. It forms your imagination. So I made a set of prints that was embossed – just white paper, embossed, each letter cut out by hand. Each word was 'sloth', 'envy', all that. I designed a different font for each one. The white letter on a white background – unseen sin. The raised lettering of the sins – cut by hand into board, raised 2mm, no more, no less. The paper represents skin, the cuts represent the sin. Like scars – the scars of life, the scars of sin. Then I made another set of prints with colourful cartoon characters for each of the seven sins. Each one is screen-printed, built up in layers. The last layer would be the square borderline. Get that wrong and that’s it, you start again.

What would my sin be? Pride.[3]

“My intention here is to juxtapose a clinical effect in one part and a humorous effect in another. This is intended to make the viewer think about what it means to have or practice sin.” - from my Artist's Statement

10 A happy accident style

With art, a lot of it is about thought-process, and at university you talk a lot about that. But also, art is about learning through opportunities when accidents come along – learning how to take that opportunity and make art out of it. In my artist’s statement, I call it “a happy-accident style”. That’s when the best art comes along – through happy accidents. That’s why I won that prize: because I took those happy accidents with both hands. Take all the planning, all of the thought-process, but suddenly something will click and produce the best art.

In one picture, I took a cross and layered it with plaster – then I peeled it off leaving remnants of plaster on it, and then painted over the top. So you get something that looks like the grains of wood on it. That’s what you’re taught at art school – not just to work in one dimension. It’s not just acrylics and a canvas, or a piece of wood: there are other materials out there in the world. You experiment, and see what comes out of it. You never know what’s going to happen as you go along. I like my artwork to have meaning. But it’s nice to hear what the viewer says too. It’s not one-way: it’s a two-way thing.

11 New life

What would I say to someone who doesn’t have a brain injury, who doesn’t know anyone with a brain injury? I suppose I’d say that we are just like them. We’re no different to them, just because our brains got bashed. If anything it makes us stronger. I’m not saying it makes us any better. But I think we’ve got more zest for life. We value life more. We grasp life more. I know I take life more seriously now. I want to keep grabbing life with both hands. To enjoy life with my family. Carry on at Headway as I am, see it grow more. Enjoy my art, as I do.


I’ve always enjoyed volunteering in the arch, the art studio at Headway [4]. It’s somewhere I can have a laugh. I feel I can give the members a lot, and share my skills with them. I love giving that to the members – just to see their faces when they’re drawing and painting, to see that satisfaction in them when they finish their work. We have exhibitions, and they come along and see their own paintings up. They love it. I feel God has given me a purpose to be here at Headway. This is my zest for life – being here for the members – and the members give me something as well. They give me confidence, and I give them confidence. That’s the nice thing about Headway. It’s not one-sided. If you walk into Headway you can’t tell who’s who: who’s a volunteer, who’s a member, who’s staff. It’s a good place to be.

It feels like God’s saying to me, “you’ve had that head injury for a reason”. To give me a new life. That’s what God’s done. When I was 16. At that time, at that moment, on that motorbike. God said “I’m going to give you a new life.” That’s why I’m here today. Here’s a new lease of life, take it. Here’s a second chance, take it. And that’s what I done.

'The Last Autumn', Brian Searle

© 'Brian' / Headway East London (2016). All rights reserved

Photo portraits by Andy Sewell

To support Who Are You Now? and the work of Headway East London, please text WAYN61 followed by an amount to 70070 or donate online.

  • [1]. Sleeping rough: research in the UK and Canada has found that around half of homeless people report a history of traumatic brain injury: http://www.thedtgroup.org/foundation/brain-injury-and-homelessness/leeds-homelessness-research/. Return to text
  • [2]. Janet and John are the main characters in a series of illustrated reading books for children, most popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Return to text
  • [3]. "Pride, alone of the seven deadly sins, has a good side. [...] It is the word for a virtue, too." - Christopher Ricks Return to text
  • [4]. The arch: the railway arch at Headway East London's centre is used as a studio by a collective of artists with brain injuries. For more information and to view artwork by Brian and the studio's other artists, visit http://submittolovestudios.org/. Return to text