When you first meet Graham Hudson, you would be forgiven for thinking he is sitting down.
He's not a big man yet his character and puckish personality outweigh even the most fearsome Napoleon complex that so routinely comes with men of his size and background. His missing front teeth will strike you next, through which a versatile and articulate tongue will tell the most roguish of tales. Then perhaps the tips of his fingers which seem formed perfectly to curl around the steel of a trigger or the base of a pint of Stella Artois.
His thick Manchester accent betrays no sign of outer-conurbation or varnish but lends itself instead to the history of men like him who have grown up as men do in the inner city: poor, socially neglected, violent, abusive; with more hope of jail-time than high-times.
What won't strike you about Graham, what you wouldn't expect from his gnarled fingers, bald head and Hell's Angel-esque facial hair, is that at 50 years old, he considers himself to be the luckiest man alive.
ART AS REDEMPTION: Graham Hudson uses his art to tackle many bigger issues that previously marred his life
Having spent over eight years behind bars and three years on the streets battling drug and alcohol abuse; after losing both his parents and older brother in a matter of years, Graham has every excuse to be bitter. But a chance meeting with a hostel worker who introduced him to the Mustard Tree (MT) three years ago turned his life around.
Graham had ended up on the streets after a house fire had forced him, his partner and their children into a homeless house for families. After a drunken break-up with his partner on Christmas Eve, he was no longer legally allowed to remain at the property.
"I left that day, still drinking, still probably drunk, carried on drinking, fell asleep somewhere, woke up, carried on drinking and within a week I was on the streets," he says.
Not being able to see a way back from the depression brought on by the death of his parents and brother, not being able to see his daughter and finding himself on the streets for the first time in his life, Graham became suicidal.
After almost three years sleeping in back alleys and in the occasionally warm doorways of China Town's steam kitchens, Graham moved into a hostel.
Out of the rain and cold, but with nothing but time on his hands, Graham's demons - the ones he had been too damp and miserable to contemplate before - came knocking at his door.
"The beast would keep on feeding on my pain, my depression and my self-loathing," he says.
"Suicide wasn't something I openly thought about; it wasn't like I was thinking 'now, how am I going to do this', it was more like a constant emotion. That's what the beast was for me."
Unlike jail, which he describes as being like a country club, street and hostel life took its toll on him.
"There's dirt under my nails still from that time in my life that just won't go away, no matter what."
Life, however, was about to change for Graham.
The woman running the hostel in which he was staying took him to the MT warehouse in Manchester and rekindled Graham's neglected love of God and art.
The Mustard Tree is a Christian-based charity for recovery and rehabilitation for the homeless and marginalised in Manchester. It operates, not to house people, but to support them through projects and training; to provide a life-support system for those in desperate need of help.
For Graham, who says he has always had a strong relationship with God, the MT became a life-line, connecting him to his nine-year-old self and the vision he had as a child that has stayed with him his whole life.
"I'd gone into my brother's bedroom and picked up this double album and it had 21 nude women on it and I'm a nine year old boy and I'm like, 'Woah, what's this?'
"So I put it on and it turns out to be an album called Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix. I remember lying down and listening to it and all these visions came into my mind about love and death and law and mathematics and language and science, art and sex and babies and dying and being reborn and it was almost like, looking back on it now 41 years later, that everything I know now I got then, but it's taken me all this time to make sense of it.
"That was the moment when I thought I'd been spoken to by God."
When Graham says of the Jimi Hendrix episode that it was the biggest experience he's had in his entire life, you get a sudden sense of how normal and everyday the violence, drugs, alcohol abuse, jail-time and all the rest are to him.
It is as though the Electric Ladyland album gave him a glimpse of life as it should be, a vision of reality, and the life he led after that moment was the hallucination.
Graham's life began in Ardwick, one of Manchester's most deprived areas. His family were crooks, petty thieves, burglars and drug-dealers; his father was a respected thief, supplying cheap colour televisions to a community that could barely afford black and white.
Graham grew up with hopes of one day becoming an artist, and although Manchester had yet to earn the nickname, ‘Gunchester’, the 70s - the decade Graham grew up - saw a dramatic rise in gun and drug related violence.
Spurned on by his older brother Keith and the glamorous life he was beginning to lead, Graham’s artistic ambitions were the first to suffer.
“I carried a knife for a lot of years as a kid from being about eight or nine and I've stabbed plenty of people.
“I used to hold people up at knife-point at the Apollo cinema on Saturdays. Saturdays was when all the kids went to the matinee. Back in them days, the favoured weapon was the sharpened comb. Deadly, with a 6 inch blade like a stiletto.”
Drugs, alcohol and violence became routine: the knife quickly became a handgun which in turn became a sawn-off shotgun; Jimi Hendrix, God and art were no longer staples of Graham’s spiritual diet.
When the family were moved to a Manchester overspill in Wilmslow, the notorious Colshaw Farm, Graham’s brother Keith was sent to jail for 10 years for attempted murder (he had set a man on fire and violently stabbed two others).
For Graham though, the failed council experiment that was Colshaw Farm (In 2005 over 100 abandoned cars and 5000 metres of razor wire were removed from the estate as part of a multi-million pound regeneration project) proved to be fertile ground for his trade.
“I sold crack cocaine, LSD, cannabis, speed. Some of the other lads sold heroin, but I only dealt what I took.”
Graham passes over parts of his history like a speed reader. He's obviously been there a thousand times in his mind; it's become part of the furniture, or as he repeatedly says, his nature, his make-up.
There's no shame in the fact that his brother went to jail after stabbing two people and setting another on fire.
He's surprised when I tell him I know no one who's been to jail. Everyone he knows has been to jail, he says.
For Graham, the exorcism of his past takes place in his art; the fetal presence of shapes which emerge in the most modernist and futuristic of his paintings show a regretfulness in him that's rarely seen as he glosses over the more frightening aspects of his life. It seems that through his art, Graham is attempting to recreate himself from scratch.
During his time at Colshaw Farm Graham was attending college doing a HND in art & design in Hertford in Cheshire.
Literally a month after finishing college however, he was convicted of firearms offenses and sent to jail for five years.
In jail he painted. He sculpted and sketched and scribbled, he worked out, ate, slept, woke up early and painted until he had his eureka moment when a painting he’d been working on finally came to fruition.
The painting was of a fetus surrounded by walls carefully built with masking tape and blow-dried until crisp. The baby was being born within the walls.
As Graham described it: “Rebirth.”
While alcohol had always been a problem for Graham, his release from jail and the straight life he so desperately wanted to lead led him on a path of more intense alcoholism.
“With speed and crack and all that, the psychotic episodes were quick; the highs were always rapid and I very rarely got into trouble.
“With the alcohol I was always committing crimes, getting into fights, stealing cars, etc.
“I just can’t stop when I’ve had a couple of cans. If I have no money, I would be taking drinks off tables or going out and stealing it. I just couldn’t resist it.”
Graham admits that he still has a problem with alcohol.
“Would I ever steal again? I can’t guarantee it. I’d like to think I never would but I just can’t say that. If I started now which isn’t unthinkable (this interview took place at 10am) and ran out of money by 1pm, it’s not out of the question that I’d be in Spar chancing it, for a bottle of wine or a few cans of Tennant’s Super, anything really, hope for the best.”
The structure that the MT has given Graham has obviously helped him cope with the ‘beast’, and to be sure, Graham is afflicted by many ‘beasts’.
With over 9000 people on their books, service users, addicts, homeless people, ex-cons, people in various stages of recovery, Graham was always able to find someone to identify with, someone he could talk to who knew more or less what he was going through.
“The staff were great too because they’d seen it all before; they are completely non-judgmental.”
Graham began his time at the MT volunteering. Still living in a hostel but with work to occupy him, his road to recovery unfolded before his eyes.
“As an artist [this is what he calls himself now] I got the opportunity to paint.
“And because my mentor was head of an advertising agency, they commissioned me to paint six pieces for the relaunch of their firm and to raise money for the Mustard Tree.”
The MT provided Graham with a small studio; they gave him canvasses, paints, paint brushes, easels, moreover a purpose.
Outside the small dark studio, groups of service users mingle like labourers, slurping coffee and eating beans. They shoot pool and discuss the inadequacies of Dominique Strauss-Kahn in the community hub area that is separated from Graham’s studio by a thin sheet of black muslin.
The toothless old men in Yankee’s caps and suit jackets and the overweight women in tracksuits who shuffle between the soiled sofas collecting empty mugs look beaten but not defeated.
Their purpose is small and simple: it is to be off the streets, to be among others. It is to be normal. To be alive.
The structure provided for them by the MT is what keeps these people alive. It is a structure that doesn’t teach them to reject the past nor to forget it, but to accept it, live with it and move on.
Graham is not a man to be underestimated. His size and puckish demeanor disguise a depth of raw emotion and calculated violence that he’s as comfortable talking about as he is eloquently and frighteningly able.
But one does get a sense that, although he obviously enjoys talking about his ‘roguish’ past, he has moved on. He still possesses much of the drive that made him a career criminal and put him behind bars, he still harbours the same love of alcohol (when I first met him, he downed a pint of Stella before shaking my hand) but that drive and love now has a new medium.
He is serious about his art and he is serious about the MT.
“It’s a labour of love,” he says.
He now holds art classes on a weekly basis and has become the ambassador for the charity.
“I’ve become a bit of a spokesman for the MT. I go out to most of the dos, I raise awareness of the place, raise money and deliver a service to the other service users.
“Because the CEO, Paul, is so committed to art and can see how important it is to people’s well being and recovery he’s now afforded me this space which is the size of two tennis courts.”
The ‘new’ studio is full of his work, both modernist and classical, but all with a clear sense of structure and rebirth, just like the painting he completed in jail.
“My art is redemption. It is texture, depth, history. It can be playful but it always approaches meaning.
“Most of the time I just have an urge to get down an idea even though I don’t know what it is or what it will end up looking like, during the process, the meaning becomes clear.”
His paintings now adorn the walls of Cheadle’s John Lewis’ Department store and the Bank of New York in Piccadilly and recently, a piece of his art sold for one thousand pounds.
There are two stable things in Graham’s life at the moment: his love of Jimi Hendrix which he says has got him through the toughest of times and without whom he wouldn’t be the artist he is today.
The second is his love of the MT which has given him structure, support and the life he has been trying to live the past 50 years,
Alcohol, drugs, violence and death have surrounded Graham his whole life. They are still there today, but they are there because he allows them to be. They fill every available piece of white space on the walls of his studio. They occupy his memories and his stories like charming sideshows to his current life. They are very present and at the same time dormant.
So when Graham says he considers himself the luckiest man alive, you tend to agree.