Social work, child care and history of social work

“The Streets of London”. Apprenticeship Part 2

So why do we do it? We are in the middle of yet another crisis with a  government who wants to pass a bill to take control because they see us as a bunch of hand wringing lefties who believe in social justice and that we need somehow to rid this nonsense from the profession . That’s me paraphrasing Michael Gove! Our public profile must be at its lowest since my days in the old Welfare Department. There are lots of blogs and Fb posts that tell us about the pressures , why it is an awful job and how to take care of ourselves and survive. All of which is fine but the key to survival may be in understanding  why do we do it at all, our own individual motivation.

I can only really answer for me and I remember when I left St John’s in Tiffield the then Director, Ian Winter, saying he was curious about why I was in social work. It is difficult for us to explore our own motivation but maybe if we can it will help us to understand and develop personal patterns of resilience to the stresses of the work.  If we can, in the midst of chaos , remind ourselves of those original drives then we can pull ourselves through the difficult moments.Of course there is unlikely to be one single reason and for me there were many threads to my arrival at the apprentice’s desk.Oh yes… we all had our own desks then.

I have often held Ralph McTell, a brilliant folk singer /songwriter for those who don’t know, at least partly responsible. In 1969 “The Streets of London” was first recorded on the album Spiral Staircase and I could not get the images out of my head. They were brilliantly crafted and conveyed the reality of life for too many. I wanted to do something to change things for these lost people. McTell’s words connected with earlier pictures in my mind, experiences and feelings which I had not yet processed in a way that I could use. As a child I remember standing in our front room crying as I watched the family opposite evicted from their home. Dad told me to come away not because he didn’t want me to see but because he felt that their pain should not be intruded upon by observers. They stood on the pavement, furniture, bags, kids and dog, lost and ashamed. I had never witnessed such a scene. I worried for days about them. I was 11. I worried about the drunk and sick man I saw with Mum on the platform at Pitsea station, would he get home and be OK. I worried about the child lost in Woolworths in Grays  and what would happen if she could never find her parents. I worried about anyone I saw begging ,sleeping rough or fallen in the street. This was not uncontrolled anxiety but a genuine concern that they would come out of the crisis and be OK.  I wanted to know who was going to help them. I was a child and it could not be me.

My view of these individual images changed as I got older and widened to the political and societal view of injustice that I still hold today. Again music and to an increasing extent drama and literature helped to form my wider view of the injustice in the system for the vulnerable. The 1950s-60s saw the rise of “kitchen sink drama” and these plays and films has a huge impact on me. Cathy Come Home in 1966,stunned me and still does. Other pieces like Up the Junction , Poor Cow, Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey all drove home to me that there was such injustice in the system  it was not possible for the poor and vulnerable to fight against it alone. Of course many things have changed for the better since then, legislation on abortion and homelessness for example, but the underlying issue of the appalling treatment by the establishment of the less able and fortunate remains . “I Daniel Blake” showed this with a horrifying clarity recently and hopefully this will have the same impact on a new generation of social workers as the earlier works had on me.

It was all beginning to make sense to me. Is there a religious context to all of this? It is not to be dismissed. Many of the great philanthropists and pioneers of social welfare came from a religious perspective in their care of the needy, and our profession owes their brave pioneering spirit a very great deal. It is not always openly acknowledged as a driver to our work today but I expect that its teaching on brotherly love is embedded in many of our souls. My Christian upbringing  taught me a moral code that I have carried with me always. I was impressed as a child by stories of caring and healing and the idea that there was someone watching over everyone to keep them safe. ” He sees the meanest sparrow fall unnoticed in the street”. These ideas were refined later. But while I was held by these ideas I was also in the Girl Guides whose focus on community service appealed too. The Guide Law said I should try to do a good turn every day. Nothing wrong with that as a moral guideline.

Later I began to see that while I could make an individual difference there needed to be a political will to change the structure of society so that we eventually could get rid of the Victorian notion of the undeserving poor, that somehow it was all their own fault and if they simply behaved like the rest of us then everything would be well.I struggle with this view today; it makes me angry still. The notion that anyone I have met through my work is somehow a lesser person for their troubles hurts me .

So my motivations are threads that have run through my life from childhood. It is these memories and ideals that have sustained me through nearly 50 years and it is these I try and recall when faced with the chaos and traumas that we face daily. I also try to remember them when faced with bureaucratic nonsense and computer driven poor practice. It helps me focus on the important things.  My survival mechanism,or anchor, is to sing a verse or two of the Streets of London in my head and remember that there are those for whom there appears to be no route to a meal and a warm bed  at the end of a long day.

Thanks Ralph and all the others who got me to the apprentices desk and kept me more or less sane all this time.


Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London homeless-2

I’ll show you something that will make you change your mind.

( Streets of London. McTell )

Check it out on You Tube or Ralph McTell’s web page


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