care experienced, care leavers, memories, Poor Law, Reflection, residential child care, social work and child care, social work changes, Social work, child care and history of social work

Thoughts on a Strange evening

I love Lemn Sissay’s poetry and I loved the book, My Name is Why, if you are allowed to love a book that is a real life story of loss, anger, bewilderment and sadness. What I mean is that I have read many “lives of” books and blogs of those who have been unfortunate enough not to be able to live with their own families during their childhood years. This is probably the best of them. Not only does it have the precision and brevity of the poet but it incorporates the real, albeit as Lemn says filtered ,records from the social work files. There is anger but that is not the overriding emotion in the writing so it is not too hard for someone who was part of the Authority to read.

A few nights ago I saw him speak and read from his book on stage at the Holt Literary festival. Holt is in North Norfolk for those who don’t know. It was a perfect summer evening and there was a gathering of 100 or so people with a range of seating in this outdoor venue which is part of Gresham’s prep school playing field. Greshams is a mainstream independent senior day and boarding school with a linked junior school. Founded in 1555, it has its own theatre, boasts of being an all Steinway school and it has playing fields. It occurred to me that at £37,000 pa boarding fees this is hugely cheaper than keeping a child in the care system with many advantages that would not be obvious in the Good School Guide,

I left with many ideas and questions running through my mind that evening. At £20 a head for an hours talk and the type of audience that literary festivals attract would they really understand what the life of a child in care is really like. I am certain they would feel sympathy for the child who was abandoned and had such a traumatic time in institutions and be pleased that he had “made something of himself” after such dodgy beginnings but how can they have real empathy with that little boy standing against the wall in a big new institution having been plucked from a family that he thought was his forever. Or indeed the terror of walking into a ward in one of the old style psychiatric hospital day rooms when you are only 10. The latter is bad enough when you are an adult who is used to facing that situation. Did they? could they ? take away a real desire to make things better for the current cohort of children in the public care class? I doubt it somehow.

But was the intention of the evening to be a call to arms for those in the current care system? I am not sure. There was no attempt to suggest how things could be made better in the future from either speaker or audience during the question time. If witness writings and personal experience have become the province of literary festivals rather than social work conferences and training courses does this mean that their original purpose to change the system has become one of earning a living. I understand that everyone has to earn a living but can it not be at the expense of the opportunity to make a significant impact on the lives of those in care. I am not, I must add, making a direct comment about Lemn’s motives indeed I know that he does lots of other campaigning work. I am exploring , if you like , my concerns about the way some sections of the community choose to use these life memoirs and to offer patronage to the writers through their available middle class opportunities and events. Does this widen the gap between the care experienced and their patrons? Does it miss the opportunity to push a change agenda?

There is irrefutable evidence that our current system of care for children and young people has it roots in the workhouse system in both its underlying beliefs and in provision. In the minds of many sections of the public there are still the” deserving and undeserving poor”. There are children and parents whose misfortune brings with them sympathy for their plight and those who attract far less or indeed no sympathy at all although in fact they may be the most in need. Am I suggesting that there is a clear class issue in the provision of care for our children in public care? Yes I am. I am also suggesting that it is an issue that we have never properly addressed at any level in our professional training or work, or that our bosses whether political or organisational have addressed either . I am also suggesting that until we understand the roots of our welfare systems better and our reliance on centuries old principles that our current care system for all sections of society will remain unfit for purpose. There was some time ago a scheme that meant that some young people could access private boarding facilities but I don’t know that it was ever used successfully if at all. I wonder if it is still on the statute books. I imagine that until our general attitudes move to the genuine belief that everyone is deserving then it is not a scheme that should be revived perhaps just learning some lessons about how such excellent provision can be achieved at such low cost should be the first step. So maybe it is a long time off before children in care grace the playing fields of the public or independent schools of England.

Thank you Lemn for setting me off on that train of thought. If you read this it is rather like the way you suddenly follow a set of thoughts when you are speaking. If you the reader have not read Lemn’s book please do. My Name is Why is available through all the usual outlets.

lockdown, Reflection, silence, Uncategorized, what we have lost

A silence in town tonight

There’s a silence I have never heard. Out here in the evening town I feel as if I am breaking some ill defined curfew, I expect to be taken off the street by armed men, I feel guilty. It’s just the dogs last walk and I have no garden will be my defence. There is no curfew yet we are hidden in our homes to deny an unseen viral enemy the pleasure of using us as a host for its evil intentions. I am walking through town and though my footsteps are gentle soled and softly trodden they echo between the closed shops.

Sorry closed until its safe to open again……..Closed on government advice……..Closed due to the virus…..Closed even to our most valued customers…….Closed…..closed…closed.

They all have their version of sorry we are closed some friendly and cheerful, others offered with great sadness and some just formal and direct but strangely they still,have their evening lights on inviting me to view goods I cannot buy, tempting and taunting me. Past the Church now the tower illuminated to light the way to roost for the peregrines and pigeons but no worship. It feels solid , stoic and as if it knows that this will pass as have other crisis and disasters in its long history. It has a catatonic feel, still and unmoved as if to say if I don’t move then I know everything will be OK. The faithful will be back.

The pier stretches before me into a silky black sea, calm tonight with no wind. Its outline etched into the sea by lights which draw me towards a walk seaward to the theatre. I would, oh yes I would but it is barred, barricaded against me, against invaders or intruders on its calm. The theatre lies sleeping in the silence, dreaming of glory days to come again with just ghosts to fill the seats for now. Back towards home then and the pub has lights on at the bar. A lock in or a secret drinking club where a password or coded knock is needed to gain entry? I peer, sort of hopefully, through the windows and can see no one but I imagine I can hear faint laughter, football on the TV, glasses clinking as the boy collects them and a fight starting out back. Well it is Saturday night.

In this silence there are new and unfamiliar sounds accompanying my walk. In the flats and houses interspersed between the shops I can hear conversations, even a row or perhaps a heated debate, music, the TV, a dog barking. Mine barks back so loud it is as if he has brought with him his own small megaphone. It shatters the night, the silence. When the shattered pieces fall and settle I am comforted by the sounds of life trickling out through curtains and blinds.

walking aloneI can wandered the streets at will as there are no cars to avoid, no people with whom I have to engage in a strange courtly ritual dance in order to never meet. I can hear the sea, household life, my breath and the dogs name tags jingling. I can hear the town breathing and the sea washing the beaches clean and polishing the stones. I am walking in a post apocalyptic townscape not sure if it will ever be the same again wishing for the closeness of friends and family, for music to make my chest pound and my blood pressure rise and a play to make me cry into the darkness of the theatre.

I arrive home, it is warm and light but I cannot break the silence. The TV is off, free of prefect politicians trading transparency for truth, repeat programmes and celebrity endorsed ways of keeping busy. I have embraced the solitude and it has folded me into its peace so I sit ,reflective in the quiet while the dog sleeps, and write. I may never get this again.


silence quote