My journey through Social Work via Billy Bragg

After a good meeting with social work senior practitioners I felt a buzz of excitement when getting in my car, driving to Southampton and spending a night with Billy Bragg. It had been 25 years since I first saw him at the Dominion Theatre as a 17 year old 6th form schoolboy and a long time before the thoughts of becoming a social worker had entered my mind. As we walked up to the Southampton Guildhall I could not have expected what an emotional night it was going to be.

The thing is, what started as a fantastic gift from my eldest son turned into a reflection of my career and the meaning of social work, all via the words of the Bard of Barking. As you read this (assuming anyone does) maybe have YouTube ready to check out some of the offerings Billy has bought to my life but more importantly some of my implied meanings and links to modern social work.

25 years ago I was introduced to a world of social justice, humanity, care, equality and love by the words of this one man. I had previously caught the odd track from the talking to the taxman album that my dad owned and played occasionally. This stirred an interest that led to a cold night in 1988 on Tottenham Court Rd and was very likely a major influence on my life going forward and as a social worker.

Here I was though, 25 years later in the Southampton Guildhall enjoying the first few opening songs. Bit of singing along, laughing at Billy’s  gags and nods of agreement for the odd political viewpoint. All was good, the usual great night at a Bragg gig, but then something changed. Billy in his usual style talked his way into his next song, only this time he pronounced with passion “you fascists are bound to lose and with some element of surprise I started to cry. This to some extent told the story of the rest of the night and my reflection and linking the words of one of my idols with the world of social work. Such a core element of social work as I trained and found my way through the complexities of humanity was the concept of anti – oppressive and anti- discriminatory practice. These are words that I seldom hear today in practice or even from those students placed with us. They are however so vital in the explanation of what we do. The passion of any social worker must surely be embedded in these principles. The likes of Dominelli and Payne instilled and challenged such values and arguments in a younger me. Billy emphasis this every time he sings. The ability to be a social worker requires the understanding that as a social worker we hold discriminations sourced from the deepest roots of somewhere and as such we must understand, accept and challenge ourselves. The saving grace is our social work and human values, something that must sit at the core of a social worker and balances this internal struggle. The reality for any Social Worker is that they need to fundamentally understand the role discrimination plays in people’s life. The root of discrimination is the basis of poverty, control and removal of people’s rights to freedom and citizenship.

So how does this link to me, Billy Bragg and social work? Well, much has changed since that night in London at my first Bragg gig. A 17 year old white boy from Hertfordshire or Watford (which sounded more working class to me at the time) watching Michelle Shocked and then the Beatnigs whilst awaiting the main act. Back in 1988 and mainly at that gig i learnt of the existence of Section 28 or clause 28 as I grew to know it. This formed part of the Local Government Act 88. The amendment stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. As you can imagine such a move to discriminate, segregate and marginalise a group of people via law was never going to escape the guitar of Billy Bragg or the mind of a 17 year old. True to form Tender Comrade came into my musical and moral world. Now I was naive when it came to any form of sexuality other than Heterosexuality and even that was a major learning curve at the time. In fact I had never knowingly met anyone who was openly gay, my only point of reference being Mark Almond and Jimmy Sommerville. That night I understood the meaning behind the words of Tender Comrade.

Since hearing that track in 88 the world appears to have changed so much. In those 25 years I have had two wonderful children. Parenting has its individual challenges for us all but one thing that hasn’t been a challenge is my eldest telling me that he was gay at 13 years of age. Initially I was full of fear as to how other children would respond, bullying, teachers and how he would cope. One thing that was clear was that he would have no qualms in telling people. But my fears never materialised to any great extent yes he has had to put up with the odd moments of ignorance and some greater institutionalised concepts but something had changed. Even the rough old-fashioned comprehensive he attended seemed to not just accept his sexuality but actually didn’t care. Clause 28 had been repelled some 6 years earlier but in reality society and people had repelled it many years before. I had repelled it back in 1988 thanks to a gig.

I wonder though whether the struggle towards true citizenship and acceptance of any form of sexuality for certain groups of our society is still set in 1988.  I wonder how many people with learning disabilities are afforded the opportunities of the track sexuality or are still subjected to undue scrutiny over their sexual preferences. Do we jump so very quickly to concepts of safeguarding and abuse first? Yes we do have to seek to protect the vulnerable but we have to do that from a position of understanding, and yes ADP again, our and societies inbuilt discrimination’s. How do our young adults with learning disabilities get chance to explore, make mistakes and learn the pain and wonder of love and sex that is the Saturday Boy. In 88 a government thought it was acceptable to marginalise a group of people via our children’s education system. 25 years later it is for social workers to ensure being a human with sexual desires and needs for relationships are recognised and valued as much as a right to a tenancy and a job. A challenge I don’t think social care and transition education has openly accepted and maybe actively denied. The underlying principles of that song seem as valid now to me as a social worker and manager within learning disability services as they did in 88 as a teenager.

So back to Southampton and what was turning in to one of the best gig based reflection sessions ever (and the first ). A few chords and then the immortal line “if you are lonely I will call”. For those who know this mans tracks you may accuse me of picking an obvious and slightly soppy link to social work. However this song is the epitome of humanity and yes it did. The Milkman of Human Kindness is a person specification for any social care job and a potential antidote to some of the horrors we have seen over the last year or so in social care and health.

Winterbourne View showed us the worst side of human nature and the reality of the position we place some of our most vulnerable in. As horrific as this and many other episodes are, deep down we know that they have always been there and still are. The response documents were swift and set us on a path to rid our health provisions of such barbarity. Expectations of commissioners were outlined and every Local Authority and CCG started on their projects to try and move people out of assessment and treatment units and back to society. Whilst this is welcome and overdue as always we run the risk of designing the abuse and institutionalisation into smaller buildings that tick a box of community living and that ever present KPI settled accommodation. So far I haven’t seen a clear focus on the nature of the worker, the person who should in effect provide service too… The milkman of human kindness was missing from the Ward at Winterbourne view and unless we are not very careful could be missing from the alternatives we develop.

As I cry and smile and sing along it dawns on me that this song does reflect the vast majority of those I work with and those I have the fortune of meeting everyday through social work. Another part of the jigsaw that I hope is me and any other person that chooses to care as a career are the words of this track. In fact the words to Milkman of Human Kindness for me are the soundtrack to @simonjduffy help, life and love element of keys to citizenship. I often play out this influential document by @simonjduffy in terms of Billy Bragg tracks but that is another blog altogether. The point here is that the Milkman of Human kindness is the AMHP I want should that moment come to me or the home carer that may need to support a relative or loved one or the colleagues that I work with in such trying times, my boss, our students and my neighbours. There is a simple message in this song and one that I’m sure persuaded me to apply for a care assistant job so long ago.

And so to that moment the finale. I have missed so many other tracks that I think have formed and guided or explain part of me as a social worker. Tank part salute, valentines day is over, rotting on remand, with its great lyric that I often quote to the fab lawyers and SW’s we have when law and values clash “this isn’t a court of justice son this is a court of law”, are all other blogs I may one day write. The Finale however was the moment I had been waiting for. The Great Leap Forward. For those that know, this is the title of some work I and all my colleagues have been doing for the past year. The words to this famous Bragg track don’t lend themselves to the project but the essence of this song does. Our Great Leap Forward has some simple messages about community, citizenship and aspiration and what may be missing from personalisation and our role in this. There is a new wave of social work passion appearing in the country and our great leap project aims to marry that with the right to citizenship and well informed community social work.

We as practitioners still run that risk of apathy though. In 1968 Sherry Arnstein gave us the ladder of participation.  It looks very much like the basis of personalisation and citizenship to me but written over 40 years ago. An example of still waiting for the great leap forward? Arnstein ladder participation 364px Again another blog for another day, but that night in Southampton and that track took me back 25 years and challenged me to think. We chose to be social workers for a reason, we are employed as social workers for a reason, lets not forget those reasons. The biggest risk to social work is social work itself and practitioner apathy. However you reflect, be it Billy Bragg or other alternate therapies remember that we always need to challenge ourselves before we can challenge or support others. I’m not sure that my interpretation of these lyrics and songs are those that Billy Bragg intended but they have helped me to this point. People are fundamentally fantastic and brilliant regardless of their personal challenges. These gigs will always remind me that I love being a social worker and manager in social care and that I am surrounded by wondrous people, people I possibly may never have met if it hadn’t been for Billy Bragg.

Ps remember the revolution is just a T shirt away.


8 thoughts on “My journey through Social Work via Billy Bragg

  1. Blimey Mark, that’s a wonderful blog. Left me feeling a tad emotional too, this stuff matters and I care. It really resonates with me, though I guess you and I come from the same place in more than just a geographical sense. I share your frustration with the reduced emphasis on ADP too, being a student placement s’v these days.
    Being a social worker isn’t a 9-5 job to me, it’s a way of life. A bit precious I know, but I mean it.
    I hope Billy reads this too, and your last line made me laugh out loud!
    Happy New Year 🙂

    • Blimey. Thank you Emma, coming from you means a lot. Given you on here do you have a blog too? It’s funny how events can trigger something in your mind wasn’t sure I would write it out there but had written it many times in my head. So many songs to choose from and so many social work and life issues to link. How the hell are you anyway

  2. Nice words Mark, must admit to shedding a tear or 2 when I saw Billy here in NZ! I’d love to share your words with my students if you don’t mind… an example of good quality reflective journaling….

    • Hi Simon, good to hear you saw that man himself down your end of the world. Happy for you to use this if you think it is of any use. Also happy to hear if they think it is not very good helps me to learn if i were to do another.

  3. Hi Mark. As usual, inspiring words, comments, reflections and insight. I remember seeing Billy in the 80’s and then again in the 90’s. I havnt seen him for many years now but his songs remain with me frommy formative teenage years. I have no doubt that they were also part of the reason that I entered the care field in addition to my Quaker upbringing which also gave me a grounding which were echoed in Billy’s words. The sense of apathy is I feel not just within social work but runs throughout society. Its a direct result of disallusionment in how our society is functioning and how we care and support those around us. As a social work practitioner I try as hard as I might to highlight the issues wherever and to as many people as possible. Its been a slow dawn for me but I really feel that without real systemic and fundamental change within our society we will continue to battle agaisnt discrimination, poverty, injustice and hate. Thankyou for your thoughtful words and honesty in the blog. Ive got the tshirt….I wear it with pride……and ive worn it so long that its seeped into my skin as a tattoo…….I hope its the same tattoo thats seeped into your skin.

    • Thanks Matt. And thanks for commenting. Not expected but knew you may like the SW Billy bit. Like your ideas and links to wider society. I like the Great Leap saying you have to do all of it or none of it will happen. I do think you can effect change at smaller levels as well as societal ones. The past radicle SW is now the mainstay of practice. Creep effect!

  4. Finally! Your values, beliefs and talents recorded in the media for all to see!
    A fascinating read.. The journey is long and relentless but your focus (and dare I say it.. passion!) is infectious.
    I look forward to the next post,..

  5. Hi Mark, I have just started blogging so was very interested to read your blog. Haven’t listened to the tracks yet so I shall enjoy doing that and linking to what you’ve experienced from them. I too remember the horror of section 28 and the deep anger about such discrimination. You have inspired me to do a blog on my SW journey, though I’m not sure I’ve got the tracks to go with it. thanks.

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