Tuesday, 22 June 2010

A voice for social work in poetry?

John Stevenson reviews 'Dancing With Big Eunice - Missives from the frontline of a fractured society" by Alistair Findlay

In a world of guideline after guideline, key performance indicators, inspections and media savagery, social work these days can seem so distant from the human relationships that should be central to the job.

Then along came poetry.


Who would have thought that it would take a collection of poems called 'Dancing With Big Eunice" to bring the focus back to personal interactions with all the warmth, the dilemmas, the pain, but most of all humour that those relationships bring?

After a line of books including 'Shale Voices', 'The Love Songs of John Knox' and '100 Favourite Scottish Football Poems', UNISON member Alistair Findlay's retirement prompted him to turn his pen back to his 30+ year career as a social worker.

The politics are there. The anger at poverty; at the hypocrisy that penalises the marginalised for failings excused in the powerful; at the inequality that perpetuates disadvantage; and at the 'back covering' of systems that purport to support.

The trade unionism is there in "Work-to-Rule" when fellow steward Jimmy Johnstone agonises over the need to tell members the fight is lost. On the verge of doing just that, Jimmy always….

changed his mind and thundered out a Lenin
speech and so got carried away by a cheering crowd
back to my car where he would groan and, yes
repeat: 'We're really, really f***ed this time.'

But it is the rejoicing in people that dominates. In fellow workers and clients and the emotions that charge those interactions. He does this with respect, fun and not a little anger.

For this social worker, he elicits a recurring mumble of "ye've hit the nail on the heid there".

It can seem bitter at times but, read as a whole, the warmth, the rapport with people and the respect for straightforwardness and honesty shine through in some beautifully crafted verse.

His wonderful rant in "Child Protection Guidelines (the Latest)" will ring true with workers as it lists a host of agencies to alert, then warns in frustration:

"…but don't, repeat, don't
notify the parents, or ask a child anything, unless,
of course, you are accompanied by a police officer."

The recalling of great one-liners like:-

"I've a social background report to do on you" 'I don't have a social background so you can f**** off.'

The ability to laugh at yourself that keeps social workers this side of cracking up:-

"Caught sight of Davie McRobie bunking off school
while sitting at the traffic lights, Grahams Road, saw his beatific face go from
shock to delight when I, his social worker, crunched into the tail lights of a
truck that had moved off. (then stopped)"

Alongside this he probes at the heart of the doubts and concerns that continually haunt workers. "The New Born Baby" sleeps blissfully unaware that social workers are already arranging care that will probably be permanent because mother has already left hospital for a 'drug den' and other family members are not an option.

"sleep on little one
you will have a brother, and a sister
whom you will find out about
when you are fourteen
and if you are resentful then I hope
it is not because you feel
more could have been done by people like us"

And the photo of the 'expressionless gaze' of Baby P which 'we are always told to look out for' although it will not stand up in court by itself, leads to lines that must have been heartfelt by so many:-

"haunting me haunting you haunting them"

UNISON and BASW have been working together to build a 'voice for social work' in Scotland. Dancing With Big Eunice has created part of that voice in poetry and, whether you are a social worker or not, it is worth listening to.

Dancing With Big Eunice by Alistair Findlay is published by Luath Press, http://www.luath.co.uk/  priced £7.99

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