I continue to find it a sad fact that there is so little to feel inspired by in the world of probation nowadays, in stark comparison to my thoughts about the past I have to say. Many of us with long memories seriously bemoan a previous bifurcation, that with our social work roots and so it was with great interest and not a little reflection that I noticed the following on the 'In defence of youth work' website. Sadly I didn't know the guy, but wish I had:-
Bob Holman R.I.P. – an inspiration, even a legend by Tony Taylor
The world of social, youth and community work has lost one of its most inspiring activists with the death of Bob Holman. His 1981 ‘Kids at the Door’ became a classic text, telling the story of his first five years on the Southdown estate in Bath, where he lived, his home the hub of his work with young people. It is a moving tale of a person-centred, process-led practice, which confronted poverty and inequality. Bob had given up his post as professor of social administration at the University of Bath in 1976, declaring that he wasn’t much good at admin and that community workers ought to live in the communities they sought to serve. He stood by this principle when he moved in the late 1980’s to live on the Easterhouse estate in Glasgow, where he was a member of the Baptist church. Among his heroes were Keir Hardie, the principal founder of the Labour Party and George Lansbury, the great social reformer, both Christian pacifists and committed supporters of women’s suffrage.
In a piece on Keir Hardie, Labour founder’s views on equality still ring true for public services, written in 2010, Bob commented,
Voluntary organisations are now seen as public services, and the major political parties favour charities taking over more of the state’s duties. I doubt if Hardie would have agreed. He did not deny that charities did good work, but he saw them as maintaining an unfair society. He criticised wealthy philanthropists whose factories paid low wages, and accused one of harming workers and then paying a charity to give the homeless a bed. Better, he said, to improve society and “to dispense with Christian charity”.
Today, voluntary bodies are much improved and often employ skilled and committed staff, but Hardie’s criticisms still have some relevance. Philanthropists may give generously to charities of their choice, which allows them great power over who should be helped. The affluent determine the nature of service.
Further, some charities are run by committees of the wealthy and powerful. Top directors of some charities, while decrying poverty and inequality, may be paid the kind of excessive salaries that reinforce these evils.
Hardie argued that the state should take responsibility for essential services. In 1887, he stood in a by-election in Scotland. His address called for the nationalisation of land, the abolition of the House of Lords, and a reduction in the money spent on the royals. He ended: “I ask you therefore to return to parliament a man of yourselves who, being poor, can feel for the poor.”Speaking of the monarchy Bob Holman declined the offer of an MBE, arguing,
I am an egalitarian. I believe that a socially and materially equal society is more united, content and just. The royal honours system is designed to promote differences of status. It is made clear that those who are made knights or dames are socially superior to those given CBEs, OBEs or MBEs. But all are socially above those without honours. These imposed differences hinder the co-operation, interaction and fellowship, which are the characteristics of equality. Refusing a royal honour is a small step but one in the right direction.Finally, in 2000, he wrote ‘Kids at the Door Revisited’, in which he interviews 51 of the people he related to during the Southdown project, reflecting on the impact or otherwise of those rooted relationships. In a world where the notion of impact is tossed around as if it’s somehow new and innovative, Bob’s self-critical exploration of his and their stories ought to be required reading for those, who peddle the myth that in the past we didn’t give a toss about the quality or accountability of our practice. The book is on the shelf above me as I pen these inadequate words. I’ll take it down and read afresh this weekend as a way of honouring the memory of an outstanding bloke.
See also an obituary in the Guardian and an interview with him from 2014, Leading by example in the fight against inequality.
I’ll leave the last word to Bob.
I’ve lived in deprived areas for nearly 40 years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen poverty or inequality as bad as it is now. And it’s made even worse by this whipping up of feeling against the poor. Most poor people are now in work. I have a friend who’s 59 and has always worked. He’s been on the minimum wage since it was introduced, but it’s so little. He has only one week’s holiday a year and he’s in debt. He’s had to take out loans. There are now three loan sharks and a pawnbrokers in our row of shops in Easterhouse. This is a real indication of what life is like. My church started a weekly cafe in response to the crisis. It offers free drinks and fruit and cheap snacks. We are meeting people in severe financial need. Citizens Advice send in workers once a fortnight to help those sanctioned. I’ve had a friend sanctioned for six months. He had absolutely no money for six months. Ten years ago this would have been unbelievable. But even Labour didn’t protest. One of the services we run from Fare is an annual holiday. We take youngsters to Lincolnshire, it’s all in tents. The holiday costs £140 a week for everything – transport, food, trips. We’ve run it for years but two years ago people couldn’t afford to pay so we cut it to £70 and raised the rest of the money. Last year people couldn’t pay £70. Never before have parents found it so difficult to pay for their kids’ holidays. This is the inequality. One thing we can do is to make sure these kids go on holiday. It’s the Elastoplast level we are down to now. It’s not changing society but it’s justice. There are people who are really struggling. These people are my friends. They’re not my clients.--oo00oo--
Bob Holman obituary
Bob Holman, who has died aged 79 after suffering from motor neurone disease, earned a unique place in social work, when, in 1976, he resigned his professorship in social administration at Bath University to become a community worker on the city’s deprived Southdown estate. He saw his affluence and position as inconsistent with his Christian faith. He and his wife, Annette, and their two children, Ruth and David, moved from a comfortable middle-class area in the city to a home next to the estate and he started the project where he then worked.
Ironically, this thrust him into far greater prominence than university life afforded, as he published widely to propagate ideas forged by his experiences. His advocacy, as well as the way he lived his life in a disadvantaged community, earned him many admirers, within and outside social work; some saw him as almost a secular saint.
As an academic Bob had published the groundbreaking Trading in Children: A Study of Private Fostering (1973), but, in his new life, he produced a veritable flood of books, articles and letters to newspapers. Many of his books had a pleasing combination of observation, anecdote and research.
To reduce poverty, he believed, was not enough. Inequality, too, had to be tackled. He highlighted the desperate struggles of those with whom he worked and lived, but he also emphasised their strengths and ability to run their own lives. The single parents and unemployed people who ran the projects were for Bob evidence of the possibilities of working-class collective spirit and individual integrity.
After a decade in Bath, in 1987 he went to live and work on the vast and deprived Easterhouse estate in Glasgow. He always wanted to show what could be done to motivate and involve people and bring communities together. Bob spurned any distinction between himself and other residents, calling himself a “resourceful friend”. His daily work involved filling in social security forms, accompany young people to court or helping a neighbour to raise a loan for a new cooker.
He was born in Ilford, Essex, the middle child of Robert Bones, a removal man, and his wife, Lily (nee Simms). He later adopted the maiden name of his grandmother. Bob’s primary education was disrupted by evacuation, of which he was to write a history; in his case, it involved stays in Surrey and Herefordshire. Following grammar school and national service in the RAF, he studied history and economics at University College London and transferred to the London School of Economics for his certificate in social administration.
From 1961 to 1966 he was a child care officer with Hertfordshire county council, also becoming a tutor in child care. He then held lectureships in social work and social administration at Birmingham and Glasgow universities. It was in Birmingham where the reality of widespread poverty dawned on him. At Bath university, though, he decided he was ill-fitted to be a professor: he disliked administration and not working directly with those he cared about.
Bob’s attitudes to poverty and inequality and criticism of those whom he characterised as running a “welfare industry” – highly paid heads of voluntary organisations and directors of social services – were profoundly shaped by his Christian faith, which he had come to as a teenager. He saw in the life of George Lansbury, the MP for Poplar in London, pacifist, Labour leader and cabinet minister, who lived simply in his East End constituency, the epitome of the Christian socialism that he, too, sought to practise. Holman wrote a biography, Good Old George (1990). Later there came other labours of love: a biography of Keir Hardie, and another, Woodbine Willie (2012), about the pacifist clergyman and poet Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy.
In 1989 Bob helped to establish Family Action in Rogerfield and Easterhouse (Fare), a grassroots organisation, especially for families and young people. It encourages neighbours to work with one another; to keep young people out of the care and criminal justice systems; and to lift people’s aspirations, while trying to tackle anti-social behaviour.
Bob’s enemy’s enemy became his friend when, always a socialist, he developed a friendship with Iain Duncan Smith, then Tory leader, who on a visit to Easterhouse seemingly underwent something of a conversion to the cause of social justice, after voting against every progressive measure of the Labour governments. The friendship did not survive Duncan Smith’s role in the Coalition and Conservative cabinets.
Although he allegedly retired in 2004 and moved elsewhere in Glasgow, partly to look after his grandsons, Bob continued to write, speak at conferences, undertake voluntary neighbourhood work and act as visiting professor at the universities of Glasgow and Cardiff.
He turned down an MBE and, asked about collaborating on a biography, said: “If I have achieved anything, I hope it is seen in other people, not me.”
In the aftermath of the Tories’ return to office and Labour’s obliteration in Scotland in May 2015, Bob wrote to me: “I can’t do much in politics. I am going to write less ... After that – in the days I’ve got left – I want to concentrate on local individuals. We cannot take them out of poverty but we can provide people with some togetherness and show that we respect, not blame them.”
Within two months, that time left had shortened with the diagnosis of motor neurone disease. Bob is survived by Annette, his children, David and Ruth, two grandsons, Lucas and Nathan, his sister, Janet, and brother, John.
• Robert Holman (Robert Bones), academic and community worker, born 8 November 1936; died 15 June 2016