It’s certainly true that I’ve never actually met him, but I have seen him on the telly and I have read This Boy, the superb first volume of his memoirs.
Johnson was born and bred in the North Kensington of the 1950s where life for some could be very hard indeed. Alan’s father was a bit of a wrong’un who deserted his family, leaving Alan’s mother struggling to support her two children with a variety of cleaning jobs and by scavenging for pieces of coal and scraps from Portobello market but tragically her efforts were hampered by the disabling heart condition that would kill her at just 42.
The heroine of the story is the author’s sister Linda. Through a string of part-time jobs she supplemented the family income and paid down the family’s debts. She nursed her ailing mother and took care of Alan, and all while still a school girl. Hers is a tale of extraordinary courage and fortitude. Indeed so impressed was the Royal Borough social worker sent in to consign Linda and Alan to children’s homes on the death of their mother, that the Council ended up throwing away its own rulebook and granting Linda a council tenancy and sole care of young Alan. She was 16 years old.
But the admiration went both ways with Alan Johnson describing his social worker, Mr Pepper, as an “an absolute hero” who fought to keep brother and sister together.
Anyway, on 16 March Alan was back on his old North Ken stomping grounds to take part in world social work day and meet today’s Mr and Ms Peppers. Amongst other things he shadowed them as they go went about their business.
It’s a good thing I think when a serious and credible figure like Johnson takes a positive interest in social work, rather than just waiting on the sidelines to stick the boot in when something goes wrong.
And of course, things do from time to time do go wrong. When it is on a catastrophic institutional scale like Rotherham well then there has to be national soul searching, and when it is at the individual case level, likewise we have to uncover what went wrong and learn the lessons. But we should always remember that social work with children generally starts in the most unpromising conditions, conditions of family distress, illness, bereavement, neglect and yes, sometimes even cruelty. It is social workers who try to protect the children, to stop the family breaking, or, if it is too late, who pick up the pieces afterwards.
We must also remember that children’s social work is a bit like an iceberg: nine tenths of it is never seen and that’s where nearly all of the good work happens.
Thanks to effective social work uncounted numbers of children have gone on into adulthood, able to function and with a chance of achieving something of their potential. So it’s a hugely important and worthwhile job, but it is also difficult and demanding, and to do it well requires some special qualities.
Like Alan Johnson, I think that from time to time, social workers deserve a little positive attention and by way of this article I want to do my bit to see that they get it.