I bought this tea towel on the day of my graduation from Warwick University, having completed a Social Work qualification and an MA in Applied Social Studies. Coventry Cathedral was a grand venue for a graduation. This tea towel reminds me of three things. Firstly, I bought a skirt and blouse for this event in brown and black stripes. It was the hottest day of the year and everyone kept telling me I shouldn’t be wearing those colours on a sunny day. I loved both the skirt and blouse and wore it for many years until the lining in the skirt had ripped to shreds and the cuffs and collar of the shirt were worn through. I still regret having thrown them away. I have to say that the otufit was very fetching with the surgical collar I had been wearing for a long time.
The second thing this tea towel reminds me of is the fact that I was only able to get one guest ticket. I took John but couldn’t get tickets for my parents. I felt extremely guilty about this because they had wanted to go although my dad had been ill. In the end I told them that I didn’t go to the graduation. I live to this day with the guilt of having told that lie but I couldn’t bear to hear them going on about how disappointed they were. That was a terrible thing to do because then they didn’t even have the chance to see my photos (not that I take a good photo but they could have taken pride in that).
The third thing this tea towel reminds me of is the fact that the ceremony, which lasted a couple of hours and was particularly boring, was not the most important part of my time at Warwick University, it was the fact that it was the culmination of 12 months learning and a learning that would affect the rest of my life in many different ways. I had been working in the field of social care for about 12 years in various settings and did not particularly want to train to be a social worker. However, when I was appointed as one of the last few unqualified social workers in Leicestershire in a hospital for people with learning difficulties, my line manager, Geoff Cobbe, said that my appointment was conditional on my training to be a social worker, for which Leicestershire County Council would second me. Those were the days, full time training to be a social worker on full pay, no student loans for me. I wanted the job and I thought he would forget about the condition. He didn’t. Most social work courses were two years long but in 1983 there was still one that was one year (calendar, not academic). I’ll do that, I thought. Get it over and done with. It was within commuting distance. I didn’t think to look at the curriculum or anything sensible like that. I applied, got a place, told Geoff who was pleased. I didn’t think to tell him what college. At the time I didn’t realise the courses were so different, at different colleges.
Two weeks before I was starting the course, Geoff asked me where I was going. Warwick University I said proudly. I remember the look of horror and the rant that followed. I wanted to get the training over and done with. I didn’t know Warwick University had a reputation as having a very radical social work course. Geoff made it very clear that if I did this course I would never get a job in social work in Leicestershire again. He said he couldn’t stop me going but would not be offering me any help and he was true to his word. All this fuss made Warwick sound very appealing and actually made me very excited about going there, something I would never have believed could have happened. There’s no doubt about it, Warwick was radical. Peter Leonard, head of the department, wrote books on Radical Social Work and was my tutor. We didn’t do modules on things like Law but on Feminism, a Radical Approach to Social Work and Racism. I don’t remember one lecture on law (which could have been useful). Actually I don’t remember any lectures at all, it was all in tutorial groups, with discussions. I do remember having to do a lot of essays and a dissertation. On reflection, it was a great way to learn because you had the chance to have some great debates with some great intellectuals but then you had to go away and write some more conventional stuff (which had to include the law) but had to look it up yourself. There was a whole world out there that I had never thought about. No wonder Leicestershire didn’t want to second one of their employees on a course that made you think.
One of the keys to this course was to have a placement for between two and five days a week throughout the course in a social work department. It was just the one placement. I was given a child care placement because I had no experience in child care and boy was that a steep learning curve. My placement was in Bedworth, a mining area and the placement took place for the whole on the Miners Strike in 83/84. It was horrendous but a great place to learn where I met some amazing people. Every family I worked with were on strike. I didn’t know what poverty was; I didn’t know what hunger was; I didn’t know what depression and oppression was; I didn’t know how people managed to live during those times where there were no Food Banks like there are today but only those set up by the NUM, whose members were all on strike anyway. Looking back, some of the scenes from films like Billy Elliot and Brassed Off which could seem like over-dramatisation where real. Families split up because of the politics. I remember working with a family who trained lurchers as a family (when not down the mines) and had to watch them make the decision to get rid of the dogs because they couldn’t afford to feed them; the choice was who was going to eat that day, the dogs or the family. I watched them sell the dogs to a mine manager who wasn’t on strike because that was the only person who could afford it (there wasn’t internet in those days). In all this I was visiting families to check up on whether the children were being well cared for during the strike or whether I would be taking them into care.
It was at that point that I learnt about poverty, injustice, the power of social workers and understood why people hated them so much, how easy it could be to make judgements, how poverty links with ill health and disability, how many miners had conditions like COPD and asbestosis, how class does affect the way a group of people like mining famlies were viewed by social services, how easy it is to make judgements about the way people spend their money e.g. money spent on smoking, how some kids had never been on holidays and so on. I saw the discrimination and harrassment that faced some families who were in work. I saw that level of political involvement associated with the Miners Strike that you rarely see nowadays. Is that a good thing? I don’t know but I do know things have never been the same after the Miners Strike.
I need to do a lot of wiping up with this tea towel to be able to reflect on all this but actually Coventry cathedral is worth a bit of a mention, although it is not somewhere I would ever go back to while they charge £6 entrance fee to what I consider to be first and foremost a place of worship. This is a modern building, having been completed in 1962, so this isn’t even about preserving a past historical heritage. However, the original Coventry Cathedral was bombed in 1940 during the Second World War. There was a competition amongst architects for the rebuilding of the cathedral. It was won by Basil Spence whose concept was not to rebuild the bombed cathedral but to build a modern building alongside the bombed site, the old site being created as a Garden of Remembrance and the new symbolising Peace and Reconciliation. It is a magnificent structure with St Michael and the Devil on the outside, a 195 pane coloured glass wall and a huge Graham Sutherland tapestry of Christ. On the site of the bombed cathedral there is the Charred Cross built from two beams that a stonemason found after the bombing which were lying crossed on the floor of the cathedral and the Cross of Nails made from three nails from the roof trusses; this has now been transferred to the main cathedral as a symbol of peace and reconciliation. There are now 160 such crosses across the world, with the same message, made from the same materials.
Every time I have used this tea towel some of these thoughts have crossed my mind but if I need to think about the details of Coventry Cathedral the drawings of the various aspects of the cathedral on the tea towel will always remind me.
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