A growing number of social workers are writing novels in their spare time. Mark Drinkwater talks to four authors who have found inspiration in their social work experiences
Kicked Out is Richard Hardwick’s hard-hitting novel about youth homelessness. The fictional account was inspired by his experiences as a social worker in a youth offending service, and the story follows the fortunes of 16-year-old Danny as he struggles to survive after being thrown out by his parents.
As a social worker dealing with young people, Hardwick met many like Danny. “The main character isn’t based on one person, but was inspired by dozens of homeless young people I have worked with,” he says. “I was a social worker in Sunderland for three years and enjoyed it. With a large caseload, I got to know many of these young people well.”
But Hardwick was frustrated by some of the more regimented aspects of the work. “Much of the communication with young people is so formal,” he says. “It revolves around filling out risk assessments or support plans. It’s all very top-down.”
The former social worker was motivated to write a novel as a counterpoint to this structured approach. “Kicked Out is coming from the opposite direction,” he says. “It’s a young person narrating and it’s very much Danny’s story. He is thrown out of his home by his mother and ends up at an emergency access hostel for homeless young people. It’s his story, his voice and his thoughts.”
Hardwick, who now teaches creative writing to inmates at Frankland Prison in Durham, hopes that readers will be able to see young people from a different perspective. “Society is so quick to judge young people; there’s little understanding of them,” he says. “I’ve worked with many young people and I’ve never met anyone who didn’t want what we all want. They all have the same hopes and fears that we all have. It’s just that they sometimes have a different way of showing it.
“It would be great if this book could help to change people’s attitudes.”
Gaynor Arnold’s Girl in a Blue Dress came to public attention last year when it was nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize. Arnold, who works for Birmingham Council’s Adoption and Fostering service, based her acclaimed novel on a fictionalised account of the life of Catherine, the wife of author Charles Dickens.
Dickens is a lifelong literary hero of Arnold. He ignited in her an interest in both writing and social injustice. “I think my social work side, which is interested in people and family dynamics, came from reading Dickens’ work,” she says. “I started reading him aged 11, when my father had just died. Dickens wrote brilliantly about children I think, and he gets inside the minds of children who are deprived. I thought he wrote from a child’s point of view. It struck me very forcibly at the time, and still does.”
Arnold says she chose to write her novel as Dickens’s wife because this was a perspective readers would be unfamiliar with. “Dickens behaved badly to her at the time of their separation,” she says. “He’s thought to have had a mental breakdown at the time. But his wife always loved him and she always kept quiet. She never said a bad word about him.
“Dickens was someone who valued family life in novels, but who behaved so appallingly to his wife in real life. I was interested in the idea of ‘standing by your man’, which we know in social work can be about women who go back to someone even when they are abusive.”
Arnold intends to retire from Birmingham Council this year to concentrate on her writing. But she will not be turning her back on social work altogether: her next book will reflect on some of her professional experiences. “I’m bringing out a collection of short stories next, some of which have a basis in social work practice, although with details very much changed, of course,” she says.
Chris Beckett’s Marcher draws on his experience as a social worker dealing with socially excluded people. In his novel, the social work lecturer imagines a dystopian future where migrants arrive from other universes, and welfare claimants are separated from mainstream society.
Beckett explains the social work themes in his science fiction storyline: “When you’re a social worker you work with people who are, by definition, ‘on the outside’. It might be that they are disabled, or that they are poor and live in a place where people don’t go. Whatever it is, the people whom social workers work with are by definition ‘outsiders’ as they aren’t fully able to participate in society.
“Marcher features a lot of material about social exclusion. The protagonist in the book is an immigration officer whose girlfriend is a social worker. She deals with people who are on the boundaries, or are in some way excluded from society.
“One of the themes I play with is these people being required to live in a separate community, apart from the rest of society.”
Exclusion has been a constant theme in Beckett’s social work career and his writing. “One reason I think I became a social worker is that I think I can identify with outsiders,” he says. “That’s what interests people about the job; they can relate to an extent to what it feels like to be on the outside.
“I was a social work practitioner in Cambridge for eight years, and a team manager for 10. When you are a social worker, you go to some neighbourhoods where you do feel that you are entering another world. Although Cambridge is a prosperous city, it does have places that are deprived – places most people would never go to. The people living there are, in a sense, living in a different world. So my idea in Marcher was to try to make that more explicit.”
Beckett says a key difference between the disciplines of writing and social work is that the former is a solitary activity, while the latter is essentially a social activity. However, he concedes that there are some similarities between the two professions too.
“Both require a curiosity about people, and about the way they think and the way they relate to each other,” he says.”You wouldn’t go far in either activity if you didn’t find people interesting.”
When writing The Verdi Solution, Kieran O’Hagan drew on 20 years’ social work practice. “I worked with cases of abuse and child sexual abuse. The main plot revolves around an incest case, and the book explores how professionals cope with this work.”
His dark thriller features an unconventional social worker caught up in the pressures of child protection work. “He’s a maverick,” says O’Hagan. “He’s the antithesis of the public’s perception of an ineffective, incompetent social worker. He is ruthless. He’s brutal. And he’s bitter, because of his own childhood abuse.”
But it is not O’Hagan’s intention to glamorise such an approach. “The novel highlights the vulnerabilities of the social worker and his methods,” he says.
As well as the main child protection storyline, the book contains a number of other themes, including a haunting sub-plot about international terrorists lurking undetected in an overworked social services department.
Sounds far-fetched? O’Hagan thinks not. “I’ve been researching this for about six years, and one of the things I found in common among suspects and perpetrators of terrorism was their work location,” he says. “Very often, they worked in schools, health or welfare settings. It seemed interesting that they had chosen workplaces that are huge bureaucracies, that tended to be Leftish leaning, and likely to be sceptical about things like terrorism plots.”
O’Hagan’s book features a terrorist sleeper cell infiltrating a social services department in one of the most deprived areas of Liverpool. “They are only too grateful for educated professionals who appear so consumed by their work,” he says. “It’s the perfect place for a sleeper cell.”
Published in the 3 September 2009 edition of Community Care magazine under the heading ‘Well Read Social Workers’