A singular voice

Beresford describes the life of writer, academic, and Buddhist monk David
Brandon, who was latterly visiting professor of social work at Nottingham Trent

chatting and planning until almost the very end, David Brandon has died in
hospital at the age of 60, in Scarborough. David had been welfare worker,
manager, teacher, writer, researcher, activist and academic, but perhaps most
of all, he was a thinker. He was friend, mentor, advocate, source of knowledge
and inspiration to many. But David never became one of the "great and
good" of social work, social policy and welfare. There were few mainstream
accolades for David, little discussion of him and his work in the peer review
journals. This says more perhaps about them, than it does about him – and it
may also offer a powerful warning for the future.

knew David, on and off, over many years from my early days as a research
student trying to do something about single homelessness. Single homelessness
was the first big focus of his work. He welcomed me into his home and gave me
every kind of help he could. He was generous with his ideas, knowledge and
experience. He wanted to encourage others to come along with him and challenge
existing dogmas. He talked about vagrancy being used as a blackboard by some to
impose their ideas and egos, rather than make a difference for those on the
receiving end. This was at a time when dominant discussion about single
homelessness was still mainly framed in terms of Victorian charity and
provision, emphasising the "psychopathy" and "social
inadequacy" of homeless people, and dominated by missionaries,
self-appointed leaders and charismatics, who included more than their fair
share of crooks, abusers and charlatans. Meeting David and his family was like
a breath of fresh air.

was one of the few people at the time advancing humanistic and socially based
approaches to the problem of "single homeless people", producing a
stream of influential publications.

the years, David’s interests extended from single homelessness to social work,
user involvement, empowerment, advocacy, supported and independent living. He
was one of the first public figures in welfare to be open about his own
experience and its relevance and validity in shaping both his own and broader
understandings. He publicly acknowledged his experiences of child abuse and the
psychiatric system, when few others were articulating such first-hand

contributed significant work addressing the concerns of people with learning
difficulties and mental health service users, as well as homeless people. In my
view, his greatest contributions were around advocacy, self-advocacy and people
with learning difficulties – but others may disagree as he contributed
tirelessly and significantly in many areas. He was many things. He was a
welfare officer for homeless people, manager of a hostel for homeless women, a
regional director of Mind, an editor and a professor. He was also a Buddhist
monk who wrote important and best-selling books about Zen and the art of
helping. He highlighted issues of spirituality in the lives of service users
and workers, which are only now being more generally recognised and valued.
David was a prolific author, producing a massive body of work. He seemed to
have the gift of writing as quickly as he spoke – his distinct voice was clear
with a Geordie echo always coming through. He was influential, respected by
many, revered by some and sadly, disliked where pettiness prevailed. Also, I wouldn’t
want to forget his relationship with Althea Brandon, his life’s partner and
colleague, and the valuable joint work that grew out of that long association.

David was not adequately recognised or respected in the fields of social work
and social welfare. This says much about a longstanding shortcoming of the
world of welfare – its difficulty with difference, with "awkward
sods", with people with special contributions to make, with real pioneers,
visionaries like David.

relationship had its ups and downs. He once told me never to darken his door
again after I’d challenged the findings of one of his research projects. But
subsequently, he was no less supportive of my and other people’s work on user
involvement and participation. One of my regrets is that I didn’t have a last
word with David before he died. But his printed word is there for everyone and
I think it will be there long after current managerialist and technicist fads
in welfare and social care are dead and buried.


Beresford is professor of social policy, Brunel University, and is actively
involved in the psychiatric system survivor movement.

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