The White Stuff

  The White Stuff
  Simon Armitage,
  ISBN 9780141010441,


Cultural representations of social workers in the media are stereotypically poor,
writes Paul Lloyd. The occasional social worker in The Bill and Casualty perform a set of unpleasant predetermined tasks: removing the child, advocating for a criminal identified to all viewers as guilty in the previous sequence, practising in a dehumanised or incompetent manner.

Even the fictional character Tracy Beaker’s social worker is a rather earnest woman who is seen by the children in the home as both a pain and a fool. And although Clare (in the Community) made it from cartoon to radio she is still enclosed in a frame of feckless, politically correct hypocrisy, from which much of the humour is drawn.

Maybe this is why it is so refreshing to read Simon Armitage’s recently republished novel. The White Stuff is essentially about living life as a social worker. The narrative is constructed around a couple, Felix and Abbie, and the problems they have in conceiving a child.

Felix works in a generic social work team based in the penthouse suite of the local authority’s only tower block, next to a roundabout. From their vantage point the team keep an eye on the town below and attempt to avoid unnecessary referrals. There is also a suspension, a sacking, a cover-up, a failure to produce appropriate  qualifications, an office affair, a right-on social worker, an old cynic, a reluctant senior, some staples and an office staff-room.

Armitage deploys a number of devices or tricks to keep the reader’s attention: look out for the flowers left at the overgrown graveside, and the suspended ending to a number of chapters. The significance of Felix’s wristwatch comes as a surprise, providing another example of the way in which his personal life is embedded in his professional life, a common strategy in police and medical dramas but strikingly unusual when deployed in the context of social work.

This is a book based on a realistic understanding and appreciation of social work written by an insider – Armitage qualified as a social worker and was a probation officer before turning his hand to poetry and writing books.

It blends the tragic and the comic and delivers in terms of humour and poignancy while providing good entertainment. You never know, reading it may become a performance indicator.

Paul Lloyd is a Unison steward


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