French horn mouthpiece

S I M O N   C A U V A I N

13 Simon Cauvain  12 French horn mouthpiece

Social work certainly wasn’t a career path I’d foreseen. I left school early, flunked sports college, worked in a gym, on building sites and an iron castings factory.  My mum was a social worker in Lincoln during the 80s and 90s and whilst it always fascinated me, the very last thing I wanted to do was whatever my mum did! I eventually decided I’d had enough of cracking the ice on my water barrel at 7am, as a brickie’s labourer, breathing in factory fumes and washing the daily grime off my face. These were invaluable jobs to me at the time but I wanted to use my head more than my hands. I joined a private home care company, volunteered as a befriender which led to a community care job for Lincoln City Council. This gave me plenty of experience and paved my way into life as a ‘mature’ social work student. Now I’m a Principal Lecturer in Social Work at Nottingham Trent University.

I’ve enjoyed working with a range of service users in some great parts of the country including: Lincoln, Birmingham, Barnsley and Rotherham.  I’ve been lucky enough to work closely with service users in teaching social work students whilst at the University of York and now in my current post. They play a crucial role in helping students gain knowledge and understanding of concepts like ethics, values and anti-oppressive practice – very much the backbone of good social work practice. I’ve learned so much during this process and feel lucky to be able to pass on my experience to students. My PhD focussed on recruitment and retention of social workers, so I’m naturally interested in what it feels like to be a social worker.


I chose a French horn mouthpiece because …

… the horn was one of many instruments my birth father played; it was apparently his favourite. We were estranged after he and my mum divorced, like many of their generation back in the early 70s. She whisked my brother (Oly) and I – still only toddlers – away from the army barracks in Berlin to Nottingham where we lived with my Grandma. My mum met my dad (we’ve never thought of him as ‘step-dad’), eventually they married and he adopted Oly and me. I relatively recently learned that during this process we had a social worker who communicated with all involved … I don’t remember any of this.

Throughout the many years of estrangement I wondered where my birth father was and whether he ever thought of me. I never longed for him but just felt curious as to his personality and what he made of it all. This always felt like a gap somehow but not one I was ever troubled by. Mum was always open about who he was, shared photos and told me of his strengths as well as limitations. He was charming, a talented musician, and a proud army band member who wrote musical scores for the range of instruments. He and his sister were adopted but, sadly, he was severely abused by his adopters as a child. He was violent towards my mum and had problems with alcohol and drugs. She left him to protect Oly and me.

So, after many years of soul-searching I decided to find him. This was 2006. To my surprise this happened within two weeks through the electoral roll. We communicated by letter which was strange but positive and eventually met at his Middlesbrough home. I learned of two sisters I didn’t know existed, one of whom I’m in regular contact with, the other I don’t yet know. We arranged to meet again and exchanged texts. Thirteen weeks later he died unexpectedly. His house was burgled the evening his body was removed. My brother and I cleared his house and prepared for the funeral. I got to know him more through his belongings, ones that he’d never have wanted me to see.

He clearly loved his daughter (my sister) and had saved all her pictures. He’d had a rough time, struggling with alcohol and poverty and he’d also been in prison. The French horn mouthpiece was something he’d kept despite selling his beloved horn for cash. His debts were high and his house was cluttered. Other than some photos, it’s the only item I saved. So, for me it represents our respective journeys that, at one seemingly insignificant point, involved a social worker.

The mouthpiece serves as a never-to-be-forgotten personal reminder that ‘service user’ is not a negative term. Service users are fellow human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. They need to be not only listened to but heard.

The mouthpiece is a metaphorical voice; the opportunity to play one’s own tune rather than dancing to the tune of others. It is that little something special that good social workers so often somehow manage to see. Despite the clutter.


4 thoughts on “French horn mouthpiece”

  1. Hi Simon, this is a moving story. Was it a coincidence that for the first time, yesterday, I read poems by Snodgrass, who lost his daughter, Cynthia, after his first divorce? ‘Heart’s needle’ was published in 1959. I have a bilingual edition (English-Romanian) with a foreword by Snodgrass. There, he mentions about his loss, which was the ‘energy’ behind this volume, which got him the Pulitzer Prize in 1960. Snodgrass was also interested in music and played the flute, the guitar and many other old instruments. ‘Heart’s needle’, dedicated to Cynthia, is a long poem, which talks about their reunions and separations and the memories brought back by these successions of separations and reunions. I’ve chosen a few fragments.

    ‘This Halloween you came one week
    You masquerade
    as a vermilion, sleek,
    fat, crosseyed fox in the parade
    or, where grim jackolanterns leer,

    go with your bag from door to door
    foraging for treats. How queer:
    when you take off your mask
    my neighbors must forget and ask
    whose child you are.

    Of course, you lose your appetite,
    whine and won’t touch your plate;
    as local law
    I set your place on an orange crate
    in your own room for days. At night

    you lie asleep there on the bed
    and grate your jaw.
    Assuredly your father’s crimes
    re visited
    on you. You visit me sometimes.
    The time’s up. Now our pumpkin sees
    me bringing your suitcase.
    He holds his grin;
    the forehead shrivels, sinking in.
    You break this year’s first crust of snow

    off the runningboard to eat.
    We manage, through for days
    I crave sweets when you leave and know
    they rot my teeth. Indeed our sweet
    foods leave us cavities.
    If I loved you, they said, I’d leave
    and find my own affairs,
    well, once again this April, we’ve
    come around to the bears:

    punished and cared for, behind bars,
    the coons on bread and water
    stretch thin black fingers after ours.
    And you are still my daughter.

    When interfering in the lives of others, social workers need the decisiveness and the precision of ‘a surgeon’. Of course, operations can go wrong, and because there are many people involved in one ‘operation’, some will get a better outcome than others. And there are ‘trends’ of social work, at various points in time and place, influenced by political agendas, grand and ‘pet theories’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Monica
      Thanks for taking the time to comment on my story and for the addition of the moving poetry. Your medical metaphor for social work is unusual but works so well. And indeed your final comment touches on the many elements that make social work so complex. Thankfully the seemingly infinite number of elements make for a challenging but rewarding job. This reminds me that my second object, if I were to have one, would be a kaleidoscope!
      Best wishes


  2. Simon, thank you for this wonderful, evocative object and the moving story behind it. It is somehow very poignant that the mouthpiece is separated from its instrument; and yet at the same time wonderful that you have it. I loved your concluding ‘Despite the clutter’. It’s true that it takes a talent to be able to find what is truly important and that, the more ‘objects’ people amass the less valuable each one of them seems to become.
    Your object and your reflections on it continue to affect me at many levels. Indeed, I’m truly surprised at how evocative each person’s object in this blog is.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: