S T E V E N M. S H A R D L O W
I chose Green cup because …
… this type of Staffordshire Green cup and saucer could have been found in many local authority offices in the late 1970s. Brought out for meetings it was differentiated from the individually purchased mugs found, as often is the case today, on a not always too clean brown tray in a corner of the office. The green cup symbolised the formality of the meeting, the equality of participants’ contributions and the corporate nature of the information sharing and decision making processes underway during the meeting. Tea or coffee served in the green cup was strong, uniform, no concession to the spawning variety of tastes encouraged by the emergence of the barista.
I had imagined that the green cup had gone the way of the steam engine, a relic of a bygone local authority era now replaced by a corporate business-focussed, enterprise culture in shiny new glass and chrome buildings. Well, so it may be. This particular example of the green cup was glimpsed not on active service in a corporate context but locked in a representation of the past – at Southwell Work House. This workhouse, owned by the National Trust (UK), takes the visitor through a series of rooms, each designed to demonstrate a different experience of the nineteenth century workhouse resident. For example, the separation of male and female at reception, workrooms and yards, rooms for meals and dormitories. Almost the final room that the visitor encounters is a surprise: this room breaks with the previous rooms, which are laid out to illustrate the workhouse in the nineteenth century. This room is laid out as a 1970s bedsit used to provide temporary accommodation for homeless families. A green cup in the room symbolises the attempt to create a homely environment yet with a reliance on officially available household items.
The image of the green cup in this room recaptured early professional experiences in the late 1970s when working as a social worker with homeless families. It was something of a shock to see that world recreated, not least because it was encapsulated in a workhouse! Working as a trainee social worker in then-titled Social Services Department of a London Borough, the offices were located in a late Georgian building. In the same building was a homeless families unit also run by the local authority. Close working relationships developed between the social workers and the housing officers. Referral to a housing officer of a family known to a social worker in need of emergency housing was always face-to-face and the response was speedy, usually emerging in the shared discussion.
My memory, although doubtless rose-coloured by time, was of a responsive and immediate service, based on good inter-professional working relationships and managed through light-touch paperwork. How different this now seems to a world of constructed formality, outsourcing and financial constraint.