S U E   T A P L I N

Mitten 2016

As a student of Modern Languages in the late 1980s, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to live in Russia and to travel extensively in central and Eastern Europe. This experience gave me an invaluable insight into the difference between merely surviving and truly living, and how a spirit of adventure and creativity, combined with qualities of integrity, kindness and generosity, can help people to overcome privation and difficulty, and how a focus on our common humanity can transcend boundaries of politics, language and culture.

In retrospect I think it was this experience that motivated me to choose social work as a career, and to bring that belief in the power of the human spirit into my practice as a palliative care social worker.


I chose Mitten because …

… I became fascinated by it on my first visit to the Foundling Museum in London. I am sure that most visitors to the museum do not notice Tracey Emin’s tiny bronze, an original baby’s mitten, found on the streets by the artist, then rescued, cast and painted and now ‘waving’ from the railings behind Thomas Coram’s statue[1]. I only noticed a postcard of it in the Museum gift shop, and asked a curator whether it was still in situ. I was delighted to discover it, so small and vulnerable, and so obviously apart from its owner and its other half, being originally presumably one of a pair. But in this very isolation there was hope – someone had indeed rescued it, had taken the trouble to make it strong enough to stand on the railing, thus giving it the chance to be reunited with its owner or, if that was impossible, at least to be visible, to be noticed, and not to be swept away with the rubbish and other discarded or lost items that do not have the chance to be found.

For me this is the true essence of good social work practice – to take notice of the lost and vulnerable and to give people a second chance (and, through so doing, also ourselves). We cannot always bring back what is lost or cure people’s physical or emotional wounds – but we can show that we value that individual or family by being with them, by listening to them and by helping them to become strong and visible, in whatever way is possible for them.

[1] I read the history of the Mitten in Gill Hedley’s unpublished essay from the catalogue ‘Songs of Innocence, Experience, Ambivalence’ (February 2010).

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