L E O
Q UI G L E Y
I had never heard of social work before I formed an unrequited crush on a female friend at university whose mother was a social worker and who was planning to go into the profession herself. After graduating I went off to an unhappy academic master’s program in a subject completely unrelated to social work, at the end of which, somewhat directionless, I volunteered to work in a summer adventure playground in Reading (in Berkshire, England). It was the most exhausting but completely fulfilling experience of my life. I was recruited afterwards by the playground organisers to run a local youth club, at which point I applied to do a social work course in Canterbury with the idea of joining up with my then-girlfriend, who was going to be training there as a genealogist (long before 23andme was ever thought of). The girlfriend, naturally, didn’t last, but the career choice stuck.
Like many social workers before me, I subsequently moved up into management and policy work. Later, I found myself crossing “The Pond” and dabbling in research into American health care. Even now, though, social work keeps finding me: firstly when I participated in a three year project looking at the U.S. social work workforce, and currently through my involvement in an evaluation of children’s mental health services that’s asking the same question we’ve been asking since we invented the poorhouse: how do we stop residential and penal institutions being the default “solution” for people who don’t quite fit in?
My object is a car, a 1973 Triumph Dolomite. I bought it for £1500 when it was three years old and with only 19,000 miles on the clock. I really loved that car, with its walnut dashboard, symmetrically-arranged instrument dials, comfortable seats and lively burst of acceleration (at least by the standards of the time).
I chose the 1973 Triumph Dolomite because …
I reflect on it now as a symbol of my entry into the social work profession (courtesy of a loan from the local authority that funded my social work course when I was a trainee social worker), of my escape from student financial penury (I had paid less than £100 in total for my previous two cars) and as perhaps the most important tool of my future trade (rivalled only by my diary).
In my daily social work routine the Dolomite served as transport for the home visits that predominated my daily practice, as a lunch-room for the sandwich grabbed between visits, and as an office for carrying out my recording duties between visits. It transported my younger clients to the intermediate treatment ‘camps’ that were introduced as an alternative to incarceration, carried them off to assessment centres following the breakdown of an adoption or fostering situation, retrieved them from the surprisingly distant destinations that they somehow managed to run away to, and acted as an ‘interview room’ during rides home from school that I sometimes offered. In one bizarre case the car provided light relief for a regular series of court-ordered visits to three children whose parents had instructed them not to talk to their supervising social workers, my coworker and I choosing to take them on 45-minute rides into the nearby countryside as an alternative to 45 minutes of deathly silence in the family’s front room.
For my older clients the car provided transport to the much-needed residential respite care that enabled client and carer to postpone the use of full-time residential or nursing care for a while. Like my older clients, the Dolomite eventually died, but it was replaced with a later version of the same model, just as my departing clients were always replaced with new referrals. Whenever I look back at my days ‘on the patch,’ I can’t think of my social work practice without thinking of the car that made it all possible.