“I suppose in a way it is romantic to imagine going out into a wild uncharted space and making up your curriculum and making up your ethos and your plans and your techniques on your feet as you go along. You could, you could see that as being romantic if you like, but it was a method that I was happy with.” In this extract, the interviewee discusses how he first got into youth work and what he found when he started.
I: So, why did you get into youth work?
YW: When I left college I didn’t know what to do, so I taught for a year, disliked it, and I travelled for two years and I travelled in a very cheap and a very rough manner, and I slept outside, I slept at railway stations and temples, all sorts, all sorts of places and travelled where I could while hitchhiking. I got to Singapore and back the hard way, it took two years to do it, and when I came back, I wanted to choose the way in which I responded to people.
I’d learnt to survive a life in which you handle what’s thrown at you, you didn’t plan very much, you didn’t expect very much, you made use of whatever situation was useful, for pleasure or survival or entertainment, you just improvised each day as it crops, as it turns up, ‘cos no two days are the same, no two contacts are the same. And I played around with various jobs outside teaching, I didn’t like, I liked teaching, but I hated being a teacher. I wanted to choose the way in which I responded to people, the position I gave and clearly youth work was one of few opportunities where you had that degree of freedom, you could work independently. And I slipped into youth work through first working in a truant school, which honed up some of my abilities and expunged any teacherliness I still had remaining in me, I thought I was, you know, at one with the kids.
YW: Romanticism? I suppose in a way it is romantic to imagine going out into a wild uncharted space and making up your curriculum and making up your ethos and your plans and your techniques on your feet as you go along. You could, you could see that as being romantic if you like, but it was a method that I was happy with. I never answered the same question twice, I never coped with a challenge in the same way twice…
I: And what was the work you started off doing, what kind of stuff?
YW: The, the truant school was partly a youth club, a very small and insecure youth club. We had a club you’d turn up to work to at night, you arrived and the building was already full of children who had broken into it, and half of them would see you when you turn up and half of them would leave when you turn up, so (laughs) it’s a struggle to maintain your credibility, but you can’t then take credibility back by being autocratic, it’s better to use systems of persuasion rather than coercion.
I: If they’re already there, and they’re already using the space, then how do you see your role coming into that, I mean what, why bother?
YW: Um, why bother, well, if there wasn’t someone watching the space it would be set fire to or become a centre for selling drugs, it would become a, it would have got a reputation in the area which would have led to its closure, so it wouldn’t have been permanent. There are limits of how much you can allow the young people completely free reign, and someone could have got hurt there or was caught glue sniffing there or a drugs crisis and the authorities would have moved in. So it was injecting some level of order on it but not a level that made in abhorrent to the majority of the users or many of the users.
YW: No, not in a formal way, but I would put up with many things but I did have my limits (laughs), ultimately I had my limits but… Bringing firearms into the clubs, I mean that was a total, total no-no. Playing cards for money, that was a major problem, with cardsharps, that destroyed everything, the atmosphere was bitter and unhappy and so me and another worker had to challenge the gambling side of it, we had a hairy two weeks and then the organised cardsharps decided to move somewhere else in the city, left us in peace. We could actually go about creating an atmosphere where people could be happy with each other and could do things which they enjoyed doing, without it being wrecked.
I: So that was, was it local authority?
YW: Yeah, yes it was, on the fringe of the local authority. It was a time when youth work was very little regulated. They trained workers, but once we were at it no-one had very much interest in how we went about it. It was up to you, and an officer would come and see you perhaps every year and come and look puzzled and walk away again.
I: So there was no measurement of what you were doing or…?
YW: No, no, none whatsoever. Absolutely nothing when you were there. I mean things would get through.
I: Yeah, yeah, I mean, how do you go about that, I mean on the one hand I suppose that must be quite nice, on the other hand, no-one really knows what you’re doing. Did you have a way of communicating what you were doing to people, did people value it or…?
YW: No, it was worthless trying to communicate what you’re doing. It wasn’t understood. It’s not, it was on the whole some hairy moments, but, um, on the whole it was nice doing it. Parts of it where boring and parts of any job are boring.
Photo credits: Alex Rankin