Article: Book Review: The Club on the Edge of Town: A Pandemic Memoir, by Alan Lane
This book review by Graeme Tiffany looks at Alan Lane's book 'The Club on the Edge of Town: A Pandemic Memoir' and pulls out some pertinent thoughts and reflections related to youth and community work.
Slung Low is a theatre company based in the oldest working men’s club in Britain, in Holbeck, Leeds. In The Club on the Edge of Town, Theatre Director Alan Lane tells the story of how Slung Low responded to ‘lockdown’ and the club re-invented itself as a food bank, and much more beside.
Having written my own pandemic memoir (Tiffany, 2022) based on the experiences and reflections of detached youth workers, I was interested to read those of others; The Club on the Edge of Town is among the best of them.
Slung Low is not a ‘youth work’ organisation as such, although, like many community associations, it has a history of working with young people. However, there is a great deal in Alan Lane’s powerful testimony that has resonance for youth work. Here I try to distil a series of ‘lessons’ that have value in informing the practice of youth work, in light of pandemic experiences.
Slung Low: Lessons for Youth and Community Workers
“There are three clear values that Slung Low operates by”, says Lane. “Be useful. Be kind. Everyone gets what they want, but no one else gets to stop others getting what they want.” The first lesson is simple: simplify your values. And commit to them. Make equality one of those values, and work to bring substance to equality, which means concerning yourself with practical things, like access to opportunity. And remember, there’s a clue in the word: equality demands quality.
Think through the distinction between needs and wants; debate the ‘question of needs’: everyone wants a say as to what young people and wider communities ‘need’. The question then is who decides? Think of your work as being ‘their’ work; work from the premise of saying ‘yes’ to young people. Slung Low’s mantra: a commitment to “Everyone getting what they want” sounds crude, but it’s profound in being explicitly focused on the intrinsic motivations of those you work with, which is the lifeblood of all good youth work given how important voluntary association is to its definition.
At times this will feel odd, create doubts. But Lane shows how good things happened “entirely because we promised to do something we didn’t understand.” Which seems to fit with youth work being an ‘uncertainty-appreciative practice’. He puts it like this: “Some days there are no good decisions, and you do the least worse one and hope you forget [the ethical dilemmas] by bedtime.” Likewise, in the absence of the time and energy to critique the minutiae of what’s going on, “become determinedly practical.”
These ‘lived dilemmas’ are part of the territory of youth work. Try to see the stresses and strains as, on the one hand, opportunities to “talk about your values, about why you are doing something and the impact you hope it might have.” Not that there aren’t costs: “The downside is you keep telling your story and you see the world not changing and it has a strangely demoralising effect.” Being thick-skinned and a believer in process is where it’s at; to paraphrase Marx: If you think the revolution is going to happen in your lifetime, you’re no good for the revolution.
Reject the idea that Romanticism and Pragmatism are polar opposites; seek a fusion. Youth workers have to believe, ‘know’, that their contribution to making the world a better place is greater than that valued by short-term funders; youth work has an impact beyond the deadline by which the ‘outcomes’ were counted up.
Accept though that these contributions often constitute no more than “a finger in the dam.” Romanticism embraces, engages with context: “our hope was that there were some smart people further upstream doing something really clever and original that meant we could at some point take our finger out of the hole.” Whatever else, “Be kind. Be useful. We go again tomorrow”. Look for the opportunities to “bring a moment of joy into someone’s life.”
Moral reasons are the best of reasons for doing youth work; there is a moral imperative to act in many situations when working with young people. Accept though that moral endeavour sometimes comes with costs; as Lane says: “financial cost, personal risk, and hard bloody work.” Personal values and professional values often exist in tension; morality is contested. For some, contractualism is what matters; helping people without pre-condition is un-reasonable. For others this is precisely the moral thing to do. Slung Low argue this is why universal, open access services are so valuable; they should be “non-means tested, [based on] self-referral.” For youth workers embroiled in targeted work, this is well worth thinking about.
Thinking about practice
Youth workers need to think critically about their practice, as this informs decision-making and creates a confidence to resist naysayers who rely on an individuated account of ‘human nature’ in which young people are selfish, deceitful: problems in need of fixing. Lane argues we should condemn systems that “make no assumption of good faith”, that are “cruel in their deafness to pain and torment.” Trust in the contrary, the thing that drew you to youth work, that is blatantly obvious about ‘human nature’ when we get up close, spend time with young people: the selfish, the cruel, are exceptions to the rule.
Accept that your humanity will be tested, “over and over.” While the places we work in aren’t at war, they can be “painful and violent at times.” “Like so many overlooked parts of our nation [there is] so much that is upsetting. Much that is cruel.” Lane argues: it is possible to “understand this without disrespecting” people in the communities we work with. Caring needs to be thoughtful, ask: what is it to care; and, importantly, what, actually, do we care about? Putting the welfare of children and young people first is a given, but thinking critically demands working out how best to do this. Draw on a discourse of values: “No one is an atheist in a fox hole.” Work with perceptions and much as realities. As Lane states, what people believe “didn’t need to be true, because it was felt sincerely. It was their truth.”
Aspire to being fair, in practice; be determined, work hard. When people turn to you for help, help them. Better still “let people decide what they want to do and help them do it, rather than employ the top-down organisation of culture we are used to.” Recognise that this culture has bred discontentment, but do not condemn those expressing this discontent (those it is all too easy to identify as villains of the piece) as, almost always, it “comes from a disconnect, a sense that the system we all live in does not care for them, does not consider them.” Recognise that this is a system that wants you to take sides. Don’t. “What is extraordinary is that all the different sides of those arguments can feel like they are the hardest done by.” Almost always, all sides have very little power, have had their choices limited, lack control, are scared; they “have been badly led, lied to, abused and overworked for generations”, “have substantially less comfort than they were promised.”
There’s a story in The Club on the Edge of Town that is particularly relevant to youth work and to youth workers. Lane cautions a keenness to crack on and organise things with an intent that overrides the very real need to think about context, community, and people’s circumstances:
Let us imagine a woman as a zero-hour contract cleaner with two kids, on her own in a small house. Doing her best. And she doesn’t know where she’s going to get the kids’ breakfast from tomorrow. And imagine the panic that causes in her chest. That rising panic dominating her mind, limiting her choices. Frantically thinking what she can do. Who can she call? Where can she go? And then she hears a noise – it’s a band starting up. The show is going to start. There’s no godly way she can possibly come to that show. That show becomes an act of aggression. A taunting, noisy disturbance (p.193).
And some reflection:
“We know people are in this situation. We know that some of those people live in our community. And to do nothing about it because ‘it’s not our fault’ is the sort of excuse that people have always used to let themselves off the hook for not doing the difficult thing. It isn’t our fault. But it is our responsibility. It isn’t only our responsibility, nor our only responsibility. But it is our responsibility.” Imagine this when you are working with that woman’s children; youth work can never be divorced from community work.
So onward, on the basis of critical thinking; there is a “need for young people [and wider communities] to be told stories that weren’t full of despair.”
Using this thinking to understand the politics of risk; make sure your risk assessments aren’t moralising, discriminatory, humiliating, making people scared. In extremis, remember you might end up criminalising people. And don’t give it up to algorithms; these will, more than likely, ingrain prejudices and lead to being complicit in self-fulfilling prophecies (predictions).
Power as a social concept
Everything is about power. And yet letting go of power can be the most powerful thing you do. The question then becomes: how to work to support, facilitate and enable the actions of young people, to truly work with them, rather than doing to? Lane offers us something important, something powerful, learnt from working at a time when it felt like the pandemic rendered us all powerless: people need to “feel heroic, like they mattered, like they could take action and have an impact.” Consider this the next time discussion of youth work turns to ‘participation’. But, again, trust to a social rather than individuated analysis, effective action is “contingent on collaboration”. And “that means compromising.” Collectivism needs to be valued; resist individuation, keep things social: facilitate “social intercourse and mutual helpfulness”. See culture as social, and recreation, and education (all education, then, becomes moral education). Work to advance collective responsibility, and collective, ‘social’, action.
And from collectivism we get community, a concept so intrinsic to youth work’s history, and yet one that appears to have fallen by the wayside. Consider the chronology of job titles in past years: from community and youth worker; to youth and community worker (see what they did there? No, I didn’t either at the time it happened to me); to youth worker; to youth support worker; and thence to targeted youth support worker. Putting it that way, the process of individuation is as clear as day. Resist, keep community-oriented youth work alive. Be emboldened by the arguments in its favour: if the language games demand it, as they so often do, speak boldly of ‘efficiencies’, for they are obvious. Community-oriented youth work means that when you are in your bed the work continues, young people helping other young people, neighbours helping neighbours, and so on.
Workers need community just as much. Everyone needs a sense of ‘grounding’ into what’s going on, a feeling of being ‘oriented’, connected, being cared for, belonging. Familiarise yourself with histories, from books yes, but especially from the stories other youth workers have to tell of times past and lives lived now. These understandings can be extraordinarily powerful in gaining confidence to step us, step forward, and be active in shaping today’s opinions. Today’s opinions are today’s stories. And stories matter, greatly. Stories draw attention to what matters. Explain them, as good stories “provoke change”. Hence the very great need for storytelling, “Storytelling [as] best we can.” So, when we say ‘voice’ is important, ours matter as much as young people’s, arguably more so, as we need to be role models in the use of voice.
Stories and histories are temporal concepts. Take time seriously, as the temporalities of youth work are many and varied. Foremost are ‘moments’; Lane speaks often of “moments of profound change”. Moments that bring people “comfort as their heart is breaking sometime in the future”. Which is to say what we do now may matter, greatly, in the future. Not that this will satisfy a world dominated by more reductive temporalities, like ‘delivering outcomes’ in short timescales. The point is, he says, “we don’t get to be there when it happens. That’s the rub. But that doesn’t mean they don’t happen.” And that makes youth work no less valuable.
Then there are other temporalities; the times when only urgency, acting quickly, will do. And moral inquiry will have to wait. Which takes us back to pragmatism, but also its contestation: keeping Romanticism, and ethics, alive; determinedly asserting that there are limits to pragmatism. This is to challenge the assumptions of many, so often fielded by the staff of Slung Low, who insist the experiences of young people and wider communities are no more than “a passing temporary crisis.” “And one that can be solved by the proper usage of the current support system.” Lane takes a different view when he forcefully asserts this is “arrant nonsense”. Consider his analysis:
The people who receive our food aren’t lazy. They aren’t stupid. They were born in a society where the inequalities of funding, of education, of health provision, of opportunity are so profound that the hill they have to climb is steeper than reasonable. They live in a society that has encouraged zero-hour contract working with the lie of freedom and choice and now believes that the reason so many children of these workers, who find themselves with unreliable incomes, irregular hours and an administratively cruel benefits system, are hungry is because of a temporary crisis. This crisis wasn’t and isn’t temporary. It isn’t a crisis. It’s a way of living. An enforced way of living (p.151).
There’s a paradigm here, what Lane calls a “well-entrenched world view”, which needs responding to; the taking of a political position, if you like.
Politics, and political responses
It seems we are going to struggle, as well as be ethically neglectful, if we are without some sort of structural, systemic, analysis. Lane submits his own: “[It’s] Capitalism, you absolute loons. Structural racism, sexism, classism, the north-south divide, and exploitative jobs market, the echoing effect of the British Empire, crony capitalism, the hostile environment …”.
If you need more, he offers more: “The hostile environment is an active policy to make people’s lives unpleasant. To rob them of the time, space, and resources needed to be comfortable. It’s a policy designed to make you panic and to harry you along your life with just enough tension for the environment to feel, well, hostile.” It’s all part of “the cruelty we visit on those who deserve it the least.” A cruelty that casts its shadow on the workers themselves: “it hardened my heart to those who had done this, consciously and unconsciously in the appealing to the worst of us with these policies. They had done this and they had done it on purpose.”
Where to go, how to survive; how to make progress? That critical thinking Lane talks about, stripped bare (and especially in a context when we are not sure what’s going on) translates to, at the very least, finding the strength to ask good questions. Not that this is easy; Lane reflects on the many, good, organisations that sign agreements, get into bed with commissioning arrangements, and only later, typically due to a prompt from the likes of Slung Low, realised they had “never asked the questions.” So learn to ask them. Which may mean getting involved in further training and learning, whether formal or informal, as youth workers should know, education catalyses awareness, and questions. Apply it to systems, provided that is you are prepared to scrap those systems, and create new ones, when needed. Sociology is a useful prism too; enlightening others as to demographics can be as powerful as argument.
But remember, in politics, there can be anger in the mix. But don’t have too much of a downer on anger; it can be a great motivator, give courage to voice. Likewise, personal experience, especially of social injustice. Lane says: “I do this for revenge, provoked by the hot sting of embarrassment decades old. I do this because of the chip on my shoulder. I’ve never met anyone who drives change who doesn’t have a chip.” And the book reveals his.
Not that all activists are angry. Look to civil society, “the quiet, determined, regular part of [a] voluntary social safety net.” “People doing good things on their own for the best of reasons. Quietly.” These folk, whether young or old, are a community’s greatest assets; celebrate, support and work with them, all. This is a powerhouse not of the government’s making; therein, “the engine of the whole system.” These are those who get on with “the thankless, tiring job of trying to repair some of the damage our society unthinkingly causes.” Civil society speaks to, helps us understand, inefficiencies, problems. To be clear, the job is to work with young people, with communities, to bring “some sort of control” to these issues.
Dealing with dilemmas
There are inevitable conflicts; among these are the policy drivers that seek to incorporate state actors into dominant ideologies. The matrix of procurement, that increasingly seeks services from the charitable sector, can lead to a situation where youth work managers don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them. For Lane, there is “political pressure not to campaign against the causes of social injustice [those charities] spend their time and money trying to fix.” Are we self-censoring in order to pay the bills? Do we fear “putting our heads above the parapet in places where few are willing to stand out, look different, be weird. Be other”? Might youth workers be like Slung Low’s theatre people: “gently defiant, a kindness to the noise and nonsense” of the deficit-oriented ideologues? Remember that enduring essay title we were all treated to at college: is it possible to exist within the current political structures, and yet “disrupt the structures” that do harm?
To progress, we need to accept that the reach of these ideologies is extensive, dealing with dilemmas becomes the order of each and every day. I argue youth work is a ‘lived dilemma’. Youth workers inhabit a world where our activities are constantly marketised, where the educator – learner relationship is viewed in terms of an economic contract (where young people are conceptualised, valued primarily for their tax paying potential and as consumers). Get wise to the introduction of profit motives and forms of economic incentivisation, invariably this leads to perverse and performative behaviours. Equally, where youth work is instrumentalised, valued only for the outcomes it delivers, it leads to the exclusion of opportunities for “people who aren’t wealthy to learn things for the joy of learning them, of expanding themselves, of finding one thing less in the world to be scared of”. Worse still, youth workers are, through policy narratives (subliminally at least) taught not to see themselves as educators, rather they are ‘fixers’ of social problems. Their historical identity is cast aside.
Solace comes from appreciating that issues and problems have multiple dimensions; that policy narratives always contain ambiguities. So dealing with dilemmas becomes an exercise in identifying room, spaces, for manoeuvre. And thinking differently, for example, The Club on the Edge of Town teaches us “poverty is a political problem, food waste is an environmental one. Food waste is not the opportunity to solve the political problem with free food but a universal issue that will see the destruction of the planet.”
Final comments and conclusions, from Slung Low
Lane concludes: “There’s a great and pernicious story told in the last twenty, maybe even forty years, about the nature of power. Or what it is to be powerful. We are full of stories of Ironman, mega-stars and extraordinary individuals doing extraordinary things in extraordinary moments. We don’t tell many stories about groups of people managing to make things together, working together, day in day out to have an impact but we are full of tales of individuals throwing Hail Marys to win the day.” Put another way, “the idea that it is only the individual capable of provoking genuine change in the world, the superhero narrative, is one that keeps almost everyone else in a state of not being arsed.”
Rather, “we are all capable of extraordinary power. Each and every one of us. As a team of ordinaries we are capable of profound impact.” In the face of those who “have the audacity to think we are not powerful. We are. All of us. Powerful and capable of making real and extraordinary change in the world”, “one person, one moment at a time.” The resonance with progressive youth work becomes abundantly clear.
Youth & Policy is run voluntarily on a non-profit basis. If you would like to support our work, you can donate below.
Last Updated: 2 March 2023
Tiffany, G. (2022) COVID19 as a potentially valuable disruptive force in the conceptualisation of Street-based Youth Work, Youth & policy, 28th January: https://www.youthandpolicy.org/articles/covid19-as-a-potentially-valuable-disruptive/
Graeme Tiffany has a background in youth work, community education and community development. Since 2000, he has been a freelance researcher, trainer, lecturer and education consultant with special interests in detached and street-based youth work, youth social policy, informal education, democratic education, participation and the use of philosophical tools to support learning. Follow his activities and read his blog at https://graemetiffany.co.uk/