Published in Interzone, August 2000
[© Chris Beckett, 2000; Not to be reproduced without permission]
The Welfare Man Retires
I think I’ve spoken to you before about Cyril Burkitt, the registration manager? It was his job to preside over the registration meetings where decisions were made about Special Category citizenship. Do you remember I told you about how some ungrateful Special Category citizens attacked him in his car? (Or “Dreggies,” as some unkindly call them.)
Cyril went to pieces a bit after that attack, made several weird rulings which had to be overturned and embarrassed people in registration meetings with off-the-wall remarks about woolly mammoths and the Berlin Wall apropos of nothing in particular. It was as if a veneer had been torn away by that distressing incident, to reveal… what? Madness? Anarchy? Despair? Eventually the District Director offered him an early retirement package, on health grounds.
(The DeSCA is usually very tight about early retirement. But in Cyril’s case it seemed they were willing to pay out whatever was necessary just to see the back of him.)
There was a small ceremony to mark his departure at the conference room at the Knowle South estate office where he was based. Cyril’s boss, the Estate Director, Peter Hershaw, was there, as was his boss, Susan Groob, the District Director. Hershaw, a rather smooth, smartly dressed man fifteen years Cyril’s junior, made an amusing farewell speech with the usual titbits taken from Cyril’s personnel file charting his thirty year service latterly with the DeSCA and before that, with the old Social Services Departments.
Cyril’s was not what you would call a brilliant career. He worked for some ten years as a social worker and then as a manager of various social work teams (the Childcare North Team, the Initial Investigations Team, the Family Assessment Team…) There was no obvious line of development. It was more that he drifted to and fro like a cork in the sea, bobbing up here and there as each wave of organisational restructuring threw up new teams and new job titles and abolished old ones.
And of course, the last decade of his career had seen a really radical rethink of the welfare services, the emergence of the legal concept of Special Category citizenship and the amalgamation of the various services that dealt primarily with welfare claimants – including social services, health and public housing – into the Department for Special Category Administration: the DeSCA.
Do you remember those days? Do you remember how this new giant super-department was described by the Prime Minister as “A dynamic new task force drawing together services that up to now have been dispersed across many different departments and levels of government, to tackle, once and for all, the insidious problem of social exclusion”?
Of course the actual staff were not dynamic or new. They were the old staff with new job titles (just as the people now designated as “Special Category” were the same five percent of the population that had been the main recipients of welfare services for several generations). Among the old hands remoulded into components of the new dispensation was Cyril Burkitt who became, to give him his full title, Team Manager, Human Services (Family Welfare Team), Southern Bristol Estates.
The DeSCA itself then went through further reorganisations. Human Services’ functions were subcontracted out to various companies and not-for-profit organisations, who of course promptly re-recruited most of the old Human Services staff. Cyril’s old team was taken over by a company called Wessex Family Action, but they decided not to take on Cyril himself. He was regarded, I think, as unreliable, and too openly sceptical about the new welfare ideology. (Not that he ever offered a coherent alternative, as far as I’m aware).
Anyway, his long government and local government service would have entitled him to a fairly hefty redundancy package which the DeSCA didn’t want to pay out, so instead they gave him the Registration Manager job. It’s a job which sounds important but is really a matter of chairing, over and over again, a particular kind of meeting whose composition and structure is very precisely laid down by statute and regulation. In other words he was put into a job where it was thought he could not do much harm.
I suppose he knew that, and I would guess he hated it, but he had to accept or find another job outside the DeSCA and its network of subcontractors. There were very few agencies outside that circle that were taking on social work staff and for each job that came up there must have been many applicants a lot more dynamic and interesting – and young – than tired, old Cyril Burkitt.
Somewhere in there his wife died. People said it was her that held him together.
And then, as I say, there was that violent attack on the Knowle South Estate. Three men waylaid him in his car. There was little doubt that they intended to kill him. It seems odd that mild, doubting Cyril Burkitt should be the focus of such intense hatred. But, as the man who presided at meetings that decided whether people were to be assigned Special Category status, Cyril had become a much more public symbol of the system than, say, the Estate Directors or the District Director above them, who really ran the thing.
But then even the District Director has very little real power. We are all cogs in a machine.
* * *
Anyway, Peter Hershaw made his amusing speech with its little jokes about what Cyril had put down on his application forms over the years and so on, and Cyril was duly presented with his farewell card and his book token and his stainless steel garden spade.
Then it was Cyril’s turn. After the usual thankyous, he started to talk about the families he had worked with, first as a social worker, then as a social work manager and then as a registration manager. And Cyril mentioned the names that had kept recurring over his whole career – the Wheelers, the Pendants, the Delaneys, the Blows, the Tonsils… With each name everyone laughed and gave a cheer of recognition. Everyone had worked with members of these families. Everyone had tales that they could tell.
“…And it occurs to me,” Cyril said, “that these are the Great Families of the Bristol Special Category estates, the famous old bloodlines, just as surely as in times gone by each county had its famous aristocratic families. These are the Great Families – and if I am going to say goodbye to my job properly, I should say goodbye to them as well as to all of you. So what I have decided to do is to hire a hall,” (he named a very large hall quite near the centre of town), “and throw my own retirement party there to which I am going invite the Pendants and the Wheelers and the Tonsils and all of them, as well of course as many of you as care, or dare, to come!”
Everyone laughed, loudly and generously, thinking that this was some kind of joke. (Cyril was known for his off-beam sense of humour). And Cyril just stood there and smiled and waited until gradually it dawned on us that he really meant it.
“I’ve sent the invitations out this morning,” he said, “the party will be on June 21st from 8 p.m. You are all invited. I’ll provide food and drink. And I promise you an interesting evening and one or two surprises.”
We all looked round at Peter Hershaw and Susan Groob. You should have seen those frozen smiles!
* * *
At the first possible moment Peter and Susan were off in a huddle in Peter’s office, along with Peter’s opposite number from New Hartcliffe, a couple of other managers from Knowle South and a legal adviser on the video link from the district office.
A friend of mine was one of the people present, so I heard later what went on. Peter and Susan were not happy at all about Cyril’s retirement party. How would it look in the press and on TV? A former DeSCA officer brings hundreds of dreggies into the centre of Bristol and lets them drink at his expense. What if there was a disturbance of some kind? What if a nuisance was caused? It wouldn’t reflect at all well on the Department.
But what to do? Someone suggested that Cyril had broken the confidentiality rules by writing to people whose names and addresses he had obtained from DeSCA files. Perhaps he could be prevailed upon to withdraw the invitations or face the possibility of a disciplinary action that might affect his retirement package?
But the lawyer said it wouldn’t wash. The only information Cyril had used was names and addresses of DeSCA service users and the only people he could be said to have disclosed these to were the service users themselves. Hardly a breach of confidentiality unless they were unaware of their own names and addresses!
Then they wondered if Cyril had perhaps broken the rules about DeSCA staff seeing service users socially. But again, it wasn’t going to work. When they looked up the relevant section of the Manual they found it stated very clearly that the reason there were rules at all was to avoid a conflict of interest in future professional dealings between the staff member and the service users concerned. This obviously didn’t arise in Cyril’s case, as he was going to retire.
So Peter Hershaw declared that they were not going to be able to head this off and that therefore they would need to find a way of “managing” or “containing” it.
* * *
Cyril was in his office clearing out his desk when Peter Hershaw phoned with his proposal. And, as it happens, I had just dropped in to wish him all the best.
“We love your retirement party idea Cyril,” Hershaw enthused. “And how typical of you to find a way of breaking down the them-and-us barriers!”
“Well, thankyou,” said Cyril, genuinely disarmed.
“What we’d like to suggest, though, is that you relocate the party to the Community Centre at Knowle South. It would be easier for many estate residents to get to and as it’s a DeSCA facility, we can waive the fees as a small gesture of support for your wonderful idea. In fact Susan and I are fairly confident we could cover the catering costs for you as well and save you a bit more of your hard-earned cash.”
“It’s very nice of you,” said Cyril, “but I’ve got all my plans worked out now, and I really can’t change the venue. Thanks for the offer though.”
He put down the phone.
“What was that about?” he asked me.
(I never knew whether his naïveté was genuine or a kind of act.)
The phone rang again a few minutes later and this time it was Susan Groob.
“To be honest, Cyril, we’re a bit worried about you having your party in the centre of town. If there was any kind of disturbance it would reflect so badly, not so much on the Department – we’ve got broad shoulders after all – but on the people you really care about, the SC people themselves. Do you see what I mean? Am I making sense? It might feed into the ‘dreggie’ stereotype.”
Cyril politely promised to think about it.
“They really don’t want this party to happen, do they?” he observed with a little chuckle, as he put down the phone. “And that’s before they know what I’ve got planned.”
My informant in the management team tells me that Peter Hershaw tried various other manoeuvres in an attempt to head off Cyril’s plans (he tried to lean on the owners of the hall, for example) but in the end he and Groob had to admit defeat. Special Category citizens do face certain legal restrictions. The can’t borrow money without permission, for example, and if they are charged and found guilty of certain offences, they may be restricted for a time from leaving their own estates. But there wasn’t yet a law against their going across town to attend a party.
* * *
So there we were on Midsummer night, watching the Pendants and the Wheelers and the Tonsils and all the rest arriving and not knowing quite what to expect. No one knew what to expect, but clearly there were those who feared the worst, because there was an obvious police presence in the street outside – comprising both DeSCA Constabulary officers and officers from the Avon and Somerset Police. And a police helicopter was wheeling around, not quite overhead, but over the neighbouring streets, as if trying to give the impression that it just happened to be passing by.
Cyril must have spent a fortune. The place used to be a warehouse of some kind and is huge: a cavernous space like an aircraft hangar with enormous doors at the end. There were long tables all along one side piled with food and hundreds of glasses of champagne all poured and waiting in rows with a team of catering staff at hand to replenish glasses. There was a DJ playing records on the stage. There were dozens of tables for people to sit at, with white tablecloths and a vase of flowers on each.
Everyone set to. It was all very strange. The vast majority of the several hundred guests were residents of the estates. Many DeSCA staff had stayed away. Those like me, who had turned up, found ourselves not only in a minority, but in a completely different relationship to the Delaneys and the Pendants and the others to anything we had ever experienced before. However liberal our ideas, however much we had tried to treat everyone with respect, the fact remained that when we had met these folk before, they had been asking for help with their financial problems, or seeking rehousing, or complaining about their neighbours. Or if not that, then we had been investigating them for benefit frauds, or for fiddling their power meters, or for mistreating their children. We had never met any of them before except with a problem attached to them as a kind of label.
And here they were, many of them in suits and ties or party dresses, as our equals, as fellow party guests, fellow human beings, outnumbering us twenty to one. I said hello to some I knew. I chatted to some I didn’t. We talked about the merits of the beach at Weston, and of the Prime Minister and about the way you couldn’t stop your kids from playing with video games the whole time. They were just people. Some were interesting and attractive, some tedious or dull, like people at any party. It sounds awful, and I feel embarrassed to admit it, but this came with the force of a revelation to me!
I had really started to relax and enjoy myself when Cyril Burkitt got up on the stage at the top of the hall, tapped on the microphone and asked everyone if he could have their attention. It was a large audience. The room was big, all the tables were full and there were still a lot of people left standing at the sides and the back.
The DeSCA staff who were there said it was brave of Cyril to stand up alone like that in front of all those people. He wasn’t regarded with affection on the estates. After all three estate residents had not long previously tried to kill him. (And from what I’ve heard of the attack, many people came out to watch, but no one lifted a finger to try and help.) Why would these people like him? When he met them he was usually consigning them to Special Category status, after presiding over a meeting that picked over the sad, humiliating failures of their lives. SC status might be necessary if you wanted to claim benefits, but it was hardly a dignified state.
So yes, perhaps he was brave, though I think that Cyril’s courage arose at least in part from a kind of emptiness that had been growing inside him since his wife died and since he was sidelined into the registration manager job. I actually think he didn’t care much if he lived or died. But whatever the reason, he did something that not many of us would have dared to do. He stood up in front of a large crowd of people who had reason to dislike him, and asked them all to be quiet while he made a speech.
It was at about this point that the TV people arrived.
* * *
Cyril spoke of his career as a social worker and a social work manager dealing with families and children and child protection work. And he spoke of how, quite early in his career, it had struck him what a high proportion of the people he worked with were poor and on state benefits, were unemployed, or came from families where unemployment was the norm.
“Not that I think only poor people have problems with their children,” he said, “or only poor people are capable of child abuse. Far from it. I think better-off families have plenty of these problems too. But I think if you are better-off there are lots of ways of concealing your problems and avoiding outside interference. We did occasionally work with cases in the old days where the parents were well-to-do or professional people. But as to the poor and the unemployed, we had meetings with their schools, we had discussions with their doctors, we liaised with the police. Sometimes I felt we had their family lives under constant routine surveillance.”
There was a small rustle of whispered reactions across the hall.
“All my adult life,” Cyril went on, “there have been a million or more unemployed people in the country. Sometimes the figures go down a bit and the government claims the credit. Sometimes the figures go up and the government blames its predecessors or the international economic situation. But basically, there have always been a substantial number of people without a job. (The only time in my life when this was not the case was during my childhood in the nineteen-sixties, before I can remember. And then, curiously, the government was so worried about the shortage of labour that it invited immigrants to come in and do the low-paid jobs.) Unemployment has become a permanent fact of life. Some families have been unemployed for generations. Something is always about to be done about it. But nothing ever really changes.
“And now of course, we have the DeSCA, the latest scheme to tackle the problem of poverty and unemployment for once and for all. All you lot would be gathered together, that was the plan, and given a special status. Us lot would work with you and help you organise your lives: social services and health and police and everyone all working together as a team. We would sort out your problems and get you back into the economy again. That was the idea. But the unemployment figures kept on stubbornly refusing to go down.
“And suddenly one day it came to me! We’re supposed to keep on battling but we are not supposed to win. Those figures aren’t meant to really come down. The government needs you lot to be out of work. That’s how they keep some sort of discipline in the labour force! You are a warning to the working population. They don’t want to lose their jobs and end up living on benefits in dreg estates like you, so they don’t shirk and they don’t demand high wages. (As they did in the nineteen-sixties when labour was scarce). The government needs you people out of work!
“But here’s the complicated bit. The government might need you out of work but it can’t admit to it. They can’t admit to leaving a million or two people on the scrapheap on purpose. They can’t admit it to the public and maybe they can’t admit it even to themselves. So the government has to be seen to be doing something about it. Hence the DeSCA, hence the various welfare and community services, hence the job training schemes.”
Cyril laughed as he looked out at the uncomfortable faces.
“Probably most of you have worked all this out long ago. I’ve always been a bit slow on the uptake. Actually, there’s no secret about the fact that unemployment is part of the scheme of things. If you look in economics textbooks, for example, you can see it written there in black and white: the economy needs a certain level of unemployment in order to prevent inflation. I just hadn’t quite grasped what this meant.
“But once I had realised this was the case, I began to see that most of what the DeSCA does is shadow-boxing. Job training schemes, for example, may help a few individuals, but only at the expense of other individuals who must lose their place in the economy to make room for the newcomers. Social work services may help a few people with their lives, but only at the expense of making a whole community less confident and sure of itself, and more dependent on outside help.
“I tell you, when we get a government which says its going to give everyone the legal right to a job, then perhaps we’ll have a government that really means business about unemployment. But until that day, forget it. You can have all the DeSCA staff you like with all the resources and all the best intentions in the world, and nothing is going to change.”
Here he paused. There was absolute silence. He smiled.
“And so,” Cyril said, “what I’ve decided to do today is to give credit where it’s due for once. You people are hard up and face all kinds of restrictions and intrusions in your lives. You take all kinds of abuse. But really you are doing it for the sake of the rest of us. You are helping to keep inflation down. Give yourself a clap. You deserve it.”
A puzzled, half-hearted applause arose and then petered out in the hall.
“What I’ve decided to do, in recognition of your services in the battle against inflation, is to get a medal struck for you. Here it is look…”
He reached into his jacket pocket and held up a large, gold, star-shaped medal on a striped ribbon.
“I’m calling it, the Hero First Class of the Anti-Inflationary War. I would like to award it to all of you, but I’m afraid that isn’t possible. So what I’m going to do is ask just a few of you to accept the medal on behalf of all the people of the Bristol estates.”
In the silence, Cyril took a piece of paper out his pocket, slowly unfolded it, and put on his reading glasses. He was really relishing this.
“The first person I have in mind,” he announced, “is seventy-six years old. As far as I can calculate – and she can correct me if I’m wrong – she has no less than seven children, eighteen grandchildren, nine great grandchildren, and two great great grandchildren – and every one of them a Special Category citizen living in one or other of the estates. I reckon she’s as well qualified as anyone to accept this medal. And so I’d like to call on – Tammy Wheeler!”
A big cheer went up from one corner of the hall and many hands pushed forward a tiny old woman with wispy grey hair. When she got to the stage, Cyril bowed low to her and pinned her medal to her chest.
“You got the numbers wrong,” was all she would offer for her acceptance speech. “It’s ten great grandchildren and three great great grandchildren.”
“Typical bloody Deskies,” someone shouted out. “All those computers and files and they still can’t get their facts right!”
Everyone was starting to enjoy themselves again.
Next Cyril called up one Wolfgang Amadeus Tonsil. A large black man in a tight white suit and mirrored glasses, he wore a gold earring, a gold pendant, a gold wristband and – most impressive of all – when he opened his mouth he revealed a smile of solid gold. Again a big cheer went up as he came laughing and protesting up to the stage.
“Mr Tonsil, I name you Hero First Class, with a Special Commendation for Style,” announced Cyril, pinning the medal to his chest.
“Well, some people have got it and some haven’t,” said Wolfgang Amadeus. “And that’s all there is to it.”
“And now I’d like to ask Mr Pedro Delaney of Daffodil Grove to come to the front. As far as I’m aware, Mr Delaney holds the record number of line offences of anyone in the Bristol Estates.”
(By ‘Line offences’ he meant violations of so-called Restriction Orders, which confine Special Category citizens to their home estate in lieu of prison sentences or fines.)
“Forty-three in all, according to my count,” continued Cyril, as a tall, lanky, bashful man made his way up to the stage. “And in fact I believe that Mr Delaney is committing a line offence at this very minute, as he was placed on a two-month Restriction Order only a couple of weeks ago.”
“Not two months, three,” mumbled the very shy Pedro Delaney as Cyril pinned the medal to his shirt.
* * *
Cyril awarded another four medals.
“And now,” he said, “before I finish, I’d just like to say a few words on one of my favourite subjects. And that subject is… mammoths.”
There was a slightly incredulous laugh from most of the audience, though some of us Deskies knew that this was a subject dear to Cyril’s heart.
“Everyone knows,” Cyril said, “that one of the great achievements of modern science is our ability to bring back to life long-extinct species. And of all those many species, surely the most glorious is the mighty mammoth of the steppes, who you can now see alive and in the flesh here in the zoo in Bristol and in many other zoos.
“I sometimes wonder what it is like to be a mammoth in a zoo. Extinct for hundreds of thousands of years and then brought back to life again, not to roam the tundra like its ancestors, but simply to provide entertainment to gaping crowds. What a strange fate!
“But one thing I want to tell you about mammoths is this. They are big. They are much bigger than mere elephants, as you can easily see in the zoo. But seeing them in the zoo doesn’t do justice to their size. Everything looks smaller when it is shut up in a cage. It’s only when you see a mammoth out of a cage that you understand just how enormous an animal it really is.”
At the back of the hall the huge doors were pulled open. There were gasps and shrieks.
“Keep your hair on, everyone!” laughed Cyril. “He is really perfectly tame!”
An aisle had been left clear through the middle of the tables. Along it, led by a keeper, plodded a fully-grown bull mammoth, five metres tall, with tusks so immense that each of them, if it could have been uncurled, would have been six metres long at least.
* * *
Right up to the front of the room the mammoth walked. (It seems Cyril had hired the animal, God knows how, from some eccentric private collector.) Guests who’d been sitting next to the aisle jumped up from their seats to put some distance between themselves and the gigantic beast. There was a babble of excitement and incredulity, and some squeals of fear.
But more excitement was to come. When the creature reached the stage, Cyril himself climbed up onto its shaggy shoulders. Then, with him riding triumphantly aloft, the mammoth turned round again and marched ponderously back again towards the door.
From out of the stunned silence there emerged applause, ragged and tentative at first and then a real ovation. Cyril waved his acknowledgement from on high and flung handfuls of medals out at the crowd. (He had had hundreds of small facsimiles made of the Hero First Class Star.)
And then the Pendants and the Wheelers and the Tonsils and all the rest of them fell in behind him and followed him outside. The TV people came after them, humping their cameras and their recording equipment. And off they went through the streets, all those scions of the Great Families of the Bristol estates, with helicopters circling above and police radios fretfully jabbering all around. In a long, loud procession they trailed merrily behind the welfare man on his anachronistic beast, through Redcliff and Broadmead and all about in the mild midsummer night.