‘A thorn in the side of comfortable socialism’: an appreciation of Bob Holman (1936-2016) – by Dave Wiles

bobholmanI first met Bob Holman in 1973. Following on from a turbulent adolescence I had experienced a radical conversion to Christianity. At the same time Bob was considering his future as Professor of Social Administration at Bath University.

With an amazing sense of vocation from him and Annette, he resigned his academic post and moved, with his children, onto the council estate where I lived at the edge of Bath.

He was the answer to my prayers!  However, he seemed to see me as an answer to his prayers as he looked for ways to connect with the community that he has just moved into.

It was not long before we, together with others, were running about 30 groups a week for young people. Before-school clubs, lunch clubs, holiday clubs, after school clubs, women’s groups, play schemes, youth clubs, local events as well as work with hundreds of local individual young people and adults. Even as an young man I could barely keep up with Bob’s energy and passion for community action!

Experimental community work

Bob and Annette’s home was open to all. Little did I know at the time, but Bob was experimenting with a pioneering approach to neighbourhood work that would later cause many interesting debates in the world of social work. What does it mean to ‘live on the patch’? Was it possible to develop ‘indigenous workers’?

Bob didn’t parachute in with answers; he trod the street listening to local people and engaging potential activists to respond to their own concerns. His East End humour and warm personality helped.  His social work was not confined to fancy rhetoric about empowerment, facilitation and development – he practiced it with gusto!

Purposeful relationships

Bob would remember details about people’s lives and show such interest and pleasure in others that everyone in my neighbourhood soon adored him. On Monday mornings we always met to catch up on our plans for the week and pray. Bob would always be found writing out the birthday cards for that week.  He remembered hundreds of people a month in this small act of human compassion.

For many young people on the estate, his belief in them awoke their belief inthemselves. This has enabled many of them to achieve so much in their own lives. I know at least ten young people who, despite a lack of early academic success, when on to become youth workers, social workers and community workers through Bob’s influence.

Bob used words like ‘reciprocity’ and ‘mutuality’ and lived them out. He focused on what people could do – rather than problematising their character. One example I remember was a young man with a track record of theft, but who Bob saw potential in and trusted him to run our youth club café. It provided the platform for him to make a success of his life.

Willingness to serve

On the residential camps we ran, if anyone wanted to find this professor of social administration – they would be pointed to the washing up tent. Here, Bob spent hours cleaning up the dirty pans.  He did not do this as a well-meaning philanthropist indulging a middle class need to feel better about himself : he believed deeply in service of others.

Bob was a practitioner of ‘Glocal’ action: thinking globally and acting locally. Through his many books and newspaper articles on social work and poverty he became a significant player on the national and international stage. But his principles always remained rooted in his day to day actions.

Deep, real and rooted faith

Then there was his Christian faith – which was firm and sure until the last time that I saw him. Bob’s faith was the opposite of waiting for ‘pie in the sky when you die’. Rather it was rooted in the present hope and struggle for ‘steak on your plate while you wait’ for one and all.

It was this red blooded, life-integrated faith that kept him (as Helena Kennedy said) a thorn in the side of comfortable socialism. It was a faith that was deep, real and rooted in old fashioned concepts like truth, justice, mercy, love and grace.

Bob was well able to give an account of the hope he had but always did so with gentleness, respect and humility. His faith made him a tireless champion for children and for equality. He was an inspirational activist, a wise social analyst, a loyal friend, a good father and husband. And my much missed dear friend.

This is taken from a talk Dave Wiles gave at a conference this month to remember the legacy of Bob Holman who died in June 2016 aged 79. For more on Bob’s life as a Christian community activist and his later work on the Easterhouse estate in Glasgow see his obituaries in The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph.

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