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Obituary: Bob Holman; socialist, christian, community activist, writer, academic, who fought daily to give a voice to the dispossessed.

Bob Holman, who has died aged 79 after suffering from motor neurone disease, earned a unique place in social work, when, in 1976, he resigned his professorship in social administration at Bath University to become a community worker on the city’s deprived Southdown estate. He saw his affluence and position as inconsistent with his Christian faith. He and his wife, Annette, and their two children, Ruth and David, moved from a comfortable middle-class area in the city to a home next to the estate and he started the project where he then worked.

Ironically, this thrust him into far greater prominence than university life afforded, as he published widely to propagate ideas forged by his experiences. His advocacy, as well as the way he lived his life in a disadvantaged community, earned him many admirers, within and outside social work; some saw him as almost a secular saint.

As an academic Bob had published the groundbreaking Trading in Children: A Study of Private Fostering (1973), but, in his new life, he produced a veritable flood of books, articles and letters to newspapers. Many of his books had a pleasing combination of observation, anecdote and research.

To reduce poverty, he believed, was not enough. Inequality, too, had to be tackled. He highlighted the desperate struggles of those with whom he worked and lived, but he also emphasised their strengths and ability to run their own lives. The single parents and unemployed people who ran the projects were for Bob evidence of the possibilities of working-class collective spirit and individual integrity.

After a decade in Bath, in 1987 he went to live and work on the vast and deprived Easterhouse estate in Glasgow. He always wanted to show what could be done to motivate and involve people and bring communities together. Bob spurned any distinction between himself and other residents, calling himself a “resourceful friend”. His daily work involved filling in social security forms, accompany young people to court or helping a neighbour to raise a loan for a new cooker.

He was born in Ilford, Essex, the middle child of Robert Bones, a removal man, and his wife, Lily (nee Simms). He later adopted the maiden name of his grandmother. Bob’s primary education was disrupted by evacuation, of which he was to write a history; in his case, it involved stays in Surrey and Herefordshire. Following grammar school and national service in the RAF, he studied history and economics at University College London and transferred to the London School of Economics for his certificate in social administration.

From 1961 to 1966 he was a child care officer with Hertfordshire county council, also becoming a tutor in child care. He then held lectureships in social work and social administration at Birmingham and Glasgow universities. It was in Birmingham where the reality of widespread poverty dawned on him. At Bath university, though, he decided he was ill-fitted to be a professor: he disliked administration and not working directly with those he cared about.

Bob’s attitudes to poverty and inequality and criticism of those whom he characterised as running a “welfare industry” – highly paid heads of voluntary organisations and directors of social services – were profoundly shaped by his Christian faith, which he had come to as a teenager. He saw in the life of George Lansbury, the MP for Poplar in London, pacifist, Labour leader and cabinet minister, who lived simply in his East End constituency, the epitome of the Christian socialism that he, too, sought to practise. Holman wrote a biography, Good Old George (1990). Later there came other labours of love: a biography of Keir Hardie, and another, Woodbine Willie (2012), about the pacifist clergyman and poet Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy.

In 1989 Bob helped to establish Family Action in Rogerfield and Easterhouse (Fare), a grassroots organisation, especially for families and young people. It encourages neighbours to work with one another; to keep young people out of the care and criminal justice systems; and to lift people’s aspirations, while trying to tackle anti-social behaviour.

Bob’s enemy’s enemy became his friend when, always a socialist, he developed a friendship with Iain Duncan Smith, then Tory leader, who on a visit to Easterhouse seemingly underwent something of a conversion to the cause of social justice, after voting against every progressive measure of the Labour governments. The friendship did not survive Duncan Smith’s role in the Coalition and Conservative cabinets.

Although he allegedly retired in 2004 and moved elsewhere in Glasgow, partly to look after his grandsons, Bob continued to write, speak at conferences, undertake voluntary neighbourhood work and act as visiting professor at the universities of Glasgow and Cardiff.

He turned down an MBE and, asked about collaborating on a biography, said: “If I have achieved anything, I hope it is seen in other people, not me.”

In the aftermath of the Tories’ return to office and Labour’s obliteration in Scotland in May 2015, Bob wrote to me: “I can’t do much in politics. I am going to write less ... After that – in the days I’ve got left – I want to concentrate on local individuals. We cannot take them out of poverty but we can provide people with some togetherness and show that we respect, not blame them.”

Within two months, that time left had shortened with the diagnosis of motor neurone disease.

Bob is survived by Annette, his children, David and Ruth, two grandsons, Lucas and Nathan, his sister, Janet, and brother, John.

• Robert Holman (Robert Bones), academic and community worker, born 8 November 1936; died 15 June 2016

By Terry Philpot.

First published here.

This post first appeared on ORGANIZED RAGE, please read the originial post: here

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Obituary: Bob Holman; socialist, christian, community activist, writer, academic, who fought daily to give a voice to the dispossessed.


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