Life: a course in survival

November 14, 1997

As a child David Brandon was beaten by his father. Memories of his unacknowledged suffering and doubts over the nostrums of cocooned academics have led him to adopt a pragmatic approach to those in despair.

My earliest memories are of being battered. I was three or four when Dad - Leading Aircraftsman Brandon -returned from the war. He was a stranger and began another smaller war in our two small rooms. He forced bacon into my mouth, I spat it out and got an exploding fist across the cheek.

His deep disappointment about life shockingly turned to unpredictable rage. He would hurl tins, eggs and vegetables against the walls, breaking windows and kicking in doors. Then he would do the same to my mother and me. He pulled out large hanks of her long hair so it lay covered in blood on the lino. He stabbed my chest in rage with an index finger, repeating viciously "You're no good. You'll never be any bloody good...." This was followed by solid punching, usually around the head.

One response was to stay away from home. Family poverty meant part-time jobs at a young age - newspaper rounds, delivering Labour party football tickets. At 13 I started running away. I spent long nights shivering on the Houghton Cut. The police would pick me up, take me home, only to get another beating after they left. I started to hitch further afield in noisy lorries down the old A1. I was heading southwards to escape. I lived rough in London, sleeping on copies of the Evening Standard in Throgmorton Street and on the Embankment; sheltering under bridges in the rain; trying to sleep in the rail stations before the transport police moved everybody; waiting the long hours until shops and offices finally opened to start begging. Begging attracts fantasies. Nobody makes much money. Almost everyone gets frozen, wet and feels humiliated. People mostly ignore you; sometimes they get furious; occasionally they throw a few coins.

When I was 15 I returned home one Saturday morning to hear shouting and screaming. My father had beaten up my mother. She lay crumpled on the floor, a mass of torn hair and bloody scalp. His face was red with violence and he was looking for more destruction. He came at me with fists raised. He got my arm in a wrestler's hold. I was furious beyond fear and punched him in the stomach, knocking him to the floor. I tumbled on top of him, bending his arms and wrists back. He struggled but could not get up. After some breathless minutes, I let him up and he rushed out to the road. He never hit me or my mother again. I had broken both of his wrists. Two days later he sent a badly written letter to the headmaster of my school saying I was completely out of control. I then received another, more official, beating.

I was furious about what happened to my mother and me and how little help we received. We were brutalised not only by my father but by the ineptitude of the various services - welfare, police, the probation and the infamous National Assistance Board. My father went in and out of mental hospital during my late teens and each time came out worse. I found solace in reading and writing poetry. I took long walks in the countryside.

Over the years, I worked hard to pass exams for Hull University. It was an immense culture shock, entering this constipated middle-class world. Even now the Cambridge colleges, close to where I live, seem like an alien universe. Later I trained as a psychiatric social worker at the London School of Economics. I have worked with homeless people for much of my career, writing books like Homeless and The Survivors, and run shelters for women in Lambeth and Soho.

My inheritance is years of depression that still continue, interspersed with a deep capacity for survival. Marriage and the birth of two sons brought tremendous challenges as rage sometimes overwhelmed me. But there are many internal costs - anger, suicide attempts, still waking up in the middle of the night expecting a fist, and the long sobs for a lost childhood. Some years ago, I became a Zen Buddhist to find peace and in 1982 was ordained as a monk. It is a big step up from being a psychiatric patient but not necessarily less crazy.

Now I am a middle-aged professor in community care at Anglia Polytechnic University, mainly teaching social work students. The most socially disabled people live in night shelters, with little support, just as they always have. Men like my long dead father go in and out of psychiatric hospitals with only an outside chance of any resettlement.

I often refer scathingly to the universities as "retirement homes". The staff live right outside the world I knew for so long, the homeless people with dogs in our market square, the sellers of the Big Issue. We are comfortable, righteous and perhaps largely irrelevant people. I have learnt to be profoundly agnostic about academia. Are we relevant to anything? Do our courses make any real difference? I am never sure about my work. Every year brings higher mountains of forms and more committees. Vice chancellors are usually photographed receiving large cheques. Once we gave some semblance of pursuing knowledge but now it is all about chasing cash.

Naively I still want to make life better for others. I try to see some social work clients, so I can be reminded about the issues. I have just come off the phone talking to a man with physical disabilities whose paid carers did not come this morning to get him out of bed. Academics without current practice tend to counsel an unrealistic perfection, rather than the ephemeral bodges necessary for real practice, with little time and scarce resources.

I want to see service users get some real power for a change. My experience in orthopaedic units and with mental health services leads to a deep suspicion of power-hungry professionals. Over the past ten years we have pressed for direct payments, real cash for clients with disabilities. I want to find clear links between applied research and good practice. This leads to work like our "Homeless in Cambridge - extreme poverty amid affluence" study and to trying to link with homelessness overseas, in Bucharest, Romania and Kiev, Ukraine. Next year at Anglia we plan to introduce some fresh courses in advocacy and counselling. There are myriad courses in counselling but few in practical advocacy. It is no good listening sensitively, if you cannot make a case to those who can provide appropriate resources.

Anglia has been among the first universities to welcome socially excluded citizens. Our students include many mental health service users. Courses encourage the mixing of students with severe learning difficulties with so-called ordinary students. It is a distinctive element of our courses that those with direct experience of services and disabilities do much of the teaching.

There are compensations in academic life. There is all that magnificent black humour from the pious Blunketeers, exhorting us to do twice as much for half their salaries and less than a quarter of their resources. There is the great pleasure of seeing social work students understand something for the first time. There is the family pleasure of knowing that my two sons, one an academic, grew up in a warm and violence-free home. And there is the huge excitement of reading new books, crammed with ideas, a diverting pleasure long ago learned in my unhappy home.

David Brandon is professor of community care at Anglia Polytechnic University and co-editor of Breakthrough, the international mental health journal.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments