Don's diary

February 9, 1996

TUESDAY. On the internal flight from Toronto to Vancouver, an airline stewardess anxiously asks me if I have a spare "loonie". Coming from a mainstream psychiatric setting in a university hospital, I am unsettled by the request, until I recall that a "loonie" is slang for a Canadian dollar - so called after their native water bird, a "loon". This bird is noted for its haunting, mournful cry - an unintended reflection on the unstable Canadian economy, perhaps?

WEDNESDAY. The grey concrete conference buildings at the University of British Columbia closely resemble the neo-brutalist style of my own academic base, with the advantage that the elevators (unlike our own) work perfectly. Passing up the pre-conference workshops to travel downtown on a trolley-bus I am taken by the driver's patience with several querulous passengers. An elderly, Italian-sounding woman comments on my bright blue jacket, observing that I must be "a good man - honest . . ." She says she is an artist, used to interpreting colours. I disembark, guiltily removing my jacket to sport a bright yellow T-shirt.

After the conference reception, several members numb their jet lag in the student union bar. A professor from Norway tells me that social workers in his country are on the offensive, successfully developing their professional influence despite an increasingly deregulated welfare economy. I ponder on the different meanings of "offensive" when recollecting the incoherence of practitioners and the ideological factionalism of educators in social work in the United Kingdom. Our dilution to an amorphous destiny as "case manager" seems assured.

THURSDAY. Dreams and psychotherapy is the theme of the conference address. For two nights, I have woken suddenly, fully alert for a day's work, after only two hours sleep. The eight-hour time difference does not allow my unconscious to relax. To compensate, I enter a waking dream state by wandering down to Wreck Beach, mid-afternoon.

FRIDAY. I breakfast with a UK member from the Midlands. My impending presentation on competence in psychodynamic practice soon leads us to bemoan the over-emphasis on competence approaches to training and practice in human services in the UK. We laugh grimly at an absurd but likely development in social work, counselling, and psychotherapy training; competence in developing practice competences.

News from home filters through. The Canadian media seem fascinated by our prime minister and refer frequently to our "almost unanimously conservative press". Television shows a public protest by First Nation people demanding land and tax concessions being defused by a woman with a pronounced Lancastrian accent, insisting: "We're all Canadians, love."

Still on the quest for dream-time, I visit the museum of anthropology. While admiring native Canadian house-poles and wood-carvings of beaver, whales, eagles and other wildlife, I wonder at our loss of ritual, and at the symbols that now inspire us. Has the mobile phone brought us closer, or is it an icon of the desperation of our attachments? Late that evening, I find myself in the real downtown of Vancouver; six police cars block a street while gun-wielding police officers loud-hail the public to stand clear as they handcuff a suspected drug dealer. Drug-users and drunks jostle each other with bleak camaraderie, a native Canadian in a wheel-chair slumps comatose by a broken public telephone. The smell of dirt, urine and sweat from doss-house doorways is familiar; the poverty matches my working patch back home.

SATURDAY. A key figure in psychotherapy research slides out of the auditorium as I am presenting my research, but I stumble on, regardless. Seven presentations run in parallel each day. I have been lucky; of the 400 members present, about 25 attend our session. Later, another UK member forlornly questions the wisdom of so many simultaneous sessions, disheartened to have been the sole attender at another presentation.

A cruise up the Vancouver estuary is scheduled as an end-of-conference celebration. The inner reaches of the estuary resemble Norwegian fjords, sheer conifer-clad slopes steeping up from still, dark-green water. As dusk falls, on the upper deck an American researcher and I debate the relative merits of psychological versus social means of meeting the needs of people suffering long-term mental illness.

As the boat heads back, the Vancouver shoreline appears as a bright smear of neon; the action downtown is just starting . . .

SUNDAY. The final morning, and a dense presentation on qualitative approaches to psychotherapy research. I hear a welcome exhortation to foster research that relates to "real world" experience, while in the same session I shudder at my first encounter with the word "verificationism". Real world language would be a useful start. Winding down, I visit the time warp that is Wreck Beach once more. Sea-planes roar incongruously overhead; huge containers of wood-chip dwarf the tug-boats that tow them across the bay to a chip-board processing plant; dream-time has become rude reality.

Malcolm Firth

University teacher and senior psychiatric social worker at the University of Manchester.

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