Please send me SCA's fortnightly briefing:

< Back to '20th May 2020' briefing

May 19, 2020

A sadness without knowing

One of the unintended consequences of writing this briefing, is that some of you who read it occasionally respond to the pieces that I include – sometimes to take issue with something I’ve written, occasionally to voice support but most of the time, in good spirit.  Although I rarely ever meet these correspondents, over time it can feel like a relationship of sorts is being struck. So it was with someone called Bob Hamilton whose views on community work always seemed closely aligned to my own.  Reading his obituary in Bella Caledonia recently, I felt an odd sense of loss. 

Mike Small, Bella Caledonia

Robert Hamilton, pioneering community development worker, sociologist and political campaigner (1940 – 2019).

This is something I’ve been putting off for weeks, months actually. I don’t really want to write my friends obituary and it’s something I’ve been avoiding through grief and guilt. But now in the Groundhog Day of the covid fugue state, facing death seems not just appropriate but compelling.

Maybe we need to get better at remembering and grieving.

Bob had dementia in his later years and meeting him was a gamble in consciousness and recollection followed by a fear when he left you, would he make it home, was he all there? It was a stark contrast to the man who taught me sociology and politics (Baldwin and Marcuse and Freire).  Bob supported a thousand teenage dreams of me and my friends, listening endlessly and patiently and supportively to our ridiculous ideas. Bob was my mum and dads friend but he became ours with a dissection of politics and society through the endless Eighties into the disappointing Nineties and beyond.

In the 70s and then the 80s Bob would arrive with a serious carry-out at my mum and dads house. These were people who were probably already very well stocked but the addition of a bottle of Black Bottle and a couple of bottles of red wine were a commitment and a statement of intent with a clink.

Bob’s dialectical thinking was slightly different to Hegel’s. The world was separated between people who were “arseholes” and people who weren’t “arseholes”.

The distinction was quite arbitrary but normally ran down the following: careerists, sell-outs, managers, Tories, members of the poverty industry were immediately arseholes. Non arseholes were a rarer breed. The analysis was sweeping and memorable.

If you were a non-arsehole you had Bob’s undying loyalty, and one of Bob’s qualities was endless loyalty.

Bob was brought up in Cardross with his mum his sister Margo and his brothers Ian and Leonard. He was a life-long friend to many, a humorous and caustic wit, a voracious reader and a champion of innovative education and community development. His early work was in Aberdeen at the reknowned St Kathryn’s Club and Community Centre run by the Rev Jack McLennan. It was known as St Ks and is now the Lemon Tree.

Bob, and colleagues Edith, Ian Kerr and John Mack arrived in Aberdeen in 1963 having completed a course in Community Education at Moray House in Edinburgh. Bob and Edith lived in the flat above St Ks.  There were many late night discussions there with a whole range of people involved in youth or community work in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire. This was the 1960s and ideas of radical pegagogy, community empowerment and libertarian theology were percolating across Scotland.

A lifelong friend, Iain Craik recounts: “I first met him when I was 16 at the Beehive in Aberdeen (early 1964). At this time he ran the Klub in Inverurie before going to Aberdeen University in 1968 to do an MA. This was when we ran the campaign to get Robin Blackburn elected as Rector at Aberdeen University (the summer of 68!). Joe Grimmond was rushed in to stand as the conventional candidate and just won!”

Conter magazine explains:

“In Aberdeen, the left organised behind the New Left intellectual Robin Blackburn, whose 1967 essay on inequality publicised the Economist article that is supposed to have inspired the name of John McGrath’s 7:84 theatre company.”

Bob picked Blackburn up from the airport and they were convinced they were being tracked by Special Branch.

Community Work North

Bob was a Sunday school teacher and then youth worker in Glasgow before doing one of the first youth work courses at Moray House. He was at Aberdeen College of Education from 1974 until the merger of Dundee and Aberdeen colleges of education in 1986. During his time at University he ran an American Summer camp in Spain in the summer vacations. He started at the College in Aberdeen in 1972 as a lecturer with Isobel McPhail before taking over as Head of Dept in 1974.

He was responsible for the creation of Community Work North, the rural apprenticeship training course, an urban apprenticeship training course. The unique features of the two year diploma course being the way in which courses were delivered and the fight against the professionalisation of community work. From 1986 -1991 he worked with Professor Lalage Bown at University of Glasgow in the Department of Adult and Continuing Education teaching Sociology.

Bob worked in a variety of Community Work jobs over a forty year period. During this time he has had responsibility for the delivery of a number of Certificate, Diploma and Degree programmes in Community Work and contributed to other undergraduate and post graduate courses. As Head of the Youth and Community Department in Aberdeen College of Education, and working with local authorities in the North of Scotland, he was responsible for the development of a 3-year work based Community Work diploma. This was funded by the ‘first in Europe’ programme run by the European Social Fund. Subsequently, he was involved in it’s metamorphosis into a work based Degree programme based in the University of Glasgow.

During the late eighties and early nineties he was Chair of CHYP (Council for Housing Young People) in Maryhill in Glasgow, which pioneered the idea that vulnerable homeless young people could have accommodation until such time as they were given a house, rather than the two or three weeks offered by other services. After this he developed the Linked Work and Training Trust Grampian from 1990/91 until 1998 and also the development of LWTT Central which continued until 2002. After this he worked for Age Action Ireland based in Dublin for two years from 1999-2001. He was the Chair of the Poverty Alliance from 1998-2000 and worked for the Richmond Fellowship from 2000-2004.

Bob had a searing analysis of the problems in community work and community education, which he spent his lifetime trying to solve.

He wrote:

“As far as Community Education as an entity is concerned it is in my view, a spent force. That is if it ever was a potent force. A major problem has been the central contradiction of a ‘service’ tied into a power structure through the control exercised by the major employers and funded by the government. Its rhetoric has always been around a commitment to the community’s agenda and often within that to those who lack power. The result of this often conveniently ignored contradiction has been the inability to pursue the logic of a commitment to those with little power and few resources. This would almost certainly cause problems and is usually discouraged. Instead those with a vested interest in the preservation of the status quo have followed the conventional route of attempting to establish an elite group whose major task was to serve that status quo often in the name of democracy. In simple terms they decided whose side they were on and you can be assured it wasn’t on the side of the communities that they claim a commitment to serve.”

Bob’s work and legacy is important, but maybe more so the integrity he brought to his life.

At a service to remember him in Aberdeen earlier this year organised by his friend Dave Simmers, people remembered him.

They remembered him being arrested and charged on the Springboks demonstration in 1968. They remembered him in the pub in Aberdeen – The Butchers, The Ashgrove Lounge, and others, holding forth with pipe in hand. But mostly they remembered him as someone who would engage you in conversation and genuinely listen. People were asked to bring photos to remember Bob by and they were all the same: pictures of Bob hunched over listening to the other person.

Bob’s legacy is maybe not the huge and innovative work he did in developing and protecting community work, it as a friend to so many and someone who cared and somebody who would listen. That’s a rare thing these days.

Bob was self-effacing to the point of detriment, but his achievements and integrity stand out in an era of opportunism and narcissism.

He loved Iona and Amsterdam and Glasgow and Aberdeen. He loved Old Holborn and Black Bottle and putting the world to rights.

Bob you were loved and admired more than you will ever know and your legacy is love and listening.