Tackling a taboo – Kate Anthony
Kate Anthony reveals Beautiful Day is about a subject matter close to her heart – social care. ♥
Background for Beautiful Day
Over twenty years ago I worked as a residential social worker. It was my first job and I was young, inexperienced, very eager and therefore probably quite annoying. Over a period of several years, I worked in a number of care homes for adults with learning disabilities. Despite enjoying the work very much, at the end of the eighties, my career path changed dramatically and that was the end of my time as a social worker.
Years later, I had finally girded my loins sufficiently to sit down and write a book and to my surprise I decided that the setting in which I wanted to place my story was the world of social care. It seemed the most natural thing and having initially planned for a care home to inhabit just a small part of the story, it ended up taking on a far more significant role. If you were to take a can opener to my skull, goodness knows what my sub-conscious would reveal about my wanting to return to that time, but it just felt right. Plus, I have a younger brother, Nicholas, who has Down’s Syndrome and so the world of learning disabilities has been a constant in my life and a place which has always inspired me.
My intention in writing Beautiful Day was never to create an issue-lead story – let’s face it, to be described as ‘worthy’ can be the kiss of death for any book. It was simply a case of my sitting down to write something and this is what came out. I did not set out to raise any specific issues – the story was always the main focus as I wrote – but if, by placing the central characters in the care system, I do prompt people to think about that world more, then that to me is a positive thing.
As I began to write, I was aware that social care is an unusual subject matter for a novel and I did worry that potential readers might be put off, thinking that the story could be a bit grim. So, I set about describing the different characters that inhabit Clifton Avenue, a medium-sized, residential care home, hoping that the reader would warm and relate to the staff and residents. But my book is not a crusade. My primary intention was never to shine a campaigning light on the world of social care for people who have not experienced it. Having said that, I dearly hope that anyone reading it with some pretty dismal pre-conceived ideas of how they think a place like Clifton Avenue would be run, will finish the book better informed.
I wanted to convey the laughter and the fun of working in this environment. My main memory of a care home is of the joy of walking into work and being welcomed by the residents. In some cases you will be the nearest thing to family that an individual will have – that is a huge responsibility and there’s no excuse not to give the work your all, and the rewards are huge. On the whole, the institutions that I worked in were bright, happy places, staffed by committed, hard-working people. Yes it was incredibly challenging at times, but what satisfying work isn’t? I wanted this to be reflected in the book.
So why not just write about all the positives of working in social care? Well, I didn’t want to take a Pollyanna approach. To do that would not do justice to the system and to the people who work in it, and strive to improve the lives of those they support. I had worked for an agency to get extra shifts and this meant that I was exposed to a good cross-section of the realities of the profession. It meant that I would work one night in a brand-new purpose-built home for thirty or more residents with all sorts of needs, and the next in a converted house for three or four severely autistic young men. It meant that I got to see every dimension of residential care at that time and although in the main standards were excellent, occasionally I would find myself watching Eastenders with a room full of bored residents and de-motivated staff. The culture of some places was stifling and deeply depressing – I found it had nothing to do with the furnishings or the quality of the building or the level of help the residents needed, it all came down to the staff and most importantly to whomever was in charge. It felt important to replicate this and to be honest. Besides, few good stories will emerge from presenting only the very best of something: it will smack of a lack of realism and we all like to learn a little about what happens when things go wrong.
I would never have had the nerve to approach this subject matter unless I had some experience of it, because it is an area which in the main I think people are hesitant to explore. We worry about saying the wrong thing, appearing disrespectful or using the wrong terminology. Is it still OK to say Special Needs? What’s the difference between Learning Difficulties or Learning Disabilities? Is it wrong to use the term handicapped? It’s a minefield and I’m out of date myself. Also, as the central character, Rachel, has some laughs at the expense of her charges, I worried that readers might think that she was being insolent or mocking the characters involved. Eventually I came to the conclusion, that if you are writing about this topic you have to be honest, describing the eccentric behaviour of the residents warts and all – just as you would the staff room of a big comprehensive or busy office. A care home is simply an extension of normal life full of individuals, some of whom are delightful, some of whom are unfailingly grumpy or difficult, some of whom are all three in the same day. It is just a group of people who need a bit of extra support but in all other ways are just as diverse and bonkers as the rest of us.
I think that Beautiful Day is probably to residential social work what Inspector Morse is to modern day policing methods. My memories of working in that field are twenty years old and I know that procedures and terminology will have changed dramatically. However, the book is fiction. Foremost it is a story and therefore relies on characters and plot and the creation of a believable world and I made a conscious decision not to get bogged down in risk assessments or jargon that would stall the story or be a distraction. What I hope is that although a social worker reading Beautiful Day might not recognize the rutines of life at Clifton Avenue exactly, the essence of a care home would be very familiar; the chaos, the challenges, the laughter.
Tackling a Taboo…
I never thought I would get a book published, let alone one about a subject matter so close to my heart and I am very grateful to Penguin for having faith in me and my story. I’m proud that Beautiful Day is on the bookshelves now and, if I’m honest, all the more so because it asks the reader to relate to and have empathy with such an eclectic band of characters. Hopefully I have created a vivid picture which will make people who have no experience of social care feel just a little bit less wary of those with learning disabilities. The better informed we are, the less likely we are to look away as so many must have done in the case of the horrific abuse at Winterbourne View. Obviously one little book won’t make a difference, but if there were lots and lots of books and television programmes and films and newspaper articles and blogs, then the Phillips, Keiths, Rosemarys and Martins of Beautiful Day would never be forgotten and the shocking instances of neglect that we see routinely in the papers, would disappear.
Kate Anthony grew up in the Midlands. On graduating, she began working as a residential social worker firstly with young offenders and later with vulnerable adults. She then joined the BBC, working as a producer in comedy for some years before moving to an independent production company as a drama producer. She lives close to Brighton with her family.