Malcolm Ball [1959-2021]: the improvisational activist supreme

The world of youth and community work has lost a remarkable character in Malcolm Ball. He was a founding member of In Defence and a member of its Steering Group until the end. Tony Taylor, his close comrade and collaborator has penned this loving reminiscence. As Tony says in his postscript we hope that other reminiscences, in whatever form and however brief, will follow.

Malcolm Ball [1959-2021], dearest friend and comrade: Rest in Power

“ It seems to me” [Malcolm Ball]

“ We do not have any Book to recommend whose reading would exempt one from having  to seek the truth for oneself” [Cornelius Castoriadis]

“To do nothing and grumble and not to act – that is throwing one’s life away” [William Morris]

Our journey together began one evening on the Scraptoft campus of the Leicester Polytechnic sometime in 1983. Since that chance moment, our odyssey has been inextricably intertwined. Malcolm was a fresh-faced student on the Youth and Community course. I had been invited to speak to an article I had written, ‘Anti-sexist youth work with young men’, a fumbling effort to respond to the vital issues raised by increasingly confident feminist youth workers.  At the end, Malcolm approached me, inquisitive and challenging in exploring what I’d been trying to say. Above all, he stressed his admiration and support for the provisional nature of my thoughts. He ventured that my self-effacing claim, ‘this is my best understanding for now’ was, as he put it, ‘blindin’.  Within a few weeks as our friendship blossomed I realised that Malcolm’s version of my cautionary caveat was the succinct preface, ‘it seems to me’. This turn of phrase delivered in his soft, sometimes hardly audible Deptford accent echoes across the four decades of our comradeship.

Malcolm with Bernard Davies

In the ensuing years, we spent a lot of time together on trains, in cars and on foot. Our conversations were dominated by our political allegiance, a desire to play a part albeit small in changing the world. Interestingly we never applied political labels to one another, even though, my Marxism saw me in and out of political parties and sects for quite some time. Malcolm was a freer spirit, resisting the safety afforded by signing up to an ideology.  Ironically his agnosticism meant that on demonstrations he was warmly welcomed by friends from across the political spectrum. This said, sometimes enough was enough. I remember a NALGO Broad Left meeting in the early 1990s where its Socialist Worker Party leadership argued we were on the brink of insurrection. In welcoming such a historical moment Malcolm asked cheekily, ‘in that case where are the Kalishnakovs?’ In support, I ventured that my village cricket team’s committee was infinitely better run than the Broad Left itself. Lacking both firearms and organisation we expressed our fear that we might well mess up the opportunity to overthrow the State.  We were ignored by the stern-faced platform but congratulated by those in the hall with a sense of humour and a grip on reality.

Central to Malcolm’s politics was a faith in the power of collective activity from below. His story is one of creative involvement in a succession of diverse social and political groupings. To give you a taste in roughly chronological order.

  • In Leicester in the 80s we formed  a  Community Education Workers support group with the embarrassing acronym, SYRUP, together with the mandatory membership of the ‘Dirty Thirty’ Miners Support Group. As Malcolm would reflect later the year 1984/85 was one of a vibrant popular education, of which we were privileged to be a part.
  • Within the Community Youth Workers Union, he became a key member of the Socialist Caucus, which became a thorn in the side of the National Committee, calling the body to account for the slightest deviation from conference policy. Not surprisingly, a dear friend, Sue Atkins, then President, dubbed us ‘a bunch of shites in whining armour’. She had a point! In the 90s following our defection to NALGO  to join the ranks of other local government workers, a move advocated by Malcolm, we continued as a socialist caucus, meeting regularly in places as far apart as Wigan, London and Exeter. These weekends combined animated debate and much frolicking, oiled by real ale and retsina, serviced by Malcolm knocking up fried egg butties and me ironing everybody’s Saturday Night’s Live outfits. In short a classic youth work residential.
  • In the same decade Malcolm contributed to the emergence of the short-lived, heretical and thought-provoking initiative, the Revolutionary Social Network, which sought to bring together anarchists, Marxists and socialists in open discussion and allied activity.
  • As the new century dawned the remnants of the Socialist Caucus with Malcolm to the fore formed the Critically Chatting Collective: Youth, Community and Beyond, which again organised events around the country. One topic, close to his heart, was how to refuse management’s right to manage.
  • By 2008 the Collective’s low key success led Malcolm and me to wonder in the light of the neoliberal banking crisis whether a broader call to defend young person-centred practice would be heard. The result was the Open Letter, which catalysed the creation of In Defence of Youth Work, which lives on today. Malcolm has been a prominent Steering Group member since its inception, even as his illness bore down upon him.
Malcolm and Tony chatting critically in a Greek garden

Leave aside the radical but brief episode in CYWU’s history, wherein caucusing was defined as the lifeblood of a democratic union, all of the collectives described here treasured their independence from the formal institutions. As Malcolm insisted, we met in our own time, on our terms without permission from above, taking our inspiration from the women’s, black and gay liberation movements. He was anxious too that all of these groups were inclusive, not exclusive. Hence they were pluralist in character, desiring sharp exchanges of views yet seeking, if possible, common ground. Thinking of Malcolm in this context is to evoke an ironic smile. In his early CYWU days he gained the reputation of being a headbanger, a working-class lad not to be crossed.  To our shame we went along sometimes with the caricature, laughing about his ‘Donkey-jacket’ moments and confessing to shifting seats away from him when he rose to speak. He enjoyed making us all squirm. Yet in reality, he was the exact opposite of the stereotype. He was a mediator and conciliator, looking always to forge a shared sense of purpose, warning against blaming ‘the Other’, whoever that might be.

The pen portrait of the youth worker to be found in the Open Letter might well have been inspired by Malcolm. Perchance it was.

The essential significance of the youth worker, whose outlook, integrity and autonomy are at the heart of fashioning a serious yet humorous, improvisatory yet rehearsed educational practice with young people.

He was the very embodiment of a thoughtful yet spontaneous youth work offered with a twinkle in the eye. In his later endeavours within the Young Mayor’s Project and its European offshoots what stands out is his refusal to countenance training the young people to adopt the behaviours expected by the establishment. Young representatives entering the political stage were not offered scripts or role models. Rather they were encouraged to be themselves, to trust their intuition and to speak their truth to power. By all accounts, for much of the time the impact of such openness was something to behold.

Whilst fancying myself as something of an improviser in my relationships with young people I don’t think I was ever as brave as Malcolm in flying by the seat of my pants. And when it came to operating in the world of formal education his laid-back approach drove me to distraction. When preparing a speech or workshop, say, for a conference I was diligence itself, arriving with sheaves of handwritten notes for security. To my credit I never once used PowerPoint! On the other hand, Malcolm budged not one inch from his confidence that ‘all would be alright on the night’. On one occasion we were down to do a double act. Dutifully I sent in advance my profuse notes with detailed instructions on how we could dovetail seamlessly our contributions. Cometh the day he ignored utterly my manicured proposal and went off on one, as we used to say. The audience was wooed and our session closed to generous applause. He winked at me as if to say, ‘you worry too much’. I was lost for words.

I was more at ease with an alternative version of our doubles pairing. In this performance I offered the meticulously prepared input from the stage whilst Malcolm waited in the wings, ready to reveal his take on the question in hand. In fact he took to hovering on his feet at the back of the room, awaiting the perfect moment to intervene. The only snag from my point of view was that sometimes he was so carried away with the sharpness of his insight he began to revisit its acuity unnecessarily, prompting me to wave as if asking for the bill in a taverna but rather calling on him to wind up. Let me tell you he was not well pleased.

Malcolm in February 2020 illustrating his love of Greece and Europe

In recent years both of us have criticised the consolidation of a form of neoliberal behavioural youth work, which ducks explicitly purpose and politics. At a European conference in Plymouth we asked:

Do we wish to manufacture the emotionally resilient young person, who will put up with the slings and arrows of antagonistic social policies, accept their precarious lot and do the best for themselves – utterly individualised and responsibilised?

Or

Do we wish to play a part, however fragile and uncertain, in the emergence of a young critical citizen, committed to challenging their lot in concert with one another and indeed ourselves, struggling to forge a more just and equal society, believing that ‘another world is possible’?

On a less grand level, Malcolm argued that our task is to support young people becoming who they want to be. Isn’t this risky, you might ask? What if they turn out differently than we hope? In responding he would invoke the IDYW definition of youth work: volatile and voluntar,y, creative and collective – an association and conversation without guarantees. Going on, though, he would stress his faith in the unlimited potential of convivial conversation, of chatting critically about our lived circumstances, knowing that issues of oppression and exploitation would emerge ‘naturally’. The notion of imposing enlightenment via behaviourism was anathema to him, a contradiction in terms.

Last year in October Malcolm made an enormous effort to come to Crete, determined to tell of his terminal illness face-to-face. It was fitting that our last physical meeting took place on Greek soil. We, together with close friends and partners, had become unashamed Graecophiles. Being on the island allowed us to revisit memories, of many a cheeky retsina imbibed, of much-loved tavernas, of stunning beaches and dramatic mountain walks. Tears flowed with the wine and the Mythos beer Malcolm craved.

As you might expect the week allowed us to take a deep breath together about the past, present and future. There were elements of despondency in our discourse.

  • We shared our frustration at the continuing ‘formalisation of the informal’, symbolised on the IDYW Facebook page by the requests for what were in all but name, lesson plans. So too, we touched upon IDYW’s failure to become a living network of worker and academic activists, blaming obviously the neoliberal undermining of the instinct of solidarity as well as pondering to what extent professionalisation had sapped our independent spirit.
  • Linked to this question of self-organisation we revisited the perennial dilemma of agency. If change is to take place, who will make it happen? Or as Castoriadis puts it, “to what extent does the contemporary situation give birth in people the desire and capacity to create a free and just society?” When faced with our aspiration to change what’s going on, Malcolm had always asked what social force supports our desire? Without which we are pissing in the wind.
  • Inexorably this did lead us to our analysis of the contemporary situation. We shared our anxiety about a society sleep-walking into authoritarianism. We marked the shift to a technocratic capitalism, the rule of unelected and unaccountable experts. We expressed our distaste and disdain, often visible, for behavioural psychologists.

At this point, I was sinking into a trough of despond, but Malcolm wouldn’t have it. Facing imminent death himself he wasn’t for being miserabilist. He affirmed that we had a moral and political obligation to those, who had gone before us to continue the fight for a better world, to defend their hard-won gains. Brushing aside my frustration that he had rarely set pen to paper except in text, smiling at my charge that if he’d spent less time on the phone he might have, he extolled me to keep on, keep on writing. As we bad each other a tearful farewell he mooted that faced with Dystopia we must revive our belief in Utopia; that technocracy must be defeated by democracy.

In the aftermath of his visit I found myself, wondering how well we knew one another. This was sparked by a question about how much we knew about each other’s personal lives. The implication was that we steered clear of sharing our emotions, being typically male. The cliched generalisation didn’t fit. We loved another and said so publicly, hugged and kissed. We were passionate politically about the future of humanity. That is enough for me.

In the shadow of his death I am determined to do his bidding. I won’t retreat into an idiotic, private life. Sadly a hope that I could interview him about his Youth Work Journey fell foul of the encroaching cancer. What I do recognise now, more than ever, is that, as I wrote, Malcolm was often holding the pen with me; that my scribbling was always influenced by our eclectic conversations, even if sometimes we seemed to be talking in riddles. In this sense I will continue a commentary on youth work and beyond, knowing that Malcolm is beside me, whispering into my ear, ‘it seems to me’…….

La Lutta Continua

Ο αγώνας συνεχίζεται

The struggle continues

“It is not what is, but what could be and should be, that has need of us.” [Cornelius Castoriadis}

Tony Taylor

Postscript

There are many gaps in this reminiscence. I have consciously left out names. I didn’t know where to begin and end in terms of introducing people into my recollection. It is my hope that the missing people will offer their own reminiscences and thus write themselves into the story, contributing to a fuller account of Malcolm’s memorable life. If you feel so moved, send your memories to tonymtaylor@gmail.com 

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