I met Malcolm in 1998 after I landed a job managing “The Creekside Youth Action Scheme ” – the youth section of a bigish regeneration initiative in Deptford . I’d had a couple of youth work jobs before this one, but it was a big step up and had the layers of management above me not fallen apart soon after I started they would have realised just how out of my depth I was pretty quickly. As it was, as part of my “welcome to your new job” conversation where my boss informed me she was leaving in a month, she also gave me a list of people I should get to know – Malcolm was 2nd on the list.
I met him first though. Richard MacVicar, or Mac, the manager of the local adventure playground which since his death now bears his name, and who through a web of creative accountancy ensured I had the match funding my project required, had been first on the list, but when I’d called him he’d said he was up to his eyes building a new swing and suggested I call Mal – Mal was more up on what was going on with the youth work in the area anyway and I could catch up with Mac the following week.
Mal suggested we meet in a little cafe at the New Cross end of Deptford High St the next evening. It was a grim evening but when I arrived Mal was waiting outside with another colleague, Janet Currier, both in regulation youth work black jeans and Docs, and both with reassuring and welcoming smiles. ” Let’s get a cup o’ tea.”
That evening MaI and Janet made me feel like part of the furniture. I spent a good couple of hours with them telling me about all the projects in the area, who were the “foot soldiers” and what they were up to, which managers and decision makers “got it”, which centres I could use, who had a bus and where I could get a pie and a pint (Manze’s and The Bird in Hand ).
I left feeling like I was part of something, and that sense of solidarity, of being a fellow traveller, was something that Mal had a gift for instilling. I never really got the ” In Love and Struggle ” thing that Mal used to sign off with – he had the ability even in the darkest times to shrug it off and crack on. He never came across to me as having ‘struggles’, more endeavours, projects or schemes that he always seemed to find some pleasure in.
I worked with Mal in Deptford for knocking on for 3 years. During this time we were both active in a loose conglomeration of projects in the area, collectively named The Deptford Youth Forum. While initially this seemed like the usual “give updates, catch up, and share staff ” kind of set up, it later became plain to me that this, in a typically gentle way, was an example of Mal’s commitment to collectivism in action. Those 3 years saw the Forum move from a semi-regular meeting of staff, to managing to procure a disused pub on Deptford High Street and convert it into a thriving Youth and Community Project through the tireless nudging, networking and optimism of Mal and Janet. The assumption was that we were all in this together – that whoever we worked for, the job was the same – solidarity and collectivism again – and I can see how some of it may have been a struggle, if it hadn’t been in such good company, and so much fun.
Those years also saw the beginning of the project Mal would work on for the rest of his life – the Lewisham Young Mayors. At the time Lewisham Council had decided to set up a Youth Council in the Image of the adult version; elections, Councillors, the whole package. While this was doubtless an admirable ambition, Mal’s first thought was for the young people we worked with, who weren’t really Councillor material – opinionated, certainly, and more than capable of forming an argument, and calling out injustice – just not the types to stand for election and sit in a council chamber. Mal saw no reason why these young people shouldn’t be heard, and using the name The Deptford Youth Forum he managed to convince those in power that the young people of Deptford were organised and keen to have a voice. Events were arranged around the neighbourhood, to be attended by councillors and officers to hear the views of the Deptford Youth Forum, and in the days preceding them Mal and the rest of us scurried around letting all the young people in the area know they had a chance to say their piece. I’m sure that all the officers who attended those events believed they were talking to an organised group and equally sure that not many young people attended more than one event. But they were heard, and Mal’s commitment to ensuring the voice of those who aren’t necessarily the most vocal is heard, as far as I’m aware, shaped the project as it evolved into where it is today.
Mal used the phrase “ducking and diving ” frequently, but it only told half the story. His ducking and diving was always for a greater purpose, and in my experience was always with the welfare and growth of ordinary young people at its heart. It was this evident joy in, and commitment to the work that led me to pursue Youth Work as a career from then on – I loved the improvised, opportunistic and enthusiastic way that he, and the other workers I met during this time went about what was, at its root, a serious and worthwhile business.
I left Deptford in 2000 but Mal and I stayed in regular contact, always talking about the work we were Involved in. It was Mal who suggested I attend my first History of Youth Work conference and through this, and the wider network of equally committed colleagues he introduced me to, I realised that the solidarity I’d first experienced in Deptford extended throughout the world of Youth Work.
I’ve been involved in the work ever since, which has meant that 2 or 3 times a year I’ve caught up with Mal at a meeting or conference and we’ve been able to share time involved in the collective, edifying and thoroughly enjoyable struggle to defend, extend and consider Youth Work. I’ve always looked forward to catching up with him at those events – he brought a lightness into those rooms that came from his sincere care and regard for his fellows. It will be tougher to be upbeat without him around, but in his memory I shall try to keep the love in struggle.