Andrew Motion
Human Skill



Hyphen-21 is a UK charity. It was set up in 1994 to articulate and advocate for the qualities, skills and conditions required for positive connection with other people, particularly with those on the edges and outskirts of society, or in emotional difficulty. 

The charity was formed at the suggestion of Phyllida Parsloe, then Professor of Social Work at the University of Bristol. She proposed it as an independent voice for a principled “social work” stand-point, in response to different events and behaviours in our fractured society, as these occurred. Through the consistency of its responses, offered over time, it would seek to establish and clarify and win authority for its position. Abstract statements of aim or intent, or codes set out in absolute terms, would be insufficient.

On consideration, the implications of this approach seemed more general and more important than the status or purpose of one particular profession. Can relationship of its own be healing ? Is skill required in that process ? If so, what skills ? Are they innate, or can they be taught, developed, improved, through practice ? And does empathy play a part in this ? If so, what really is empathy ? Is it powerful ? How so ? Is it material ? What helps empathy be effective, a positive force ? What hinders it ?

That is just a list of questions. But of course, the small circle of people responsible for setting up the charity had some of their own answers and saw a prioritizing of empathy, for instance, not just as necessary to a healing relationship, but as central to any healthy community. The charity’s very title derives from that notion – the hyphen is a between construction. I and you others, or other, arrive at it together. It connects us and makes something new. For “Hyphen-21” is actually a reference to a book by the late Martin Buber called “I and Thou.”  Throughout that book, he posits two necessary human positions and forms of relationship, like the poles on one planet ; he names them “I – It” and “I – Thou.” It is the hyphen between I and Thou with which this charity is chiefly concerned, as being the more central, the more vulnerable and also the more grievously under threat in our time. (The number “21” in our title refers of course to the present century). Truth is told on the hyphen between I and Thou. The lie and puerile slogan are only possible on the hyphen between I and It.

The charity’s founders never conceived of it as an agency that would actually own or run anything, as such. Instead, it would seek to do its work by highlighting particular initiatives associated with good practice, excellence of approach. Let these make the case and do the real talking. The charity would identify, stand for, promote, seek to support.  

And thereby, we hoped, it might help in some small way to shift priorities, from the quantitative to the qualitative, from the Me ‘n Mine to the Us and Ours, from the left hand side of the brain to the right, from the rigid to the flexible, from the increasingly regressive to the increasingly creative. 

This Home page has been revised in the summer of 2021. Things have moved on since 1994. This summer, it cannot be said, of course, that the shifting of priorities we had hoped for nearly thirty years ago has taken place. Quite the contrary. The tendencies we saw and feared in the early 1990’s have carried on growing in strength and gathering pace. In the UK, the act of wanton destruction we still call Brexit is now many months in the past ; the much more recent Covid-19 is still hovering and threatening and changing lives ; and the reclaiming of Afghanistan by the Taliban is just days old. In the meantime and always present, the threat of uncontrollable global warming looms ever larger and closer. Political structures capable of dealing coherently with these events and developments continue ever more incapable and ever more anachronistic. The UK’s present government seems more concerned to make an open smirky mock and pretence of good governance, than to govern. 

So this charity cannot claim to have been a significant change-agent or even presence. That, however, does not make it a mistake or irrelevant. 

And over the years since its founding, Hyphen-21 has changed a great deal as well, in some ways unexpectedly. 

For instance, we thought it wouldn’t run anything. In fact, for more than 20 years, it has been running an international  project supported by numerous funding bodies, now called “Poems for…the wall.” For a while, that project shared this website, but then, in 2008, the UK Poet Laureate of that time, Andrew Motion, launched a website designed specifically for the “Poems for…the wall.” Now, all the poem-posters presently available can be downloaded from there, free of charge. Many of them are bilingual, with over fifty languages represented. At the time of writing, this number is soon to increase. The site’s address is https://poemsforthewall.org

Also, for a while, this website featured and promoted particular initiatives in the community. These were often under the heading of mental health social work. But we have decided that, for maximum effectiveness and clarity, these too should have their own website, to be called “Better mental health working.” Eventually, that site will go live and this one will link to it. 

And the Hyphen-21 site will continue in that role – on the one hand, as a set of general statements of principle (see “Background” above) ; on the other hand, as a kind of doorway, or antechamber, or directory, to the various topics and initiatives with which Hyphen-21 is now concerned.    

Finally, I want to refer here to the late Mary Young. Mary was a psychotherapist and historian, amongst other things. From first to last, she was also a Hyphen-21 Trustee – from the charity’s launch to her own death in 2012. And in addition and to a large degree, she was both my supervisor and soul-mate. For a while, Mary’s biography of Augustin Robespierre, a serious piece of lonely research, beautifully written, but only recognised as such a few months before she died, was available on the website of Kingston University. It has now been taken down, due to the university’s radical reduction of its history department. With the permission of Professor Marisa Linton, whose enormous help in this business needs to be acknowledged, I am linking to Marisa’s updated pdf of Mary’s book here.

And here let it stay, at least until it finds a more suitable and more permanent home. If anyone is interested in buying the paperback book of Augustin, I have a handful of copies available.  

And here is a poem called “Augustin Doing Life.” It was suggested by this curious and rather beautiful story which brought together the lives and times of Augustin Robespierre and his biographer Mary Young, each drawing the other into the light.



Hyphen-21 is a registered charity and a company limited by guarantee.

Rogan Wolf

Director Hyphen-21


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