All posts by TOH

About TOH

I have recently completed a PhD in mathematical physics at Durham University in the beautiful North East of England and am about to start a job as an analyst (mathematical modeller) for a bank in Milton Keynes. I am a Christian of the Anglican-Methodist with liberal catholic sympathies type, which means basically that I am high-church but not fussy. TractorGirl is my partner. I like pizza.

Christian Aid Week

This Sunday marks the beginning of Christian Aid Week. I’m off preaching this Sunday, and this is my sermon:

 

Christian Aid Week Sermon

Genesis 1 : 1 – 28, 2 Corinthians 5 : 17 – 23

 

Imagine growing up as part of an oppressed people. You may never have known the land of your ancestors, of your heritage, and have only your parents’ and grandparents’ stories to go on. You may feel rootless, even be technically nationless, and worry if you’ll ever be able to go home. Worse, the place you’re at is not exactly wonderful, and danger feels just around the corner. I could be describing the plight of modern-day refugees throughout the world, but I’m actually thinking of the situation thatIsraelfound themselves in, over two-and-a-half millennia ago, in exile in Babylon. From those seventy years in captivity came some of the most powerful writings, poems, stories and songs in the whole Bible, many of which still have much to say to our world today. After all, like the author of Psalm 137, most of us have at some point in time struggled with what it means to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land…

A case in point is the first chapter of the book of Genesis, which most scholars accept was written inBabylon, for a people far away from home. At a time when most cultures understood national deities only to operate within a given geographical region, and having seen Solomon’s temple, God’s dwelling-place, destroyed, the Psalmist’s question was far from academic, and was actually incredibly urgent. CouldIsrael’s God be at work, even in Babylon?

For the author of the beautiful doxology, the hymn of praise that is the first chapter of Genesis, the answer was a resounding ‘Yes!’, because God is the creator of heaven and earth. Read through that poem and note the pattern and repetition; it conveys a sense of order and stability, as does God’s very act of bringing order out of the chaos of the formless void. Together with God having made the Sun and Moon, which the Babylonians worshipped as gods, the chapter makes a powerful statement: even in the midst of exile, God is God, and so there’s reason to hope.

Today marks the beginning of Christian Aid Week, an annual effort to raise funds to help some of the world’s most vulnerable people, and to spread awareness of international; development issues. Christian Aid’s motto is that they believe in life before death, and it’s a vision which is underpinned by our Genesis passage. The idea of being made in the image of God is one of the most mysterious in the whole of Scripture; it’s only mentioned three times, all of those within the first eleven chapters of Genesis. It’s never once formally explained, but whatever else it means, and there has been much debate down the centuries, to bare God’s image is to have an intrinsic value in his eyes that does not depend on stuff or status, power or wealth. Put simply, it means that each person is uniquely and irreplaceably valuable to God. Our faith can then never purely be concerned with what happens when we die, but rather must reflect a deep concern for the welfare of others, and a desire for all to have the Life with a capital ‘L’ that Jesus came to bring.

However, as we all know, this is not a straightforward business. Despite being made in God’s image, one need only switch on the news to see humanity at loggerheads, and to witness the consequences of human greed and indifference to one another. That doesn’t sound too far away from the world that Jesus inhabited, and into which the freedom and inexhaustible inventiveness of God’s love came, in human form. The Kingdom that Christ proclaimed offered a new way to be, a view of the world in which all are valued and God’s rule is established. When that proved too threatening for the powers that be, religious and secular,Templeand Sword, conspired to have Jesus crucified. Yet, as we celebrate in this season of Easter, death could not contain him, and even when we had done our worst, love had the last word.

Rowan Williams once described Jesus’ resurrection as being like a second Big Bang, an explosion of creative energy into the universe, and so being part of a new creation is to enter a world of new possibilities, and of fresh hope. It means that whatever the world confronts us with and wherever we find ourselves, God is God, and his love without end. There’s always room for something to happen that can change the game, if we’re willing to let God work through us. After all, the mission begun on the first Easter morning is far from finished; we’re called to look for what the Holy Spirit is up to, in our local communities, in our nation and in the wider world, then to roll up our sleeves and join in. God longs for the world to know its value in his eyes and flourish – that’s the vision of Christian Aid Week.

Our reading from 2 Corinthians helps us to look at this more deeply. In that letter, Paul was being forced to defend his authority and the authenticity of his teaching to a church that was fractious and caught up in its own issues. The fifth chapter of the letter reflects on what Christ’s resurrection means, and in particular on how being part of a new creation is to be reconciled to God and friends with Jesus. It’s from that restored relationship, with God and potentially with each other, that the new possibilities God wants to bring about flow. We don’t receive salvation for our own private good, but to share with it others, so that they too may be reconciled to God, and know his love, which is as much earthly and practical as it is mysterious and spiritual. It’s that message that Paul wanted the Corinthians really to grasp, and to live in its light.

Earlier in the service, we thought about how God takes all the varied parts of who we are, some alive and flourishing, others damaged and fragile, and works to transform that complicated bundle into an integrated whole, a new creation. He has the same vision and hope for the whole world, and given that the Church can be all too good at focussing inwardly, it’s worth reflecting on the five Marks of Mission, which are:

  • To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  • To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  • To respond to human need by loving service
  • To seek to transform unjust structures of society
  • To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth

 

God clearly wants the whole creation to know its value in his eyes, and while I passionately believe that the Kingdom is bigger than the Church, that mission has nevertheless been entrusted to us, as the Body of Christ. Our communities need to embody God’s love, a love that believes in life before death, not as a nice idea, but as a concrete reality. I came across this poem a few weeks ago, which sums things up nicely:

If this is not a place where tears are understood, where can I go to cry?

If this is not a place where my spirit can take wing, where can I go to fly?

If this is not a place where my questions can be asked, where can I go to seek?

If this is not a place where my feelings can be heard, where can I go to speak?

If this is not a place where you will accept me as I am, where can I go to be?

If this is not a place where I can go to learn and grow, where can I just be me?

Coming Out

There’s an article kicking around on the Guardian website at the moment about a book written by a palliative care nurse that lists the most common regrets people express on their death-bed. Apparently the regret people most frequently expressed to her when she counselled them in their last days was that they’d wished they’d had the courage to be true to themselves, rather than living according to the expectations of others. This is something I imagine most people have felt at some point in time – a regret that they’d tried so hard to be what they thought others expected or wanted, maybe struggling to be ‘normal’. Sometimes, however, we reach a crisis point, and putting on a façade or continuing to try to fit into others’ ‘boxes’ no longer works.

Over the past four years or so, since I had a bit of a breakdown, I’ve been doing a huge amount of coming to terms with who I really am, instead of what I thought I ought to be. This process has at times been incredibly painful, but also immensely positive. I feel I’ve gone from being unable to process or talk about difficult things in my past for fear of rejection and the consequences of opening the Pandora’s box, to being a fairly confident (which if you’d met me then is huge progress!) and basically happy person. This journey has brought me to a place where I need to acknowledge something fundamental about my identity that will mean making huge changes to my life, some of which bring sadness and uncertainty because of how they might impact people close to me, but which I hope will ultimately mean I am freer to be myself than is currently possible….

I’m transgender.

Transgender (often shortened to trans) is an umbrella term for various things, but in my case what it means is that I have always experienced a profound mismatch between my brain and my body, in that emotionally and psychologically I am very definitely male, even though my body is female. I’ve been aware of this for a long time, though it’s only recently I’ve acquired the vocabulary to be able to express my feelings, and the confidence to admit to myself, and so to others, what has been going on beneath the surface.

My earliest memory of realising I was ‘different’ dates back to when I was four and had started reception class. It was the first time I’d realised how differently boys and girls are treated. Suddenly I had to wear a skirt and was expected to be interested in ‘girl’s stuff’ and to want to spend time with the other girls, all of which felt completely wrong. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t being treated like one of the boys, which is what I felt I was, and while I don’t remember much from that time, I do clearly remember the disorientation and confusion I felt about what was happening.

That feeling didn’t go away as I got older, despite being allowed (though not without a few battles with my mother) to be a complete tomboy until I hit secondary school, when the gender distinctions if anything got even sharper, and being as boyish as I was resulted in bullying. I did have pretty short hair, and was ‘read’ as male on occasion, so it was very hard dealing with being called a boy in a skirt, as much as anything else because that’s how I actually felt and was scared others would find out.  I suppose it’s the stage of life when children start to become sexually aware, and in a hetero-normative setting, that means clear boundaries between the sexes. Anyway, as time went on, having to put on a show for the world and ‘act girly’ felt increasingly oppressive, compounded by hitting puberty and my body beginning to develop in ways that were quite contrary to what I wanted to be happening. The result of all this was deep unhappiness and discomfort, which I dealt with by attempting to ignore my feelings as much as possible and trying to fit in with what I thought I ought to be. Bear in mind that Section 28 was still law then, and I had no outlet to be able to discuss being attracted to women, let alone desperately wanting to be a man on the outside, as well as the inside.

As I said earlier, over the past few years, I’ve learnt to be honest with myself about who I really am, and a big part of that journey has been embracing my gender identity. Just being able to acknowledge the body-brain mismatch has already been a liberating and healing experience, but in order to be really happy in my own skin, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I need to embark on a process of gender reassignment; that is, I wish to ‘transition’ from being outwardly female to being outwardly male, so that body matches brain. This is not a decision I’ve come to lightly, and not without thinking long and hard about its implications and talking it through with my partner and closest friends. If there was an alternative, like therapy, that would allow me to be happy and whole, I’d jump at it, but there isn’t.

This means I’m going to undertake the NHS process to change my body; it’s a prolonged process that will last a number of years and eventually (it can be over eighteen months from seeing a GP to getting an initial appointment at a Gender Clinic) result in it being impossible to tell if you stopped me in the street for a chat that I wasn’t born with a male body. The NHS should pay for the testosterone shots I’ll need to take for life (and which, to pre-empt some comments, cost less to buy than the prescription charge, so the NHS makes a profit!) but I know I’m almost certainly going to need to pay for the surgery to remove my breasts, which could cost over £5000. Thus, it’ll be a while before there are any physical changes.

In the short term, however, I have to begin what’s called the ‘real-life experience’; that is, I have to begin living, as far as is possible, as a man. As such, my name has changed informally and soon will officially (by Deed Poll) and I’d appreciate it if people could refer to me using male pronouns (he, his, him, etc.). I know this will take time to get used to and there will be mistakes at first; I’m not going to jump down people’s throats if they accidentally slip up. However, if folks could try their best, then I’d be grateful. Doing this is a condition of further treatment, so it’s a hurdle I have to clear and not an optional thing.

Well, there you go! No doubt reading this sparks various questions, and given most people so far have asked me the same sorts of things, here’s a brief FAQ about transgender issues, followed by some useful links:

  • The best analogy I can think of for what it feels like to be trans goes something like this: imagine for the sake of argument that there’s a language called ‘male’ and another called ‘female’, within which there are different dialects and accents, but which are pretty distinct, at least to someone who struggles with languages. I’ve had to pick up the odd phrase of ‘female’ in order to be able to survive, but try as I might, I’ll never be fluent, or able to manage more than a few sentences even, whereas ‘male’ is my natural language and I can chat away in it quite happily given the chance. Anyone who’s ever found themselves in a foreign country not knowing much of the language may have experienced some of the inability to express themselves and resulting vulnerability that brings; it’s like that for me all the time. However, being stuck with a female body means I’ve never had much chance to practice my ‘male’ and so have a lot to learn about the grammar and syntax of the language, how it works, and much vocabulary to absorb. Transition is that learning process.
  • Being trans is most definitely not a choice. Various scientific studies have shown that hormone levels present during foetal development, and the foetus’ sensitivity to said hormones, can create a situation where the brain develops in one direction and the body in another, resulting in the mismatch trans folks experience on a daily basis. Moreover, as I’ve already explained, the process of correcting this is costly, painful and scary, for others as well as for me, and that’s without the stigma attached to not fitting in with social conventions surrounding gender. Yes, transition is a choice, but it’s a choice between a lifetime of being miserable or being whole. It’s as stark as that.
  • The process will not fundamentally change who I am. I will still be the same person, with the same personality, same abilities and faults, same likes and dislikes, same values, same faith. It’s a gender reassignment, not a full-blown personality transplant!
  • Some people have asked me why I want to bother, as I hardly strike them as the lager-swilling, football-mad skinhead type. Others have suggested that transition and the desire to ‘pass’ (to be perceived as male) only serve to reinforce an unhelpful gender binary. It’s true that people who do not feel they fit into either ‘box’, gender-queer people, suffer discrimination and sometimes struggle to deal with social constructs around gender. For what it’s worth, I think gender is a spectrum and can be fluid, something I occasionally experience too. However, I don’t see that the process I’m going to undertake makes this worse, as I’m not trying to conform to a particular stereotype; the point is that I’m figuring out what it means for me, a unique individual with a particular history, to be male and perceived as such. It’s about being fully myself, not conforming to someone else’s idea of what I should be.
  • For my Christian friends: I don’t know where God is in all of this, but I do know I’m loved and known completely by the same God who became human in Jesus Christ. That’s enough for now!
  • Language like ‘tranny’ or ‘gender-bender’ is really offensive. Please don’t use this about or to me.

 

Here are the links I promised:

Leaflet (which has been made into an official NHS document) on what being transgender is all about, an explanation of its probable cause and some definitions:

http://www.gires.org.uk/assets/gdev/gender-dysphoria.pdf

Guardian blog written by a trans woman (someone changing from outwardly male to female) that has many parallels with my own story and articulates the challenges of transition really well:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/series/transgender-journey

Stonewall Scotland’s very helpful leaflet about supporting trans people in the workplace:

http://www.stonewall.org.uk/documents/changing_for_the_better.pdf

Website of the Gender Identity Research and Education Service, which works closely with the NHS:

http://www.gires.org.uk/

Website of the Gender Trust, which contains useful information around terminology:

http://gendertrust.org.uk/glossary

Afternoon Tea at Tiffeny’s, and other randomness

It’s been a busy couple of months, but as I now have the internet working at home and the rare luxury of  a free evening, I’ve decided that it’s about time my blog came back to life again, so here’s an update on life:

 

  • I think I’m over my mini crisis of faith, and have actually found a degree of settledness and peace. I guess I’ve finally grasped that it’s ok just to be me, and not to try and push myself into other people’s boxes, because it doesn’t work. I can’t pretend I’ve got my prayer life magically sorted, but I feel relaxed with God, which is a huge step forward.
  • I’m now a graduate of he University of Durham. The day was amazing, and it was great to be able to enjoy it with my partner, parents and friends. I still can’t quite believe I finally made it, and how different I was when I started the whole thing compared to where I am now. I’ve changed so much for the better…. God is very good.
  • I’m now a Methodist Local Preacher – don’t ask me how that happened! I had my first service early last the month, which went very well, and I’m off out with my mentor in Stony Stratford in a week and a half. It’s exciting and scary, but mostly it just feels very right and very ‘me’ somehow. The bit that scares me is the way the whole ordination thing seems to be inching its way back onto the agenda at unexpected moments…
  • The banking world is pretty much the same. I’m now at the stage where most of the stuff from my predecessor has been gone through, documented and tidied up, and I can begin working on my own projects, which is  a good thing.
  • I’ve almost (finally) finished two papers based on my PhD thesis, which I hope to send to my supervisor soon, and then to get published. I miss the world of maths, and want to keep the door open for getting a post-doctoral research position. It’s been nice getting back to grips with it all 🙂
  • I’ve joined a gym, and am seriously working on getting fit.
  • Most importantly of all, Tractorgirl and I have now been together for eighteen months, and I love her more than ever.

At the weekend, I went on a retreat with some friends from Bang! and had a very random dream about a friend of mine directing and presenting a daytime television show called ‘Afternoon Tea at Tiffeny’s’. I might float the idea to the BBC one day…  In the meantime, here’s a couple of graduation pictures:

Me with my parents
Tractorgirl and me chilling after the graduation dinner

Merry Christmas!

I’m spending Christmas loitering on the Essex/Suffolk border with TractorGirl and her family. The aforementioned TractorGirl landed in MK on Tuesday, and I’ve really enjoyed having someone to come home to after work. Yesterday, we travelled to the lands of chavs and turnips (nothing like crude stereotypes, is there? 😉 ), with a surprisingly smooth journey given all the recent weather issues.  We’re staying in a pub-come-hotel in Sudbury, which is pleasant enough, and have checked out the local Chinese takeaway, which was alright. This morning, we went to a quaint little parish church in Bures, and post Christmas dinner, am chilling on the sofa, next to TractorGirl, drinking Weston’s Organic cider. Good times 🙂 Oh yes, and the Queen was funny!

Faith, doubt and Advent

I’ve been making a serious effort this Advent to address something I know is a bit of a problem – my prayer life. I find it really hard to get into the habit of setting aside regular time simply to pray, whether using a daily office or simply sitting with God, not trying to do anything.

I started out with the best of intentions – I was going to say evening prayer every day, having realised that however much I try to be, I am just not a morning person and setting my alarm earlier doesn’t work as I just doze through it. That lasted two days before life got in the way and having let it slip once, it just vanished into the ether.

Part of the problem is, I think, that if I’m going out of an evening, I’m often on a very tight schedule. I often don’t leave the office till gone 5.30pm (sometimes it’s more like after 6pm) which isn’t by choice but reflects the volume of work I have on, and it takes 30mins to walk home. I’ve then got to cook myself dinner, which if making something nice from scratch can take anything between ten minutes and an hour, eat it and do the washing up. By the time I’ve done that, got changed out of  my suit and run out of the door again, I’m often running late as it is.  Time to pray feels like wasted time in the rush to get back into town. Even that doesn’t really wash as an excuse, though, as days when I’m doing nothing other than flopping in front of the television in the evening are still devoid of a daily office, mostly due to sheer fatigue after a long day’s problem solving.

I have realised that I’ve hit several walls at once:

  • Until about four months ago, I lived in Durham with a Cathedral on my doorstep and was able to go to a daily Eucharist and Evensong. I’m so much better at going to something scheduled like that and am much better at praying with others. There is no real equivalent in Milton Keynes and I miss it.
  • I find it hard to read the Bible because my inner academic kicks in and worries about hermeneutics and context and differing interpretations and doctrine and it forms a kind of mental wall. I worry I’m ‘not doing it properly’ and there is no point if I don’t. In short, I’ve lost the art of devotional reading of the Bible.
  • A year of undergraduate-level theology and biblical studies in Durham raised far more issues than it solved. For example, I had to write an essay on how to read the first eleven chapters of Genesis and in researching that came across so many different perspectives and opinions that apart from being sure what I didn’t like and the pre-existing theological bias driving that, I just wasn’t sure how to evaluate these. On what basis could I compare the thoughts of people far more knowledgeable than me and fluent in the original languages? It left me not sure what to think anymore. I think this sort of thing is the cause of point two.
  • Last year, I lived with someone who placed a great deal of emphasis on the use of daily offices, seeking the intercession of the saints and theological reading. This wasn’t a problem in of itself but his habit of making me feel guilty for not persuing these things with same zeal was. It seemed to me that all this stuff and the full-blown conservative Roman Catholic devotional life could easily be used as an excellent way to hide from God, or at least to keep her at arm’s length, and my trying to have an altogether simpler devotional life was ‘just not good enough’ and was frequently criticised. I also found it very hard having my beliefs attacked regularly and having to defend and justify myself all the time, and I don’t think I’ve entirely ditched this person’s baggage.
  • I’m still struggling to come to terms with leaving the ordination process. This might sound an odd thing to say given that it was several months ago and I’m about to embark on the adventure of becoming a Methodist local preacher. However, I think before then I’d had lots of doubts and questions floating around my head that I didn’t dare let surface. The pain of leaving the process and feeling distanced from the church removed that barrier and released a lot of stored-up anger with God, all of which has brought into question several theological assumptions that I suppose I simply accepted without examining them.
  • Further to the previous point, I am sick to the back teeth of church politics getting in the way of real encounter with God in so much of the Church of England. I’m not just on about women bishops and homosexuality and the covenant, but all the stuff about things being done a certain way because ‘we’ve always done it that way’ or ‘that’s how Father likes it’, and liturgical trappings of vestments, acolyting etc becoming so much more important than the God to which they are supposed to point. I JUST DON’T CARE! YOU DON’T EARN BROWNIE POINTS WITH GOD FOR DRESSING UP LIKE ELVIS-MEETS-THE KKK AND WALKING IN RIGHT ANGLES!!! I should add that the forced jollity of charismatic services and the usual evangelical cliches also drive me round the bend these days. Enough of the formulae, I want God!
  • I miss having a spiritual director to hold me to account.
  • I have a massive lazy streak.
  • I find maintaining my own routines and structure difficult.

So where does that leave things?

I’m not 100% sure.

What I do know is that God has been working in my life in the last few years to bring about a lot of healing and through particular things that have happened and the people he has brought into my life, especially TractorGirl, I’m so much more like the person God made me to be and infinitely more comfortable in my own skin. I know that whatever happens, I am loved from top to bottom purely and simply because I am. It’s not about achieving things or never messing up. It’s about pure, unearned, freely-given love. What’s more, that’s true of every single person and every single part of creation. The challenge is to live in the light of those two things and to make time to enjoy God for her own sake.

There’s a great quote from a former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, which I can never quite get right but goes something like this: knowing God, and being known by God, doesn’t depend upon, nor does it guarantee, being right about God. I think this needs to be my motto over the coming weeks. My last year in Durham made it difficult to hold onto this, but I now see that it’s key, because it not only leaves room for the inevitable errors we all make when thinking about God or reading the Bible, but it also leaves room for doubts and questions and being able to say ‘I don’t know’. Having room for grey areas rather than feeling pinned down to only black or white is something that has been missing for a while now in my faith. That isn’t to say that truth doesn’t matter, but is simply to admit that I don’t have things sorted all the time and like TractorGirl, recognise I need to engage openly and honestly with my doubts.

In practice, I think this will mean having to figure out a way of giving my prayer life (in whatever form) the time it needs and so engaging with scripture, but also finding time, however ad hoc (and ad hoc may well be the best thing at the moment), just to enjoy God. Not having answers is hard for me as a scientist who likes to have things well-defined (which I know is ironic giving how much of science is really groping in the dark) but also as someone who likes to be in control. It feels vulnerable.

That brings me back to Advent, which is my favourite time of the Christian year. God didn’t come into the world on clouds descending, in a blaze of glory and power and might. Instead, God in human flesh was born as a small baby, entirely dependent on his parents, themselves very ordinary and at the mercy of the political situation of their day. which made them forced pilgrims and refugees. It’s an enormously vulnerable position fraught with risk, with the risk of loving all of us so much as to give up the thing that matters most.   God in the vulnerability, the mess and the ambiguity of the world is the only God that makes sense to me in my vulnerability, mess and ambiguity. Sometimes it’s all I can hang onto.

Film 2010!

Since moving to MK, I’ve got back into the habit of going to the cinema on a regular basis, and last week decided to treat myself to Cineworld’s offer of paying a fixed amount to see an unlimited number of films a month. Cineworld are pretty good at showing movies one wouldn’t always get to see without an independent cinema in town, such as quirky British films or niche market movies, but they are very expensive, to the point where if I see two films a month, I get more than my money’s worth. I’ve realised that given my job can be quite exhausting, and I do sometimes get very lonely with Tractorgirl not being about very often, treating myself is a good thing. I’ve also overcome my anxiety about going to the cinema on my own, as when I first moved to MK, if I didn’t go alone I wouldn’t be able to go at all!

The result is that I have seen three movies recently. The first of them is ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, starring Julia Roberts as an unhappily married woman who, having dropped her husband and leaped straight into another unsuccessful relationship, goes on a round-the-world trip to ‘find herself’, as seems to be the custom with a certain type of American! She ends up in Italy, where she eats lots of pasta and pizza and makes a lot of friends, for three months. She then moves on to India and the shrine that her now ex-boyfriend was keen to one day visit. This is by far the best section of the film as she is forced to face up to the reality of her life and has some moving encounters with local people and other pilgrims. Finally, she heads to Bali (and, yep, you guessed it!) falls in love. The sweetest character is the old man she visits and copies books for, who is very huggable indeed. Overall, it’s a fun bit of escapism but suffers from predictability and being somewhat cliched 5/10.

The second is a film I found about from Diva magazine, about a lesbian couple with two teenage children who seek out the sperm donor responsible for bringing them into being. ‘The Kids are All Right’was an eye-opener for me, as someone who finds themselves, rather reluctantly, with a teenager suddenly appearing in their life. Nic and Jules have been married for over twenty years and, while they love each other deeply, feel the spark has gone out of their marriage of late. Jules, who is trying to start another new business, as a landscape gardener, ends up being more than a little attracted to Paul, the donor, when she works on re-designing his restaurant’s garden. Paul is a happy-go-lucky guy who initially takes to fatherhood, but antagonises doctor Nic by not recognising the challenges when you’re not ‘the cool new guy’ on the parenting scene and by muscling his way into the family. It all ends badly when Nic discovers the affair, and the latter half of the film takes place against the backdrop of this and the daughter Joni (named for the wonderful Joni Mitchell) preparing to go to college.

I found the film funny and moving in equal doses. The challenges of dealing with teenagers and some of the issues around step-parenting (of a sort!) are explored. I wasn’t expecting an instruction manual, but still felt a little miffed that I came away feeling more uncertain about how best to handle various aspects of that role, such as negotiation of boundaries. Maybe I learnt a little of how not to do it! The film also shows all too well how easy it is to hurt the ones we love, and how hard it can be to put the pieces back together again, which resonated deeply with me, though here is really not the place to go into all that, sufficed to say that God has a way of popping up in the most unexpected places! A good film, well worth a watch 8/10.

The third and final movie was ‘Another Year’, starring Jim Broadbent (in my opinion one of the best character actors out there) and Lesley Manville, and directed by Mike Leigh. It’s about a middle-aged couple coping with a very odd bunch of dysfunctional friends, including lonely alcoholic Mary who has a crush on the couple’s son Joe, and Ken, a civil servant dreading retirement and with a host of health issues. Doesn’t sound very jolly, I know, and apart from a few belly laughs, isn’t really. It’s one of those films where one should really have a box of tissues on standby! I did enjoy the film, especially the saga of Mary and her car, but mostly I just felt sad for Ken and Mary, both of whom are the kind of characters we can all recognise in some of our friends (or maybe ourselves!). A very well-acted and moving film, but one which would have benefited from more of a conclusion 7/10.

Right, that’s the movie world out to rights!

Why £9000 a year is wrong

I come from a very ordinary background. I was born and raised on an impoverished council estate in Preston, Lancashire by two ordinary people. My mother is a housewife (and cleaning obsessive, but that’s another story… ) and my father trained as a painter, decorator and joiner before ending up down sewers (which oddly enough, he enjoys… ). We didn’t have much money to go around but my parents made sacrifices so that my brother and I didn’t have to go without. I was able to use the education system to escape my surroundings and have been fortunate enough to study for an MMath at Bath University and a PhD at Durham, the former with around £1000 a year tuition fees, of which we had to pay around £200 because of my family’s income. Even so, I still have around £18k worth of student debt that I will gradually pay off, with the interest rate being linked to the RPI so I pay back what I borrowed in real terms. Despite this, I am one of the lucky ones.

Last week, students marched to protest at a possible rise in tuition fees to £9000, from a coalition government containing Liberal Democrats who made a manifesto promise, which Clegg apparently now regrets, not to raise fees. If this gets through, it will be accompanied by a drop in the money available to universities from state funds for undergraduate teaching, the shortfall being met by these increased fees. Now, I’m not in favour of using violence to achieve one’s aims and so do not condone the smashing of windows at Tory HQ, but I find it hard to blame those who did it. The new structure will, especially if accompanied by a flexible system allowing different universities to charge varying fee levels, lead to a situation where the poorest young people face active financial discouragement from pursuing a university career, or applying to the best universities as opposed to the less prestigious and cheaper institutions.

This is bad for several reasons, five of which are:

1) For someone from a fee-paying school, £9k a year may seem relatively little to just pay up-front, but for someone on the average household income or less, it’s a huge amount. Students from poorer backgrounds will therefore accumulate huge debts, before we get to living costs on top of that. For a four-year degree, that could mean around £56000 worth of debts, and with the proposed interest rate of the RPI + 3%, it will grow quickly unless the person walks straight into a high-payed job, which many will not be able or choose to do – we need public servants after all! This represents a steep financial barrier, to make the understatement of the year…

2) Social mobility reduced during Labour’s time in power, despite various measures to boost it (though not always joined up with other policies, alas), such as the Sure Start schemes. There is already ample evidence that the biggest determining factor of success later in life is the financial status of one’s parents. Widening access to university is one of the key measures in seeking to open doors to able young people who come from poorer backgrounds. I was able to take advantage of this, but was part of  a year of 170 pupils with only a handful of us going onto university. Aspirations were already low, and these fees will only increase the sense that higher education is ‘not for the likes of us’. Why should children from poorer backgrounds be forced to lower their sights like this? It’s a waste of so much potential.

3) Britain’s economy is moving away (and has been for some time)  from manufacturing to a service-sector based approach with financial services and research and development being key areas of growth. If we are to continue to compete with fast-growing and fast-developing nations like India and China, we need as well-educated a workforce as possible, and, let’s face it, we only need so many plumbers, electricians and so on.  Making higher education inaccessible to a whole sector of society wastes vital skills and talent that we will need if we as a nation seek to prosper in the global economy. We cannot afford to simply push young people into trades regardless of their suitability for these (and for that matter, nor should we discourage middle-class kids from exploring these avenues rather than pushing them into university).

4) Ministers seem to forget that even if one does go into a well-paid graduate job after university (by which I mean £20k+), it takes a certain amount of time to get clear of initial debts like overdrafts accumulated during study or from relocation costs. One is not necessarily awash with money the instant one starts work! Saddling graduates with sizable loan repayments will make it more difficult to get started in life, as finances can be initially very tight, and harder to save for the deposit for a mortgage, and so on.

5) Where is the incentive to go onto further study knowing that through the three or four years it can take to do a PhD, one is accumulating even more of  a mini-mortgage without the resources to begin paying it back? This may lead to fewer UK students doing PhDs and, as already argued, we need such people if we want a thriving university sector and to continue to be a world leader in research and development. That is, unless we are happy to rely on people coming from abroad to fill these roles, but then the same right-wingers who favour these changes to HE are often not very keen on immigration…

Rant over…. this is simply a subject that makes my blood boil. Other young people should have the same opportunities I did or better, not less!