Saturday, 19 November 2011

I'm going to be an aunt!

My very clever sister is growing a baby! I'm very excited at the idea of having a niecephew*, and have started suggesting some good Biblical / Saintly names, inspired by the Pope's recent statement.

For a girl:
Frideswide (patron saint of Oxford University)
Jezebel (reclaim it from the misogynists!)
Jael (drove a tent peg into a man's head... nice)

For a boy:
Maher-shalal-hash-baz (Isaiah's second son - endless opportunities for cool nicknames)
Uzzi (ironic?)

I could go on, but they don't seem to inspired by my suggestions. Some people have no imagination!

*That is, either a niece or a nephew

Monday, 14 November 2011

BBCSO Come and Play

I had a brilliant, uplifting morning on Saturday at a BBC SO event called Come and Play, part of their symphony season.

They invited non-professional players to spend a morning in a workshop with members of the BBC SO on Dvořák's Symphony no. 9 (From the New World) or Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 6. I was accepted into the morning (Dvořák) workshop, which was very exciting indeed! It's one of my favourites, and I felt like I might have a fighting chance of getting through it in one piece...

Nevertheless, I showed up duly at Maida Vale with no little trepidation, but that soon dissipated. Our 'flute helper' (the orchestra's co-principal flute) was delightful and remarkably patient with us, and the conductor's clear enthusiasm both for the music and the workshop was buoyant and contagious. I don't remember the last time I had so much fun and felt like I had absolutely nothing to be worried about or ashamed of. Even a small four-bar solo in the first flute part didn't (quite) defeat me the way that the simplest soli in band rehearsals can.

I don't know what it was about the morning that was so encouraging; a combination of everyone's enthusiasm and the frankly beautiful music. Whatever it was, I left Maida Vale more cheered and confident than I have been for ages. It's a cliche, but if you've been unemployed for a while then being invited to something special and being taken seriously makes such an enormous difference. Massive thumbs up all around, huge thanks to everyone at the BBC SO who made this possible for so many.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The Royal Parks Half Marathon

I did it! I can't quite believe it, but I really did it!

My time wasn't on target, but when the time came I decided to take part against medical advice, so I was just pleased to cross the finishing line at all.

The Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon is a really fun run in many ways; it passes through some of my favourite parts of London and the atmosphere is incredible. Supporters from all the charities stand and cheer everyone passing, and if they see a name on a shirt they give that person a particular cheer. Volunteers from the major charities represented (including Mind and Help a Capital Child) staff the water / Lucozade stations, and this year at around the 9th and 10th miles there were even some wise people offering sugar in the form of jelly sweets.

It really was the perfect first half marathon in many ways; more-or-less flat, good road surfaces, genuinely enthusiastic marshals and supporters, and a really gorgeous time of year. The day was warm enough that it felt hot to run in, but the leaf-fall and cool wind were refreshing.

I was exhausted by the end, but the support from everyone who has sponsored me, and the YouthNet volunteers, staff and service users who cheered me on before and during the race. YouthNet do sterling work, and have done for sixteen years. If running until my whole body aches is what it takes to keep them going, then so be it.

Maybe, just maybe, I'll do it again one day.

Pall Mall, nearly 6 miles in

Monday, 26 September 2011

Why I'm running 13.1 miles for YouthNet

On the 9th October, I'm running the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon for young people's charity YouthNet. It's been a really difficult period of training - recently interrupted for weeks at a time by ill health - and I'm working really hard to do this. 

In the grand scheme of things, I suppose not many people have heard of YouthNet, the charity that runs TheSite and Do-It, but they have an enormous, unseen impact. I started as a service user on TheSite ten years ago, so I feel like they've seen me through my awkward adolescence and out the other side.

I'm not going to claim to have had a terribly difficult life; I had a rough time with mental health difficulties as a teenager, which manifested in a number of different ways, but generally my family were supportive. I still needed somewhere more private and anonymous to talk and be listened to. A non-judgemental outlet is one of the most helpful things you can give to young people in these circumstances, and that is a huge part of the ethos of TheSite. The fact sheets present information without judgement, and the message board and live chat user communities provide a peer-support system that allows people to be anonymous and therefore more open than they would be among friends and family.

Back in 1996, when the charity was first forming, it was very difficult to find funding. The idea of a charity offering services entirely online seemed somewhat limited in the days of dial-up, and there were concerns about the sort of information children and young people might be able to access (predictably, early on the non-judgemental nature of the information provides has in the past riled the Daily Mail). Now, we can hardly imagine the world without the internet, and it seems obvious to me that young people who find it difficult to access support services turn to the internet for help. Indeed, appears in the top results on Google for issues such as unplanned pregnancy and self-harm. Online support isn't the be-all and end-all for big issues but it can be very helpful in sign-posting people to local services, and persuading them to seek help.

I'm hoping to start training as a chat moderator in the next few weeks, to help facilitate the live chats. These days, a lot of people come to the community through the live chats and it's inspiring to see how uplifting the community can be for people who are in real distress.

YouthNet makes a crucial difference, but as an online charity they go largely unnoticed by the wider community. As they celebrate their 16th birthday next month, they deserve wider recognition and I'm running all 13.1 miles of the Royal Parks Half Marathon for all the young people who need their support.

Please sponsor me £2 if you can!

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Only skin deep?

Image has been on my mind a lot lately.

If I'm honest, image is on my mind a lot, full stop. If I'm not fretting that my straighteners don't work in humid weather (grrrrr), I'm probably staring agonisingly at my wardrobe / make-up bag, wondering why nothing I own makes me look how I want to.

Actually, I'm even multi-tasking whilst I write this - touching up my roots with my favourite Superdrug blonde - the one that looks like banana-flavour penicillin when you mix it.

I was watching the lovely Ms. Cherry Healey on BBC3 the other day; Cherry's Body Dilemmas (and doesn't she look good in a corset?). I was fascinated by it. I don't suppose this is the place to go into my own particular quirks and insecurities, but I'm a mess of them. For all that the UK media is obsessed with our bodies and how we use and see them, it's actually quite unusual to see this level of frankness and diversity on mainstream telly.

The way we talk about our bodies is warped. It's all extremes and almost never rational. From the HateMail's Liz Jones and her anorexic obsessions to the constant railing against celebrities' wobbly bits and how fatties are eating the NHS out of house and home. The sad truth is that we just can't bear the sight of ourselves.

But what is most refreshing is to see someone who is thin, successful, beautiful, etc., facing up to her own self-consciousness with others without judgement. I admit it challenged my assumption that gorgeous people both know how they look and judge others harshly. I was particularly inspired by the beautiful, and stunningly dressed, Kirsty Lou and her blog. Whilst I cower in high street changing rooms sobbing over size labels, she makes her own clothes and refuses be conformed into someone else's body.

I was struck by her admission that she's suffered because of how she looks. It resonated with me. I've had people cross the street in London to tell me I should diet; they've taunted me from cars in Oxford at 7am and in the back streets of Edinburgh late at night. Friends have called me fat in public and looked astonished when I was upset by it. I even find myself justifying my weight to doctors who don't believe I exercise. I desperately want to take my feminista deconstruction kit to conformist body-shape standards but the truth is that all this just really bloody well hurts and it's too personal to try.

But in the mean time, brava Cherry, Kirsty et. al. for honesty without sentimentality or falsehoods. If telly makes a difference, this is what it looks like. And an honourable mention to Hadley Freeman of the Guardian for this piece which I heartily "hear, hear"-ed earlier this month.

It happens that today is also the fourth anniversary of the death of Sophie Lancaster, a young woman who was killed for her looks. I remember being devastated by the story when I first heard it, as I am by any form of hate crime. The senselessness of the loss of life - not just hers, but also the life her boyfriend and family had known with her in it. S.O.P.H.I.E. (Stamp Out Prejudice, Hatred and Intolerance Everywhere), the foundation her mother founded, is doing great things to teach children that image isn't everything. I wanted to share the video they released today, as further food for thought. We all judge people harshly for how they look; this is a stark reminder of what that culture of judgement does to the world we live in.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Running update: 6 months to go!

So I'm just finishing the fourth week of training now and I'm not doing too badly.

I'm working on an intervals plan at the moment (based on Couch to 5k in 6 weeks), but the intervals are huge. (This week; 5 mins walk, 18 mins run, 2 mins walk, 18 mins run, 2 mins walk.) I'm doing well at it but unfortunately, the programme I'm working from now (the Fun Run app for BlackBerry) only goes up to 5k. I'm going to pick up the 10k plan from Running Made Easy,  which uses much shorter intervals. I'll let you know how I get on with that.

At the end of week 4 I'm up to 3.6 miles (5.8km) and seriously considering entering the Penn Seven this year for Iain Rennie Hospice at Home.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

This is not a church (stewardship: time)

Preached at MCC North London, Camden Town, on Sunday 11th April 2010, Second Sunday of Easter.

This is not a church (stewardship: time)

This forms part of a five-part Lent series dealing with stewardship, focussing on time, tithe and talent.

Once again, apologies for the poor audio quality.

From 'The Little Prince' by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Born from above

Preached at Trinity United Reform Church, Camden Town, on Sunday 20th March 2011, Second Sunday of Lent.

'Born from above'

John 3:1-17

With apologies for the poor sound quality, this was recorded on my phone because my dictaphone batteries ran out. If anyone knows of good freeware I can use to clean this up, let me know!

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Run, run, run....

So, here's a silly thing I did.

I have signed up to run* the Royal Parks Half Marathon in October for the fabulous YouthNet. They've been online since 1997 offering impartial advice and support to young people in Britain (primarily) and worldwide. I've made some good friends through volunteering for the Respect? campaign run with the British Youth Council and within the community of service users.

I wanted to run in the Penn 7 last year for the Ian Rennie Hospice at Home, and I would still like to raise funds for them in the future, but I wasn't well for a time and wasn't able to train for it.

There will be a team of us going - not all running for the same charity - and although I don't expect us to keep up the same pace all the way it will be nice to have people at the starting line.

I went for my first run this morning and whilst it was not great, I haven't run properly for about 2 years so I'm not despairing just yet. I plan to run at least 3 times a week during Lent - more if I can, as it's also the Easter vac - and keep working slowly up to my goal. It won't be easy, but I know running does my brain and body good and I do love a challenge!

Here is my fundraising page on JustGiving, I have pledged to raise £500 for YouthNet. If 200 people sponsor me £2.50, I'll get there.

*Or at least complete!

Monday, 28 February 2011

The curious case of Santana and Brittany

So here’s the thing. I love Glee. I love Glee almost as love as I love Girlie (that’s quite a lot). I even love the auto-tuned voice of Gwyneth Paltrow covering Forget You.

There is only one thing (other than the appalling cover of Poker Face) that I find really hard about Glee at the moment, and that’s the relationship between Brittany and Santana.

Kurt’s sexuality was brilliantly and sensitively handled. From the moment he told Mercedes to this brilliant moment between his dad and Finn, there has been no question that this is a serious issue in his life that defines his adolescent experience. Particularly, in the recently broadcast episodes at the beginning of series two, his shocking experience with Karofsky’s internalised homophobia was bravely handled and the impact on his schooling was made explicit in a way that I don’t think I’ve seen on television before, on either side of the pond. Bravo!

But, on the other hand, Brittany and Santana are shown frequently making out (which is apparently "a nice break from all that scissoring") but in a way that I can't help but feel is designed to attract male viewers and their relationship is never explored in any detail. Even now Brittany is dating Artie, it seems that we’re supposed to believe that this could pass without comment. Brittany and Santana are both very sexualised characters – Brittany claims to have had every guy in school, and Santana almost talks of nothing else – but it still strikes me that Glee is buying into the idea that guys who like guys are definitely gay and do lots of soul-searching whereas girls who like girls are just sexy. 

It seems a little misogynistic, from a show that's explored some really serious issues in an awesome way; I really hope it resolves. 

Friday, 18 February 2011

The immorality of a culture of cuts

I have never voted Conservative. Not even when I lived in London and Boris Johnson stood for mayor. Yes, he's quite funny on Have I Got News for You, but I seriously doubted he'd be much good for London.

My voting history is entirely confined to Lib Dems (most frequently), Greens (particularly in European elections when Caroline Lucas was my MEP) and Labour (Ken Livingstone, see above).

So that's where I was at before the last election. I voted Liberal Democrat in Islington, not seeing much of a viable alternative. Labour did some good things (Civil Partnership, for example) and some that I could never agree with (detention without charge, the war in Iraq, etc.). On balance, I didn't want to take the risk.

I will be the first to admit that voting Liberal Democrat was riskier still, but my expectations were naive. I believed it would be impossible for a Liberal-Conservative coalition to form (I know an oxymoron when I see one) and expected to see a Lib-Lab coalition with a strong Conservative opposition. I've always been a proponent of Proportional Representation as creating accountable coalition governments representing the true range of political opinions across the country. I do wonder if that's idealistic and naive, but one can't legislate for idiots and for all their faults I think the Lib Dems are chipping some small chunks off the traditional Conservative position (here and here, for example).

These concessions, however, almost pale into insignificance compared to the way in which the Conservatives are ploughing ahead with a destructive economic policy that not only appears to be bad for the economy but also potentially devastating to the poorest and most isolated members of British society.

Back in June 2010, 1 month after the election and immediately after the first budge, Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel economist) was predicting a chaotic economic fallout (The Independent). Stiglitz predicted the crash pretty accurately - the world ignored him at their peril - and it seems bizarre to me that 8 months later, his warnings are still going unheeded. Not only that, but the scale of the cuts appears to get steeper almost every day.

George Monbiot is best-known for his provocative work on climate change. Recently, he's been writing for the Guardian almost daily on government policy from the environment to the 'Big Society' and I was particularly intrigued by two articles in the past fortnight on tax reductions in business and 'naked short-selling' (not as exciting as it sounds). As I have said before, I am not an expert on economics, but the idea of naked short-selling sounds preposterous. It is widely-held to be true that speculation on false promises in the banking industry was a major factor in the 2007 crash (just look at the sub-headings in the Wikipedia article) and commentators from Andrew Ross Sorkin to Nouriel Roubini, 'Dr. Doom' blame speculative selling, and "irrational exuberance" in the time of plenty. With that in mind, what on earth is the treasury doing defending a dangerous practice in a time when it claims we can't afford to lose any more money?

There is no doubting that the Conservative party have always courted the wealthy, the financial elite and this is the logical explanation for continuing to support a practice that is illegal in the US, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and Brazil.

All of which brings me to the savage cuts to the welfare state. I should say, these are not especially new in theory but the aggressive nature of them is. We are sold a story that the national debt is so dreadful we must accept that there will be sacrifices - like a family whose income is below their expenditure (hint, hint). I recall an article, but now can't locate it, in which suggesting that the way the Tories are handling the economy is akin to a household cutting down its expenses only works if the household is 3/4 occupied by a family with two cars sending their children to private school and the remaining quarter by a large family who have a lower-than-average income and send their children to state school. The way the cuts would work, in this household, would be to take the poorer family's one car away and leave the rich family with no impact at all. I believe this may have been on Johann Hari's blog, but I can't remember. If anyone can find me the link I will update this and everyone will benefit from a much neater analysis than my half-remembered abstract!

The point is this, if there are no tax cuts to individuals but apparently enormous tax breaks to business, and if the government goes on slashing the NHS and destroying Disability Living Allowance, or goes through with the Chancellor's ominous threat on Newsnight (10th Feb 2011) to cut benefits to anyone out of work, families and individuals across the UK will be devastated. There is a useful summary of the potential cuts here, from yesterday's Guardian.

As a Christian, I find all this to be profoundly immoral. The emphasis in the gospels - indeed, throughout the New Testament - seems to me to be on the message of inclusivity and equality. I'm not going to deny that there are individual verses that may dispute this but far and away the overriding message is summarised by
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. - Matthew 7:12
Jesus protected the innocent. He valued children, cured lepers and disabled people (which gave them access to society again), saved a woman from stoning. He raged against extortion, threw out money-lenders from the temple, and challenged authority. He also encouraged people to pay their dues in taxes alongside giving offerings to God.

As Christians, I believe we are called to pay our dues to society. We are called to feed the hungry, clothe the cold, heal the sick, visit the prisoners. We are called to do it in the name of Christ the Son and for the sake of human dignity and love. It does not preserve those on the fringes of society to cast them further out, nor to take away what little they depend on to live. It does not benefit society to allow free reign to the richest to acquire more wealth and then claim there is none left for the people with nothing. It makes me so angry that I want to cry. I feel helpless and devastated.

All we can do is keep calling for justice. I support the Robin Hood Tax campaign, and the excellent work of the Broken of Britain in their One Month Before Heartbreak blogswarm. We must stand up for ourselves. Attend organised protests, sign petitions, get involved. This government is not invincible, the work of 38 Degrees in cancelling the sale of our national forests shows that much. Nothing is inevitable.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

One Month Before Heartbreak

The UK Government is going to end its consultation on Disability Living Allowance (DLA) on the 14th February (4 weeks on Monday). The blog / campaign One Month Before Heartbreak (#ombh on Twitter) has been set up for people receiving DLA to tell their stories and raise awareness in the wider public of the potentially devastating impact these cuts will have.

I don't wish to fully share my story here. Many of you will know some of it, one or two know more. I receive a medium rate of care and I depend on it for a number of things. Important things, like food and prescriptions.

Please read this blog and pass the stories on, sign this petition and harass elected officials. Lives depend on it.