Category Archives: Durham

Fancy Dress and a bit of a Do

Thanks to all those who’ve sent congratulations in whatever form. Yesterday was a great day which I celebrated with my dad, Third Party and Karl amongst others. All three have been incredibly important on the journey. Picture of me and Third Party appears not to have made it on line yet but here I am with the other two.

A Sense of Achievement

Confession I have too many bits of almost meaningless paper which are only useful when it comes to filling in job applications. Tomorrow I get another such certificate, having the M Litt I found I had passed in the latter part of last year conferred upon me. I have to admit though I have a major sense of achievement about the one I’m getting tomorrow.

Durham is just another uni like all the others I’ve been to on many levels, but on another it has to be admitted that there is a difference between that institution and others I’ve been to, particularly those I first studied at. It’s mainly to do with the perceptions of others but its also to do with the type of intake they had as well as their ranking in the official assessment exercises and so on, particularly for Theology, my area of study.

For those who don’t know my story I was a sixth form drop out who left my A Level courses at school because I thought I was too thick to go to university.

Having gone and done my A Levels at evening class over one year each I got grades which weren’t wonderful, in fact Nene College, (now Uni of Northampton), was the only place that would take me to do a degree rather than an HND when I was frantically phoning round during clearing.

During what I describe as my “falling apart period” I went off to University of East London part time (one day a week) to do an MA, didn’t get the dissertation done and so ended up with a lower post-grad qualification. Part of the reason for the lack of dissertation on the first MA was I went off to Canterbury Christ Church to do my teaching qualification, and the actual logistics of preparing to move were a nightmare.

After a while teaching I got the study bug again and found myself at the University of Kent having been offered a place on a Theology course (again part time, one day a week), when I didn’t even really know what the subject entailed. Life didn’t quite go to plan and I got a promotion when I changed jobs and I had to do the second year of that one basically by email correspondence – but I got through.

Then, just when I thought studying was over, I got this urge that the right thing to do was give up my good job and head north to Durham in order to do M Litt research into the experience of single parents within evangelical churches.

It was crazy and I wouldn’t have got through without the support of friends and family particularly Karl who was a proof reader extraordinaire, including several wibsite people, at one point I was working 3 part time jobs as well as doing other stuff besides my study and being a single mum dealing with a teenager going through a rough time.

It’s important to add the role of family and friends was important through all whole academic journey. My mum, who died half way through my MA, was a particular source of support in her own slightly unique way.

Actually, I guess I should add in I was a single mum with main care of my daughter for 15 years in total and all the qualifications apart from my A Levels and first degree were whilst I was doing that job of being a single mum too. Oh and for those who don’t know and think my undergrad must have been without complication I had my daughter between my second and third years at uni. From when she was six weeks old I’d travel to Northampton from Ipswich on a Monday morning, returning home to husband and baby on Thursday evening.

Looking back on all that I realise that I deserve to be pleased when I graduate tomorrow, mine was not an easy or perhaps in that place “normal” route to this graduation – although I know enough about others to doubt there really is a “normal route” – but I got there.

So tomorrow I think it’s not out of order to say I am entitled to my sense of achievement as I attend what I am pretty sure will be the final graduation ceremony to give me a bit of paper.

I share that not just because I have that sense of achievement but also to encourage others who might be reading this who are progressing through courses in sometimes less than ideal circumstances, you can do it! I also want to highlight the way that people progress at different rates. Under the changes currently taking place in education I would have been labelled somewhat of a failure and may not have been able to develop later in the way I have. In fact with the new systems of funding for further education courses and undergraduate degrees and the cut backs to FE provision I am not sure I would have even managed my A Levels, that’s if I had made it through the Bac.

I also want to give my story as an example to show how the assumption that everybody who inhabits that academic bubble has no experience of “real life” is wrong. Behind everybody in a uni, of whatever sort, is a life story and as I’ve gone through I’ve found talking to those around me that very few of them have the ‘priviledged’ or ‘simple’ route to success which is often associated with them.

The Non-Scientist gets turned on by Geeks

I don’t do science and so would not have imagined an evening spent listening to four distingished contributers to Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society would have been my kind of thing. But thanks to somebody at church who couldn’t go and so thrust the ticket in my hand over coffee I found myself there and loved it.

Bill Bryson was hosting this as part of the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society. It was a hour and a half q&a with Lord Martin Rees (who is apparently a big cheese in the science world), Philip Ball (a journalist and writer), Georgina Ferry (writer and broadcaster) and Richard Holmes (a historian and biographer).

The discussion largely revolved around scientists, science and their purpose. It also had an interesting feminist undercurrent going on.

So what were the key things I got/ learnt from the evening?

1) Dorothy Hodgkin (beware it’s a Wikki link…read Ferry’s book to check), the only female Nobel Prize winner for science is yet another kick ass woman of the early/ mid 20th century whose life is worth investigating. Georgina Ferry has written a biography on her and the outline given was facinating.

2) The line between art and science is finer than we think.

3) Lord Rees made the point that science needs the freeze rather than the cut because as one contributor said, “the history of science shows it’s not about economic purpose only. Enquiry is part of what it is to be civillised.”

4) We’ve been here before. In the 1820’s, another time of recession, Babbage wrote “The Decline of Science in Britain” just as Darwin was going off to explore.

5) The relationshp between science and religion is often misunderstood. I know quite a few Christians who are also scientists but on this panel it was atheists and Bryson was keen to use the US creationist debates to try and highlight the apparent divide. There was a lack of new atheism on offer though. Lord Rees spoke eloquently about why atheists should take a position of accomodation, as did Ferry.

Ferry explained, “People want to know why they exist. People build structures they feel safe in. Religion is not going to be seen off.”

Lord Rees went further and said, “the new atheists are doing a great deal of damage”. He went on to explain (in almost but not exactly these words – I was scribbling the best I could), that fundamentalism of whatever sort is dangerous and allies and religious leaders should be respected. He also pointed out if young Muslim 6th formers studying science are told they have to choose between God and science they will choose God and the scientific community and science will lose good scientists.

6) The final message that came out was that story tellers are important. Scientific discovery involves a narrative which is usually interesting and powerful but which often lacks an audience. Alot of good scientists go unrecognised beyond their peer group.

All in all, as I say, a good night which made me appreciate TOH’s academic self a little more.

Moving and Stuff

This is one of those posts which will tell part of a story, but due to the public nature of the blog will be censured. I hope that those who know me well in real life will be able to read through the lines and pray appropriately, whilst the rest of you will get a general blog post.

Yesterday was D day. Moving day started the evening before as my belongings were distributed around the city, curcuit, or whatever term you want to use for it.

It had begun quite strangely with an interesting trip to see a flat and not quite breaking in when the letting agentfailed to  arrive. Still we saw enough through the windows to see it was ok. Deposit is down and so now just getting all the appropriate references sorted. Hopefully not too long for reasons that will become clear.

Yesterday we were out on time, but out on time by me not getting all the blue tak off the kitchen wall before I went*. To be fair the housekeeper said the fact I had managed to remove all my belongings and rubbish was better than some. *This is the only disadvantage to turning your kitchen wall into a prayer wall.

Anyway we left and after replacing a few of Third Party’s clothes which I had inadvertantly packed and sent away we headed to the temporary accomodation which I had already taken those clothes I’d not got into storage to. At this point Third Party had a “blip” in her journey. It has not been a blip which has impacted her enthusiasm for college (I even got dragged to buy Sophies World today, which they had had part of in a handout, because she was enjoying philosophy and ethics so much she wanted to buy some more reading on it). However, it was the sort of blip which  slightly put the spanner in my “how to negotiate the move successfully” plans. Upshot is she is staying with friends of hers in somewhere she is more familiar with whilst I am in where I thought both of us would be for the coming few days.

For those who might be worried about how I’m managing the extra stress…it is ok, I am ok. I have booked myself in for a 24 hour academic conference (with a practioner slant), on Fresh Expressions which is taking place tomorrow and Saturday up here, (Michael Volland tipped me off in this post, slightly before the department e-mail about the programme which sounds really exciting). Therefore for 24 hours I get to escape into the world of practical theology and the debates around the future of the church. If I get the chance today I might well take the chance to listen to the Apple 7 debate and discuss that with Jonny Baker as he was one of the contributors. He’s going to be doing here doing a session on currating worship up here.

Detachment is Wonderful

Twenty years ago I would have happily pulled an all nighter….now four and a half hours sleep equals sleep deprivation. That combined with the fact I have literally just left a wonderful conference is why the TAZ stuff waits to next week.

However, you do get a brief comment on the Listening to People with Mental Health Problems conference which Durham Christian Partnership organised today.

This was a great day, which I really enjoyed. For me part of the enjoyment came from the fact I went as a Streetlights volunteer and from a detached perspective. It meant I could think about and engage with mental health issues from a distance, forgetting their impact upon my own life, my daughters life and many of my friends lives. Now don’t get me wrong I don’t mean me, my family and my friends are a bunch of crazies, (ok v. unpc but you know what I mean), but many of us have suffered from issues such as stress, depression, anxiety or similar at some point in our lives….not suprising as 1in 4 people does, (I just happen to know a slightly higher ratio). Sometimes, I find it is very useful to engage with “the other” even if you know that in “real life” “the other” is actually “us”. It is one of the reasons I like compartmentalising my life, although I know it drives those around me mad.

Anyway the conference gave us the definition of the “health care professional” followed by the stories of two people who have mental health “problems”.  Then we had a retired mental health chaplain leading a session on listening to people with mental health problems. This was followed by the highlight of the day for me, three poets from the Waddington Street Centre. One of the poets was the editor of Moodswing, a poetry magazine stemming I think from the work of the centre.

In the afternoon there was a q&a session with all the contributors, following a bit about enabling environments from three people who work with people who have mental health problems.

It was one of those lovely days when the crap was cut and you learnt something useful.


Changing for Good, For One Day Only

Yesterday I was Changing for Good, but for one day only. No, it doesn’t sound any better the other way round. In English this meant I spent a wonderful day being semi-enthused and semi-offended by Steve Chalke, thoroughly motivated by Paul Blakey, really inspired by Jane Cook and refreshingly entertained by Applecart .

I will start with “the star”. Now to put this in context I have to explain I was a child of the mid-late 80’s Baptist church youth group. Therefore as a teenager I was subjected to video upon video of Chalke and occassionally him talking in person, (he was the preferred eye candy of youth leaders of the time). The only noteable talk of all this I remember was him getting a hall full of impressional kids to stand up if they would promise once they grew up and got good jobs rather than buying a Merc they would get a little car and spend the difference on funding a Christian worker for a year, I stood and meant it….just never had the money. The other thing I will remember, and more fondly, is that he was the inspiration for Christmas Cracker. This was a series of charity restraunts we did over a couple of years, most noteably in a shop which was closing down, and a series of community radio events at Christmas for a couple of years. (The relevance of this will be come apparent in a moment). As the years went on I remember seeing Chalke at Spring Harvest over the years and being midly pleased about his focus on social justice.

Yesterday he was giving a good message, and interestingly talked about how 5 years ago he opened up a community radio station in his church over August and this led to a reduction in crime. He happened to mention it to Gordon Brown and before you knew it it was a recognised crime reduction initiative and Chalke was on his way to becoming something to do with the UN. There was no mention of the fact he had been encouraging the use of community radio licences all those years before, he wanted it to start 5 years ago in yesterdays talk. But then, that’s Steve Chalke. He is a social entreperneur who has facilitated a heck of good work, and become part of the New Labour machine, (one gets the feeling from some of the comments yesterday about being on the phone to central government every day he is now part of the ConDem nation machine)….anyway, one can only be so cynical about somebody who has had the guts to face up to much of the evangelical establishment on various issues over the years and ensure that the “British Tradition” of mixing evangelicalism with social justice has been sustained.

Yesterday he said one thing to make me really angry though. He said that we have the wrong picture of God and the kingdom we are working towards is more of an occupation, like the Israeli occupation. There was no acknowledgement that such occupations might be wrong, rather he said the church should be taking that approach. This pisses me off because it is exactly that sort of approach which led to the attrocities committed by missionaries in partnership with the British government in the nineteenth century. More recently if any Palastinian had been in that room, (and whilst I don’t think they were it wouldn’t have been beyond the realms of possibility in Durham), it would have been even more offensive to them. Occupation is wrong. God does not want occupation, he wants positive active choice making based upon transformative love not violence.

Paul Blakey turned up with another Halifax Street Angel and a bloke from Hull Street Angels. Peter, who leads StreetLights up here, with his wife, also spoke. Now, ok I was going to be biased in this sort of session. I volunteer for StreetLights and am fully convinced of the benefit of these initiatives. However, what struck me was how Paul Blakey in particular was just an ordinary bloke. There was no trendy hair cut, he didn’t look like a Mac user, and he was up there talking about how they just got on with it up there. There is no doubt that Paul is an amazing bloke, looking at what he had achieved, but he is not full of himself, he just seemed like a nice ordinary bloke with no pretentions what so ever – so different from Steve Chalke. I loved this session which got real people talking about real issues in real communities.

In the afternoon I went to a seminar by Jane Cook, (one of the former WSC students), on spirituality and outdoor persuits. This session was chilled, laid back and inspiring. Jane again was talking to ordinary people about what they could do with people from their churches and communities. She went through a whole host of ideas and did some theological reflection on them. It was great and I really enjoyed her session. Again it was rooted in the real world and what was achieveable anywhere.

Finally I saw Applecart, who somehow hadn’t gotten on my radar at Greenbelt last year. Applecart were one of the most refreshing things I have seen in years. Basically they do theatre with a Christian theme in the real world. This means that it is the sort of thing you can take your granny to and she will love whilst you will be blushing, thinking what will she make of the language…which, yes, did include the F word. The best bit of what they were doing last night was inspired by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Two blokes in flat caps in  a pub discussing Jesus telling the religious bloke to  be born again and what this meant. I won’t go into detail for those who might see it at Greenbelt this year, where they are performing four different shows. Sufficient to say the bits about it being horrible to think about having to go through your mums chuff and rupturing her were hilarious. The thing about Applecart is they are explicitly performing normally for non-Christians and have a booking criteria which means they deal with real comedy in the real world rather than sanitised stuff in church buildings which might even make Disney look risky.

All in all a good day, but one which further emphasised to me that whilst Christian social entreprenurs and Mac users might have a place it’s ordinary people in the real world that I prefer to listen to. If you are still here I  leave you with a You Tube clip of Applecart doing an interview at Greenbelt.


We’ll Keep The Red Flag Flying

I write this entry with the sound of Brass Bands coming in through the windows of the uni building. I have popped in to check the e-mail and escape the people for a moment. The streets are thronged with people who are drinking every sort of drink imaginable, and every so often you catch sight of a beautiful trade union banner aswell as the brassbands.

The racecourse has a range of tents on there, a fun fare, the greatest display of the banners and people chilling in the humid conditions. Earlier we listened to some speeches. The local mayor was inaudible, the PCS guy was inspiring as was Jeremy Corbyn MP. Ken Livingstone is back to spouting the type of rhetoric Red Ken was also famous for, but somehow he is now about as convincing as John Lydon was as Jonny Rotten in the Sex Pistols reunion tour.  It’s so obviously spin and performance now with Ken, and whilst there is v. obviously something of the original principle underneath there is a very noticeable difference between him and Corbyn. There was also a Palistinian Durham post-grad student from the occupied territories who was v.g.

The main thrust of the speeches was how we need to unite against the public spending cuts. There needs to be a unified attempt to put pressure on the government to seek to expand income through chasing up tax avoiders, (note there is a difference between tax avoidence and tax evasion – tax avoidence is legal!). Christian Aid have explained some of the issues around tax avoidence on their site, and have a campaign against us but the figures we are talking are awful. Compass, a left wing think tank has some stuff about the domestic impact and implications of it.

I liked the Durham Miners Gala, or big meeting as it is called. It was a celebration of the left and of trade unionism and a reminder of why it still matters. In a town where the local paper has revealed that 46% of the population are employed within the public sector (the third highest proportion in Britain) the wait to hear where the axe will fall next scares people. We are talking about people who know about government policies taking their jobs, who know about the effects of Tory government policies disproportionately effecting the poor in Labour heartlands and who also know about being sold out by politicians based down south. Today wasn’t just a celebration of the past, it was a real call to defend themselves in the present.

Eagleton Flies In and I lol

The location was a small, but beautiful chapel in the grounds of Durham’s smallest college. The audience were a mix of the great, the good and the downright ordinary, (I count my self as being definately in the latter category). They consisted of primarily of Catholic, Theology and English types with the odd Protestant Mathematical Physics person who’d sneaked in to enjoy.

The afternoon started with some archieve footage of Terry Eagleton from a OU programme made about 35 years ago. It was an interview on literary criticism related to Yates’ Easter 1916 poem, which apparently has been a recurring theme for him over the years. In this interview there was an interesting discussion of the contextualisation of language and how literary criticsm relates to this.

Next Tom Casey, the president of Milltown Institute looked at “Has Theology Come Round Again?” This was a facinating paper on the way radical theology has much more to offer in terms of ideas than much secular leftish thought. The argument was there may well be an acknowledgement emerging amongst some, such as Eagleton, that radical theology has a role to play in developing the thought of the cultural left.

John McDonagh gave a wonderfully humerous paper looking at the way Eagleton’s work has dealt with Ireland. If nothing else it left me desperate to read  Eagleton’s The Truth About the Irish.

Then it was time to listen to Eagleton himself. This was a great experience and one which made me treasure the fact I am essentially a “common lefty” because I got all his jokes, in a hilarious but deep talk. It was essentially an attack on “New Atheism” as advanced by Dawkins and Hitchens developed from his book Reason, Faith and Revolution. Within this he made the point that atheists are as obsessed with God as puritans are with sex.

The central point he seemed to be interestingly making was that Dawkins and co who promote a social Dawinism based on survival of the fittest and the myth of progress making us continually nicer are wrong but so are the assumptions of postmodernism. He seemed to be suggesting that Marxism was the only ideology which could meet the demands of the late modern situation and that within that radical theology has new ideas to offer. He gave a great description of Jesus based on the anarchist/ liberation theology models of Christ, (which I have to say I adhere to). I would, however, question this faith he places in Marxism in being able to keep the grand narrative whilst operating in a world which has, like,  moved beyond the certainties of the past.

I did agree with him thought that it is fear which is the opposite to love and fear is one of the key components of fundamentalism. On this part I thought it would have been interest to contrast him against the work of Tariq Ali to see where their similarities and differences lay. It was noteable in the list of the intellectual left who were being slated Ali’s name was noteably absent.

There was a classic line about the new atheists knowing as little about religion as Madonna does about Leviticus. This was one of those classic one liners which required you to understand about low culture. He also put some great one liners in about US southern based religion, and unfortunately I wasn’t seated in the right place to see the “new testament” crowds reaction. Basically though as a couple of Christian, culturally aware, lefties me and TOH loved the afternoon though and spent lots of time giggling.

Eagleton’s talk was followed by one of those panel discussions which took the form of those 1980’s late night BBC2 and Channel Four shows where intellectuals sat and spouted. Have to say whilst some of what was being spouted was interesting and relevant alot of it did seem a bit well out of keeping with the interactive, accessible nature of the rest of the symposium.

All in all a great afternoon spent in great company honouring a great man.

Oh and if you’ve never read any of Eagleton’s work I refer you to this column in the Guardian recently on the subject of footie and how it is now the opium of the people.

Rah’s ‘n’ Ma’s and Lads ‘n’ dads

It’s that time in Durham again, the one where you can’t get a table at Hide and all the coffee shops are full of proud, smartly dressed parents. Yes, this is congregation (otherwise known as graduation) week. The interesting thing I am observing is how during this period it appears that an obligatory bit of time gets spent with the parent of the same gender. There really is a rah ‘n’ ma thing going on, with Monsoon abounding everywhere you look. There is also purple and white bunting out in the streets and shop windows are displaying wonkey notices congratulating this years graduates. It’s all rather lovely actually.

Of course in with the standard graduations honoury degrees are awarded and tomorrow it is the turn of Terry Eagleton, (Wiki is the friend of those who don’t know). There is going to be a symposium, organised jointly between the English and Theology department’s Centre for Catholic Studies, to celebrate before those who can afford it go off to dine and enjoy some music. I’m taking the afternoon off to take advantage of the free bit, because it looks rather good.

Oh and on the off chance any of my graduating friends are reading I’d just like to say well done! You guys rock!

Parenting and Stuff

I guess for most people picking up the phone and being told by their 15 year old, who has picked up an awful mock West Country accent, that said daughter was a nun this morning would be pretty strange. Me, I didn’t blink, Third Party has obviously entered the world of the walk about entertainer. Glasto is turning into a work experience opportunity for her and she is enjoying. 

The Saffy and Eddy dynamic is not totally gone yet though. On being told I had an interview on Wednesday Third Party gave me strict instructions to relax over the weekend at Solas and then work like crazy to prepare when I get home. Apparently I need to get my head in the right space. 

Anyway if I need to spiritually chill I think I might just end up exploring Durham’s newest prayer space Sanctuary 21. I know the link takes you to a site currently under construction, but the boiler room is up and going with a soundproof prayer room which can be booked out. I had a look round last night and was a bit bowled over by what I saw. The place has the sort of vibe about it which just oozes warmness. For those who can’t handle the formality of the Cathedral this looks like a great place to come and just chill with God.