Archive for the LGBT Category

The Reason I’m Alive

Posted in Biographical, LGBT with tags , , , on February 27, 2021 by telescoper

For a variety of reasons I’ve always considered myself to have been exceptionally lucky, but last week I got news that increased still further the extent of this sense of good fortune. I hesitated before putting anything about this on here because it is rather personal and there are details I’m going to leave out about how I came by the information.

Over a month ago I posted some thoughts about the TV series It’s A Sin based on my own experiences back in the 1980s. That post ended with this:

… a question that often troubles me returned once again to my mind: why am I still alive, when so many people I knew back then are not?

In response to this a former colleague of mine suggested I get my DNA sequenced to see if I had any innate resistance to HIV infection. I wasn’t sure how to go about doing this but one of the advantages of having worked in several different universities is that I know people in several bioscience and biomedical departments, including people who work on the data science aspects of genetics. After emailing around for advice I eventually ended up talking to a very distinguished scientist in that field to whom I explained the situation.

Since I didn’t really want to have a copy of my entire genome sequence – that’s a lot of data most of which I wouldn’t understand – but just wanted to know the answer to one question it seemed a waste of money to have this done commercially (although at around €1000 it’s not enormously expensive). Instead a plan emerged in which I would offer my (suitably anonymized) DNA as part of a scientific study in return for the small piece of information I wanted.

After a few days I received a kit for taking oral swabs, a medical questionnaire and quite a lot of paperwork to do with ethical considerations and data protection. I sent everything back by return post. Last week the results came back. There was some general info about my genetic make-up – which shows a considerable dollop of Scandinavian ancestry – alongside the answer the question I had asked.

The full DNA sequence of my genome reveals that I have the CCR5-Δ32 genetic mutation. Not just that. I have it twice (i.e. it’s homozygotic), which means that I inherited it from both parents.

Of order 1% of the European population has this mutation, which is thought to have arisen in a single Scandinavian individual at some stage during the Viking era and subsequently propagated through mainly Northern Europe where about 10% have one copy, and about 1% have two.

Here is a map of the geographical distribution in Europe (from this paper) :

It’s nowhere near as prevalent in Asia or African populations.

So what does this mean?

Heterozygotic CCR5-Δ32 (i.e. one mutated gene) confers some protection against HIV infection but the homozygotic CCR5-Δ32 mutation involving both copies confers virtually total immunity. I was terrified of AIDS in the 1980s but it turns out I was immune all the time without knowing it. This explains why to my great surprise the HIV test I took in the 1980s came back negative despite my sexual history and behaviour.

As a friend told me when I passed this news on: “you’re a f**king lucky bugger”. Indeed I am. I already considered myself to have been very lucky but this absolutely takes the biscuit.

P.S. My immediate “reward” for having this genetic peculiarity is to take part in further scientific study on it, which I am of course very happy to do.

Memories of the Aldwych Bus Bombing

Posted in Biographical, History, LGBT with tags , , , , on February 18, 2021 by telescoper

Twitter just reminded that today is the 25th anniversary of the Aldwych Bus Bombing, which happened while I was living in London. In fact, as it happens, in the late evening of Sunday 18th February 1996, when the bomb went off I was scarily close to it. The bomb went off in Aldwych, near The Strand, while I was standing in a fairly long queue trying to get into a night club near Covent Garden. The explosion was no more than 200 yards away from me.

The reason I was there was a one-nighter called Queer Nation which was on every Sunday in the 90s. I went there quite regularly and provided very nice music and provided an environment that attracted a very interesting crowd of people. Anyway I preferred it to the very big clubs of the more commercial London gay scene of the time, largely because it wasn’t such a big venue as many of the others and you could actually talk to people there without having to shout.

The queue to get in wasn’t too long and I had only been waiting a few minutes when there was a loud bang followed by a tinkling sound caused by pieces of glass falling to the ground. Everyone in the queue including myself instinctively dropped to the ground. The blast sounded very close but we were in a narrow street surrounded by tall buildings and it was hard to figure out from which direction the sound had come from. Shortly afterwards the air was filled with the sound of sirens from police cars and other emergency vehicles. According to Wikipedia the bomb went off at 22:38.

It turned out that an IRA operative had accidentally detonated a bomb on a bus, apparently while en route to plant it somewhere else (probably King’s Cross). The bomb consisted of 2kg of Semtex, which is rather a large amount, hence the enormous blast. The explosion happened on the upper deck of the bus and the only person killed was the person carrying the bomb.

After the people outside the nighclub had stood up and dusted ourselves down, we talked briefly about what to do next. Everyone was rattled. I didn’t feel like going clubbing after what had clearly been a terrorist attack so I said goodnight and left for home.

Getting home turned out to be rather difficult, however. The police quickly threw a cordon around the site of the blast so that several blocks either side were inaccessible. Aldwych is in the West End, but I lived in the East End, on the wrong side of sealed-off area, so I had to find a way around it before heading home. No buses or taxis were to be found so I had to walk all the way. I ended up having to go as far North as the Angel before walking along the City Road towards the East End. I didn’t arrive him until about three o’clock in the morning (though I did stop off for a Bagel in Spitalfields on the way).

So that was 25 years ago. Fortunately since then we’ve had the Good Friday Agreement and such events have virtually disappeared. But how long will that peace last?

It’s The Sun..

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, LGBT, Television with tags , , on February 12, 2021 by telescoper

Episode 4 of It’s A Sin is broadcast on Channel 4 tonight. I’ve already watched the series and I thought I’d post a quick comment, but don’t worry – no spoilers. Tonight’s episode is set in 1988 – when I was living in Brighton – and to give you an idea of what attitudes were like at that time here is a typically foul “opinion” piece published in The Sun in 1988:

I hope you can understand why many of us are still angry. Times have changed, but we need to be aware that they could easily change back. The Tories were not, are not, and will never be our friends.

The series has had a big impact on me, which is why I keep posting about it from time to time. It has reminded me of many terrible things that happened, but perhaps surprisingly my recollection of that period is that there were very many good times too and I am glad that it made many happy memories come back too.

My Acting Career

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, LGBT, Mental Health, Television with tags , on January 30, 2021 by telescoper

Out of the swirling mass of cathartic memories unleashed by watching It’s A Sin there suddenly popped this one which had been buried away in the dark recesses of my subconscious for over thirty years.

Oh no, I can hear you thinking, not another one of those tediously self-indulgent posts. It’s not like that, actually. I decided to share it mainly because I think it’s quite funny!

When I was living in Brighton in the late 1980s I and a friend of mine decided to try a spot of amateur dramatics. I can’t remember what the play was – because neither of us succeeded in getting involved – but it seemed like it would be interesting so responding to an advert in a local newspaper we turned up for the audition.

The first bit was a reading. My choice of piece was a bit unusual. I did a bit of drama at school, but since I went to a single-sex grammar school all the female parts were played by boys, which is why I ended up playing Lady Scottish Play in the Scottish Play. I remembered some of Mrs M’s speeches – an do to this day – so did for my audition piece the one that begins “The Raven himself is hoarse…” and has bits about “unsex me here”, etc.

Surprisingly I got through the reading bit.

For the next part all the survivors (about 15 of us) sat in chairs on the stage. The Director bloke then announced that he wanted us to “act” somebody crying. I sat for a moment, then looked at the others, who were making what I thought were very hammy attempts to do a cry and I thought to myself “I can do better than that”.

I may have been quite young then, but I’d quite recently been beaten up, spent weeks in a psychiatric hospital, and seen two friends die from AIDS. I had, therefore, under the surface, acquired quite a reservoir of sadness to draw on. I’m not a trained method actor or anything like that but I knew that I could summon up something very easily. So that’s what I did. I shut my eyes and thought for a moment, and started crying my eyes out. The group of prospective actors around me all stopped and stared.

Eventually the Director came on stage looking very concerned and asked if I was all right. I said “Yes. I’m fine. I thought you you wanted us to cry.” He looked amazed.

The audition ended and I assumed I had wowed everyone enough with the deep emotion of my performance to get the part. On the way out, though, I was told that I hadn’t passed the audition.

The reason given was that it’s absolutely no good portraying grief or pain in a theatre – even a small one – by sitting in a chair actually crying. The audience won’t really see the tears, so you have to do a lot more with gestures and movement.

The production went ahead without me in it, and I’ve thought so little of it until now that I’ve even forgotten what the play was!

It’s not much of a talent to be able to turn on the waterworks on demand, but I thought I’d share this experience here to point out (a) that I can still do it and (b) if there are any TV or film directors looking to cast a (hopefully lucrative) role for a middle aged guy who can cry in close up and is not required to do much else then they need look no further!

Perhaps I should hire an agent?

It’s a Sin – Review

Posted in Biographical, History, LGBT, Television with tags , , , , , , , on January 28, 2021 by telescoper

Left to Right: Omari Douglas (Roscoe), Nathaniel Curtis (Ash), Olly Alexander (Ritchie), Callum Scott Howells (Colin) and Lydia West (Jill)

Since I posted a kind of prelude a few days ago I decided that I would bite the bullet and watch the entire Channel 4 drama series It’s a Sin. Although only the first episode (of five) has been broadcast all the episodes were released on the Channel 4 app so I decided to binge on it. Part of the reason for doing that was that I wanted to finish it before term starts next week. I’ve waited for a couple of days before writing a sort of review of it, or more a reaction, really to get over the impact enough to write something even vaguely sensible.

Because a lot of people won’t have seen the whole series yet I won’t give away any of the plot, but it won’t come as any surprise to discover that it is steeped in tragedy and at times a very difficult watch. Before you ask if I cried, the answer is yes, I did a lot, in every single episode, partly because of the actual drama but also partly because of the memories it brought back. The catharsis wasn’t unwelcome, however. You don’t deal with the past by hiding from it.

The word tragedy is frequently misused but I think it is very apt for It’s A Sin. People often refer to unpredictable or accidental events as tragic but the power of a theatrical tragedy comes from the sense of remorseless inevitability. From Episode 1 you feel the threat approaching and you know what is going to happen because you know the historical context. It still hits very hard though. If you can get through Episode 3 without crumbling you’re a stronger person than me. It reminded me of a paraphrased quote from Herodotus I first heard in 1986:

Call no man happy until he knows the manner of his death.

So what can I say about it as a piece of television drama? Well, first of all, it’s beautifully written and produced. Writer Russel T. Davies is just a month or so older than me so would also have been 18 in 1981 when the first episode is set and it clearly is a very personal piece. That gives it great authenticity, and the production goes to a lot of trouble to get the atmosphere and detail right. I moved to London in 1990 and the last episode, set in 1991, depicts that time very accurately indeed. While I was living in Brighton (for the five years before moving to London) I did travel up quite a few times to sample the gay scene either alone or with friends. The music, the design and the clothing is all very much on the mark. The one thing you can’t do on television is recreate the smell. Gay clubs in my memory were awash with poppers and sweat. I had also almost forgotten the ubiquitous clones (gay men in tight jeans, checked shirts, cropped hair and moustaches), a look that was de rigueur in the late Seventies to mid Eighties. The lingo was generally quite different, actually. There weren’t any twinks in those days, for example, and far fewer gym bunnies. I also remember that for me in those days the London scene revolved more around Earls Court than Soho. I particularly remember a place called Bromptons.

But I digress.

The acting in the series is also very good. I have to pick out Olly Alexander‘s stellar performance as Ritchie Tozer. Being an old fogey I didn’t know about his musical career and I’ve only seen him a little as an actor, including in an old episode of the detective series Lewis but to be honest he didn’t really register. I was much more aware of him as an activist and advocate for LGBT+ rights, work for which I admire him enormously. The role of Ritchie is clearly one that means a lot to him and which is no doubt why he gives so much of himself. The result is one of the most generous and commited performances I have ever seen on television, as funny and charming as it is, in the end, heartbreaking. He has a presence in this series that is utterly compelling.

Among other qualities, Olly Alexander has remarkably expressive eyes. That’s always a great asset for a screen actor, because so much is done in closeup and, in this series, he does quite a lot of work directly to camera which are intensely moving. Although the whole cast is very strong – and it is really an ensemble piece – Olly Alexander steals the show more than once. He deserves every bit of the praise that is being heaped on him right now.

Russel T. Davies was very clear that he wanted the gay roles in this series to be played by gay actors. I think he was absolutely right in that, for two reasons. One is personal. I don’t think I would have responded in anything like the same way as I did to, e.g., Ritchie Tozer if I hadn’t known that the actor playing him was gay. It made the character immediately real to me. More importantly I think playing a gay role must be liberating for a gay actor too. The actor does not have to pretend to be gay so they can concentrate their energy on other aspects of their performance, which can only grow as a consequence.

I was amused to see some comments on social media after Episode 1 complaining about the “graphic” sex scenes. I think they were done very honestly, showing things as they are. HIV is sexually transmitted so why tiptoe around the reality of gay sex. I thought some of the scenes were rather nice, actually. Anyway I wonder what the people complaining think gay men do in bed, play tiddlywinks perhaps? I’ve never understood why it is acceptable to portray shocking levels of violence on television, but showing two cute guys getting it on is considered anathema. Straight people can be weird.

I suppose one of things I was a bit worried about before I watched It’s A Sin was that it might have been mawkish or preachy, a trap some AIDS dramas have fallen into. Davies avoids that by ensuring that all his characters are very human. Richie, for example, may be cute and sexy but he is also at times a bit dim and rather annoying.

The other characters are similarly human. They all have their faults, but who doesn’t? You don’t have to be an angel to deserve respect. All are very real, presumably because they are partly based on people Russell T. Davies knew back then.

I’ve described some of my own experiences during the Eighties elsewhere on this blog. I don’t propose to repeat them at length here, but will say that I grew up in the 1970s at a time when the only portrayals of gay characters on screen were camp stereotypes to be mocked. That mockery extended into everyday life for gay people, with the added possibility of real physical violence. My reaction to that was to assume that straight people would never be really accepting of us and would never be our friends, so it was a waste of time trying. When I wasn’t at work I avoided straight society, shopping in gay shops, eating in gay restaurants, and generally being a scene Queen. That may seem a bit extreme – and it probably was – but one positive I felt at the time was a sense of belonging that I had never felt before and haven’t felt much since. That sense pervades It’s A Sin: the characters suffer family rejection and discrimination as society turns its back on them but they have each other, at least for a time.

Curiously it was because I got involved a little bit in the battle against AIDS that I changed my view about gay separatism. After doing some training I got involved as a volunteer in doing sexual health workshops, phone counselling, giving out information leaflets and fundraising. As a matter of fact it was the AIDS crisis that led me to take up long-distance running. I did my first half-marathon in 1988 to raise money for the Terence Higgins Trust.

To my surprise a number of straight people were involved in these activities too, and I began to realize that there was such a thing as a a straight ally. If someone had told me in 1991 that in less than 30 years same-sex marriage would have been legal I would have laughed my head off. But there you are. We wouldn’t have got that without building alliances. I was wrong, and am happy to admit it.

One of the people I worked with at that time was a nurse called Gill. The character Jill Baxter (wonderfully played by Lydia West) made my jaw drop not just because of the similarity in name but also because some of the things she says (warning the risks from AIDS) which were almost word for word some like expressions Gill used. I’m sure* that must be a coincidence!

*I’ve now read an interview that explains that Jill is indeed based on a real character called Jill (not Gill) who was a nurse who cared for people with AIDS, as Gill did but was not her. I hope this clarifies the situation.

The hostility and misrepresentation I mentioned above got even worse during the AIDS crisis, with the occasional added flourish that AIDS was sent by God to punish sinful behaviour. The best that most dramas achieved was to create a sense that gay men were victims to be pitied, rather than perverts to be despised. That seemed to me to be hardly an improvement. At least now we’re on a path towards equality and acceptance, although there is still a long way to go: there are some who don’t seem to have learned very much at all from this terrible period, judging by their attitudes towards transgender people.

I think that’s enough rambling. I’ll just make one last admission. This series made me feel very old! The first episode is set in 1981, which is “only” forty years ago, but it struck me in Episode 2 that it was a bit like watching one of those historical costume dramas that appear so often on the telly and then realising that you were alive at the time being depicted! But I can cope with being old. At least I made it this far. This series is a testament to those who didn’t.

It’s a Sin

Posted in Biographical, History, LGBT, Television with tags , , , , , on January 23, 2021 by telescoper

My Twitter feed was on fire last night with reactions to the first episode of the new Channel 4 drama series It’s a Sin. The title is taken from the 1987 hit of the same name by the Pet Shop Boys.

I didn’t watch it. I told a friend that I would find it impossible to watch. He asked “Why, would the memories be uncomfortable?”. I said “No. I can’t get Channel 4 on my television”.

I only have the minimum Saorview you see.

Now I’ve been informed that it is possible to stream Channel 4 for free in Ireland I will definitely watch it, so consider this a prelude to the inevitable commentary when I’ve actually seen it.

The reason why my friend thought I’d find it uncomfortable is that the story of the first episode is set in 1981 and revolves around five characters who were eighteen years old at that time. As it happens I was also 18 in 1981. On the other hand the story involves the protagonists all moving to London in 1981, which I didn’t. I was living in Newcastle in 1981, doing my A-levels and then taking the entrance exam for Cambridge where I went the following year (1982).

Before going on I’ll just mention that 1981 was – yikes – 40 years ago and – double yikes – is closer in time to the end of World War 2 than to today.

Anyway, a major theme running through the 5-part series is the AIDS epidemic that was only just starting to appear on the horizon in 1981. I recall reading an article in a magazine about GRIDS (Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome), which it was what AIDS was called in the very early days. I remember it only vaguely though and didn’t think much about AIDS during the time I was an undergraduate student, although became terrifyingly relevant when I moved to Sussex in 1985 to start my graduate studies.

Although I had been (secretly) sexually active at school and definitely knew I was gay when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, I wasn’t very open about it except to my closest friends. I also didn’t do much about it either, apart from developing a number of crushes that were doomed to be unrequited.

In my final year at Cambridge I decided that I would try to get a place to do a PhD (or, as it turned out, a DPhil). I applied to a few places around the country, and was very happy to get an offer from Sussex and started my postgraduate studies there in 1985. The reputation of Brighton as being a very `gay’ place to live was definitely part of the decision to go there.

Having been very repressed at Cambridge and mostly unhappy as a consequence I decided that I couldn’t continue to live that way. One of the first things I did during `Freshers Week’ at Sussex was join the GaySoc (as it was called) and I gradually became more involved in it as time went on. To begin with I found it helped to pluck up the nerve to go into gay bars and clubs, which I was a bit scared to do on my own having never really experienced anything like them in Newcastle or Cambridge.

It didn’t take me long to acquire an exciting sex life, picking up guys here and there and having (mostly unprotected) sex with strangers several times a week (or more). I then met an undergraduate student through the GaySoc. Although younger than me he was more experienced and more confident about sex. The relationship I had with him was a real awakening for me. We had a lot of sex. I would often sneak off form my office to his room on campus during the day for a quickie. We never even talked about wearing condoms or avoiding ‘risky’ behaviour. This was in 1986. The infamous government advertising campaign began in 1987.

Then one evening we went together to a GaySoc meeting about AIDS during which a health expert explained what was dangerous and what wasn’t, and exactly how serious AIDS really was. Most of us students were disinclined to follow instructions from the Thatcher government but gradually came round to the idea that it wasn’t the attempt at social control that we suspected but a genuine health crisis. That day my partner and I exchanged sheepish glances all the way through the talk. Afterwards we discussed it and decided that it was probably a good idea for us both to get tested for HIV, though obviously if one of us had it then both of us would.

Having been told what the riskiest sexual practices were, and knowing that I had been engaging very frequently precisely in those behaviours, I just assumed that I would be found HIV+. When I did eventually have a test I was quite shocked to find I was negative, so much so that I had another test to make sure. It was negative again. We were both negative, in fact, so we carried on as before.

It was in the next few years that people I knew started to get HIV, and then AIDS, from which many died. I imagine, therefore, that It’s a Sin will have a considerable personal resonance for me. Even without watching it (yet) a question that often troubles me returned once again to my mind: why am I still alive, when so many people I knew back then are not?

LGBTQ+ STEM Day

Posted in LGBT with tags , on November 18, 2020 by telescoper

Well, we’re here at LGBTQ+ STEM day. I’ll shortly be giving my zoom talk. I’ll post the slides here afterwards; it’s only fair that those people who are listening to the talk should get to see them first!

Incidentally, you’re probably wondering why this year’s LGBTQ+ STEM Day is today, November 18th, instead of the previous date, July 5th. The answer is that it honours astronomer Frank Kameny who, sixty years ago, brought a case of wrongful discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation to the Supreme Court of the United States of America. He lost his case, but it is an important milestone. Frank Kameny died in 2011, at the age of 86.

About 60 people attended the live session, which is quite a good turnout. Probably some more will watch the recording. My slides, such as they are, can be found here:

Diversity in Physics – LGBTQ+ STEMDay

Posted in Biographical, Books, Talks and Reviews, Cardiff, LGBT with tags , , , , on November 14, 2020 by telescoper

The nice people involved with Physics at Cardiff University, Prism Exeter and the GW4 group generally have organized a (virtual) event to celebrate Diversity and Inclusion for LGBTQ+ STEM Day 2020 which is to take place on November 18th (that’s next Wednesday). I’m very honoured to have been invited to give a keynote talk at this event, the poster for which is below, and am looking forward to it.

There’s a blog post here that gives more information about the event, including how to register in order to receive the Zoom connection.

I won’t be able to stay for the whole event as I am teaching later that day. I’d have been particularly interested in the session on Open Science…

R.I.P. James Randi (1928-2020)

Posted in LGBT, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on October 22, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday I heard the sad news of the death, at the age of 92, of stage conjuror, humanist and famous debunker of charlatans, James Randi.  I guess quite a few of my readers won’t have heard of him, but he was a really interesting character. His real name was Randall James Hamilton Zwinge and he was born in Toronto. He was a professional magician (i.e. a conjuror) with the stage name “The Amazing Randi” who spent most of the last four decades debunking psychics and exposing fraudulent claims of the paranormal. Those of you out there old enough to remember the 1970s will recall the  “paranormalist”  Uri Geller being a household name for his numerous TV appearances bending spoons, stopping clocks and generally exhibiting supernatural powers. Randi exposed these as simple conjuring tricks, and got himself sued for his trouble.

There’s an interesting connection between the Uri Geller phenomenon and physics. In the 1970s, when Geller was at the height of his popularity, a physicist called John G. Taylor took great interest in him and the things that he appeared to be able to do. Professor of applied mathematics at King’s College, London, Taylor was (and remains) a very distinguished scientist and was the first to take the paranormal phenomena displayed by Geller seriously. When Uri Geller visited Britain in 1974, Taylor conducted scientific tests of Geller’s feats of metal bending using all the paraphernalia of modern science, including a Geiger counter. Taylor also experimented with some of the children and adults who claimed to manifest psychic abilities after seeing Uri Geller’s appearances on British television programs. Taylor’s interest in such phenomena was not only in its scientific validation, but also in investigation of the way in which such phenomena take place and the nature of the forces involved. He suggested the phenomena may be some low-frequency electromagnetic effect generated by human beings.

Through the 1970s Taylor was regarded as fully endorsing the paranormal metal bending of Uri Geller, but gradually has made more guarded statements; then in 1980 he largely retracted his support for Geller’s paranormal talents. In 1974 he wrote

The Geller effect—of metal-bending—is clearly not brought about by fraud. It is so exceptional it presents a crucial challenge to modern science and could even destroy the latter if no explanation became available.

Taylor then spent three years of careful investigation of such phenomena as psychokinesis, metal bending, and dowsing, but could not discover any reasonable scientific explanation or validation that satisfied him. He was particularly concerned to establish whether there is an electromagnetic basis for such phenomena. After failing to find this he did not believe that there was any other explanation that would suffice. Most of his experiments under laboratory conditions were negative; this left him in a skeptical position regarding the validity of claimed phenomena.

In contrast to the endorsement in his first book, Superminds, he published a paper expressing his doubts in a paper in Nature (November 2, 1978) titled “Can Electromagnetism Account for Extra-sensory Phenomena?” He followed this with his book Science and the Supernatural (1980) in which he expressed complete skepticism about every aspect of the paranormal. In his final chapter he stated:

We have searched for the supernatural and not found it. In the main, only poor experimentation [including his own], shoddy theory, and human gullibility have been encountered.

Taylor’s investigation of the Geller effect is interesting because it shows that physics doesn’t have all the answers all the time, particularly not when the phenomena in question involve people. Physics research proceeds by assuming that Nature is not playing tricks, and that what can be measured must represent some sort of truth. This faith can be easily exploited by a charlatan. James Randi always argued that scientists aren’t the right people to detect tricks performed by people: this is best left to tricksters. There’s no reason to believe that a theoretical physicist – no matter how brilliant – can spot the way a clever deception is carried out. The best person to see that is a magician, someone like James Randi. Set a thief to catch a thief, and all that…

I wrote a blog post about James Randi about a decade ago because it was not until then, when he had reached the age of 81 that he revealed to the public that he was gay. I feel a bit sad that took him so long to step out of the closet, but I’m sure he was glad he made the decision. From wikipedia I learn that he married his partner José Alvarez in 2013. I hope their time together was happy, and send my condolences to José  on his loss.

Rest in peace, James Randi (1928-2020).

Thirty Years On

Posted in Biographical, LGBT with tags , on October 9, 2020 by telescoper

Every now and then I use this blog to mark a personal anniversary, but I’m a bit late with this one. It was on October 1st 1990 that I started work at what was then Queen Mary & Westfield College of the University of London on Mile End Road. Here’s my staff ID card which, for some reason, I have kept for over thirty years.

I was to work there until the end of 1998, after which I moved to Nottingham.

My position came about because I had applied unsuccessfully for a permanent lectureship at QMW, but this was a kind of consolation prize. I had strong personal reasons for wanting to move to London at that time and was very happy with the outcome. I only had two years’ postdoc experience at the time and wasn’t sufficiently experienced for a permanent job so wasn’t surprised that I didn’t get it. In fact it went to Mike Thompson, who sadly passed away a couple of years ago.

The job I moved for was a five year fixed-term position that was a mixture of a postdoctoral research fellowship and a temporary lectureship in the ratio 30:70 so I had a teaching load that was lighter than that of a lecturer but heavier than that of a postdoc. As the card indicates I was in the School of Mathematical Sciences and because my research interests including a statistical component, I mainly taught statistics. In fact, the first course I lectured was on Time Series Analysis, which was to a mixed class of mathematics and statistics students. A couple of years into this position I applied for and was awarded an Advanced Fellowship from the (then) Science & Engineering Research Council, which meant that QMW got me for nothing for 5 years and my reward for that was a permanent position at the end of the fellowship.

For some reason – probably because the terms of employment were a little complicated – I kept the correspondence about the job. In particular I note that my starting salary was a princely £14,148 per annum (including £1,767 london weighting). That’s about what a PhD student’s stipend is these days!

I look back on my time at Queen Mary with great fondness. I learnt a huge amount not only from my boss, Ian Roxburgh, who had managed to set up the job in the first place and was very clever at things like that thanks to his somewhat Machiavellian nature.

When I visited QMW to talk informally to Ian about the job, he asked me why I wanted to move to London. “Do you have a girlfriend here?” he inquired. I said “no”. “A boyfriend, then?” he responded. I wasn’t sure whether he meant it as a joke, and thought it was a bit inappropriate, but didn’t hesitate in saying “yes” in response. I wondered whether this would cause any issues but it didn’t. Being openly gay didn’t cause me any problems there at all, in fact.

P. S. Here is the staff list on the letterhead of my appointment letter. An illustrious collection, though the gender balance could have been better. All by now have either retired or moved to other institutions, though I have stayed in touch with several of them through the RAS Club.