Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The 23rd most popular left-wing blogger is...me!

I'm dead chuffed to have been placed 23rd in the top 75 left-wing bloggers in the recent Total Politics awards. It's nice to know I'm being read, and strange to see my name close to longer established journalists like George Monbiot, and ahead of people like Johann Hari, although given his own troubles this year, maybe that's not so surprising. Big congratulations also to fellow City hack James Bloodworth too, who came in at eighth place with his Obliged to Offend blog.

I love writing about politics, and I try to resist being too self-indulgent or unnecessarily inflammatory in the subjects I write about. Maybe there's a bit too much of that out on the blogosphere - I pride myself on some semblance of balance and reasoned argument, and try not to take myself too seriously.

Thanks for reading, and especially if you voted for me too. It means a lot.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Why lifting the ban on gay men giving blood has made me more angry

So, the lifetime ban on men giving blood who have ever had sex with another man has been – partially - lifted. After a 12-month ‘window period’ of effective celibacy, men who have ever had sex with another man can give blood. Great. A particularly discriminatory restriction has been lifted.

It’s fine if you’re celibate, or asexual, or a monk. As the Twitter feed of my favourite online magazine said when the announcement was made, “it’s that awkward moment when you realise you’ve not had any in so long, it’s OK for you to donate blood”. For some people, that will be the case, either out of choice or not through want of trying. The vast majority of gay men, I suspect will not fall into the monk category. After all, even in the most remote outposts of the UK, the internet has made it more than possible for men who want to have sex with men – regardless of whether they’re gay or not – to do just that. They don’t even have to define as ‘gay’ these days.

But how should you feel when you’re in a monogamous, long-term relationship of over four years, and you know that you’re free of any sexually transmitted infections (STIs)? I’m entering into a civil partnership with him next year, for goodness’ sake.

I take great issue at being pigeon-holed in that great mass of gay men who are at particularly high-risk of catching and transmitting hepatitis B, which is difficult to detect for up to 12 months after transmission. Quite rightly, this article points out the tacit failure of UK governments, past and present, to immunise against hepatitis B, as 85% have done. So, surely there is a big question about the duties of government and the public healthcare systems to protect against such diseases? I am a gay man, but I’m not a member of the mass of gay men who, somewhat mythically, carry a myriad of STIs. Whereas sexually active gay men may well be at high risk statistically, I simply don’t believe this is the case for many, simply because they don’t have sex, they engage in safe sex, or they engage in safe sexual activity which is within the confines of any normal, loving relationship. I do take responsibility for my health, funnily enough.

It couldn’t just be men who have sex with men who are prevented from giving blood, so I had a look on the National Blood Transfusion Service website, which gives some advice on who should, and shouldn’t give blood. At the top of the page, it gives its less severe advice. Apparently you should not give blood if:

“You've already given blood in the last 12 weeks (normally, you must wait 16 weeks)”Fat chance, the blanket ban was only lifted today so thus far in my life I’ve been prevented from doing so.

“You have a chesty cough, sore throat or active cold sore.”Hmmm, not lately. Last time I checked my phlegm-like output, there weren’t any STIs lurking.

“A member of your family (parent, brother, sister or child) has suffered with CJD (Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease)”Not as far as I know. Although we did eat British beef in the 1990s - does that count?

There are many other reasons given, including if you’ve had a recent tattoo or body piercing or if you’re pregnant (none, certainly not the latter, apply to me). Fair enough. I would assume there are valid, legitimate medical reasons behind all of this, not least in the interests of the health of the individual giving blood but also public health at large.

Going towards the bottom of the page (where most eyes will have begun to turn off, because the website isn’t brilliantly designed) it finally tells me that I should never give blood if I’m a man who's had sex with another man, even safe sex using a condom. So, I can be entirely clean, clear and safe of any nasty STIs or HIV, completely healthy, yet still banned (and that will still apply to me when the ban is partially lifted, because I’m in a sexually active relationship).

What’s more, any woman who has had sex with another man, who in turn has had sex with another man must never give blood less than 12 months after sex. That might rely on an awful lot of investigative work on the part of the woman who surely, shouldn’t be expected to know the sexual history of the man she’s in the sack with (and wouldn’t necessarily get an honest or reliable answer as a result).

Human honesty, therefore, is rather problematic. The National Blood Transfusion Service, quite rightly, needs to ensure that the quality of the blood it takes from people does not in any way endanger public health. But surely science is better than ever before to ensure that the quality of blood is never compromised? The questions that are asked of people should, surely be based on everyone’s unprotected sex and not just one group. There are significant numbers of people in the UK who still have unprotected or high-risk sex, without condoms, and in this instance, I’m talking about people who engage in sexual activity with the opposite sex.

I can’t say I’m in a massive hurry to give blood. But I’d like to one day. Who knows when a close friend or family member will need that particular blood type that I have because, God forbid, they’ve been involved in some horrific accident or has to undergo some sort of emergency medical procedure? It doesn’t bear thinking about. For the time being, I can’t go anywhere near one of those big trucks the National Blood Transfusion Service trundles around the country, and enjoy my first ever post-transfusion cup of tea and a biscuit.

What am I led to believe? The argument from the powers-that-be seems to be that a 12-month restriction can only rest on some sort of inherent homophobia at worst (and I hate to think this), at best a complete ignorance of the sexual behaviours of gay men, not least women who’ve ever had sex with gay men. My response is: let the science do the talking and treat us as individuals, gay, straight or whatever.

Anything less, and it will still feel like the state thinks what I’m doing in the bedroom is a bit wrong.

Worth saying also that London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard is a good port-of-call for advice on these matters: 0300 330 0630.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Review: London Road

Cottesloe, National Theatre, London

14 April – 27 September 2011

If David Cameron were looking for an example of the big society in action, he may need look no further than the close-knit community of London Road, an otherwise unremarkable street in Ipswich, Suffolk. In late 2006, a group of previously disparate residents had come together in the most unlikely circumstances to forge new bonds in their community in the aftermath of tragedy.

Over November and
December 2006, fork-lift truck driver Steve Wright terrorised this usually genteel town, murdering five prostitutes who worked in the red-light district; the consequent manhunt triggering the biggest inquiry evermounted by Suffolk Police – and the attention of the world's media. The extraordinary spotlight cast on London Road soon began to bring together the street's residents more often - a thriving annual flowers in bloom competition, a Neighbourhood Watch and a quiz night. All this attracted the attention of a writer, –źlecky Blythe, who began to spend a lot of time with the still emotionally sore locals, somewhat ironically employing a form of journalism that would later translate her conversations with them to the stage.

Blythe deserves much praise along with composer Adam Cork for the uniquely faithful yet sensitive setting of the residents' spoken words to music. If that sounds like a tall order in the context of the Ipswich tragedy, it has paid off tremendously. The conventions of the traditional musical are thrown aside to remarkable effect. Every intonation, flaw and variation of dialect is captured, often humorously, sometimes bittersweet. The audience, from the very beginning has been invited into the story, with the opening bars of “Hello, welcome” and the shaking of hands of those in the front rows, spoken to music by the character of Ron, the Neighbourhood Watch chair. And while initially it is odd to hear the openings to musical 'numbers' with lines such as “Yeah, s’quite an unpleasant feeling, everyone is very, very nervous …erm …”, the overall effect is captivating. In the words of Cork, “the choral presentation of this story in particular seems to underline the ritual aspect of human experience”. It is a story about deep, centuries-old aspects of the human condition – in which the usual societal boundaries have been broken down because London Road needs to heal itself.

London Road
will no doubt set the standard for a bold, fresh new take on the musical genre for years to come, and will undoubtedly encourage audiences to question what is being presented to them. We experience an honest portrayal of civic society's desire to improve its sense of community; that isn't just borne out of meddling by liberal 'do-gooders'. The residents act out of a desire for self-protection, a human reaction to shovel life's nasties away out of sight. But, for all the lighter moments and the sympathy imparted by the audience for a group of people whose lives have been invaded, a reflection by one character towards the end remarks disturbingly on Wright's crimes: “I'm glad they're gone – I could shake him by the hand for what he did”. Ominously, the prostitutes themselves feature just once in the entire production – standing silently on the stage in a poignant moment of quiet reflection. Do we question the girls' plight and the residents' reaction to it? Yes – and that's what makes this production work, because we are not fed the warts-and-all detail of their deaths.

Through the authentic, choral representation of its residents, the success of London Road is a reminder that occasionally, stronger society can come out of tragedy. And, if we had any doubt as to the motives of those behind this production, over £25,000 was raised for the Iceni Project over the course of the show's run – a real life charity helping Ipswich prostitutes and their families in dealing with drug and alcohol problems. 


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