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Among green-faced witches and Corpse Brides, I felt the love of a family

Glitter appeared, and was thrown in the air, and we made our way to the dancefloor.

“I hope you’ll be proud to hear that I was dancing in a gay club till 3am on Saturday night” read the text I sent to my daughter on Monday. It was one of the best nights out I’d had in a while, though it all started very decorously, with an early dinner and a literary event.

I’d gone down to Brighton for the weekend to attend the lit salon hosted by Damian Barr at the Theatre Royal, in which he interviewed Armistead Maupin. The theatre was packed; the crowd of 700 very gay, and very much of a certain age – ie my age.

Maupin’s Tales of the City books began as a serial in the mid-70s San Francisco Chronicle – one episode appearing every day – before being published in book form. I started reading them around the same time many others in the UK did, back when we were all young in the mid-80s, and they reflected real life as it was happening – the dating scene, and the gay scene of San Francisco, politics and celebrity culture – with stars appearing under easily- guessable pseudonyms.

They are knowing, and funny, as I was reminded when I re-read them this summer. In one early scene, Mary Ann goes to a disco called Dance Your Ass Off and is pestered by “a long-haired man in a Greek peasant shirt” who asks her, “‘What sign are you?’ She wanted to say ‘Do Not Disturb’.”

Maupin himself grew up in the conservative world of North Carolina, and conformed utterly for the first part of his life, before ultimately finding, in San Francisco, his salvation and his “Logical Family”, the title of his new memoir. For many in the crowd you could sense that the books had been a salvation too, essential reading in those pre-internet years.

During the interview, Damian mentioned one passage in particular, the letter that Michael writes to his mother, and said that many people have told him they used it as a template for their own coming out. Written to a not-yet-accepting parent, it comes from a place of love, but displays a refusal to be cowed. Its tone is not so much one of defiance, but a straightforward assertion of self-worth, and in it Michael says that in San Francisco he found a welcome and a community:

Men and women, both straight and gay, who don’t consider sexuality in measuring the worth of another human being. These aren’t radicals or weirdos, Mama. They are shop clerks and bankers and little old ladies and people who nod and smile to you when you meet them on the bus.

It’s the open-hearted homeliness of this writing that I think is what made these books so popular. They don’t shy away from other truths – from sexual experimentation, or loneliness, or the coming of the AIDS crisis – but they frame it all within a context of inclusiveness. Barbary Lane is the place where outsiders find a home, a place to belong and be accepted. We can all read that and feel a nostalgia, perhaps, for a home we never had – an idealised, understanding family.

And if the books are a hymn to San Francisco, you could write a similar one to Brighton, another city that embraces its LGBT residents. It was Halloween, and so the streets were full of fancy dress, though perhaps only a little more so than on any normal weekend. A crowd of us went to Bar Broadway – where there were green-faced Wicked witches, and Corpse Brides, and Frank-N-Furters – and sang along to a soundtrack of show tunes.

Throughout the evening, we kept bumping into friends, some of whom we hadn’t seen for years, which made it feel even more like a homecoming. Glitter appeared, and was thrown in the air, and covered us all, and we made our way to the dancefloor at Legends, where we sweated into the early hours, until the glitter was stuck fast to our faces, clinging to our hair.

Later, when I got home, and for days afterwards, I kept finding it: inside my socks, which had been inside a pair of boots. Even inside my bra. I wondered if at some point I’d stripped naked. Anything seemed possible.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit

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What the university staff strike reveals about our broken higher education system

The marketisation of our universities is facing its biggest opposition yet.

The biggest industrial strike ever by academic staff in Britain's universities has begun.

National newspapers are running panicked headlines about what may happen if the strike lasts: “University strike puts final exams in danger”, warns The Times. “University strikes could hit exams and graduation ceremonies”, says the Guardian. But as well as affecting the education of students who are heavily in debt, the strikes will hit academics with very different levels of job security, and university establishments at a time when higher education is on the political agenda. 

The University and College Union voted for strike action last month over a failure to reach an agreement with Universities UK (UUK), the body which represents of the Vice Chancellors of every university in the country, over changes to academics' pension plans.

The pension scheme at the heart of the conflict, the Universities Superannuation Scheme, currently has over 400,000 participants. UUK have stated that the pension scheme currently has a £6.1bn deficit and that the cost of future benefits has increased by one third since 2014. They are proposing a switch from a direct benefit pension scheme (fixed, guaranteed pension payments) to a direct contribution scheme (reliant on stock markets) to maintain the scheme's sustainability.

However, many academics argue the deficit is overstated, and is instead a cynical attempt to reduce the universities' pension liabilties. 

Older and more senior academics who have already spent several decades paying into the system will be less affected by the changes, as contributions will be protected under the old scheme until 2019. 

UCU however allege that this change will result in an average yearly £10,000 loss in staff members' pensions. Academics at 61 universities, including the likes of Oxbridge, UCL, Imperial College London, Cardiff University and the University of Edinburgh will be striking for 14 days. 

The strikes begin on Thursday, and yet no-one seems to know what will happen. FAQs provided by universities to students all appear to have a similar theme: Academic disruption will be minimised, but if you have a complaint, please email us. 

16 percent of academic staff at these universities will be on strike (because most academics aren't a part of a union) but lectures and seminars have still been cancelled. It is still unclear for students whether they will be examined on subjects that they will miss. 

But for the most part, students appear to support the academics. Mark Crawford, a Postgraduate Sabbatical Officer at UCL (the biggest university in the country to strike) says he has been pleasantly surprised by the number of students who have messaged asking him how they can help. 

Perhaps this is due to the pains some academics have gone to minimise the disruption their students will face. Some lecturers have made presentations available online, and have amendeded their reading lists. One academic at King's College London, KCL, has even rearranged her seminars off campus. 

Yet this feeling of goodwill may disappear when reality kicks in. Robert Adderly, a second year Law student at KCL, and a campaigner for the student group provocatively titled “Students Against Strikes” says he’s unsure how supportive students will be once the action actually begins. 

Adderly, while sympathetic to the concerns of the academics does not believe striking is the most effective way to negotiate with Universities UK. He goes on to say that he believes “neither side is willing to compromise” and says that the “only people losing out are students.”

He also says he believes a lot of students “haven’t assessed how they really feel about the strikes” and that the “longer it goes on, the more students who will get angry”. 

Adderly's thoughts are backed by a poll conducted by Trendence UK, a market research company, which found that 38 per cent of students supported their academics on strike, compred to 38 per cent who did not.

Several academics have spoken to the New Statesman off the record about feelings of uneasiness around the strike, arguing that there is a better, less disruptive way of resolving the pension debate. Others are unsure about the leadership of UCU and believe striking will only lead to a build up of work later. 

Professor Andrew Pomiankowski at UCL emailed his students saying while he supported the strike, he would continue conducting his classes this week. He later told the New Statesman “I have a lot of sympathy with the reasons for the strike - the loss of provision of pensions, especially for the younger members of staff. Talking is the only way of resolving this problem. However, I don’t feel that I should disrupt teaching of students. That’s a step too far.”

The strikes go to the heart of the debate about the marketisation of university. Even students who support the strike are in conflict with one another. Notably, students who support the strikes are unhappy with campaigns such as Adderly’s which are also demanding universities compensate them for lost teaching hours. Crawford says your “first instinct shouldn’t be how much am I losing? It should be how much is our staff losing.”

On the other hand, Adderly argues we shouldn’t pretend the marketisation of university hasn’t already happened, saying “It’s here. It’s happening. We are now consumers.” 

Though it appears unlikely that universities will refund students, these strikes are highlighting how our attitudes to higher education have changed in a short space of time, and causing some to ask if this is the future we want for British higher education.