Monday, 19 December 2011

Goodbye Great Britain

I will be flying to the US on Tuesday morning to start a "new" life in New York City (via New Hampshire for Christmas). It has been a long process to get to this stage, my initial visa application was sent this time last year and I don't think there has been a single day since that someone hasn't asked me "when are you going?", my self deprecating side wonders if they are eager to get rid of me! Of course, though there is frustration at having to answer the same question many times a day (no fault of the questioner), it is also humbling and heart-warming that many have an interest.

Getting a (spousal) visa for the US is a long and boring process, but thorough, I've had medicals, police reports, interviews and just made a copy of our full application which ended up being a whopping 55-pages (probably more, but I only copied what I thought I really needed to). I've had to fill in tax forms for my wife covering the last six years, and the previous year we bought a house (which we're now renting). We've also got my wife British citizenship so I have filled in enough paperwork in the last two years to last a lifetime! Yet there are more forms to come when I enter the country...

I've never been to New York so to dive straight in to a permanent residency is perhaps a bit risky, but I'd be a fool to not take on the promotion and chance to live in a place like NYC, if it doesn't work out I can at least say I tried, and I'd only be spending the rest of my life wondering "what if..." otherwise. I've been relatively calm about all this for the last year but when my flights were booked last Monday and it suddenly became "real" there seemed to be a heavy weight dumped onto my shoulders. It wasn't until last week I even had sorted out a place to live in the city!

Still, I'd like to look back before I move forwards, when faced with such a move it's made me think about my identity, who I am as a person. I've been very fortunate that I just so happened to be born not just in England  (which must rank as one of the most desirable countries to live), but the beautiful city of Oxford. Such serendipity could lead one to become guilty of solipsism.

I often think of myself as first and foremost, someone from Oxford, then from England (then British), though I'm not overtly patriotic in any case. Oxford has felt a huge part of my life, I just love being in it, taking a stroll around Radcliffe Square (pictured) and many of the other wonderful main streets and narrow alleyways. Getting a sense of the achievements of many great scientists, authors and assorted intellectuals that have passed through the history of the area cannot help but give one a sense of wonder, and the architecture is exquisite beyond words and is truly moving. I love nothing more than talking a stroll around Christ Church meadow, spending a lunchtime in the Museum of Natural History or my personal favourite, The Museum of the History of Science, and of course one cannot overlook the main museum of the city, the Ashmolean, and there are many other museums worth a visit. So it is not without great consideration that I would move away from home, somewhere that feels like it's coded into my DNA itself. On Saturday I also managed to catch a final game at my beloved Oxford United, we beat Northampton 2-0 so it was nice to end on a victory. I'll have to worry about how best to catch up with the football when I'm out there.

Oxford is not without its flaws, of course, which include a lack of amenities in general and a dearth of independant shops (the recession seems to have been particularly cruel here) particularly for music. Sometimes the students can be a bit of a pain in the arse (many are perfectly pleasant, in my experience, I should say...), there is nothing more frustrating for this local boy than to overhear a conversation in the pub of people pretending to appear self-indulgently intellectual. This can reliably be experienced in the otherwise delightful Eagle and Child pub, no doubt the reason for misguided conversations of the wannabe intellegientsia is due to the venue being the pub of choice for The Inklings.

I will of course, greatly miss friends and family most of all, but efforts will always be made by and to those that matter the most, I would wish not to dwell on such thoughts for now as it is alien territory, but the fact is I don't get to socialise with many people as much as I'd like to anyway so all that is required is some careful planning. Unfortunately, christmas has been a bit of a bust this year and I haven't written any cards or bought and presents, which I feel bad about, but at least I have a good excuse I think! I sit here writing this, with time ticking by, trying to cram in a few of my favourite things while I still can. First and foremost I have David Attenborough's latest series, Frozen Planet, recorded and am trying to complete it before heading off, managed to squeeze in four episodes on Saturday morning and I have about 1 to finish! Attenborough is a personal hero and I can leave the country with the satisfaction of having met him briefly at a book signing a couple of years ago.

With bags yet to be packed and many last-minute arrangements to fulfil, I long for a moment at some point in the future (hopefully not-so-distant future...) where I am relaxed (preferably with a satisfying beverage), letting out a big sigh of relief that everything worked out just fine. With so much going on it has been hard not to drown in an ocean of stress and there will no doubt be difficult moments as I try to adjust, but there is much to look forward to and I am looking forward to living a new chapter in my life. As much as I love where I am from, this has made me realise a desire to experience something different. I will be back at least once a year so whilst there are many things and people I feel as though I didn't quite get time for, there will hopefully be other opportunities. My goodbyes have unfortunately been as inadequate as this blog, but the arrow of time only goes forward, and it is time to look that way...

First image in this post is by the amazing Terry Border

Friday, 16 December 2011

Christopher Hitchens: 1949-2011

I woke up this morning to the terrible, but not unexpected news, that Christopher Hitchens had passed away.

Hitch (always Christopher, never Chris) was a man of outstanding intellect and his mastery of the English language was, in my experience, unsurpassed by anyone. Reading his words and hearing his voice was like having a intravenous drip of knowledge delivered straight to your very core. Hitch's greatest weapon, for me, was his ability to make you think about a subject, even if you vehemently disagreed with his stance on something you had to admire his ability to make a compelling argument on just about anything.

Christopher was diagnosed with stage 4 oesophageal cancer in June 2010 ("there is no stage 5", he remarked), who knows if it was a result of his lifestyle, it was rare up to that point to see a picture of the man without a cigarette or a drink, but his father also died of the same disease so perhaps his genes are to blame.

His tour-de-force, in my opinion, was 2007's God Is Not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything. But his attacks on people like Mother Theresa should also not be forgotten and showed just how much damage she did as opposed to good.

Many people are wary of Hitch's political yo-yo performance over the years, but the left-right sides of politics should be much more blurred than what they are and he showed this over the years, I think. It seems almost ridiculous that you can often take a subject and predict someone's political leanings based on their answer (abortion, education, etc, etc) but each subject should be tackled on its own merits and people tend to stick to political ideologies through stubbornness.

One of the four horsemen of New Atheism (self-proclaimed by Hitch as he knew they would only be given a name by someone else at some stage) along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Dan Dennett, Hitch's performance in religious debates leaves a trail of defeated opponents that would make even a vengeful deity proud.

So often were his opponents left realing after a verbal knockout, the term Hitchslap was born.

This particular performance is a snippet from a debate he had alongside Stephen Fry, against Ann Widdecombe and Archbishop Onaiyekan (you can find the whole debate on youtube, search for Christopher Hitchens Stephen Fry Intelligence Squared or something similar).

While his support of the Iraq war surprised some and lost him some friends and allies, it is easy to understand why he supported it. Throughout his life the one thing you can say he was absolutely consistent with regards to a subject was his disgust of anything totalitarian in nature. This was his biggest gripe towards religion, the unjustified worship, the need to be subservient to a dictator that was not elected, he compared heaven to a celestial North Korea.

The world has lost a great intellectual and possibly our most devastatingly intellectually honest writer. He passed away with an unrivaled dignity. He never wavered during his illness, honest until the end. His last article on Vanity Fair titled Trial of the Will in particular is a brutal exercise in realising one's own mortality. But while some argue there are no atheists in foxholes, Christopher continued to prove many people wrong about such notions.

It is our office christmas party tonight, and I shall be having a contemplative toast in his honour, and if the bar has any Johnnie Walker Black Label then all the better. Christopher, thank you.