‘To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’

John Henry Newman

‘Time may change me
But I can’t trace time.’

David Bowie

I thought I’d write something about the ways my thinking has changed during my time as an academic. This will probably be of little interest to anybody besides me, so feel free to scroll past this post, if you find the intellectual navel-gazing of an ageing academic a less than appealing prospect. However, since I’ve always believed that one of the purposes of a blog is to provide its author with a space to work out what he or she actually thinks, I won’t be too bothered if the main (or indeed only) audience for this post is me. At the same time, I feel I owe it to the readers of this blog (and I know there are one or two, from time to time) to explain the thinking behind the things I write here: to clarify where I’m coming from intellectually, as it were.

Another reason for wanting to clear the intellectual decks, so to speak, is that I feel I’ve held back from writing about some of the things that currently interest me, for fear of alienating or alarming my (few) readers. I want to be more honest, going forward: there are some issues I want to write about here, and some debates I want to engage in more openly, which require me to come clean about my intellectual opinions and how they’ve changed over time.

So, where to begin? I was reflecting recently, in a conversation with some colleagues, that it’s an astonishing thirty-one years since I became an academic. I joined The Open University, back in January 1991, as a Lecturer in Community Education, after a decade of frontline work organising and teaching in education projects with marginalised groups and communities. Before that, I’d been a student of English Literature, first at Cambridge University and then at Manchester, with a year’s break in between doing full-time voluntary work (see this post), which, arguably, turned out to be more influential than my academic studies in determining my future career.

Paulo Freire (via

I came to the OU, and entered academic life, fortified by a fairly familiar amalgam of philosophical and political opinions. My work in community education had been informed by a passionate desire to extend educational opportunities to adults who, for whatever reason, had been excluded from them. I’d been inspired, at least initially, by the de-schooling philosophy of Ivan Illich and more especially by the ideas of the radical Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, who criticised the dominant ‘banking’ model of education which regarded students as empty vessels to be filled, and proposed instead a dialogic model in which learning builds on the everyday knowledge and experience of those he called ‘the oppressed’. 

However, over time I had come to believe that a purely Freirean approach was inadequate for overcoming educational exclusion. Claiming to start from where people were in their lives, in my view it risked leaving them there, rather than helping them gain access to powerful bodies of knowledge. I’d also become increasingly concerned about a trend I’d noticed in adult education, in part inspired by Freire and Illich: a move away from its historic concern with widening access to knowledge, whether of the arts, or history, or science, and towards a more process- and skills-oriented approach, one that spoke about ‘learners’ rather than students, and appeared to devalue the role of the educator: in fact, it was becoming de rigeur to talk, not about teachers or tutors, but instead about facilitators of learning.

Raymond Williams (via

As someone from a modest socio-economic background, whose parents had made the transition away from their working-class roots when we moved from the East End of London to suburban Essex in my childhood, and as the first person in my family to go to university, I was deeply grateful for the possibilities that education had opened up for me, and as an educator I wanted nothing more than to extend similar opportunities to others. I was concerned that the new, ‘personal development’ orientation of adult education, with its implicit hostility to bodies of knowledge, smacked somewhat of privileged educators pulling up the ladder behind them. My own educational philosophy had been inspired by the long tradition of radical adult education in Britain, and particularly by the work of the cultural theorist Raymond Williams, who had been one of my lecturers at Cambridge, with his emphasis on culture as a common heritage which should be made accessible to all.

Stuart Hall (via

One of my jobs before joining The Open University was organising an education project in Stoke Newington, a poor, multicultural borough in north London. In my lunch break I used to browse the shelves of Centerprise, the community centre and radical bookshop close to where I worked, where I first came across the writings of Stuart Hall and his Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, becoming an avid reader of his articles on contemporary politics and culture in the magazine Marxism Today. (For my later reflections on Hall’s political thinking, and my encounters with him at the OU, see here). It was through Hall that I was introduced to the writings of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (I bought my copy of his Prison Notebooks in the Centerprise shop), whose ideas about education and its role in social change would be a major influence on my own thinking. Gramsci’s approach to education could be summed up in the title of Harold Entwistle’s classic book Antonio Gramsci: Conservative Schooling for Radical PoliticsThe Italian thinker pointed out that an emphasis on process and feelings had actually been a hallmark of Mussolini’s education policy and argued that the purpose of a truly radical education was rather to introduce students to the breadth of human culture and empower them to become critical contributors to it. Around this time, I also began to read the work of the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, with its emphasis on dialogue and discourse as the key to understanding social processes.

Antonio Gramsci (via

These influences formed part of my broader political philosophy. I’d been a ‘soft’ leftist in my youth, identifying with the Tribunite wing of the Labour Party. I didn’t read Marx properly until much later, in my late twenties, around the same time that I also began to read feminist writers like Germaine Greer. I’d always felt personally constrained by conventional gender roles, so I was a natural and enthusiastic convert to a pro-feminist worldview. At the same time, my experience of working in multicultural north London had confirmed me as an avowed anti-racist.

On joining The Open University, I found a sympathetic mentor in my colleague Andy Northedge, with whom I worked developing the OU’s first pre-degree ‘access’ courses, firstly in social sciences and then in the arts and humanities. Andy, the author of the bestselling Good Study Guide, helped me to refine and elaborate my thinking about the role of discourse in learning, introducing me to the ideas of thinkers like Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner. I distilled some of this thinking in a book chapter co-written with Andy’s partner, Ellie Chambers, in which we argued that the OU’s access model transcended the opposition between traditional ‘subject-centred’ and Freirean ‘student-centred’ models of learning, proposing instead a discourse-based model which brought ‘everyday’ and academic forms of understanding into critical dialogue.

When the OU’s community education programme was eventually wound up, and we were absorbed into our sister department of health and social care, I felt a need to re-equip myself intellectually for my new role, so I began studying psychology via the OU’s own courses in my spare time, working first for an Advanced Diploma in Child Development and then for a Masters degree in Psychology.  Via the latter, I became interested in critical social psychology, and particularly in discourse analysis: it helped that one of the doyennes of the subject, Margaret Wetherell, was a professor of psychology at the OU at this time. 

Margaret Wetherell (via

It’s perhaps not surprising that someone whose original academic training was in English Literature should be attracted to a form of psychology that foregrounded language: engaging in discourse analysis did occasionally remind me of doing literary criticism as an undergraduate. However, my interest in discourse was also part of the generally social constructionist view of the world that I held at the time. I drew on these perspectives as I started working on courses designed for people working in health and social care, developing a particular focus on work with children and young people. At the same time, I began to develop my own research interests in men, masculinity and care, rooted both in my intellectual commitment to gender equality, and in my personal experience as a new, ‘hands on’ father. My first, small-scale research project involved interviewing men working in childcare, and was informed by a Foucauldian interest in how social discourses around masculinity and care framed these men’s experiences. I used a similar approach in my second study, interviewing ‘involved’ fathers about their care for their children. Over time, my research interests expanded to include the processes that led to men opting to be involved in ‘care’, which then prompted an interest in the shaping of young masculine identities. I led a team that undertook a major study of the role of gender in work with young men using social care services, and on the back of that, was invited to lead the UK strand of a three-country study of young men, masculinity and wellbeing. 

During the time that I was working on these research studies, my thinking was informed by the ground-breaking work on masculinities of writers like Raewyn Connell, and on gender more generally by theorists such as Judith Butler. I don’t think I was ever a fully paid-up poststructuralist, however. This was partly because my left-wing politics retained a humanist core and I was sceptical about what I saw as the anti-humanism of poststructuralism. To the extent that I was a Marxist, it was the humanist early Marx that I was drawn to, and the historian E. P. Thompson’s classic critique of Louis Althusser and his school, in The Poverty of Theory, remained an intellectual touchstone for me.

Via Twitter

Over time, I became increasingly dissatisfied with discourse analysis as a tool for making sense of the data from my research. Around this time, in the early 2000s, there were some fascinating debates at the OU between Margie Wetherell and another professor of psychology, Wendy Hollway, whose own work had moved from an early emphasis on social discourses to a position increasingly informed by psychoanalysis. I recall conversations with Wendy in which she argued that it was important to understand what motivated particular individuals to invest in specific social discourses. For her the missing link was the work of psychoanalytic feminists such as Jessica Benjamin.  Influenced by Wendy, I began to read and draw on Benjamin’s ideas, and my shift to a psychosocial perspective was further enhanced by working with other Open University colleagues like Mary Jane Kehily and Peter Redman, whose research adopted a similar approach. Although I’ve since become more sceptical about the claims of psychoanalysis, Wendy Hollway’s book The Capacity to Care: Gender and Ethical Subjectivity remains a key influence.

Wendy Hollway (via

At the same time, my disillusionment with poststructuralism and move away from the relativism of social constructionism was part of a wider shift in my political outlook. I was becoming uneasy with some of the directions being taken by the contemporary Left, which in my view were inextricable from the influence of postmodernism. Two egregious examples were Michel Foucault’s lauding of the autocratic mullahs’ regime in Iran, and Judith Butler’s notorious claim that the misogynist, antisemitic terrorist group Hamas was part of the ‘global Left’. At the party political level, I had become disillusioned during the 1980s with the dogmatism and diehard oppositionalism of the Bennite ‘hard’ left, which I had once supported. I welcomed the election of Tony Blair as Labour leader: in fact, it prompted me to re-join the party, having allowed my membership to lapse during the long years of intra-party factionalism. I was a critical supporter of Blair’s ‘New Labour’, praising its attempts to make Labour electable again and relevant to the changed social and economic realities of the ‘New Times’ so accurately described by Stuart Hall and other reformists on the Left, though I was less enthusiastic about some aspects of Blairite social policy. 

Norman Geras (via

I had also grown wary, particularly after the events of September 11th 2001, of the radical Left’s embrace of a kneejerk anti-Americanism and naive ‘anti-imperialism‘ which seemed to view authoritarian regimes elsewhere as preferable to our own admittedly flawed democracies: a perspective that would eventually go mainstream when one of its leading proponents, Jeremy Corbyn, became leader of the Labour Party. In 2007 I started a political blog, Martin In The Margins, and became part of a group of bloggers that gathered around the late Norman Geras, a retired Marxist professor and pioneering political blogger, who developed cogent arguments for an anti-totalitarian leftism which eventually coalesced into the Euston Manifesto, and also found expression in the short-lived online journal Democratiya

However, this post wasn’t supposed to be about politics, except as an adjunct to explaining the shifts in my intellectual position. For those who are interested, I’ve written more extensively about my personal political journey elsewhere. But perhaps I should bring the political story up to date, before moving on: suffice it to say that I’ve joined the ranks of the politically homeless, unable to identify fully with the platform of any single party, though I find myself in sympathy with many of the ideas of Blue Labour. And if a UK equivalent of the American Solidarity Party were to come along, I’d probably vote for it…

…which is kind of a neat segue into talking about (takes a deep breath) religion (if you look up the ASP’s platform, you’ll see why). Alongside my political journey, I’d been on a spiritual journey as well, and it’s impossible to write about the shifts in my intellectual perspective without bringing up the subject of religious belief. I acknowledge that some of my readers may tune out at this point. However, for me, it’s difficult to disentangle the religious from the intellectual and political.

I was brought up in a devoutly nonconformist Christian home: my parents are active Methodists, and as a teenager I underwent the standard evangelical conversion. At university, I went through a time of profound questioning, but instead of leaving Christianity behind altogether, I eventually found myself drawn towards Catholicism. The appeal was philosophical and aesthetic, as well as spiritual. In addition to the intellectual tradition of the Church and the beauty of its sacramental life, it was the radical faith of Catholic Worker movement founder Dorothy Day, of the Trappist monk and peace activist Thomas Merton, and of the Latin American liberation theologians, that appealed, and didn’t seem at all incompatible with my left-wing commitments. 

Dorothy Day (via

However, I drifted away from my new faith once I left university and started work: or rather, I simply stopped practising it, as I came under the influence of Marxism, feminism, and a whole host of other appealing –isms that seemed to leave no room for faith. I was never able to completely shake off my religious background, though. I remember, at the end of a course on literature and social history that I was teaching for the Workers’ Educational Association – a course which in my view had been solidly secular in its approach – a sweet elderly couple thanked me and told me how much they appreciated that everything I’d said had been inspired by a deeply Christian perspective. 

Despite the secular humanist socialist-feminist beliefs that animated my work in adult education, and later in academia, an interest in spirituality, and the search for a spiritual grounding for my life and work, never entirely left me (perhaps there’s a permanent god-shaped hole in everyone who has once believed) and in my middle years I experimented with Buddhism and eastern spirituality. I certainly gained a good deal from meditation and similar spiritual practices, but in time I concluded that the unworldliness of Buddhism was out of sync with my abiding interest in the social, the cultural and the historical. I wanted to celebrate the world, and maybe change it, but certainly not escape from it. I also came to believe that a good deal of western Buddhism was actually a stripped down, exoticised version of Christian spirituality, with the more difficult and challenging bits left out.

At an intellectual level, I also came to believe that many of the ideas we take for granted in western thought, and which in fact are foundational for ‘progressive’ thinking, such as a belief in the value of the individual human person, and the sense that history has a trajectory and purpose, rather than being an endless, meaningless cycle of events, have their roots in a Judaeo-Christian worldview and are inexplicable without it. Vestiges of these ideas remained after Christianity lost its historical influence and can even be seen as underlying the Enlightenment, despite its formal opposition to traditional religion. However, as even the Enlightenment has been increasingly undermined by postmodern thinking, those foundations have begun to crumble. Increasingly, I came to the view that only a religious, and specifically a Christian worldview, could provide a stable basis for holding on to a humanist perspective. This intellectual questioning, together with my personal yearning for a spiritual grounding for my life, would eventually lead me back to Christianity and to Catholicism, though the process of return has not been without its bumps along the way, with the secular humanist ‘me’ continuing to argue with my newly rediscovered spiritual self.

Edith Stein (via

As a tentative religious believer and recovering social constructionist, I began to look around for an alternative – and realist – intellectual grounding for my academic work. I became very interested in phenomenology, which I discovered initially mainly through twentieth-century Catholic philosophers, such as Edith Stein and Dietrich von Hildebrand, who had been shaped by this philosophical perspective, which is rooted in the work of the twentieth-century German thinker Edmund Husserl. According to Robert Sokolowski, author of one of the best introductions to the subject, ‘phenomenology is the study of human experience and of the way things present themselves to us in and through experience’ and, by contrast with postmodernism, ‘insists that identity and intelligibility are available in things.’ Also, by contrast with the dominant philosophical tradition that has come down to us from Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, et al, which assumes ‘that when we are conscious, we are primarily aware of ourselves or our own ideas’, phenomenology argues that ‘we are not trapped in our own subjectivity’, that the mind is not isolated from the world. Perhaps you can see the appeal of this kind of thinking to someone like me, recoiling from the relativism and anti-realism of postmodernism and poststructuralism, and searching for a philosophical correlate for a renewed spiritual intuition of the ‘givenness’ of the world. I should add here, though, that I am by no means a trained philosopher and that reading philosophical writings, still less making sense of them and applying them to my academic work, remains a struggle for me.

Via Twitter

I’ve found phenomenology a useful tool in my academic work: for example, the work of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty on embodiment has proved helpful in my continuing quest to understand the relationship between gender and care, while the writings of the Finnish philosopher Sara Heinämaa have reframed my thinking about sexual difference more broadly. My interest in phenomenology seems to be part of a wider trend: I’ve noticed an increasing number of postgraduate research students opting to use Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis, or IPA (which some purists would argue is not ‘real’ phenomenology), for their research, whereas a decade ago their predecessors were all mad keen on discourse analysis.

At the same time that my intellectual outlook changed, so my academic research interests began to shift. Although I was writing a book on men’s care for children, and still working on research projects on aspects of fatherhood, I was also beginning to develop an interest in the field of care ethics. I corresponded with a number of care ethicists and contributed a paper on the development of caring masculinities to the inaugural conference of the international Care Ethics Research Consortium. More recently, I’ve written a chapter for a new book on care ethics, spirituality and religious traditions which is due out in the next month or so.

In time, my reading in phenomenology led me to personalism, a philosophical tradition which in part grew out of phenomenology, so that many phenomenologists – Stein and Hildebrand would be leading examples – were also personalists. Personalists draw on the philosophical resources of phenomenology, existentialism, and in some instances Judeo-Christian religious traditions, to emphasise what the American personalist philosopher John F. Crosby terms ‘the unconditional worth in all human persons’. As I wrote in a post last year, personalism offers a corrective to some of the depersonalising tendencies of contemporary society, and to the devaluing of the human person.

My research and writing continue to have two strands, one empirical the other more theoretical. In the former, I’m continuing to explore men’s involvement in care, for example, through my current project on fathers and perinatal loss (see the previous post). In the latter, I’m exploring the potential of personalist thought for developing an ethic of care. Although I’ve found the work of feminist care ethicists like Joan Tronto, Virginia Held and Eva Feder Kittay, enlightening, I also find myself arguing with some aspects of their work. Rather than remaining a perpetually negative critic, however, I’ve been casting around for alternative foundations for an understanding of care. I’m interested in developing a dialogue between personalism and feminist care ethics, identifying aspects in common, such as a shared relational view of the self, but perhaps supplying a normative perspective that mainstream care ethics currently lacks, as well as a deeper insight into the nature, and value, of the human person.  

My inner debates continue, and I’m sure there’ll be more ch-ch-changes in my thinking before I’m done. Now that I’ve set out some of the background to my current thinking, I want to use this blog as a space to work through some of the issues around care, gender, identity and personhood that continue to interest and exercise me.

Inside out: working with offenders

Last week David Cameron made a major speech about prison reform, in which he set out his vision of ‘a modern, more effective, truly twenty-first century prison system’. Although the Prime Minister reiterated his belief that the role of prison is primarily to punish, he was also keen to emphasise that ‘we must offer chances to change, that for those trying hard to turn themselves around, we should offer hope.’ This week, the current Minister of Justice, Michael Gove, and his predecessor, Chris Grayling, jointly published an article highlighting the importance of rehabilitation, arguing that prisoners must be ‘kept occupied with useful activity, whether studying towards educational qualifications or doing worthwhile work whilst behind bars.’

For those of us with a longstanding involvement in the rehabilitation of offenders, this was music to the ears – and long overdue. Government ministers seem finally to have woken up to the fact that investing in rehabilitation makes sense pragmatically – it prevents future offending and lowers the crime rate – but also morally. As the Prime Minister said in his speech: ‘in a compassionate country, we should help those who’ve made mistakes to find their way back onto the right path.’

In at the deep end

My own interest in this issue goes back a long way – to the very beginning of my working life, in fact. Working with offenders helped to launch my career and set me on the path to the work I’m doing today as an academic. However, it came about through a series of accidents. When I finished my first degree, I had to wait a year before starting a postgraduate course. In the interim I applied to do some full-time voluntary work as a Community Service Volunteer. You filled in an application form, went for an interview, and then waited to be sent to wherever there was an organisation that could make use of your skills.

Prime Minister David Cameron Visits Wormwood Scrubs Prison And Makes A Speech On Criminal Justice

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, visiting Wormwood Scrubs prison, London

For some reason, I was sent to work in a hostel for emotionally disturbed ex-prisoners in Worcester. Iris House provided accommodation and support for men who had serious problems rehabilitating into the community. Some had been in secure hospitals, such as Broadmoor and Rampton, and many were persistent and serious offenders. Our job was to house them, feed them and offer practical and emotional support. It was all a bit of a shock for a rather sheltered English Literature graduate from suburban Essex.

We were a small, mostly young team and we worked in pairs, alternating between day and night shifts. The atmosphere in the hostel could be quite oppressive: some of the residents had violent pasts and a few had to be controlled by heavy medication. But there was also a quirky side to the place that was sometimes like being in a dated TV sitcom. For example, the highest room in the hostel was home to a very well-spoken white-haired resident, a former fraudster, who treated the place like a hotel and somehow managed to have residents of humbler origin waiting on him hand and foot.

Then there were the two probation officers attached to the project. One was a Salvation Army officer who fancied himself as an amateur psychoanalyst; he diagnosed one resident’s burglaries as ‘night-time penetration offences’ and put them down to sexual frustration. The other probation officer was a rather glamorous Swiss woman, at whose leaving party the project manager memorably, and inappropriately, thanked her for being the team’s ‘sex object’. But that was typical of the sexual attitudes prevalent at the time. I remember a tense house meeting at which the male residents vigorously denied accusations that ‘homosexuality’ was rife in the hostel. And then there was the stash of pornographic magazines kept in the medicine cupboard, which we were expected to hand out nightly with the sedatives.

The experience of working at Iris House was certainly a baptism of fire. It left me with a sense of the emotional damage suffered by many people who end up in prison, and of just how difficult it is to resettle such people into anything like ‘normal’ life. I returned to academia as a PhD student in Manchester with a sense of relief, never thinking that I would ever return to working with offenders. However, a couple of years later, feeling an urge to do some voluntary work in my spare time, I happened upon a literacy project run by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO), just a few streets from the university. Thinking this was an area where I could make a contribution, I signed up to spend an hour or so a week, helping mostly young male offenders with their reading and writing. In the process, I became keenly aware of the fact that a large proportion of offenders (60% of UK prisoners, according to recent figures) have poor literacy skills, making it tough for them to hold down a job or simply cope with the demands of everyday life, and as a consequence making it more difficult for them to stay out of trouble.

Essex boys

My student grant ran out before I finished my thesis, so I moved back home to Essex and began to look for paid work. I took a series of part-time teaching jobs – with the Workers’ Educational Association, local further education colleges, and a memorable spell teaching numeracy to blood-spattered trainee butchers in Smithfield. But then, quite by chance, a family member spotted a tiny ad in a local paper, seeking a full-time course development worker for a brand new education project being set up by NACRO in Basildon, about 15 miles from where I lived. It seemed tailor-made, so I applied and got the job.

The project, based in the local probation office, was one of a number being started around the country, funded under the government’s Voluntary Projects Programme for unemployed people. By coincidence, the scheme’s HQ was in Manchester, just around the corner from where I’d done my voluntary work: in fact, that project was being used as a template for the new centres. I went back to Manchester for my induction and met others who had been recruited to run similar schemes in other towns and cities. They encouraged me to apply for the vacant project manager post in Basildon: so I did, and I was successful.

Eventually we recruited other team members, two of whom – Debbie Amas and Sandy Ruxton – I’m still in contact with many years later, and indeed Sandy and I recently worked together on a research project with vulnerable young men. Our brief in Basildon was to provide basic education classes for offenders – again, they were mostly young, mostly male – who were referred by the probation service. But we also offered volunteering opportunities for the more able probation clients: one of our volunteers was David Akinsanya, who went on to become a successful filmmaker.

To begin with, the project didn’t have premises of its own, so we had to hire rooms in local community centres. Most mornings would find us loading equipment into the boot of a car and driving to one of the outlying estates, where we’d set up our classes. It was often a little chaotic, to say the least, but hugely rewarding when it worked. Again, it was a revelation to discover just how many of those who ended up in the criminal justice system had been failed by the education system. More positively, it was encouraging to see how a second chance at learning could help them to turn their lives around.

A clean break

After a year in Basildon, I found a more permanent job at yet another NACRO project, this time in inner London. The North London Education Project had been set up to provide housing and support for ex-prisoners who had begun to study inside and wanted to continue their education on their release. It owned two hostels – one in Islington, the other in Hackney, where I was based, and where my main responsibility was setting up a new education day centre in the basement of the building. This was partly for project residents, but also for local probation clients, and for local unemployed and disadvantaged people generally. We developed a lively programme of day and evening classes – not only literacy and numeracy, but also computing, cookery, dance, weight-training – even a political discussion group.

Pentonville Prison (via Getty Images)

Pentonville Prison (via Getty Images)

My job also involved visiting prisons to interview prospective hostel residents. This was both the most fascinating and the most dispiriting part of the job. We accepted referrals from all over the country, but our closest links were with the two North London prisons, Pentonville and Holloway, which were thoroughly depressing places to visit – the former because of its grim Victorian architecture, the latter because it housed many women who really shouldn’t have been there. Many of the women were themselves victims of violence, while others had psychological problems that were only made worse by incarceration. As I was writing this post, I read about the tragic case of Sarah Reed, a woman with severe mental health problems who died in her cell at Holloway only last month, suggesting that very little has changed in the intervening years.

For many of the men and women locked up in these prisons, education classes were a real lifeline – a route to new opportunities on their release. However, the prison education staff worked in very trying circumstances, with classes frequently being cancelled or prisoners refused permission to attend them, at the whim of prison officers.

It was an invigorating time to be working in inner London. Our project was at the heart of a vibrant multiracial community, working alongside a number of other innovative community projects, and we were funded by generous grants from the Greater London Council and the Inner London Education Authority (neither of which any longer exist). As I wrote in another post, it was a rude shock when I eventually moved to Oxfordshire, and found myself working on an all-white rural housing estate, with huge social needs but very little funding.

In moving to Berinsfield, I also left behind working with offenders and moved into generic community education work, and then later to The Open University. However, I never lost my commitment to the cause of offender rehabilitation, and my belief in the vital importance of education as a part of that process. In fact, soon after joining the OU I wrote and presented a programme on Radio 4 about women in prison, which involved revisiting some of the community organisations with whom I’d worked in North London, such as the Clean Break theatre company.

The need for a ‘third space’

My attitudes to crime and offending have inevitably mellowed over the years. When I worked for NACRO I was influenced by the ideas of radical criminology that were in the air at the time, viewing crime as a symptom of social inequality, and offenders as people who did what they did because they had very little stake in society. Perhaps it’s a sign of age, or being a parent, or a property-owner, but these days I find myself more likely to emphasise the role of individual responsibility and the impact of crime on the poor and powerless. I wrestled with these issues in a piece I wrote for the Huffington Post after the riots of 2011.

End-of-award conference for the 'Beyond Male Role Models' project, march 2015

End-of-award conference for the ‘Beyond Male Role Models’ project, March 2015

However, I’d still maintain that we need to strike a balance (as I think – to be fair – the government ministers do, in the interventions I quoted at the beginning) – between emphasising personal responsibility for crime, and attending to the social and relational factors that contribute to offending – and re-offending. As part of the Beyond Male Role Models research project that Sandy Ruxton and I, with other colleagues, were involved in recently, we interviewed young men at a support project for ex-offenders run by Action for Children in the west of Scotland (some of them were featured in the film we made as part of the study, which you can view here). Reading through the transcripts of the interviews took me back to my time in North London and those depressing prison visits, to the projects I worked on in Basildon and Manchester, and to the hostel in Worcester where my involvement in this work began. The stories the young men told were depressingly familiar: a lack of jobs, poor housing, chaotic childhoods and problems of addiction and abuse handed down from one generation to another.

But we also heard more positive stories of young men who, despite their terrible experiences, were beginning to turn their lives around. For some, it was the experience of becoming a father that was the catalyst for making the transition from irresponsible to responsible young masculinity. For all of them, the support project itself was a vital ‘third space’ where they learned new skills and began to see the possibility of leading a different kind of life – rather like the education projects that I was privileged to work on all those years ago.

The government’s new focus on rehabilitation is to be applauded, but as well as reforming what goes on inside prisons, I hope they won’t overlook the agencies and projects working with ex-offenders ‘on the outside’, many of which are facing cuts or closure at a time of austerity. As our recent research and my own experience show, these projects have a vital part to play, to quote David Cameron, ‘to help those who’ve made mistakes to find their way back onto the right path’.


Beyond male role models: gender identities and work with young men, the research project that Sandy Ruxton, Brid Featherstone, Mike Ward and I worked on together, was featured this week in an article at the Huffington Post, based on an interview with me.

‘This Boy’

I’ve been reading This Boy: A Memoir of A Childhood by Alan Johnson, the Labour MP, ex-Home Secretary and former union leader. As one of the reviewers quoted on the cover says, it’s probably the best memoir by a politician that you’ll ever read: a beautifully-written, moving and often humorous account of a poverty-stricken and emotionally difficult London childhood in the 1950s. Johnson’s book can be read on a number of levels: as an indictment of the harsh conditions in which many working-class families lived before the economic boom and social reforms of the Sixties, as an account of London in the era of race riots and the early stirrings of youth culture, or even as the story of one young man’s failed attempt to break into the music industry.

This Boy cover

However, as an academic interested in questions of childhood, gender and relationships, I was particularly struck by the depiction of Johnson’s disrupted family life and its impact on him as a young man. On one level, the book can be read as an extended and heartfelt tribute, even a love letter, to his late mother, who died when Alan was in his early teens. Abandoned by her unreliable and abusive husband and suffering from the heart condition that would eventually kill her, Lily Johnson brought up two children – Alan and his older sister Linda – in appallingly unhealthy conditions in condemned housing in Notting Hill. After her death, Alan was looked after by his sister, who was herself only sixteen at the time, and it is the love, courage and resilience of these two women that shine through the book.

In a sense, Johnson’s memoir provides confirmation that women are able to provide positive role models for boys as well as girls. The reader certainly comes away with the impression that it was Lily’s clear moral sense (she was a fierce opponent of those fomenting racial discord in west London at this period), as well as her dedication to her children and aspirations for their future, that provided the inspiration for her son’s later achievements.

In the second volume of his memoir, which I’ve yet to read, Johnson writes: ‘I had the example of my own father to guide me in what not to do – a kind of reverse role model’ (thanks to Sandy Ruxton for this quotation). When his father, Steve, finally abandons the family, Alan and his sister Linda feel nothing but relief:

For me, it was a red-letter day; a Saturday I would always remember for the happiness I felt when I was sure Steve had really gone. The sense of exhilaration floods back every time my mind returns to that morning…My dread was not that Steve would be lost to me for ever but that he might come back…For Linda and me, Steve’s departure marked the end of a terrible life and the start of a brighter future.

Johnson’s attitude to Steve’s departure is something of a rebuke to those who suggest that having a father around is always preferable to not having one. Nor is there any evidence in Johnson’s story to support the theory that boys with absent fathers tend to look for alternative male role models elsewhere, often with negative consequences:

There are no surrogate fathers in this story. The lack of any meaningful relationship with Steve did not spur me to seek an alternative father figure. In fact it had the opposite effect: it made me mistrustful of men in general and uncomfortable in their presence. I much preferred being with women.

Johnson’s appreciation and admiration of women seems to have stayed with him, though his later friendships with other men suggest that his mistrust of masculinity was only temporary. However, Johnson does reflect on the kind of father he would like to have had, if things had been different: ‘But if I had been inclined to fantasise about the ideal father…Albert Cox would have been my choice.’ Albert was the father of Johnson’s close friend, Tony Cox, and he was invited to live with the family for a time after his mother’s death. For Johnson, Albert Cox ‘epitomised the kind of steady, decent, hard-working man who had fought the war in the forties and delivered the peace in the fifties…. Mr Cox provided for his family: not only did he dedicate all his wages…to ensure their wellbeing, he devoted his spare time to the same cause.’

Of course this is very much a Fifties ideal of the father as breadwinner and provider. However, from other comments we gather that Albert Cox was also an affectionate husband: Johnson describes Mr and Mrs Cox snuggling together on the sofa each evening and watching television with their ritual glass of whiskey. For Johnson, it seems to have been Albert Cox’s reliability and consistency of care, as well as his obvious affection for his family, that marked him out as something of a model father.

This Boy exemplifies the way in which personal accounts of childhood, and of family relationships, can serve to disrupt easy stereotypes about gender roles and their impact on children’s wellbeing and development. Of course, Alan Johnson’s childhood would have been materially and emotionally richer if he had experienced the care of two loving parents. But his story is a reminder that simplistic generalisations about the impact, especially on boys, of ‘absent fathers’ and ‘lone mothers’ can sometimes misrepresent the complexities of real-life experience.

Fatherhood and faith in wartime letters: 10

(To see Parts 12345678 and 9 in this series, click on the links.)

A digression on ‘faith’

In this post I want to step aside from the business of analysing my great grandfather’s letters to say something about the nature of religious faith. I’ve said all along that I’m as interested in Charles Robb’s articulation of faith in his letters as in his ‘performance’ of fatherhood. Indeed, my original interest in the letters was prompted by a sense of how closely intertwined were these aspects of their author’s identity.

I’m aware that, in going off at this tangent, I’m stepping outside the usual business of this blog, which is mainly a repository for my thoughts on the topics that are the stuff of my academic work – that’s to say, children and families, with a particular focus on gender identities and relationships. But as I’ve mentioned before, I have a developing interest in the subject of faith and identity and at some stage would like to carry out research on young people’s experience of losing or changing their faith, perhaps with a focus on the part played by (and impact on) family relationships.

But before exploring the role of faith in the experience of particular groups – whether fathers or young people – it’s important to say a few things about the nature of faith. I want to challenge some preconceptions that seem to me to dominate popular and political thinking, as well as academic analysis, around this issue. For example, in beginning to analyse my great grandfather’s letters, I found myself falling into the trap of treating his Christian faith as one of the ‘resources’ that he drew on to discursively produce his identity as a father. In other words, I was in danger of regarding that faith as something that already existed inside my great grandfather, and that he then brought ‘fully formed’ to his role as a father.

However, a discursive, and more broadly a social constructionist approach to social identities, needs to see faith, like other aspects of identity, as actively produced in discourse. My great grandfather’s Christian faith, just as much as his identities as a man and as a father, should be seen as ‘under construction’ in these letters.  I’ve sensed a resistance to treating religious faith in this way, in academic as well as in political and popular discourse. In recent academic writing on religion, I detect echoes of the way that culture was often written about in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Back then, writers such as Avtar Brah criticised a ‘culturalism’ that viewed beliefs and practices, particularly of minority ethnic groups, as static, homogenous and hermetically sealed off from influences in the surrounding social context. British Asians, for example, were often seen – by academic analysts as much as by policy-makers and service providers – as shaped by a singular ‘Asian culture’, regardless of their age, class or gender, never mind their interaction with wider British and global cultural influences.

Something similar seems to have happened with regard to faith, since (post-9/11) it became a fashionable target for social research and analysis. Unfortunately, there isn’t a parallel word to culturalism to describe this tendency – ‘faithism’ doesn’t quite do it. But I’d argue that, just as once happened with culture, so there’s now a widespread habit of treating religious faith (again, particularly that of minoritised or racialised groups) as something fixed and immutable. The question, ‘How does so-and-so’s faith impact on their attitudes/politics/behaviour?’ tends to be asked by researchers more often than (for example) ‘How does so-and-so actively produce their faith in changing and diverse social contexts?’ or ‘How has this person or group’s faith changed as a result of transformed social circumstances?’

We can see the political ramifications of this reification of faith in the tendency of government (particular in the later years of New Labour) to treat individuals, especially those from Muslim backgrounds, primarily as members of ‘faith communities’ (often represented by self-appointed ‘community leaders’) in a way that privileges religious identity above other identities, and also overlooks the way it interacts with those gender, class and generational identities. Attempts to make the giving of religious ‘offence’ illegal can be seen as another consequence of this attitude: again, there’s an assumption that ‘faith’ is an integral feature of an individual’s or group’s identity, rather than something freely chosen and subject to change. In the same way that culturalist assumptions can lead to a cultural relativism, in which all cultural values and practices are held to be equally valid and immune from criticism because they are part of a group’s supposedly unchanging ‘culture’ – so the reification of faith produces a religious relativism which views a person’s beliefs as somehow part of their essential character and therefore valid as long as ‘it works for them’. (This is not to say that ‘culturalism’ has itself vanished from the scene: indeed, the new essentialising of ‘faith’ has in some ways reinforced it.)

I want to challenge these assumptions and argue that faith, like culture, is dynamic, diverse and constantly shaped and re-shaped by its interaction with changing contexts. Taking a discourse analytic approach, I also want to suggest that faith, like other aspects of identity, is constantly produced and reproduced in social discourse. One problem with such an approach is that it conflicts with our ‘common sense’ view of religious faith as being ‘already there’ in creeds, dogmas and sacred texts that individuals passively receive and are relatively powerless to influence. But the meaning and interpretation of those ‘givens’, I would suggest, is constantly changing as faith is re-formulated in the discourse of believers – whether formally in sermons and official declarations, or informally in the prayers, conversations, diaries (or letters) of believers.

So when we analyse a text in which faith is on display – such as my great grandfather’s letters to his son – we should be less interested in describing the faith that he supposedly ‘brings to’ those letters, and more concerned with how he reproduces his faith – how he ‘does’ faith, if you like – in the process of writing, alongside other aspects of his identity such as his fathering.

In thinking about faith in this way, I’ve found Wittgenstein’s later writings particularly useful, with their emphasis on religion as a ‘form of life’ and as a ‘language-game’. This is not to trivialise religion, but to emphasise that it should be seen primarily as ‘language embedded in action’. For Wittgenstein, action precedes belief, not vice versa. He once wrote to a friend: ‘I believe it is right to try experiments in religion. To find out, by trying, what helps and what doesn’t’. He might have added: to find out, by trying, what you ‘believe’.

Here I’m straying into philosophical waters that I’m barely competent to navigate. So perhaps instead I can cite some real-life examples that have influenced my thinking on this issue.  I’ve long been fascinated by accounts of conversion – and even more so by stories of ‘de-conversion’, of people losing their religious faith. There may be a personal element to this: I’ve been through two or three changes of faith, and a loss of faith, in my own life. What has struck me in many of the narratives I’ve read is the important part played by deliberate actions and decisions in these major changes in belief.

For example, I remember reading an interview with Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, who was a Catholic altar boy and even entertained ambitions to enter the priesthood – until he realised that he was gay and quite suddenly his youthful faith fell away. Then there was the female Labour politician, whose name I’ve forgotten, who was also raised a Catholic but then one day, on seeing a television broadcast by a Cardinal with which she violently disagreed for political reasons, said to herself, ‘That’s me finished with that lot then’.

I find it fascinating that a person can completely and wholeheartedly believe in something one day, and then the next day (or even the next moment) no longer believe in it, or believe something very different. It goes against our ‘common sense’ understanding of faith as something internal, unconscious, even involuntary, and highlights the role of conscious decision – deliberate action – in matters of belief. Of course, it’s possible that rumblings of doubt had been going on ‘under the surface’ for some time in these two cases, but the conscious decision not to believe was clearly the crucial factor.

Conversely, these accounts suggest that what we normally understand by ‘faith’ – that complex of opinions, feelings and attachments – tends to follow an external, willed act – rather than vice versa (shades of John Henry Newman’s ‘grammar of assent’, perhaps?). I came across an example of this in reverse in the story of Paul Moore, the HBOS whistleblower, who had been brought up a Catholic and attended Ampleforth school, but later lost his faith. After the crisis brought about by the enforced ending of his City career, he began to recover his faith. He took a job in the Yorkshire village of Wass, just down the road from Ampleforth:

When we moved back up to my alma mater I said to myself: ‘I’m going to try to have faith, to pretend that I’ve got faith.’ And as I pretended to have faith, I got faith.

This is reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s advice to ‘find out, by trying’ what one believes. Just as in my first two examples it was a decision not to believe that produced a loss of faith, so in Moore’s case the decision to believe appears to have produced faith. Again, there’s a danger of sounding as though one is mocking religious faith – as a pretence, or some kind of superficial game. I’m certainly not arguing that the content of religious faith is irrelevant, and I don’t think Wittgenstein was either: if you have an appetite for such things, I’d recommend Fergus Kerr’s Theology after Wittgenstein, which defends the philosopher against this charge of ‘fideism’. (Incidentally, I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I’m in sympathy with contemporary ‘pro-faith’ commentators such as Karen Armstrong and Terry Eagleton, who appear to argue that ‘having faith’ is what matters, and precisely what one chooses to believe is of secondary importance. That way lies the kind of cultural relativism mentioned earlier, and in the case of those two writers, comes close to apologetics on behalf of religious extremism.)

What Wittgenstein is saying, as I read him, is simply that this is how belief works – because this is how the mind works. Action precedes cognition – and, I would add (with a nod to Bakhtin), that means action in a defined social and discursive context.

So, in approaching the ‘faith’ articulated in my great grandfather’s letters, I need to see it less as something that he brings to his writing, and rather as a product or an accomplishment of that writing, as something that is constantly created and re-created through deliberate action, and particularly through discourse.