A look back at 2016
The town bridge with the Georgian Lodge on the far side, August
Taroudant, Morocco, January
Home recording setup, January
Town pancake race, February
Thinkering unSymposium, Plymouth, June
Guesting with another band, Chippenham, July
Civil War reenactment, July
Dance workshop in Cilgerran, Wales, September
Vang Vieng, Laos, November
Angkor Wat, Cambodia, December
2015 had been an unexpectedly unsettling year. From my comfortably familiar job and brightly promising new home I'd been plunged into unemployment and the subsequent worries about maintaining my mortgage payments. The completion of the building work was bogging down into inactivity & stalemate with infrequent, acrimonious exchanges with the developer and the prospect of legal action becoming more & more likely. However the end of the year had bought some relief, I'd finally found a new job that, although challenging, seemed to have lots of potential and I'd done so before I had to raid what remained of my savings. Things were starting to look up.
As the year started I was finding some new stability in my working (& financial) life. I felt I was settling in to my new role and although there was still a bit of 'sink or swim' about it the code I was writing was making more & more sense to me. There were still moments where whole new areas of the app's workings were revealed or I had to backtrack to include previously unforeseen functions but the size of the project, although still daunting, now felt more achievable. Mostly. My workmates (who were also my bosses) seemed casually confident of my abilities and generally left me to get on with it, despite the fact that there was no visible end product to inspect other than a (tidily organised) mass of computer code and a few very basic screens of data. After the regular meetings, progress reports & performance assessments of my previous, more corporate employer I was nervously awaiting some form of professional appraisal but as the months passed I realised that this was not their way and I might as well just carry on as if all was well.
My perseverance (& their faith) was rewarded in September when the first version of the app using my code was released. During the build-up to this (for me) momentous event my colleagues discovered a long list of bugs & omissions which was initially dispiriting but the speed at which I was able to fix them gave me a nice confidence boost, not just in my coding abilities but in the construction & resilience of the work I'd produced. Since then we've issued several further releases with new features (& a few bug fixes) and this new work pattern has eased my professional insecurities, an evolving end product provides immediate feedback on what I'm producing and how the customers (& my workmates) view it. The prospect of being a 60-year old programmer still stirs up fears of encroaching decrepitude but the reality (as I keep reminding myself) is that I'm in a friendly & very relaxed company, doing interesting & challenging work and being trusted to manage myself. Which is rather good.
Rising river waters, February
In mid-January I returned to Taroudant in Morocco to teach another dance workshop there. The week was a great success and there's an account of the trip (with pictures) on my Returning to Morocco page.
Two further dance workshops (in the UK) followed later in the year but I'd neither started or found a local dance group to attend regularly and I decided to formally 'retire' from Circle Dance teaching. When my one remaining engagement (returning to Taroudant in 2017) was cancelled for lack of bookings it felt like I'd caught the right moment to let this part of my life go.
For such a significant aspect of my life - I'd been dancing for over thirty years, teaching for nearly as long, and had led groups & workshops all over the world - it slipped away remarkably easily. The music of the Balkans still delights me and I'm sure I'll be joining dancing lines when they present themselves until my legs won't carry me there but the work required to be a teacher at the level I demand of myself, or at least the enthusiasm to do it, has waned over the past few years. I'll miss seeing people discover the magic of the dance under my (if I say so myself) expert tutelage but there comes a time when you need to step aside and let others into the spotlight.
I wrote up an account of My last dance workshop, it's a little technical but gives a good example of my approach & practice when leading a group.
The Rhythm Coalition, the local R&B band I'd been playing bass with for a couple of years, had our first gig in February, playing at a local pub. After playing together for this long we'd refined our sound into a tight, punchy groove and had become a reliable crowd pleaser, invariably getting people onto the dance floor and having to drag up old songs to please the encore demands. Two more full gigs (and a sort-of one, more details below) came later in the year and were equally well received.
The band had slimmed down to a seven-piece for our first gig with the amicable departure of our keyboard player but when we dropped to six it didn't go as smoothly. Playing in a group is a strangely intimate process and finding that a new combination just works better without being able to clearly explain why is very difficult to put across without all sorts of emotional turmoil. It felt like the break-up of a relationship but with seven people involved, the potential for hurt, anger & misunderstanding was huge and it took us a long time to resolve it, insofar as we have.
Another musical venture of mine was solo recording using my new mini-synthesizers. I'd bought three of these little units, along with the required connectors & interfaces, as a Christmas present to myself at the end of 2015 and had set some conditions to encourage me to use them - play & record frequently, complete anything I started in a day (or so), delete the settings after recording so I wasn't tempted to obsessively refine them, publish everything that I created. The intention was to develop my creativity & spontaneity rather than labouring over polishing the final result and hopefully to revive my long forgotten keyboard skills along the way. During the year I added a fourth unit and improved my recording setup, giving me more options to play with and making the overall technical process easier & simpler.
Playing with the band, February
The results were a spectacular success. Not only did I compose & record over a hundred pieces during the next nine months but they were far better than I'd anticipated, so much so that I found myself listening to them again & again, amazed at my own creations. It's hard to be objective about my own artistry, especially as these were made purely for my own satisfaction, but it's been a delight to see what I can create when I (mostly) stop worrying and just let it flow.
There's more about the process (and links to the music) on my Life with the Volcas pages.
There have been fewer changes to the house this year as it transitions from 'building project' into 'home'. After keeping a blog of the process I decided to wrap it up with the final entry which contains a summary of the 'finished' state. Curiously the thing that seemed to really make it feel like my home was hanging pictures, something I've never really bothered with in the past. I've had a nice stream of visitors staying with me and it's been very satisfying to welcome & host family & friends in my little domicile.
Another milestone for our little community came when the developer finally agreed to a settlement to cover the unfinished & substandard work that remained in the redevelopment of the Georgian Lodge. It wasn't quite what we'd hoped for but it feels good to draw a line under the increasingly acrimonious process and to proceed on the basis that what we have is what we're getting.
In June I travelled down to Cornwall to participate in the Thinkering unSymposium, a hands-on workshop in spontaneous music making run by my old friend Professor Dave. He & his partner Tanya graciously hosted me in their magnificent Gothic pile but in exchange I found myself roped in as roadie, helping carry the large & impressive analogue synthesizers (the professional big brothers to my tiny Volca units) that were to be our instruments for the day. The workshop was lots of fun, as much for watching Dave 'at work' as a Professor of Music as for the chance to play with these magnificent devices.
Later in June came another musical adventure. The band were due to play at a Dragon Boat fundraising event in Chippenham but as soon as we arrived someone came up to me and asked if I was a bassist (it comes in a very distinctive case) and when I said yes he asked if I'd fill in for the guy currently playing bass who'd been up on stage for a long stint. Starting from the next song. It seemed churlish to refuse so after some quick tuning I found myself up there, sharing the space with musicians I recognised from various gigs in Bradford. 'Route 66 in G' was shouted across the stage and we were away.
Four or five songs later we vacated the stage for the next band. It had been a real 'deep end' experience and although my playing had been somewhat cautious in the face of unfamiliar songs I'd been pretty pleased with myself. Generally I like a lot of preparation before performing in public so it was good to find that I could cope with being right in the moment.
Twenty minutes later I was up there again with the Rhythm Coalition. Things were running even further behind schedule at this point so we did our four songs and were off. A good performance and a welcome round of applause to end the afternoon.
New haircut selfie, August
Bradford on Avon continues to supply unexpected entertainment and at the end of July a series of Civil War reenactments took place around the town. The first of these took place directly outside my house and a group of us sat high above the action at a neighbour's front windows while the Cavaliers skirmished with the town militia below. A much larger battle was played out on a big field later in the day but, presumably to make the most of the participants, nobody 'died', making it appear more like a giant community game with inexplicable rules.
As autumn approached the first seeds of a Grand Adventure were planted. Some dear friends had taken a holiday tour of Vietnam and spoke about the experience with great enthusiasm. South-East Asia a part of the world I'd never visited (apart from stopovers on Australia flights) and my mental picture of the area was darkly coloured by news reports of the Vietname War and Khmer Rouge during my childhood & adolescence, not an inviting image. The idea that I could replace (or at least overlay) these associations with new, happier ones was strangely appealing and soon I found myself searching the internet for options & prices. It seemed ridiculous to go all that way for a short visit and I didn't fancy organising a sequence of hotels & transits on my own but eventually I discovered 'small group guided tour' holidays where you joined a limited number of other tourists and had local guides along the way. A four-week tour through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia caught my eye and after checking with my work that I could take that long a vacation - they were as unfazed by this as everything else and quickly gave their assent - I'd booked my place and began investigating the jabs & visas I'd require in that strange land.
In November my (UK-resident) sisters & I took Vi, our mother, out for her annual Birthday Bash - an afternoon tea and extended natter at somewhere fancy, quirky or 'interesting'. This year's venue was the Dean Street Townhouse in Soho, closer to the fancy end than others we'd been to but small & intimate. A splendid time was had by all - there's a description of the day on the Vi's Birthday Tea page.
Later in November the date from my Indochina Adventure finally arrived and although the scheduling wasn't as comfortable as I'd hoped - I was playing with the band the night before my 5:15am taxi to Heathrow - I eventually found myself boarding a huge aircraft for the long flight to Bangkok and the start of the trip. The holiday was a fabulous experience, not just for the sights, tastes (the food was terrific) and atmosphere of the countries & cultures we visited but for my burgeoning self-confidence in navigating these new places. I'd become a very timid traveller in my later years and it was great to find myself (mostly) effortlessly coping with the challenges that each of our stops inevitably threw at me.
There's an account of the tour (with lots of pictures) on my Indochina 2016 page.
I was back in time for Christmas and this year, for the first time, I hosted Vi for the festive holidays. We had a very quiet, relaxed time and it was really nice for both of us to skive off from the usual holiday expectations and spend most of the time just chatting and taking it easy. We had pizza for Christmas dinner.
And so a new year rolls into view. Compared with twelve months ago I feel more secure in my work and more settled in my home, I've enjoyed the upsurge in musical creativity (which I shall return to after the holidays) and I'm still contemplating my newfound confidence & interest in distant cultures. Letting go of dance teaching hasn't been as difficult as I thought but it will be interesting to see how that sinks in over the forthcoming years. Being 60 feels bizarre, I didn't exactly hope to die before I got old but part of me was expecting to have picked up more mature wisdom by this point, inside I still feel like a 20-something trapped in a body that requires increasing levels of general maintenance. The future remains an inviting path, I wonder where it will lead this time?