Forward in all directions! My life & times in 2012

My little Kentish home

The story so far: our hero has escaped the mystical enchantments of Findhornland and has made camp in the leafy vales of Kentish Maidstone. With a new home and new job things seem to be going well, but there have been murmurings of discontent. Now read on...

The dawning of 2012 found me settled in Maidstone but not really rooted there. With the exception of the local Circle Dance group, who had welcomed me with open arms, and the Quaker Friends (where I was an intermittent visitor) I'd not really developed any social connections in the town. There were a few friends in the general area and I was making good use of the excellent public transport facilities but for a lot of the time I was either on my own or communicating electronically with my tribe. This wasn't so bad - I've always tended towards the reclusive in the winter months - but it gave the distinct feel that this was a stepping stone rather then a new start.

My job had improved over the past few months but it still didn't feel like somewhere I could stay and build a career (or something like that) from. It had fulfilled my first objective - to find out if I could hold down a 'proper' programming job - and I was feeling much more confident about my skills in the Real World and my ability to operate in a non-Findhorny environment but the downsides were starting to pile up. The programs I was working on were very old and full of cruft - a wonderful computing expression meaning clogged up with old fixes, edits & changes that obscure the original meaning of the code (presuming that such a thing existed at all). A lot of the time I was able to work on newer aspects of the programs but the old stuff was always there, waiting for me. The working environment wasn't very nice either, the office was old & grungy and there was a very aggressive & confrontational atmosphere between the people there. It wasn't a big problem for me but it wasn't an inviting place to come to work in.

Sensible work app icons

It wasn't all bad, of course, and one of my tasks turned out to have unexpected benefits. The company wanted to release a set of small, utility apps on Apple's Mac App Store and I was given the job of writing them. This wasn't a huge technical challenge (though I say so myself) but it gave me some valuable experience in submitting apps to Apple and going through the various requirements & procedures involved, experience that would prove to be very useful later on. It also gave me the opportunity to slip in an 'Easter Egg' (a hidden function in the program) without telling my boss - if the user held down a specific key at a certain point a picture of me will pop up with the legend Andy wrote this. I wonder if they've discovered this yet...

My app icons - AndyBooks, AndyInvoicer & Event Assistant

Having learnt how to put apps in Apple's online store it struck me that I could write some of my own. I've always written my own programs for bookkeeping, accounting & various other small jobs and have given copies of them them away to friends over the years, it was a small step from this to putting them out for the whole world to see. I chose two - a simple bookkeeping program and an invoice management app - and spent a while bringing them up to date, making them less UK-centric and generally reviewing them so that they'd be easier & more intuitive to use. My graphic design skills were, alas, not up to designing snazzy icons but a quick trawl through the internet found some cute 'stuffed toy' ones that seemed to suit the friendly & playful approach I was going for. With all this in place I took the plunge - I signed up for a Registered Developer Account, paid my subscription fee (£60 a year, not too excessive), submitted my apps and waited to see if they'd sell.

Riding the Eye, February

And they did! Not enough for me to give up my day job but in a steady stream. A few months later I added an event management app which also brings in a few sales every week.

One of the quirks of the Mac App Store is that sales are broken down by country and some countries don't sell many apps, so a few (or even one) purchase can send an app shooting up the sales charts. Over the last year I've had the number one finance app in , , & and am currently top of the charts in ! In reality the UK and USA sales are the ones that produce the real income but it's fascinating to see these exotic locations pop up in my results.

I'd promised myself that I'd give the new job at least a year, to stop myself bailing out at the first real difficult patch, and I was starting to count the days. Over the winter I'd been arranging a month-long trip to Australia in April/May and I thought that if I could find another job this would be an ideal break between them, but my trawling of the jobs market wasn't bringing up any results and as the months wore on I resigned myself to coming back to Maidstone after my Down Under jaunt and continuing my job search afresh. This meant that I'd be way over my holiday entitlement for the year so I arranged for most of my time away to be unpaid and made my plans accordingly.

There had been big changes in the schedule for the Australian trip. Originally the idea was to go from West to East - starting in Perth and moving Eastwards across the country - but the first solid, fixed date turned out to be Dunedin in New Zealand where my old friend Catherine had arranged for me to be a guest teacher at the Middle Eastern Dance Association of New Zealand's annual conference. Not only did this mean rearranging the Australian workshops to flow East to West but it also meant I'd be flying out straight after the UK Circle Dance teachers' Easter Gathering where I was one of the organisers.

Organising the Easter Gathering was, luckily, turning out to be much easier than in the previous year. We were returning to a known venue, the whole team was fit & well and we'd had no unexpected cancellations, changes or untoward events - at least none that couldn't be easily sorted out well in advance. In fact things were going so smoothly that several members of the team (including myself) were worried that they weren't doing enough! It's such a great feeling working like this, where things get done without a big fuss and people seem to be working beyond what's expected of them. A great joy.

Easter Gathering dancers, April

A couple of weeks before Easter I was browsing through the online job listings and saw an interesting looking post on the South coast. I couldn't imagine they'd wait the 6-7 weeks it would be before I was back in the UK but I decided to try for it anyway. The agent I spoke to confirmed that they were after someone straight away but asked if I'd be interested in another job, this one in Wiltshire. The company were looking for an iPhone developer but the agent thought they might consider me - although I had no iPhone experience my Mac skills were closely related and might be enough to get me on board. What the hell - I decided to go for it.

Suddenly things started moving very quickly. A couple of days later the agent rang back to arrange a phone interview for the next day, this went well and I was up in London for a more formal interview two days after that. In less than a week I'd gone from not knowing about the job to being offered it!

The job was exactly what I was looking for when I was leaving Scotland - based in the South-West of England, working on iPhones and doing software development for many clients, not just supporting the same, few apps. I said yes, deferred my starting date as far as I could - giving me three weeks to find & move into a new home when I got back from Australia - and handed in my notice to my current employer. This didn't go down very well - due to my previously arranged unpaid leave I ended up only working one more week there - but to be fair my boss wished me well for my new start.

There was one more oddity with my old job - although I'd handed in my notice my boss didn't tell the rest of the staff. I figured that was his choice and didn't tell anyone myself so it wasn't until my last day that word got round, no leaving drink or farewell card for me. As I walked away it was almost as if I'd imagined the last working year, a very strange experience.

But there was no time to be spent in idle contemplation - next day I was off to Leicester for the Easter Gathering. Despite a bad start - a taxi driver spent over half an hour not being able to find my house, meaning a missed train, a missed pick-up at the other end, and expensive replacement tickets - the (long) weekend went smoothly & easily and a splendid time was had by all. At last year's Gathering I'd been quite sick and hadn't been able to operate at my usual 'full on' rate and it was good to notice that I had learned from the experience - I was much better prepared this time, was more relaxed about things (which didn't result in the mess I was fearing), and had more time to mingle & chat with people. A good discovery!

Enjoying the beach, New Zealand, April

Radio star, Tasmania, April

Washed-up seadragon, Tasmania, April

Collective community art, Tasmania, April

Teaching in Hobart, Tasmania, April

Back from the Gathering I had a day to prepare before I was off on my Australian trip. While out there I wrote an ongoing account which you can read here but some of the highlights were:

On top of all of this there were the workshops, the dancers & the dancing. To be invited on such a tour and to live up to (my presumed) expectations was a great lift to my spirits and my self-esteem as a dance teacher. It's true that I've been doing this for [cough] years now and should have built up some belief in my abilities by now but there's something about holding a circle dance group (especially one where you've never taught before) that requires a delicate combination of a light touch & a firm hand, a clear vision of where you're going and a willingness to change direction when it will suit the group. It's not something I can do on autopilot which has its downsides (I can't just relax and do it with half my mind) but does put me in a state of sharp, vital aliveness which makes it all so, so worthwhile. And fun too!

It was interesting to play with the online options while I was travelling on the Far Side of the World. As well as keeping up with email and blogging my adventures I managed to skype with Linda fairly regularly which was a wonderful way to maintain our connection and to keep me perky. There's something about a video link that makes it very personal and brings the other person so close while being so far away, a great joy. Although it was still odd to be talking from my early morning to her late evening, there's something in my mind that can accept it on a theoretical level but baulks at the reality.

And on the teaching side it was amazing to be able to find new music for a dance, buy it, download it and use it all from my trusty laptop. And to be able to provide step notes with lists of dances done and music used for each of my workshops by the end of the same day. Living in the future! It's all good.

But all good things must come to an end (or your visa runs out) and mid-May found me back in the UK and needing to find a new home near to my new job. The wonderful Linda had been working through the online estate agent listings and had come up with some possible options so we made a couple of visits to Darkest Wiltshire to see what could be found.

The first step was to decide on a town. My workplace was midway between Bradford-on-Avon and Trowbridge with a scattering of smaller villages all around - not having a car yet (and quite liking it that way) I decided to start with the towns:

My new home in Bradford-on-Avon, June

But there was a problem - an unexpected dearth of rental accommodation. On our second (and hopefully decisive) house viewing trip to BoA there were just two places to look at - an old house which I quickly wrote off as too small, dark and stuffy and a newer one that was in such demand that we had a very tight viewing appointment between other prospective tenants. The house was nice and I applied straight away but found out the next day that one of the other viewers had been chosen. With time running out I was starting to look for a long-term B&B but even these were in short supply. It seemed like everyone wanted to move to Bradford.

Local pub

The estate agent for the older house rang me up and asked why I'd decided against renting it. I replied that it was too expensive, then after the call I had a brainwave, rang back and asked if the landlady would be willing to negotiate over the rent. It turned out that she would, and after a little to-ing & fro-ing we had agreed on a reduced rent in exchange for a longer (9-month) initial period. I had a place to live!

Now I just had to get there. In a spectacular messing up of dates I managed to arrange my transit to be on the Jubilee weekend so everything that wasn't closed was sold out. With most of my belongings already packed up by the same company that had moved me down from Scotland I ended up with virtually the last rental car in Maidstone which I loaded up with my 'living out of a suitcase' essentials. My empty flat was inspected & approved, I waved goodbye to Kent and headed out for my new life.

Bradford-on-Avon turned out to be just as wonderful as I'd found it on my first visit. The little town centre had enough to fulfil most of my general requirements and where it didn't there was a reasonably monstrous Sainsburys within cycling distance, Bath just ten minutes away by train and (as I was to discover later) quick and easy home delivery from the Ikea in Bristol. There were very nice pubs, excellent cafés and all manner of odd little bits & bobs. It was a notorious choke point for traffic (something scandalously neglected by the 14th century bridge builders) but as a cyclist and pedestrian this was less of a problem for me. It was a town I immediately felt happy in, in marked contrast to Maidstone.

I've been wondering why I felt so at home here and I realised that the town is more or less the same size as Epping, the town I grew up in. I wonder if we subconsciously adapt to the size of the first place we live in and all others feel, at some level, 'wrong' if they're appreciably bigger or smaller?

Four days after moving in I set off for the first day at my new job, slightly apprehensive but too dazed by all the recent changes to be properly worried. After a day of introductions, inductions, health & safety briefings and other administrative processing I was finally sat at a desk with a laptop and got to meet my workmates and find out just what I'd be doing.

Rehearsing with Gadje Dilo, July

The transition from Mac programming (which is what I'd been doing for a long, long time) to iPhone programming (which was my new rôle) is a strange one - half of the work is exactly the same while half is completely different, and it's very difficult to guess which half you'll be meeting at any given point. I spent what felt like an age (but was probably about a fortnight) thinking I'd never get a grasp on this new way of working and wondering whether I'd made a Very Big Mistake. Luckily my workmates turned out to be friendly, helpful and generally Great Blokes and continued to insist that there we no stupid questions despite my continued attempts to ask some. After a while it began to make some sense and, as with a lot of computer work, the more I learned the easier it became to get to grips with the next thing. My 1- and 3-months reviews passed well and I soon found myself feeling like a real member of the team.

A month after starting work I was heading back up to Findhorn for their annual Dance Festival. I'd taught & played music at every festival since 1999 when I moved to Findhorn but this year I was just playing for one night with Gadje Dilo, the Balkan/Rom dance music band I'd been with for the past five years. This was partly down to my lack of free time (I had very limited holiday time for the first year in my new job) and partly down to a tighter schedule for this year's event - Gadje Dilo had played three sessions in 2011, this year it was only two. As it was only a flying visit we had just one rehearsal planned together even though we'd not played together since last year's festival, but we felt pretty sure that the old magic would start flowing as soon as we got going. What could possibly go wrong?

As it happened, our confidence was well founded. After a few rusty starts (& ends) we found ourselves back in the groove and the old numbers came back to life under our fingers (and vocal chords). And it wasn't just the music, as we played & sang there was a warm feeling of creatively working together with wonderful & talented friends, people who could surprise you will their skill & conspire to bring out the best in each other. A wonderful experience. With the set well prepared and an encore up our sleeves (just in case) we ended the session on a high.

Playing at the Findhorn Dance Festival, July

It was strange to be at the festival as just a 'visitor' and it was curious to see how it looked from the outside. When I'd been part of the event it had felt as if we took over the community's Park campus and the whole place revolved around us - now it was all to easy to not notice it was on at all, and to meet community members who had no idea that a dance festival was taking place. With my involvement so limited Linda & I were able to wander around, meet old friends and enjoy the magic of Findhorn at our own pace, a very nice way to revisit old haunts. This was helped by my dear friend Sibylle lending us her gorgeous waterside house for our time there, with spectacular views over Findhorn Bay and the distant (often mist-shrouded) hills beyond.

The gig itself went really well, both as a selection of fabulous Balkan folk dance music (I may be biased) and as a great way to have fun with old and special friends. I missed not teaching at all but it felt like another step along my path away from Findhorn, part of me feels that I won't be back for another festival. But who knows? From my position on the bandstand it was easy (once again) to be critical of the dancing & teaching on show but there was a bit more distance this time, it wasn't my problem any more and I could just let it go. Mostly.

There was another bittersweet edge to my final gig with Gadje Dilo - the band had another gig as part of the festival and for this they'd be joined by Kicky, my putative replacement. Kicky is a great friend (& drinking partner) and despite a small voice inside upset an the idea that I can be replaced it feels good to see the band moving on and continuing despite my leaving. I wish them well.

Living in Bradford-on-Avon meant that Linda was just 90 minutes away by train and for most of the rest of the year we alternated between weekends in BoA and Cardiff, taking advantage of each of their benefits. Quite a nice little arrangement really and one that is working pretty well - city facilities one weekend, rustic peacefulness the next. With the restrictions of my job - the little amount of holiday and the steep learning curve that I've been climbing - there's not been much opportunity for taking breaks further afield but we're slowly exploring the sights & delights of Wiltshire and South Wales. In turn.

Linda's birthday, September

Bristol, October

My job has continued to improve over the last few months and I'm reaching the point where I can take on whatever piece of work comes along - something I wasn't expecting to achieve this soon. Well done me! It is a great relief to find that I can learn New Tricks at my advanced age and that I can still cut it in the world of computer programming, something I still really enjoy doing. I've had some excellent teammates in my short time (so far) at Trapeze and it's been good to have the validation of my peers and to have the opportunity to see new ways of doing things - even more New Tricks!

I worked on these!

It's been very satisfying to see my work 'out there' in the world, something that I've not experienced for a very long time and never before in the much more consumerist world of the iPhone. I've even been sitting on a train and ended up recommending an app I've worked on to a complete stranger who's downloaded it, used and and praised it there & then, a surprisingly pleasing experience. (It was theTrainline - I wrote the Live Departure Board section and am still glowingly proud of it).

Things are not all sweetness & light at work, one of the downsides is the 'corporate culture' where everything has the be done the Company Way, regardless of whether this is appropriate, efficient or even applicable to the task in question. This is particularly apparent for those of us using Macs in a predominantly Windows environment but the problem has become its own solution - because nobody (in authority) understands Macs we're often left to our own devices and so long as our home-brewed ways of working don't overtly contradict the Company Way we're generally left to get on with it.

My teammates & I have taken advantage of this attitude, and the fact that the iPhone products are very profitable for the company, to 'humanise' our little corner of the office. Our desks are, er, bedecked with little flags to indicate which product we're currently working on, we have a little lava lamp which is being incorporated into our build system as an 'all is well' indicator, and we've salvaged a sofa for visitors and (in theory) as a place to chill out & think about gnarly programming problems. it's a little oasis of sanity in the corporate workhouse (can you see my bias?) and, for now at least, it's working rather well.

Back To Our Roots, October

A more tangential benefit of my new job is that I can still cycle to work, something that is undoubtably good for my cardiovascular system but is still, bafflingly, having no impact on my waistline! When the weather is good I can ride along the canal towpath which is a wonderful way to start the day, birds singing & all the countryside goodies. When it's been wet the path turns into more of a swamp and is less inviting, there is an alternative route along the road but it shows one of the disadvantages of living at river level - everywhere is up, at least to start with. Still, even better for the heart. Country roads are often scary for cyclists but so far the drivers I've encountered have been courteous & considerate, maybe the gentler pace out here in the West Country does make people nicer than their ratrace city cousins.

October brought another dance event but this one was something different. Back To Our Roots was a gathering of some of the early Circle Dance teachers, tracing the origins and first years of the movement and giving some of today's young whippersnappers a chance to experience the quality and richness of the more mature and distinguished practitioners. (As one of the said teachers I may again be biased). Each of us was asked to teach two dances; one that was an early inspiration, the other a current favourite. There was some leeway in the interpretation of these requests but in general they gave a pretty good snapshot of dance favourites old and new.

The weekend was a great opportunity to reconnect with some old (& in some cases lost) friends and compare how our lives had gone since those early days. Once you become an 'established' dance teacher it's not uncommon to stop going to your contemporaries' workshops so it was nice to see these old friends hold & focalise a group and to realise just how good they were are doing it, each in their own particular way. Several of the teachers used their slots (30 minutes each & no extensions!) to tell how they had gotten into dance & teaching and it was good to hear Laura (my ex-wife) speak so positively about our dancing time together, a very heartwarming moment.

Vi's 80th birthday tea, November

Another challenge arose (it's been a good year for challenges) when Mandy (de Winter) took me aside and asked if I'd like to join her in playing Koga Me Mama Rodila, a sweet Bulgarian tune that we'd played together in Findhorn ten years before. Especially challenging as I hadn't played it since then. And that I'd be playing it on Mandy's tambura, an instrument subtly different from the one I'd used back then. But what the hell, the tune was a memorable one and I managed to put in a recognisable (and maybe more than that) performance.

While preparing for Koga Mandy & I had some fun with a little 7/8 improvised duet, taking it it turns to play accompaniment while the other extemporised a solo. A wonderful experience for me, Mandy has always been a Proper Musician in my eyes and to be playing together as equals was another significant boost to my poor old self-esteem.

And there was one more musical revelation to come - Mandy had suggested playing Osagovka and as we were about to perform it Laura asked if she could join us on the big tapan drum. We'd not played music together since well before our divorce but it had been a significant part of our partnership, when we'd played in various genres & styles both in bands and as a duo. A lot of water had flowed under the bridge since then, some of it not very nice at all, but playing together again helped me to relive some of those good times and to look beyond how things had ended. Life goes on, wounds heal.

Overall the weekend was lots of fun and a great opportunity to revisit some old triumphs but my final impression was of something that I'd enjoyed but had moved on from. I like the name 'circle dance' for its wonderful vagueness - you can get away with a lot under that title - but I tend to think of what I teach as an extension of the folk dance tradition rather than the more New Age, airy-fairy stuff that was being celebrated over the weekend. Circle Dance is a very broad church and I've been known to wax esoteric while teaching but it's interesting to find myself once more on the fringes of a movement. I guess that's just me.

November brought Vi's Birthday Tea. Since my father died my UK-based sisters & I have made it an annual tradition to meet up and take our mother out for a fancy meal, looking for somewhere interesting & unusual rather than a posh gourmet experience. This year we met at the National Portrait Gallery in London, giving us a chance to take in the Art before heading up to their rooftop restaurant for Afternoon Tea. As has become usual practice the conversation was boisterous & free-flowing, leaving Linda and Roger (Kay's partner) as bemused observers for long stretches of time, but at the same time it was a wonderfully bonding process for a family that doesn't meet up as often as we might.

The flooded road to work, December

The later months of the year brought heavy & persistent rain to the South-West and the fact that my workplace is in the flood plain of the Avon was brought home to me powerfully one morning when my ride to work revealed a huge, shining lake where I was used to seeing open fields. The water looked fairly shallow but as I cycled on the true depth was revealed, not (quite) too deep to ride through but still fairly alarming, especially when the traffic slowed and I realised that there was nothing to stand on should I come to a halt. In a spirit of improvisation I delicately propped myself up on the stationary cars, necessitating a speedy getaway when they started moving again. We've had quite a few days as an (almost) island and although it has made the daily commute a bit more difficult it's been rather exciting to see nature straying beyond its bounds.

Cooking Christmas dinner, December

Crimble has been a quiet one this year with Linda & I holed up in BoA for the Festive Week. With both sets of families off and away over the holidays it's been a great opportunity to chill out and enjoy a more personal & low-key approach to the turning of the year. I've been working from home through the last weeks of December and the days have often found us tapping away on our computers, side by side, before popping out for a lunchtime walk (dodging the rain where we can) and exploring the coffee opportunities of some of Bradford's excellent pubs.

Looking back a year there's a very positive contrast with where I was twelve months ago. Back then I was in a job I didn't enjoy or see much of a future in, living in a town where I had hardly any social contacts and feeling cut off from my friends & connections. Now I'm feeling positive & confident about my work, am really enjoying my quirky old house, and am integrating into & exploring my new town & environs. Living so much nearer to Linda & spending more time together more regularly has allowed our relationship to somehow soften while deepening, nestling into cosy togetherness while still finding new things about each other (and ourselves). Yum! I find myself becoming more outgoing & engaging with the world, starting to tend & refresh the connections I've let slide (emails will be coming!) and looking for new ways to nurture my creativity & curiosity.

Looking forward my calendar is mostly empty but the spaces feel like opportunities for new growth rather then the damning evidence of a barren wasteland. I have dance workshops in Paris (returning after a long, long absence), Leeds & Malvern and I hope to both find new ones and start a regular group close to home. Having said goodbye to Gadje Dilo it's time to find a band (or two) to play with and I hope to return to my long-deferred composing & recording projects too. There are vast swathes of local countryside to be explored and maybe some more distant trips too. All in all it's looking like a good year.

31 December 2012