A look back at 2015
The highpoint of my year - at least in altitude. La Palma, Canary Islands, February
After the upheavals of 2014 I was expecting a quieter year to follow, a time to consolidate, settle and reestablish myself in my new life. Somehow it didn't work out that way. Although my physical surroundings haven't changed that much it's been another period of transition, transformation and challenges to how I see myself and my life. As 2016 stands ready to welcome me things seem mostly positive but there are a few undercurrents of uncertainty still lingering.
At the start of January I'd been living in my new home for two months and although the snagging work was dragging on (a subject I shall return to) I was more or less comfortably settled in. There were definitely things still to be done - most notably the lack of shelves, picture hooks and other fittings - but all in all the place had become a home rather than just a building with all my stuff in.
Home office, March
My work situation was growing increasingly strange. I'd been on secondment to my company's biggest mobile client while they took over development of their app, essentially we were handing over the computer code that we'd written for them so they could manage it for themselves. However it had soon become apparent that their team were determined to rewrite the app in their own, preferred style and as the months wore on my colleague & I were given less & less to do. By November, when the agreement stipulated there would be just one support person (me), the workload had dropped to virtually zero and I found myself answering one or two questions per week and spending the rest of the time 'working' from home and amusing myself with homemaking. This had started to worry me - surely the system wouldn't continue to pay me for doing nothing? - but when I discussed it with my line manager I was told to make it clear to the client that I had no work but otherwise not make a fuss. And so through the winter I remained available but unused, taking care of my own bits & bobs and watching my salary continue to arrive in my bank account.
In mid-January the contract came to an end and I returned to my company but my peculiar work pattern stayed much the same. No new clients had been signed up and most of the outstanding tasks had been taken on by my two workmates. I had a couple of small jobs assigned to me but for most of the time I was back to working at home and regularly reporting that I didn't have anything to do. On the basis that this situation couldn't possibly continue forever I started polishing my CV and posting it on various IT job search sites.
As usual I hadn't used up my holiday allocation for the year and needed to get away before the end of February or lose it. Once again my dear friend Saille stepped in as a vacation companion and we booked a week in Santa Cruz on La Palma in the Canary Islands. The weather wasn't kind to us but we found a wonderfully eccentric house to rent and the town & island were delightful. There are pictures & thoughts from our holiday in my Postcards from La Palma.
The day after returning from holiday I was up on stage performing with the Rhythm Methodists, our first gig of the year (more were to follow). This was definitely the most convenient venue I'd played at, about ninety seconds walk from my front door.
February also found me in a much fancier musical venue - the Royal College of Music where I went to see Node, a 'synth supergroup' featuring two old friends. An extra dash of cool came from being on the guest list but sadly this didn't result in the adulation of awestruck fans or a wild after-gig party - I had to catch the last train home. Sigh! The concert was great and seemed to rekindle some of my long-dormant musical yearnings - first to write about my own musical explorations and later to... but you'll read about that further down.
The new rug, March
March saw the last of the major outstanding issues on my house addressed when my 'garden' - up to now a patch of waste ground - was decked over. This wasn't what I'd originally been promised but at this point it seemed better to come to a (reasonably) reasonable compromise than get entrenched in what was starting to feel like an ongoing war of attrition with the developer. The split-level result (to allow for the steep gradient of the underlying hillside) looked a bit odd at first but the raised rear section provided some great views over the town.
Another bizarre aspect of my work secondment was that my colleague & I had been offered huge bonuses to not resign before the handover was complete. When this was finally paid I decided to use part of it to buy myself something that would normally be outside my 'sensible' price range and a few weeks later I treated myself to a large, hand woven Afghan rug. This provided the dash of colour that I'd been planning on to offset the blandness of the walls & furniture and has really brought the living room to life.
There were other little refinements to the house being added too - shelves & cupboards in some of the alcoves, shades on the Veluxes in my bedroom, a pulley clothes airer in the bathroom, fancy glass splashbacks and improved LCD lighting in the kitchen. My office gained some much needed space when I moved the stereo system off the floor although the entryway lost out with two storage units left there while I tried to sell or give them away. Generally though there was a sense of the rooms starting to come together, albeit rather slowly.
My job hunt was beginning to lead to interviews but things weren't going as smoothly as they had in the past. For most of my working life the only preparation I'd needed to do when applying for a job was a short look over the company's website and making sure I had a well ironed shirt, on the technical side I could just wing it with confidence in my skills & experience. However this strategy didn't seem to be working for me anymore, several of the interviews I went to (either in person or online) had challenging test questions and I found myself either not being offered the job or sometimes rejected before the final interview stage. I'd assumed that I could more or less walk into another job so this came as a bit of a blow, especially with my new mortgage hanging over me.
I found myself going through quite a crisis of confidence over this. One of my persistent inner demons is that one day I'll 'lose it' and find that my skills & contributions have become obsolete, unwanted, or just not good enough. I'd become accustomed to working with people half my age (IT is a notoriously youth-filled industry) and although I was getting good feedback from my workmates & managers the suspicion was growing that maybe there was a limit to how far I could push the bell curve. My work had become very comfortable & easy (especially over the last year), perhaps I couldn't cut it in the outside world anymore?
Sunny canalside view, April
Rather than succumb to the lure of hopelessness - after my long period of depression in the mid-2000's I'm very aware of the early signs of its reappearance - I decided to take some action. In my increasingly free time at work I knuckled down and properly learned Apple's new programming language (something I'd merely tinkered with before) and used it to write some new prototype apps, although these were subsequently ignored by the sales department. I attempted to tidy up & improve some of the existing client apps but found resistance here too, there was a reluctance to sanction any work that hadn't been budgeted for and it seemed that it was better that I did nothing than provide free upgrades for our customers. Instead I polished up some of my own apps, bringing them up to date and adding some new features. I also went back over some of my failed interview test questions & apps and found ways to bring them up to a more acceptable standard.
May brought something of a shock with my first water bill - which was for well over a thousand pounds! The water company themselves suggested that there might be a leak and one was soon found, ironically in the meter itself. A repair was swiftly done but the incident revealed that no stop cock had been fitted for my house or the other two units on one side of the development. I paid for a local plumber to install valves on all three water supplies and added this to the list of issues that needed to be sorted out with the by now totally incommunicado developer.
As summertime brought better weather I found myself out on the bike, exploring the cycle routes of West Wiltshire (& beyond). Several of these had been laid over disused railway lines which gave some wonderful rides - out in the countryside away from busy roads and with gentle gradients instead of steep hills. I was getting fresh air & exercise in abundance but sadly I also fell victim to Cyclists' Palsy (really! Technically ulnar neuropathy) which left half of my right hand slight slightly numb & tingly and made bass playing a very strange experience. Luckily a long break and a new set of handlebar grips seem to have sorted me out.
Wedding gig setup, July
With the summer came a flurry of gigs for the band - two wedding receptions (both for children of band members) and an appearance at the Bradford on Avon Fringe Festival. A fine time was had at all of these and the experience of playing together regularly seemed to add an extra layer of polish & professionalism. Strangely the name Rhythm Methodists was considered too risqué for weddings so we were rechristened the Rhythm Coalition which isn't as funny but is probably more memorable. At one of the gigs the sloping 'stage' meant that the drumkit had to be lashed in place and my amplifier wedged in position to avoid them both drifting downhill as we played.
Midway through June things finally came to a head at work. The mobile phone team was summoned to a meeting where we were told that we would be downsized from three people to one and then given the rest of the day off to think about it. After pondering the situation I rang to ask about voluntary redundancy, only to discover that another of my workmates had already asked and been given it. After checking with my teammates it was clear that it would work out best for everybody if I left too and another call to the HR department revealed that this would be the ideal solution from the company's perspective. The deal was two months pay in lieu of notice, three weeks tax-free redundancy pay and two weeks of 'handover' work (which was spent at home) giving me essentially three months to find a new job before I'd need to break into my savings. My recruitment search had suddenly become very real.
Over the summer & autumn a couple of 'family situations' had arisen, one involving money, the other a problem with an individual looking like they were heading into trouble, although both had their roots in ongoing issues. Despite the potential for either of these to escalate into soap opera melodrama we managed to talk them through and (eventually) to come up with practical solutions that everyone could live with. We've never been a particularly fractious family but even so I've found myself feeling more connected to my kin than for quite a while. Which is nice.
Cornish beach, August
As my spell of unemployment started to lengthen I realised that it would probably be a good idea to sign on and get some return from my years of National Insurance. Sadly my experiences with the DWP were as depressing as those with the DHSS over thirty years ago - very little practical help and an overpowering atmosphere of disapproval & suspicion. Appointments were scheduled with no regard to my transport options (I had to bus or train into the next town), I was regularly left waiting while my 'advisor' listlessly typed into her computer, and on one memorable occasion the advisor turned to chat with a colleague while I was in the middle of talking to her. To be fair when I had a review after three months of unemployment the official was friendly, helpful & understanding but on a week by week basis it was a soulless grind. Still, it paid about 40% of my mortgage repayments each month (my savings disqualified me from any other benefits).
August brought a return visit to The Professors - my old friends Dave & Tanya who were now ensconced in the ivory towers of academe and living in a splendid Victorian Gothic pile deep in the Cornish countryside. Along with my co-traveler Nic, another friend and housesharing companion from our 20's, we enjoyed some nostalgic reminiscence but spent more time chatting about life in general - carrying on as if the thirty-odd year interregnum was just an opportunity to acquire more topics for discussion. Good times.
I was continuing to apply for jobs and finding myself at interviews but still with no success. This was continuing to eat away at my self-confidence but with my redundancy money inflating my bank account I could continue to take a reasonably relaxed approach to my situation. After some consideration I reduced my minimum salary requirement to 10% less than my previous income, I'd done pretty well at Trapeze and I figured I could manage on this very comfortably. Despite the succession of rejections I remained surprisingly upbeat about my prospects and continued to limit my search to my local area (which in practice meant Bristol or Bath) rather than succumb to the temptation to take a job in London and spend weekday evenings in lodgings. Having settled in my new home in Bradford I was determined to actually live there.
One of my interviews led to a strange footwear-based adventure, which I relate in my saga of the yellow boots.
Psychedelic town bridge, September
Without a job I had ample free time but I felt that I wasn't making much use of it. In fact it was getting to the point where I'd not really done any serious work for almost a year, although bizarrely I'd been paid (and well paid) for most of that time. This lack of external deadlines seemed to induce a much more passive & reactive pattern of behaviour in me, I was getting stuff done but a lot of it was abstract & solitary - computer work, reading, watching movies & TV series on DVD - while for physical activities like getting the house completed or arranging events I was becoming a master at prevaricating about the bush. Routine & repetitive chores were no problem but I didn't seem to have the drive to start on anything new or overtly demanding.
In an attempt to make some use of my abundant leisure time I arranged to meet up with my sister Terri in London. Arriving in the capital with hours to spare I realised that there wasn't anything I particularly wanted to do (or buy) and at a loss for inspiration decided to walk across Town through as many parks as I could find. This turned into a splendid way to pass/use the time and I was moved to write a short description of my countryside walk across London.
A strange and perplexing situation had arisen with the company who provide the 'management services' for the Georgian Lodge development - the people who arrange the building insurance, deal with maintenance & cleaning, etc. As owners we had been assured that we would be dealing with this stuff ourselves but at the last minute the developer signed up a company without informing or consulting with any of us. Things got off to a bad start when this company began sending us bills with no real explanation and as there didn't seem to be any work being carried out on our behalf several of us stopped paying them. After many months of emails going back and forth, often with vague or inconsistent answers to our questions, we finally managed to arrange a meeting with a representative of the company and between us were able to come up with what seemed like a simple and mutually acceptable agreement, following which we all paid up our outstanding invoices and assumed we were set up to continue. However one wrinkle remains, despite agreeing that there were communication problems at the start the company remain adamant that the late payment surcharges cannot be waived. These are relatively small but there's a reluctance to continue with a company who show so little understanding or flexibility. I suspect we'll be moving to another company early in the new year.
After winning a Small Claims Court settlement against the builders for the damage they inflicted on our marvellous old archway door we began the process of assembling a list of outstanding issues against the developer, who remained resolutely unresponsive to all communication. Some of the owners thought we should limit ourselves to the major problems while others proposed including everything that was either unfinished or of unacceptable quality. There seems to be some sort of channel open to the developer as one of the issues that was being discussed - a missing barrier above the security gate, rendering it more or less useless - resulted in the sudden appearance of a replacement barrier in its place. This wasn't the design we'd been promised and included wording that everyone had previously objected to, sadly typical of a lot of the developer's decisions, but it's timely appearance seemed to be an attempt to forestall legal action. With eight owners it's hard to arrange concerted action but I suspect that 2016 will see some sort of legal claim after which we'll be able to let it go. Overall I'm still very happy with my new home but it feels wrong to just let things slide because builders/developers 'always have problems'.
New lights in the kitchen, October
Following the rediscovery of my old ambient guitar recording I wired up some of my old effects pedals (and used the excuse to buy a new one) and began creating some of my old (and a few new) 'sound textures'. So far I've not managed to build up to anything coherent enough to record or perform but it's been wonderfully satisfying to revisit this style of playing.
The late autumn saw me playing host to several visiting friends (although only one at a time). My guest accommodation still needs work but all three had a good (& cosy) time and it was nice to welcome people into my home and show them around my little town.
My health has been pretty good through the year (which is usual for me) but in November an attack of indigestion grew into some serious stomach pains that left me unable to eat and, at one point, quivering with uncontrollable trembling. After a couple of days in bed I made an emergency doctor's appointment and, after a series of tests, was diagnosed with Helicobacter pylori, a bacteria associated with stomach ulcers. My experience with the NHS was overwhelmingly positive, when my test results came back the doctor phoned me at home, gave me options about my treatment, then wrote the prescription for me to collect in the morning. When I arrived and it couldn't be found the receptionist tracked down the information in my records and issued a replacement. Maybe I'm just lucky but for me the health service improves every time I need to use it. Yay! The fearsome antibiotics I was prescribed turned out to be far less debilitating than I'd been warned to expect and within a week I was back to prime health (or at least as close as I get nowadays).
November also brought Vi's annual Birthday Tea which this year took place at sketch Gallery in London. Read all about it here.
By this point I'd reduced my minimum salary requirement to 80% of my previous wage but had more or less resigned myself to being unemployed into 2016, with Christmas so close it was hard to imagine a company taking on new staff. A job vacancy popped up in mid-November but it was in an awkward location so when I applied I bluntly wrote in the covering letter that I wouldn't consider it unless I could work predominantly from home. I assumed that would be the end of it but a couple of days later I was invited to an interview which turned out to be more of a friendly chat than the technical assault course I'd gotten used to over the previous year. As we talked we covered various programming topics but it was on the level of mutual respect rather than an attempt to test me on coding minutiae, I felt that I was being assessed as a person instead of a coding machine. The interview overran by half an hour (always a good sign) and two days later I got a phone call offering me the job. Yay! As I was due to start on the antibiotic treatment for my stomach bug in a few days we arranged a start date early in December. I was back in work!
The band onstage, December
December brought another couple of gigs with the band. The first was at the regular Blues Night at a local pub where, having prepared for three songs, we were told that one of the other bands hadn't turned up and asked to play later for longer. Some beer mat scribblings produced an augmented set list and the eight of us crammed onto the tiny 'stage' where we soon had everybody dancing. Next up was a Christmas party at a social club where we not only filled the dance floor but had to come up with a 'real' encore after going through our three prepared ones. It feels great to have reached the point where we are appreciating each others' flashes of genius more than worrying about our individual mistakes - the flaws are still there but they're mostly overshadowed by the righteous groove we lay down. Mostly.
For the first week at my new job I was going in to the office every day and the universe stepped in to make it easy for me - my neighbour said he would be happy for me to use his car to drive in. I found a easy route and adjusted my working day to avoid the notorious Bristol rush hour (another benefit of my very flexible employer) but things took an unexpected turn on my Friday drive home. The battery light had come on but, based on my (long ago) previous experience, I thought there would be enough charge to get me safely back to Bradford. This turned out not to be the case and on a busy, downhill stretch of road a bunch of other warning lights came on, the radio cut out and the lights began to fade. Not knowing where the hazard lights turned on and with no interior light to find them I slowed down and luckily found a layby to turn in to.
So here I was, in a broken car, by the side of a busy road with no pavement, miles from the nearest town or telephone, with no recovery service membership. Luckily the Modern World came to the rescue and after using my mobile to call my neighbour he called his regular garage who called their usual pickup service who rang me to find out exactly where I was. Within an hour I was back home, the car was at the garage and everything was sorted. Sometimes it's amazing how well the world works.
My new job was turning out to be quite a challenge. Not from my workmates, who were friendly & very relaxed about how I got started, but from my own inner demons. I'd been given my work laptop and had downloaded the source code for the app, from there I was told to get to know it and ask if I had any questions. Like most decent sized software projects it was a daunting mass of files on first glance and even after a week I was lost in the detail and starting to worry that maybe I had reached my limit and that I couldn't do this sort of thing anymore. I suggested that I should start out by [doing a technical thing] which was readily accepted but as I started to tinker with the code it just seemed to produce more and more errors & warnings. Finally, almost in desperation, I started writing some completely new blocks of code and suddenly it all started coming together, I began to get an overview of what was going on and a sense that yes, this was something I could not only do but do well. As I prepare to return to work in the new year it's with a reasonable sense of confidence and the idea that this could be a company I'll remain with for a good while.
Synthesizer setup, December
The combination of watching the Node gig and conversations with Professor Dave had obviously kicked something into life within me and as Christmas approached I bought myself some presents - three Korg Volca synthesizers, a small MIDI keyboard and some bits & pieces to wire them all together. The Volcas are small, ludicrously cheap (less than £100 each) units that (mostly) operate like the analogue machines I used to play with in my 20's. With the three I'd bought I had a sample player/drum machine, bass line sequencer and full-on synth module, the keyboard was more forgiving of my seriously limited playing abilities than the 'ribbon' keys on the units and the mini mixer and audio interface let me record my creations onto the computer. For what was (at a stretch) impulse buy prices I had the sort of set up I would have dreamed of back in my misspent youth.
Knowing how I can all too easily put creative tools away through fear of failure I set myself some tasks for the new toys, early resolutions if you like. Rather than labour over polishing a piece until it was perfect I would regularly sit down, compose something, record it, make it publicly available and then delete the settings so that I wouldn't be tempted to go back and refine it. If I wanted to revisit a piece I would have to recreate it from scratch, encouraging me to get to know the instruments well and to develop my playing rather than editing skills. So far this is paying off very well, I'm having lots of fun and finding that once I get started the ideas (mostly) start to flow. Not only that but I'm pleased with what I've produced, warts & all. The results can be found on my Volca tunes page.
Life in Bradford on Avon continues to delight & surprise me - this year I've seen the town bridge closed for the Shrove Tuesday pancake race, a shop mannequin dressed as an astronaut on a balcony, someone walking down the main road with a bird of prey on his arm, a unicyclist hurtling down the street, psychedelic patterns projected onto the bridge and all sorts of performers in the little municipal gardens. Once again the swans have nested under the bridge and while strolling by the canal I found myself joining an impromptu gang to refloat a grounded barge. The blackberry bushes around the common produced another bumper harvest and somehow I ended up with a coffee subscription from my local roasters. My little town seems delicately balanced between practical & whimsical which suits me just fine.
Towards the end of the year I received my renewal notice for Grapevine, the UK Circle Dance magazine which I've subscribed to for probably thirty years (and edited at one point). It brought to light the fact that I've not really done any dancing this year and little enough in recent times. In the end I decided not to renew and to think about whether I should consider myself a dancer, let alone a dance teacher, anymore. I have two workshops scheduled for 2016 but I'm starting to think that they will be my last, strange to think of this aspect of my life coming to a close.
The end of the year finds me at home, mostly alone. After a year of doing nothing (at least as regards paid work) I can appreciate the respite from external demands and it's nice to feel my own motivations making themselves felt, especially in creative endeavours. Once again the universe has blessed me with more than enough resources to live comfortably (regardless of how things appear to be going) and with a steady stream of new & renewed circumstances to keep me interested. 2016 has the makings of an interesting year, it will be fascinating to see what actually pops up.