A look back at 2018
Snowy Bradford on Avon, March
For me 2017 had ended pretty much as it began. The house had clearly come to the end of the snagging process (surely this should be de-snagging?) and was as fitted out as my Spartan lifestyle was ever likely to allow, work was going well, and life in Bradford on Avon was peacefully serene. The diabetes diagnosis had thrown a spanner into my comfortable complacency but I'd knuckled down and adjusted by diet & exercise regimen to the point where all the indicators were returning to normal levels. After the upsets of recent years things seemed to be settling down into stable & predictable patterns and there was no reason to suspect that this would change.
2018 didn't go like that.
As the year started I met up with my UK-based sisters and Vi, my mother, to celebrate my 61st birthday. We've been meeting up for Vi's birthday every year since 2009 and from last year we decided that it would be nice to gather for our own birthdays too. The challenge is to find somewhere that's both interesting and relaxing so for my turn I booked us into Sarastro, a decidedly quirky Turkish restaurant in London's theatre district. Later in the year we'd eat at a delicious vegetarian restaurant for Kay's birthday and a converted sorting office above Kings Cross station for Terri's. Having lived somewhat detached from my family for most of my life (physically and/or socially) I'm really enjoying our more frequent and regular get-togethers.
January also brought the first gig of the year for the Rhythm Coalition, the band I've been playing bass with since 2013. We were performing at the Bradford Roots Festival, an annual event put on by the Wiltshire Music Centre to celebrate local talent (and to raise some funds, nobody got paid). Our previous appearance there a couple of years ago had not gone well - I had mixed up the dates and was away in Morocco so Matt (one of our guitarists) had to switch to bass duties, we were scheduled in a boxy, soulless auditorium, and due to administrative disorganisation our set was cut short with almost no warning. To add insult to injury we'd been promised a slot in the next year's festival to make up for our tribulations but that was somehow mislaid and the programme appeared without us. This year we'd been assured that everything would be worked out properly.
And, to be fair, it was. We'd been placed in a nicely sized room with a decent PA and very capable & efficient sound guy, put on our usual splendid show, and were given Special Dispensation to extend our allotted time to fit in a couple of encores. A very good start to a year that would see many more gigs for the band.
In February I set off on another Exotic Adventure. I'd gone on what I thought would be the holiday of a lifetime back in 2016, taking four weeks to travel through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia, but rather than getting it out of my system it seemed like I'd developed a taste for distant vacations. I've done more than my fair share of travelling over the years but virtually all of that had been 'working holidays' during my time as a dance teacher, the concept of going somewhere just to enjoy it was a very recent development. With so much of the world a dark secret to me I didn't want to return to somewhere I'd been before but I'd really enjoyed Southeast Asia so I looked at countries in the same general area. Myanmar (Burma) was the one that appealed the most - least known to me, least touristy looking, and (reasonably) cheap - so I booked my place and applied for my visa.
The trip was wonderful. Myanmar was a fascinating country and our quick (two weeks) tour took us from open countryside to dense cities, from cool hill station to floating village. The tour company Exodus Travels were excellent, giving a sense of engaging with the locals while keeping everything safe & controlled - I would definitely recommend them and will be travelling with them again in the future.
You can read more about my Myanmar holiday here.
Since my spell of unemployment in 2015 I'd been giving quite a bit of thought to my ongoing financial situation. The mortgage on my home was taking a big chunk of my earnings and was set to continue until I was in my early seventies, meaning that if I decided (or was forced into) giving up work I'd have to find a smaller, cheaper place to live fairly quickly before it consumed my savings. The IT world is quite a youthful one and it had been a long time since I'd worked somewhere where I hadn't been the oldest person in the office - how long could I continue in this business? I still enjoyed working and my periodic assessments confirmed that I was still a valued employee but expecting to remain at this level for the next ten years seemed to be pushing things a little too far. With no dependants to bequeath my estate to I began to look at ways of moving potential wealth from my future back into the present.
After a long series of proposals, discussions and legal consultations I came to an agreement with my sister Kay that has made a huge difference to my current (& future) finances - she has bought half of my house, becoming joint owner, which has freed up enough money for me to pay off the remaining mortgage. Without that monthly drain my accounts are looking much more sustainable - while I'm still in full-time, professional work my saving are building up nicely and should I decide to ease off with fewer hours or a less demanding role I can manage my bills appropriately. There will be a price to pay when I sell the house and only receive half the value but I figure I'll almost certainly be looking to move to somewhere smaller & cosier at that point anyway. The need to stay in work in order to keep my beautiful little home had been a relentless (if mostly background) pressure and its absence is wonderful, life seems much easier and the future less demanding. It's all good. Thanks Kay!
The rejigging of my finances came at just the right moment. In March I went into the company office for a scheduled meeting, expecting to be talking about my (long overdue) annual pay review. Instead I was told that I was being given an official 'warning of possible redundancy' and that although nothing had been decided the likelihood was that I would be laid off in the near future. This came right out of the blue, there hadn't been any hint that the company weren't doing well or that any sort of major change was on the cards and I left the meeting in a state of shock. Apparently I wasn't getting a pay rise either.
Once all was explained it was clear that I was the obvious candidate for redundancy. Ironically part of the reason was that I'd caught right up with the backlog of work in my area (iOS) so there wasn't enough left to justify my job - there's an adage in IT that no app is ever 'finished' but it seems like I managed it! The company were scrupulously correct throughout the redundancy programme so it went on for a couple of months but I was back on the job hunt once again, not a situation I'd expected to return to for quite a while.
Back when I was teaching Circle Dance I was one of the organising team for the Easter Gathering, an annual conference/convention/get-together for teachers & dancers. The event hadn't run for a few years as the national CD hierarchy had gone into existential meltdown but the team had organised a new event off their own backs and I was cordially invited to attend, as an old friend if not an active teacher. It was great to meet up with old friends & colleagues and I was even persuaded to lead a 'Late Night Rom' session, one of my signature dance classes. Despite this it was clear (to me at least) that I couldn't reliably teach or dance at a level I was happy with and that I'd made the right decision to call it a day. I'm sure I'll join the occasional dance line for a good few years to come but my teaching days are well and truly over, which is a little sad but there you go.
May saw the start of an active period for the band with eight gigs over the summer & early autumn. Playing more frequently had really sharpened up our set list and stagecraft, if anything we often found ourselves crisply moving between songs to the point where we needed to add extra numbers mid-gig to fill our allocated time. There's no substitute for regularly playing in front of an audience, not only does it get easier to relax into the groove but there's enough free attention to appreciate what the rest of the band are doing. I feel very lucky to be playing with such great musicians and I'm starting to think that I might actually be in there on merit myself too.
The gigs had their 'interesting' moments: A couple of very wonky PAs, bullying an over-enthusiastic punter off the stage, coping with a broken bass string (and completing two more songs before I had the chance to change it), a lost audience at a private party. At one venue I could hardly hear what I was playing and had to rely on watching what my fingers were doing - no fun at all and a contender for the worst gig I've ever played. We played a couple of times without the full lineup (on one occasion with a stand-in drummer) and although we still put on a good show we collectively decided that we should only call ourselves the Rhythm Coalition when we're all present.
My solo musical project Renmei continued to develop and I released four mini-albums over the course of the year. My 'studio' expanded with the addition of a new synthesizer module and a sequencer/timing hub but by continuing with my policy of only buying secondhand or low-cost items I've kept the expense down to hobbyist levels. Thrifty hobbyists at that. My output has reduced in the past year but I think that's down to putting more thought into my later pieces, I'm still loving creating my own music and pushing my compositional boundaries.
You can read some of my observations about the creative process here.
An unexpected consequence of my synthesizer recording came when I received an email asking if I'd be interested in forming a synth 'tribute band'. This has set my mind off on all sorts of pathways - there's a huge difference between slowly & methodically constructing a piece of music in my home studio and reproducing it live in front of an audience. So far nothing has come of this new project but I have invested in some performance gear (all cheap & secondhand, of course) and am giving the idea some serious thought.
At the end of May I finally left my job and signed up as officially unemployed. This brought me face to face with the new Universal Credit system which turned out to be just as chaotic as the news stories had described. Luckily I had enough in savings to keep me going while my benefit entitlements were being assessed (those same savings helping to reduce my eventual allocation) but it would have been a nightmare if I actually needed money to pay rent, bills, etc. as the process was horribly opaque & unexplained. The people I dealt with were (mostly) friendly & helpful but it was clear that this was a half-thought out system being imposed on them from above.
Searching for a new job followed a similar pattern to my previous experiences - a flurry of interviews early on, quickly dropping to an occasional contact and an increasing number of completely unrelated job opportunities, some of which would be repeated on a weekly basis despite my explaining that I didn't have any of the required skills. Most of the roles came with a coding test and a large proportion of these were being run by third party agencies, reporting back to the actual company. This could be very frustrating when I was eliminated from the list of candidates despite being fairly sure that I could explain my answers if given the chance. After a few weeks I'd seen most of the companies with outstanding vacancies in my area and was still searching.
Taking advantage of my free time I set off North to visit my dear friends Saille (in Cumbria) and Liz (in Newcastle). I've not owned a car for over ten years now so my travelling involved trains, buses, aircraft, the Newcastle Metro & a good deal of footwork between them but despite the logistical complexity everything went very smoothly, the only real problem being caught in an interminable traffic jam on the bus out of Bristol Airport. I even managed a couple of job-related calls during the trip, a reflection on our increasingly interconnected world. There's something very civilised about public transport and I made good use of my Senior Railcard throughout the year, visiting friends & family across the country with only a few unanticipated adventures along the way.
While dealing with solicitors during the house sale with Kay I'd taken the opportunity to update my Will. This was fairly straightforward but it brought up an interesting issue - a friend who regularly stays with me had long expressed her love of the fancy blanket I kept for chilly nights and had (semi-)jokingly demanded that I leave it to her in my Will. When I asked the solicitor about this she pointed out that associating a gift with the death of a friend might not be such a good outcome so I began looking at other opportunities - my friend's next birthday was a Big One and before that it would make a splendid Christmas present. At this point I realised that although I had emotional associations with the blanket stretching back many decades there was a part of me that was ready to release it so I sat down, packaged it up and sent it off as an impromptu and unprompted gift. It was surprisingly liberating to give away such a treasured item (especially when combined with the delight of the recipient) and it set the tone for further donations through the year.
I acquired various new pieces of equipment for a variety of reasons through the summer. My trusty laptop started dramatically swelling which prompted an expensive replacement and a pricy repair (which more than repaid itself when I sold it on eBay), my bass amplifier began to crackle & buzz after twenty years of faithful service so I found myself a great sounding new one that was a quarter the size & weight, and both my iPhone and iPad Mini were succeeded by newer models. The new iPhone had the eye-watering price of over a thousand pounds, more than I ever thought I'd spend on a 'phone', but in reality it is a multi-functional mobile computer that I use all the time and expect to last me for many, many years. With the new iPad I bought a case that includes a physical keyboard and it has become my de-facto travelling laptop, smaller, lighter & sturdier than my increasingly housebound computer.
With new items coming in it's been nice to see my old kit go on to new owners rather than be sacrificed on the altar of consumerism. The old laptop was sold, my old phone went to my mother, the iPad to a friend, and the bass amp and a spare computer monitor were given away via a local community service. I've generally gone for good quality gear in the past and it's nice to see it continuing to be used even though I've finished with it.
It's been a year of gradual improvements around the house, nothing particularly dramatic but in combination they've made the place much cosier and somehow more of a home. The most visible have been new sets of actual linen bedlinen (with a new duvet to go with them) and Mr Fox towels (replacing my usual plain ones) but a small new cutlery drainer has opened up the kitchen and new placemats & napkins (replacing truly ancient ones) have brought new life to the dining room. I've found new artwork for the walls including a Michael Leunig print signed with "For Andy in Curly Flat" which fills me with delight. I've generally been more of a tenant than a homemaker in the past (regardless of my legal status) and it's nice to discover that I'm a reasonably competent nest featherer.
After two months of searches, applications & interviews I found myself with two job offers coming at the same time. I was tempted by the first one - short journey & the possibility of some home working, unusual sounding work - but the company kept changing their mind about the exact role which didn't bode well for its long-term stability. Instead I plumped for a position in Bristol, it was a longer commute but the work sounded interesting (with an emphasis on music & audio which could be fun) and the interview process was much more personal and (to my mind) grounded in realistic working situations. I got on well with the interviewer who would become my new boss - it was a very small company and once again I'd be employee #5 - and without (much) hesitation I signed the contract and prepared to return to life as a commuter. The new role had some team leading responsibilities which I'd not had to deal with much before but came with a nice increase from my previous salary - that was almost immediately wiped out by the price of my rail ticket. No Senior Railcard discount for a season ticket, you're either a commuter or a senior but it appears you can't be both.
Before I began work my starting date was pushed back, firstly to align with the calendar month (which made the payroll simpler) and then when my new boss broke his arm in a bike accident. But eventually I found myself back in the office world with another new set of systems to learn and workmates to meet.
In September I was back at the local health centre for my six-monthly diabetes review. The results came as a very pleasant surprise - my blood sugar level had dropped, not just out of the 'diabetic' band but all the way down to 'normal'! I wasn't cured as such - I was still on two types of daily medication - but the changes I'd made to my diet and general lifestyle had made a huge difference and my body was returning to a much healthier state. Looks like I can still make big changes in my life when I'm suitably motivated.
In other areas my age was starting to make itself felt. I woke up one morning with a painfully aching knee that I assumed was the result of twisting it while I slept, for the following few weeks I hobbled around tenderly and although the doctor assured me (over the phone) that it wasn't anything serious it was over a month before I was moving reasonably easily. Even now I feel the occasional twinge and remain slightly hesitant about committing my full weight to that leg. My left (thankfully non-dominant) eye has developed a strange visual distorsion, often manifesting as a sense of someone coming alongside to pass me, and after a long investigation by my optician I'll be off to the Royal United Hospital in Bath for further tests in the new year. I'm still fairly spry (especially with the weight loss) but there's no denying the fact that bits of me are wearing out and my body needs more care as the years pile up.
Another area of concern has been social media & my online interactions. Although never a devout member of virtual communities (I have a Facebook account but no Twitter, WhatsApp or Instagram presence) I've read several articles about the behavioural changes that these always-connected system can encourage and have recognised them in the habits that I've started to develop - notably persistently checking for updates and a shortening of my attention span. Addictive behaviour in fact. As a countermeasure I've deleted these apps from my mobile devices and only check my social streams (including email) when I'm back at my home office. In addition I've virtually stopped listening to podcasts and other information-intensive sources, spending my commuting time either reading or listening to music. Or just watching the world. As modern life continues to grow faster and more demanding of our attention I'm finding my strategies to maintain a tranquil inner centre are becoming more valuable, even necessary for an enjoyable life. 21st century existence is filled with amazing miracles but, as always, we need to find our own particular balance within it.
In late November my immediate family met up again for Vi's birthday tea. This year we indulged in a Midsummer Night's Dream-themed meal at a restaurant on the site of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre on the South Bank, very yummy.
I'd been so focussed on establishing myself in my new job that when my boss asked to 'have a word' I had a bit of a panic moment. After the last such meeting I'd found myself on the way to unemployment and although I thought I was doing well all the familiar self-doubts began to surface again. But all was well - in fact I'd completed my three-month probationary period and the question was more on how I was finding it rather than any criticisms of my performance. Phew! If anything I was enjoying my new job more than I'd anticipated, the work was engaging, the (single) office was friendly and my coworkers skilled & professional, and not only was the commute no problem but I was starting to make the most of being in Bristol and city life in general. My team leading duties were extended when I was put in charge of a new employee straight out of college (more or less) and I seem to be successfully guiding his early steps into the world of Software Engineering from both his and my boss' perspective. My new role feels like a very good fit for my skills and I look forward to many years of working here (fingers crossed).
The company year came to an excellent conclusion with a Christmas dinner (a rather nice curry) followed by an 'escape room' experience, something I'd never come across before. The six of us were led into a small room about the size of a garden shed, given some backstory about a samurai warrior who'd fallen under a curse that we were tasked to undo, then left to our own devices to find our way out. A series of logic & strategy puzzles needed to be solved to escape, some of which opened previously hidden doorways into further rooms with more clues & puzzles. It sounded contrived but turned out to be lots of fun, an excellent mix of analytical & deductive thinking and collaborative working.
The band had been offered an interesting gig for the end of November - performing at the Bradford on Avon ceremony of turning on the Christmas lights. We wouldn't be paid much but it would be fun to round the year off with something festive and we quickly set about deciding on a Christmas song or two that we could play. Sadly we were scratched from the programme well before the date came around, a victim of council budgetary restrictions (or something like that). To make up for it we opened up our final rehearsal session of the year to friends & family, served up some snacks & drinks, and put on a relaxed, low-key show to celebrate both the season and our most successful year to date. Once again we filled the dance floor and even managed to play our festive tunes, although sadly without Santa hats which we failed to organise in time.
My Christmas plans were thrown into disarray at the last minute when I found that Paddington station would be closed for most of the holiday period and the alternative route, which I'd need to traverse on the evening of Christmas Eve, would take quite a bit longer and wouldn't have much leeway for transport mishaps on the way. I decided to stay at home and go visit Vi in the New Year which turned out to be the wise choice - my sister Marina arrived from Australia that evening and spent many hours getting out of Heathrow Airport and then coping with the transport chaos that ensued. A quiet, reflective holiday period was actually rather nice and I maintained my social connections via Skype, phone, email,text, Facebook and chatting with neighbours. And I cooked my first ever roast dinner with no help or assistance - the old dog can still manage some new tricks!
And so 2018 rolls towards a conclusion. From the outside my life looks much the same as before but there have been big changes in the last twelve months and I feel that I have established a much more secure & sustainable base to build upon. The new job feels like a very good fit and although I still get a lot of job satisfaction from actual programming the move to include more mentoring & (gasp!) management is bringing more of my people skills into action. And an increasing attention to my home environment is making it a much more, er, homely place to live in. I have some concerns about becoming more socially isolated as the commuting lifestyle eats into my weekdays but as I settle into these new routines I'm sure I'll find new ways to connect with people - maybe in Bristol as much as Bradford. With another adventurous holiday planned (this time to South-West China) I have new vistas to explore and with luck I'll finally get around to doing something creative with my long-neglected garden. It's been an eventful ride but I'm already looking forward to the next stage.