A look back at 2019
Yuanyang, China. March
2018 had been an eventful twelve months for me but as the New Year rolled around there was an increasing sense of stability in my life. I'd settled in to my new job, reorganised my finances to bring my outgoings under control, managed my diabetes to the point where the symptoms were almost gone, and generally felt that I was, if not in command, at least much more aware of what was going on around me. I was living in a beautiful home, enjoying my work, developing (and presenting) my artistic endeavours, expanding my social life, and watching my bank balance build up. What could possibly go wrong...?
The vision in my left eye had become quite heavily distorted over the past half year and I'd finally been sent to the big hospital in Bath for specialist tests. After what felt like a supercharged visit to the optician (with extra-stingy eye drops, ouch!) the diagnosis came through - I didn't have any known, progressive illnesses and the distortion was unlikely to get any worse. It was possible that the condition would go away on its own but it might not, and there was no treatment for it. Definitely mixed news but I'd gotten used to operating with monocular eyesight and was managing pretty well. The loss of depth perception catches me out from time to time - when pouring I now have to tap the bottle to the glass to make sure they're lined up, on a couple of occasions I've missed the toothbrush with the toothpaste, and very often I need the security of a bannister when descending stairs. Without much peripheral vision on my left side I find myself giving way to other pedestrians that turn out not to be there (if you see what I mean) and full turn of my head is required to check for traffic before crossing roads.
My 'little' sister Marina was visiting from Australia in January and so my birthday lunch included all three sisters along with Vi, my mum. It had been at least ten years since we'd all been together and it was great to have some cheery, family time with my siblings.
Our birthday meetings (we normally gather for lunch for each of the UK-based family members) were a bit less imaginative this year, returning to The Parcel Yard in Kings Cross on every occasion rather than continuing our exploration of some of London's quirkier eateries. In some ways this was driven by necessity, the location is a convenient transport nexus that we can all get to fairly easily, the restaurant is spacious and quiet enough for relaxed conversation, and the menu can cope with our various dietary needs & preferences. It's been good to have the focus on the people rather than the surroundings but I think we should bring back some of the Wow! factor in future.
After two trips to Southeast Asia in recent years I was fascinated with the area as a destination for exotic holidays and after looking for somewhere 'similar but different' I'd plumped on Yunnan province in southern China for my next visit. The visa application processes for my previous trips had been very simple & straightforward, usually requiring either filling in an online form or turning up at the border with a passport photo and a bunch of US dollars, but for China I had to fill out a VERY extensive online application and turn up in person at a building in London to have my documents checked and my fingerprints scanned. And it was expensive too - over £180! When I arrived at the offices they were busy & crowded (there was lots of queuing) but I was seen pretty promptly and after a week my passport dropped through my letterbox with my approved visa in place.
February saw the first in a series of improvements & enhancements to my home. After the seemingly endless process of snagging I'd settled into the house with only a few minor tweaks to the furnishings & decoration but for some reason I found myself prompted into more decisive changes as the year unfolded. This has been quite a dramatic personal transformation for me, in the past I'd usually seen interior design as being more of a chore than a source of satisfaction, something to be dealt with and then forgotten once everything was placed into its optimum position. In some ways this parallels changes in my thinking, moving away from searching for ideal solutions to simply finding ways of making things better than before, even if that improvement is simply down to my personal preference. There's also been a reluctance to replace things that are still functional but after getting very positive responses from charity shops, local 'freecycling' systems, and recipients of gifts I find I can live with this level of consumerism.
My burgeoning DVD/BluRay collection had started to overflow the bookcase I stored them in and so a new, larger one was ordered. This in turn prompted a reorganisation of the living room layout with lots of dragging furniture around, unloading & reloading of shelves, and thorough vacuum cleaning of the newly exposed areas. The view from the repositioned sofa revealed a whole new aspect to the room, maybe I should do this regularly? (In fact it was the first of three reorientations, although the others were less dramatic). The old bookcase was repurposed as a storage organiser in my 'attic' which in turn led to an audit of the stuff in there, with a resulting stream of items destined for recycling in one way or another. I've been accused of leading a Spartan lifestyle but there's always more to be gotten rid of!
March saw me off to Yunnan in China for a two week trip, another 'small group tour' where a local guide leads a group of around a dozen people through a fairly wide-ranging series of destinations. As with my previous trips (through the same company) it was well-organised & comfortable with a lot packed in to a short time and more local colour than just working through the regular tourist traps. As usual I wrote a brief summary of my trip (with lots of pictures) that you can see here. China was fascinating, much more of a glimpse into the future than I was expecting, in ways both good & bad. And although the language gap was wider than I'd ever experienced before - I learnt virtually no Chinese, either spoken or written, and hardly any locals knew any European words - I found other ways to communicate, which was highly reassuring.
In April I had my annual diabetic eye screening. After finding that I might be living with only one functioning eye for the foreseeable future I was rather apprehensive about this but I 'passed' all the tests. My medical diabetes review in July also gave positive results - my blood sugar levels are hovering around the 'at risk' / 'normal' levels - and it seems like my lifestyle changes and (reduced) medication are keeping me in a much healthier state. I've started using the Health app on my iPhone to track my weight and have found it surprisingly useful, the immediacy of seeing an ongoing graph of my progress has made it somehow more real and after seeing progress stall for many months I'm once again heading towards the target weight that I set as an 'impossible dream' when I was first diagnosed.
May saw the first gigs of the year for the band. We played live a dozen times during 2019, a few down on the previous year but still a reasonable enough number to keep us tight & professional. Most were at pubs or parties but one memorable event came when we were contacted at quite short notice to play at Glastonbury! Although it was during the festival it turned out not to be the Pyramid Stage but at a private camp ground beside the main site, a place where punters could rent a pre-rigged tent and stroll over to the festival as they pleased. Security was already in place and we were instructed to meet our contact in a little village from where we would be escorted through the check points to the marquee in which we'd be performing. Driving in convoy we wove through little country lanes where marshalls in dayglo tabards checked & rechecked our passes before cresting a ridge and seeing the huge festival site spread out before us, busy in preparation for the opening in a couple of days. Down we drove, into a field filled with conical bell tents, rows of chemical toilets, a bar tent, and the marquee in which we'd be playing. It was a beautiful summer's afternoon so after unloading we sat down for a leisurely drink.
As we set up & soundchecked there was just one thing missing - an audience. A couple of the tents were occupied but the vast majority remained empty, clearly most people were waiting until the festival itself started before arriving. Still, we'd been paid in advance so when the time rolled around we assembled on stage, introduced ourselves to the guys doing the sound, and started into the set. Every now and again a few people would wander into the tent and tap along to a song before wandering off again and it was hard to fault them for this - with nobody else there it must have looked like a rehearsal or practice run rather than a concert. Having been paid far more than we'd ever received before we dutifully played through two sets (no encore) before thanking the PA guys, packing up and finding our way back out through all the security posts, all of which were still manned. A very bizarre experience.
Playing with the Rhythm Coalition remains a delight. It's great to work with such talented & creative musicians and as we continue to develop our own collective sound it gets easier to explore my own style and find new ways to express myself musically. Being in a band for a long period is a bit like finding a new family, there are definite challenges along the way but the sense of being 'seen' and appreciated by people you respect is enormously fulfilling. And a great incentive to improve!
At the end of May I attended the wedding of my dear friend Nic. We've known each other for over 40 years and I was the best man at his previous marriage. Not so this time around - the role was taken jointly by his son & daughter - but as a simple attendee I was very happy to be there at this new phase of his life. A splendid occasion.
My new job had been going pretty well but a few cracks were beginning to appear. Having signed the contract without reading all the small print I was disappointed to discover that the working week was 40 hours rather than the industry standard of 37.5 (or less) but it wasn't that much of a hardship and I resigned myself to it. A more alarming discovery was finding that the holiday allocation was inclusive of Bank Holidays, meaning eight days less leave than I (or my workmates) had assumed. Once again this was spelled out in the contract but it was the sort of thing that you would normally take for granted and gave the definite impression that the boss was trying to trick us, not a good working atmosphere. Earlier in the year our new Business Manager had been laid off very hurriedly and with a couple of the clients cutting ties and not much new work arriving things were starting to look decidedly uncertain. Without making a big thing of it I started checking the job vacancy websites.
And just as well. A couple of weeks later the whole office were summoned to an impromptu Company Meeting on a Friday afternoon - never a good sign. After a brief announcement that things weren't going well we each had a one to one meeting with the boss at which our individual fates would be revealed. Unsurprisingly mine was redundancy and I was told to archive the contents of my laptop, clear out my desk and leave the office - I wouldn't have to come in for my (one week) notice period so about thirty minutes after hearing about the meeting I was out the door, never to return. Which was a shock!
Luckily in the meantime one of my job applications had come good. A company based just a few doors away from where I had been working hastily arranged an interview in the next week and offered me the job only a few hours after that. After my previous experiences of long waits between jobs this was too good to turn down and I agreed straight away.
I wrote a short piece about this job transition - Careering forward. However this wasn't the last of my work adventures in 2019...
I'd arranged with my dear friend Sibylle to visit her in southern Germany but both of our circumstances had changed just prior to the scheduled date. Despite this we devised a plan to meet up for a few days in the picturesque town of Überlingen from where I wrote up my trip as a series of Postcards from the Bodensee.
During my German trip I realised just how much of a 'personal assistant' my iPhone has become. For several years I've used a moby for communication (text messages, WhatsApp and, er, telephone), photography (and background uploading), wayfinding (maps & satnav), and internet access (train times & general googling) but this year had seen three major additions to its usage. First was the Health app (as mentioned above) for tracking my weight. Next was Uber for quick & convenient urban transport, when I needed to transfer from airport to train station in Switzerland I was able to do so with no issues about language, currency or pick-up points. And finally Apple Pay which has (almost) consigned my wallet to emergency use only, it's as convenient as contactless but with much better security. Travelling in four countries I only had two occasions where it wasn't accepted, both of which were cash-only transactions. I can see the concerns about being so reliant on one device but for me it's great to only have one thing to keep track of.
The summer saw a continuation of home improvements & enhancements. A neighbour had suffered a broken shower and as all the flats had the same (very cheap) unit fitted I decided to replace mine before it failed. The plumber/handyman who did the work (he'd done the same for my neighbour) impressed me with his professionalism and he became a regular visitor, fixing my hot water system a few months later and installing a new set of units in my kitchen not long after that. I'd added to my stylish Mr Fox towelling collection with bath mats and a complimentary coloured guest set. And although they weren't technically 'new' I'd started using my Myanmar lacquerware for day to day service rather than keeping it for Special Occasions. A small change but it tied in with my determination to make everyday life more beautiful. Because I'm worth it.
After a very short break I was back to work at my new job. I started off with high hopes but things started to go downhill very quickly - the project I'd been brought in to work on was already a horrible mess, the programmer I was working with was uncommunicative and very resistant to any suggestions, and the organisational & workflow structure was all over the place. Most of the individuals there were friendly, professional & helpful but for some reason the project itself was a logjam of confusion & conflicting direction. I raised my concerns with my line manager and the head of the department but it seemed as if things were unlikely to change in the short to medium term so I brushed up my CV and kept looking for new job opportunities.
With the codebase already a rats nest and even the smallest change needing huge amounts of work I suggested to one of the managers (who seemed equally aware of how bad things were going) that I could quickly knock up a prototype project to see how a new approach might help. She gave me the (provisional) go-ahead and, freed from the dubious design decisions of the past, I soon had a new version of the app up & running. Within a couple of weeks I'd duplicated all of the functions of the old app, added several more, and had it running faster and much more reliably than the 'official' version. Once word spread around the team everyone wanted a copy and soon I was getting a stream of change requests to which I was quickly responding with new builds. This is how I was used to working - an 'Agile' approach where an app is dynamically developed from within the team - and there was talk of presenting this to the client and moving on with it for the more advanced stages of the development plan. Somehow through sheer determination I would turn this project around and lead it into a bright new future.
And then the funding got pulled and the project was cancelled. With the only other iPhone project being an equally convoluted mess of code and another iOS engineer well established in the company I couldn't see much of a future for me there. After a couple of weeks of searching I found another job and handed in my notice just four weeks after starting. As a final fizzling out my last day came just before a Bank Holiday weekend and even my line manager wasn't around, I departed an almost empty office with my pass & keys left on his desk.
I don't know if it was job upheavals, health issues, or some other reason(s) but my enthusiasm for creative projects and new ventures had definitely waned in 2019. One example was Kickstarter projects, I'd invested in two that came to fruition during the year - an elaborate board game and a quirky new synthesizer - but when they finally arrived I found myself reluctant to try them out and in both cases put them aside after a few exploratory plays. I enjoy the process of supporting new projects and seeing them progress from initial idea to finished product but it seems like right now I'm not ready to enjoy the end results. Which is not unknown for me, there have been occasions where I've bought things but not really used them for months or years afterwards, but it does take some of the delight out of the New Thing That I Helped Create arriving on my doorstep.
This creative hiatus had also blighted my solo music production, after years of regularly creating, recording & releasing synthesizer-based music my output had dried up to nothing over the last twelve months. In an effort to get it flowing again I forced myself to sit down with the instruments and work on whatever came up - it was a bit like being locked in my room until I finished my homework (which has never happened to me). Bizarrely this "Sit down and be creative!" approach actually worked and at the end of September I released the result - the album Witness. It's fascinating for me to observe the fruits of my artistic endeavours (often I get so engrossed with the small details that I miss the bigger picture) and in this latest collection I see myself pushing (my) boundaries around harmony & structure but putting less work into finishing off & polishing. From the download & streaming numbers I'm clearly doing this for my own entertainment and I'm quite OK with that - I regularly listen to my back catalogue and really enjoy it, warts & all.
On the guitar side I've made a few new acquisitions. After getting a new bass amplifier for my stage set-up I've bought a similar model for practice at home (and as a back-up and potential replacement for the main one). I usually practice without amplification (the stage set-up lives at the rehearsal hall) but having a fully featured amp at home has encouraged me to refine my tone and simplify my settings. On my venerable Rickenbacker bass (which I've now owned for over twenty years!) I've added a custom thumb rest which is improving my fingering but demanding that I change the playing habits of a lifetime - old dog, etc. etc. As an indulgence (and why not?) I replaced my old, 60s-style guitar amplifier with a small but surprisingly loud Vox AC10, my first valve amp. I've not played guitar in public since moving back to England ten years ago but it's great fun to make a Big Noise once in a while.
September rain revealed a leak in my roof - suddenly I had water draining down my (angled) bedroom ceiling and running along beams and door frames, eventually finding its way into my storage space and dripping into my laundry basket. After several days of living with bowls & towels strategically placed to contain the deluge the repair men arrived and put all to rights. After a few weeks to let everything dry out (and to ensure that the roof was properly fixed) I was left with cracked plaster in the ceiling and discolouration along several of the walls, nothing too terrible but definitely needing repair.
My house is essentially a new build inside an old shell and I'd been warned that cracks would appear in the plasterwork as it settled and I should allow for filling & repainting after a couple of years. The leak damage has brought this up the priority list but has also raised new possibilities - rather than just get it repaired I could take the opportunity to revisit my earlier decoration choices. Downstairs is more or less all open plan and it makes sense to have a single wall colour but the upper storey has five distinct rooms which could each have their own character. I'm still mulling this over and it does bring up all sorts of fears ("What if I mess it up?", a recurring motif for me) but it could be the next stage in making the house even more mine.
At the end of September I started at my third job of the year. After my previous experiences I was somewhat apprehensive about joining a new, unknown company culture and as I settled in things didn't seem to be appreciably better than before. The main project was huge & labyrinthine, confusingly organised and written in a style that to my (well experienced) eye was old-fashioned and didn't offer any apparent benefits. My immediate boss seemed prickly & uncommunicative (not helped by the fact that he worked from home and so most of our interactions were text-only) and during my first few weeks he provided very little help or explanation but regularly pointed out where I'd done the wrong thing, often in great detail. Joining a large computing project can be challenging at the best of times but this seemed gratuitously confrontational, especially when contrasted with my recent experience of mentoring new team members. The guys in the office (all male, another worrying sign) were friendly but most of the time everyone was wearing headphones & engaged with their computers, the room's silence only broken by keyboard tapping and one-sided video conference conversation. I knew that another short entry on my CV wouldn't look very good but with only a few more years before retirement age I figured this wouldn't be too much of a setback - I'd thought that each of my last three jobs might be my last one - and so once more I started checking the job listings.
In addition to my Kickstarter contributions I've started sponsoring a couple of YouTube channels as a way of supporting what I see as worthwhile contributions to society. The 'everything is free' approach spearheaded by Google does seem to encourage spectacle & virtue signalling over balance & deeper analysis - as the saying goes, if you're not paying for it then you are what's being sold - and putting my money where I see value feels like the best alternative. The two channels are Caspian Report (geopolitical analysis) and Knowing Better (psychology, history, politics, religion, and more).
October brought my flu vaccination reminder. I've never suffered from winter influenza but since my diabetes diagnosis I've been advised to take up the vaccination offers as my weakened immune system could provide a breeding ground to pass the bug on to other, potentially more vulnerable victims. A social obligation I'm happy to perform. This year I was very impressed by the local volunteer groups who helped out at the health centre, resplendent in their bright sashes they gently but purposefully guided the stream of patients through to the busy health workers and away again afterwards. What could have been an inhumane, mass-production process was instead a smooth & friendly community activity with lots of smiles along the way. Before I knew it I was in and out with just two aching upper arms to show for it - a pneumonia jab in one, flu in the other.
My home improvement drive continued into November with a flurry of new items. The biggest one didn't sound like much - new crockery - but I'd owned the old set for more than half of my life, a classic example of finding something that worked and not questioning it at any point afterwards. I'd been looking for new crockery since the end of my marriage but had fallen into the trap of needing the new set to be objectively superior, something that no mere china could ever hope to achieve. After years of finding fault with everything I looked at something had changed in me, some internal permission to have unjustifiable preferences, and suddenly I found myself happily loading up my shopping basket at a well-stocked kitchenware shop. My old crockery had all neatly matched but my new additions walked a delicate line between uniformity and randomness, the plates & bowls came from the same producer but had individual differences from being hand made, the cups & saucers shared the same design but were in different colours, while the other items (mostly small bowls) were vaguely harmonious but clearly from other sources. It seems that my emerging aesthetic is one of emerging cooperative euphony (yes, I had to look the word up) rather than more explicit standardisation, which itself harmonises nicely with my general worldview.
After installing my new chinaware I loaded up the big (& heavy!) pile of old crockery into a wheeled suitcase and dragged it into town to one of the local charity shops. They were delighted!
Another, more overtly decorative, purchase was a felt wall hanging of cascading autumn leaves that I spotted at a 'Christmas' market (in mid-November). My first thought was that it would go nicely on a blank wall above my staircase but when I got it home the light there was too dim to bring out the colours so instead I hung it in my office. This too was a learning experience, a beautiful object may have its own ideas about where it's going to end up.
My efforts at job hunting had come to naught (which was worrying in itself) and I was starting to wonder whether I should just hand in my notice anyway. The thankless & unsatisfying work was starting to grind me down and I had enough in my readily-accessible savings to tide me over for several months (midwinter is a bad time for job hunting). But before it came to that things started to rapidly improve - another programmer was assigned to the team from a different part of the company and we immediately clicked. The project to rewrite the old app, which had seemed like political makework up to now, was moved to high priority and together we started to make real progress on it. Suddenly I had a co-worker who appreciated (and challenged rather than simply dismissing) my ideas and who knew enough about how the company operated to help get things moving along. Even my grumpy boss started responding more positively (some of the time). The prospect of staying at my job was beginning to sound a little more promising.
There was, alas, one more hiccup at work. At my probationary review, three months after starting, I was expecting a routine HR box-ticking exercise, especially as it came on the Friday before the Christmas break. When asked what would improve my working experience I gave an honest and, from my perspective, fairly restrained answer but my line manager seemed to take affront at this and accused me of making unwarranted 'demands' on him. We eventually came to an amicable conclusion but I had the distinct impression that he was being socially polite rather than understanding and that I'd chalked up some sort of black mark against my name. I've always considered myself fairly amicable & easy to get on with in work situations - I speak my mind but rarely aggressively - so to have two managers react badly to me in fairly quick succession raises questions about the reality of my social persona. For now this doesn't seem like a big problem - the rest of my review went pretty well and I think I can cope in a less than amicable work environment - but it does make me consider that this, too, might not be my last job.
And so the year draws to a close. With all of my immediate family out of the country (one sister on her usual midwinter skiing break, another joining my mother visiting the third sister in Australia) it's been a quiet holiday season at home, a good opportunity to reflect back on the past twelve months (and to get this account written up early). The band are having an open rehearsal on the 29th, a low-key performance for friends & family, and my dear friend Linda will be visiting to see me across into the New Year, from then on we're into 2020 and the next chapter.
So what has changed since last year's ending? My health has generally improved but my dodgy eye and a weakening discernment in my hearing are reminders that age is continuing to take its toll. The slow but definite transformation of the house has been especially pleasing, as much for my growing confidence in making changes as in their actual manifestation. My job has some clear drawbacks but I'm feeling increasingly secure in my position there and it's possible that a less engaging career might be a good thing at this stage of my working life - something I can leave behind at the end of the day. I have good friends both near & far and I'm playing bass in a smokin' R&B band. It's all good.