A look back at 2021
As 2020 gave way to 2021 it was hard to predict what the new year might bring. After seeing the world turned upside down during the pandemic there was some hope that we might be finding our way to a new 'normal' but caution & uncertainty remained the watchword. Early January brought 'Tier 5' lockdown but at this point the changes in restrictions & allowances were having very little effect on me - I'd been working from home for most of the year, shopping either online or in masked trips to the local Sainsburys, socialising via phone or internet, and travelling no further than a few miles from town, on foot or on the bike, and almost inevitably on my own. The regulations might change but my lifestyle barely noticed.
The start of the year brought a flurry of medical appointments. My biannual diabetes review was positive with a small improvement in my blood sugar readings bringing me even lower into the 'pre-diabetes' range. At the follow-up in July this trend continued, leaving my levels (just about) in the 'normal' bracket. If they stay that way for the next test it's possible I may be taken off the medication altogether! Although health issues seem to be very much a quirk of fate as you get older I do feel rather proud of myself for responding to the diabetes diagnosis with a real change in my way of life - losing weight, increasing my regular exercise, and generally paying more attention to upkeep & maintenance of my corporal shell. A friend pointed out that I'd lost over 20% of my body mass during this process which put it in rather shocking perspective, it's not so much that my body looks different but that it feels different, which can be a rather odd experience.
The next clinical process was an eye test, followed by my regular diabetic eye screening examination. Both gave similar results - my right eye is in good condition but the left has deteriorated to the point where it's giving virtually no useful vision. By now I've adapted to this, learning to cope with the loss of close-quarters perspective and peripheral vision on my left side, to the point where I habitually make extra checks on what I think I've seen before acting. A slightly worrying aspect is finding my left eye starting to 'wander' (presumably as there's not enough vision for my brain to coordinate it with the other one) which is a bit disconcerting to observe in the mirror.
During a cold spell in February my toes & fingers seemed to feel it more than usual and I was startled to find that they were turning blue in response. I used my NHS app to report this and was quickly scheduled for a Doppler Test which sounded promisingly high-tech but which turned out to be blood pressure readings taken on my wrists & ankles. The conclusion was that I didn't have any major circulatory problems (Yay!) but I was suffering from Reynaud's Phenomenon, a reduction in blood flow to the extremities. The treatment was simple & straightforward - wear warmer socks & gloves.
Things had not improved at work where I was increasingly finding myself with little to do and not getting any real response when I passed this complaint up the chain of command. With retirement being available at the end of 2022 I'd been assuming that each of my recent jobs would be my last and that I'd be able to put up with almost anything to get me over the line but apparently there's a deep part of my being that can't cope with enforced idleness (even when being very well paid to do so). Reluctantly I updated my CV and began responding to emails from agents & recruiters.
As March rolled around I found myself approaching Spring Cleaning with fundamentalist zeal, looking to clear out & renew household goods along with the general scouring. The first big change came with a new mattress which arrived with an element of future shock - instead of the huge, unwieldy package I was expecting it came in a much smaller (but still rather heavy) box. Inside was a rolled foam mattress that I snipped free of its plastic sheath and then watched as it uncoiled and inflated under its own volition. Fascinating but strangely spooky too.
Some of the other household upgrades seemed minor but had a disproportionate impact, possibly due the time I was spending indoors at home. A Sodastream fizzy drinks machine freed me from lugging heavy spa water bottles home from the supermarket and let me set just the amount of carbonation I preferred (the water itself remained simple tap). A magnetic knife rack opened up more accessible worktop space as I found myself doing more cooking. On impulse I bought a new cutlery set which was surprisingly satisfying to use and enabled me to donate my (over 30-year-) old set to a relative with an even older collection. And an irresistible new linen bed set led to two old ones making their way to the charity shop. While not surrendering to wanton consumerism I have enjoyed this sense of continual, gradual improvement in my day-to-day living.
My musical equipment also fell under a critical gaze. An underused synthesizer and my old multisequencer were sold through eBay but my collection of small Volca synths posed more of a dilemma. These were the devices that had encouraged me back into solo music creation, they might have brought in something from being sold but I was determined to pass that opportunity on to another potential musician if I could. Were they still considered usable instruments? I posed the question on social media and an old friend responded saying he'd love to have one or two of them, so I offered him all four. It was warmly satisfying to hand the quartet on - and even more so when I saw him performing with them!
In my idle reading I'd discovered that we were living in the Golden Age of board games and with the prospect of Covid restrictions looking to carry on well into the future I decide to investigate solo playing options. The one that caught my eye was Spirit Island, a cooperative game where the players become elemental spirits resisting colonising invaders, a neat twist on the more common 'explore & exploit' scenarios. With a selection of 'gods' to choose between it promised extensive replayability and although quite challenging at first I soon began to relish the challenges. With the days opening out the box has been consigned to the attic but I expect to return to it in the long winter evenings.
One day in April I glanced out of the window and was (to say the least) surprised to
see a large rat casually waddling across my decking before climbing the wall and shuffling
into my neighbour's garden. When it reappeared the next day it was clear that something
needed to be done and I phoned the council to arrange for a visit from the
pest control officer. A week later he arrived and quickly diagnosed the problem - the
local birds were spilling lots of seed from one of the feeders and a water rat was taking
advantage of the free handout. I removed the feeder and never saw my rodent visitor again.
With the weather improving I returned to my trusty bike for regular exercise. I'd increased my daily ride (to over 30km) but this translated to a dozen laps of my usual route which was becoming a bit tedious. Exploring the country lanes on the other side of the town I found a longer circuit which provided a nice mix of hilly & flat with even less traffic - although the occasional farm vehicle could pose a substantial hazard. The only (other) downside was that it took me further from home and unexpected showers (which always seemed to come at the most distant point) sometimes left me arriving back soaked to the skin. Which generally wasn't so bad, if it was cold enough to be a problem I'd normally be wearing a jacket anyway and if it was substantial rain I'd probably not have set out.
Quite apart from the health benefits I enjoyed watching (& listening to, & sometimes smelling) the gradual change of the seasons from my vantage point in the saddle. Seeing the crops mature & develop towards harvest, the wildflowers come & go, and birds & little creatures caught out by the (relatively) quiet approach of the bike, not to mention the ever-changing skies. With so many of my peers opting for a life out in the sticks I'd come to consider myself an inveterate townie, it was nice to realise that I also had something of a countryside soul.
My low-key job search had been bringing in a series of possibilities - which was very reassuring for a coder in his mid-60s - and in May I found what felt like a good match when I was offered a role at Lush, the soap & smellies company. The work sounded interesting and the interviews had the right mix of probing (& relevant) questions with a friendly & inviting atmosphere. When they made the offer I accepted it almost immediately and handed in my notice to the old firm.
I'd not expected to have to work my full month's notice period as I had a lot of leave days still due and my workload had remained very low, with this in mind I'd agreed a starting date at Lush that would give me a few weeks off between jobs. So it came as quite a surprise to hear that I'd be expected to serve out the full period and would be paid in lieu for the untaken holiday. I assume this was done 'just in case' as I remained underused for the entire month. I offered to make one final journey to the office to hand back my equipment, ID card, etc. and give a final farewell but this was quite brusquely declined and I ended up carefully packing everything into a sturdy cardboard box and posting it back. It was an odd way to leave a job and I remain somewhat bemused by my time there but I now had a fairly short break before starting at my new employer.
I did come away with an unexpected 'leaving present' from my old employer - a set of Covid antigen (lateral flow) test kits. As an NHS supplier we were enrolled in an early monitoring scheme so twice I week I got into the habit of poking sticks down my throat and up my nose. A taste (or at least gag reflex) of things to come.
Even more unexpectedly I received a 'joining present' from my new company. A large box arrived on my doorstep which contained a selection of Lush goodies wrapped with a label proclaiming "You're a star!". I'd barely ventured into a Lush shop before (although I'd smelled several in passing) so it was a nice surprise to discover that their products were actually really good. Who'd have thought I'd end up a fan of shower scrub & shampoo bars?
My brief interlude between jobs coincided with an easing of travel restrictions so for the first time in the year I was able to venture beyond my parish. First up was a visit to Cardiff to see Linda, a dear friend and my 'Skype buddy' who'd helped keep me sane through the lockdown isolation. We managed a few more meetings in the latter half of the year, both in Cardiff and back here in Bradford on Avon. Other long journeys were scarce - a weekend break to see my mother Vi in Essex and sister Kay in London, a day trip to Salisbury to meet up with old friends, and a few drinking sessions with individual companions in airy & well-ventilated pubs. Most of my socialising remained virtual throughout the year.
And so it was time to start another new job, this one would make five in the last three years! I'd not been through a fully remote 'onboarding' process before and there were clearly still some kinks to iron out - my laptop was sent to the wrong person, then the (temporary) replacement was posted to the wrong address. Eventually we decided to defer the starting date by a few days and then have me begin working with my own laptop before visiting the head office in Poole (Dorset) to pick up my official machine. And so my career as a Lushie began. It was slightly worrying to find that the person who'd interviewed me was working through his notice period - never a good sign - but within a week or so I was finding my feet and getting to grips with the reality of the working environment & practices.
Although I have a long history of swapping jobs - I spent many years as a contract programmer in my 20s & 30s and even 'permanent' IT roles often turn out to be relatively short-term - I've become increasingly nervous about taking on a new position. The little voice that tells me I'm not going to be able to pick up a new system has become increasingly persuasive over the years and the setup at Lush was much more embracing of newer technologies than my previous jobs - I was faced with functional programming, declarative asynchronous protocols, and a new graphical query language, none of which I'd had to deal with in a work context before. However one thing I have learned over my haphazard career is to speak up when I don't know something and my new workmates turned out to be friendly & helpful (mostly) and before long I was finding my way in these exotic new techniques. On top of which the organisational structure really helped me to fit in - Lush has more than its share of quirks & foibles but at heart it's very people-focussed. Without tempting fate this does feel like it could might be my last full-time job, a place where I feel happy & productive. Fingers crossed!
With lockdown easing a few invitations for the band to perform began to drift in, although there were, of course, complications. One of our guitarists was away in the Channel Islands on a long-term work project and after some deliberation we decided that we needed a temporary replacement in order to play at a level we'd be happy with. Unfortunately, due to internal miscommunication, two guitarist were independently invited to join which led to an awkward 'uninviting' of one of them and some unresolved tension within the band. Then it turned out that our drummer would be away for most of the rehearsals so a surrogate was found to allow us to dust off our old arrangements and let the new guitarist get up to speed in a relatively 'live' context. Then the original drummer broke his leg in a motorbike accident (he's in his 70s) so we needed to work out whether we could perform live with the substitute drummer. Then our new guitarist came down with Covid. Then the drummer decided he could play with his injured leg after all. After weeks of adjustment & confusion (and decidedly unrehearsed) we got ready for our first two gigs since our long lockdown hiatus.
The first was at a private party, for friends who we'd played for before. With time & space to set up at our ease, a small but appreciative crowd, and a very familiar set list we rose to the occasion and put on a splendid show. There were a few wobbly moments but the casual atmosphere let us laugh about it, regroup, and get everyone back on the dance floor. Jon, our stand-in guitarist, expertly fitted in with the collective groove and we finished the performance to cheers & demands for an encore. It wasn't perfect but it was definitely rock & roll.
Sadly the second gig didn't build on our initial success. Our bad luck had continued when our original guitarist came home to find that he'd been robbed and had to play with borrowed equipment, not a great start. As the performance continued it became more & more erratic - cues were missed, songs were played too fast or (way) too slow, it was hard to communicate onstage, and generally the sense of band cohesion broke apart. After the gig our singer announced she was leaving the band and, after a day to think it over, I decided to go too.
Perhaps this was another result of my lifestyle reevaluation during the pandemic? It felt like we were continuing with the 'bad habits' that had built up over recent years and part of me was unwilling to continue pushing towards 'fixing' them. A band is a dynamic balance between a group of disparate individuals and the results often reflect the intricacies of those interactions, conscious & unconscious, stated & implied. The group were heading in a direction I was increasingly unhappy with and I didn't think I could (or should?) try to change it. We'd been together for eight years and for the vast majority of the time it had been a delight to make music with such creative & talented bandmates, from moments of polished, smooth professionalism to riding the edge of desperate improvisation. But now it was time to move on. In memoriam here's us playing my favourite song from the repertoire, Chain of fools, in 2017.
November brought a new project for me. When I'd moved out of the marital home after my divorce I'd left our joint slide collection in the attic where it had remained ever since. With the prospect of a long winter at home I contacted Laura (my ex-wife) and she agreed to ship the slides to me in exchange for copies of them in digital format. This was going to be quite a task - there were over 3,000 slides and most of the labelling had fallen off during transit - so after looking through the options I invested in a dedicated slide scanner and began the process.
Around a week later I'd worked my way through them all. Several had suffered through the ravages of time and many illustrated that my pride in my photographic skills was perhaps somewhat overstated but despite all this they brought back a host of memories from my adventures in the late 20th century. One set in particular was evocative enough to make me write about my journey to Macedonia in 1987.
Through the year I'd been getting my assorted injections - Covid vaccinations in February, May, & November and my flu jab in October. These were all carried out in a regional centre that was only five or six miles away but frustratingly awkward to get to via public transport. For three of the trips I used my local taxi company who provided a 'take you there, wait, and bring you back' service for a flat fee but on the last date they had no available driver, an indication of how deeply the pandemic was affecting day to day life. In the end I managed to get there & back via a dogleg train route.
Sad news came in October with the death of my neighbour Maggie. She was one of the original residents of the redevelopment and had established herself as the heart of our little community, regularly seated in the courtyard where she would invite us to join her for a drink & a chat. We'd normally see in the New Year at her flat where we would eat, drink, & be merry into the small hours, often with Maggie herself performing on the piano. A dear friend, she will be sorely missed.
The lockdown had interrupted my family's regular get-togethers but as November came to a close we reinstated the tradition of celebrating my mother at Vi's Birthday Bash.
In recent years I've resisted the urge to regularly upgrade my technology. Computers, phones & tablets remain usable for far longer than they used to and there are rarely compelling reasons to update them before the battery starts to die (and a battery replacement will often keep them going for even longer). Last year I made an exception when I bought a new iPhone 12 Mini as I liked the smaller size and this year I persuaded myself to invest in a new laptop. My justification was needing to support the new Apple Silicon processors (I still maintain a handful of apps in the App Store) and wanting the new, high-quality (even for Apple) display. As someone who makes their living with computers I've found that money spent on input (keyboards, trackpads) and output (displays) is never wasted. The new laptop is a delight and my old one is already earmarked for an eager new owner.
My reading apetite has continued unabated and over the year I bought 64 books on Kindle, a 20% increase from 2020. My fascination with post-WW11 German mysteries continued with the Otto Fischer series by Jim McDermott while I enjoyed a selection of fantasy novels by Juliet E McKenna, T. Kingfisher, Robert Jackson Bennett, and Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson. Notable sci-fi stories included The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells and books by Adrian Tchaikovsky and Elizabeth Bear. Not so much non-fiction this year but I did enjoy The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker.
With no cinema visits my video consumption has all been at home, and nearly all of that has been TV series' on disk. I've found myself more willing to give up on series' before the end than I used to be, not sure if this is age-related intolerance or more finely-tuned assessment. Things I've enjoyed include Counterpart, Perry Mason, Elementary, Pennyworth, Deutschland 89, and Rectify.
I've bought a lot less music this year, seems like the general air of inertia has steered me back to appreciating and reevaluating my existing collection. Of the new stuff I've bought around half has been produced by people I know personally which feels strangely pleasing, giving positive feedback (and some small income) to those actually making music. My favourite song of the year was probably Little Busters by the pillows.
And so another year winds down. I find myself happier in my job than I have been for many, many years and the prospect of finding a way to continue on beyond my legal retirement age is sounding tempting again. My health & fitness continue to improve - I had to buy new jeans to match my more slender physique! - and although my failing eye and accumulating aches & pains are a reminder of inevitable ageing I feel increasingly more comfortable in my body. My quirky little apartment continues to be the perfect home (and I've seen a lot of it this year) but I find myself considering some serious redecorating for next year, maybe even (finally) making something of the garden. It's been a barren year for solo music making but I still noodle around with guitar & bass at home and hopefully my (more) stable situation will provide a base for more composition to come. And hopefully I'll find a new band.
It seems rather perverse to be thankful for the pandemic but the continued suspension of 'normal life' has given me a wonderful opportunity to examine, reevaluate, and make major changes to the way that I live. Hopefully 2022 will give me the chance to build on this new foundation in a wider, more socially interactive setting. Here's hoping!
(Click on the pictures for larger versions.)