A look back at 2023
View from Penarth, Wales, December
As the calendar moved on to 2023 it felt like I'd reached a surprising level of stability in my day to day life. The house had become a comfortable nest with minor upgrades & rearrangements replacing the repairs & reorganisations of previous years (although the garden remained sadly neglected). My health was gradually improving, notably in my diabetes blood levels, although there were some areas where age was continuing to take its toll. Work was going well and my recent pay rise was filling the coffers nicely. Now that I'd passed the state retirement age there would be questions about what I wanted from my work/life balance but any decisions remained in my court, on top of which my three-month notice period precluded any abrupt changes. The stage was being set for major lifestyle changes but any deadlines remained way, way out in the future.
January brought my annual diabetes review which was generally positive, all of my test results were gently moving towards the better end of their ranges. This came as something of a relief as last year's readings had started to slip back after several years of progressive improvement. I continue to feel (relatively) fit and my waist size is (very gradually) shrinking but my weight has been creeping up over the past couple of years and it may be that I'll need to add more exercise to my daily regimen. I didn't make it out on the bike so much this year (I'm very much a fair weather cyclist) and although the rowing machine is a tolerable substitute it may not be enough on its own.
My technological devices seem to last much longer nowadays (in contrast to the predictions of planned obsolescence) and I find myself becoming much more selective about which 'new features' are actually worth spending money on. My iPad Mini is something I use every day - for Kindle books, video calls, and as a general travelling device - and this year I upgraded for a larger & better screen, smaller size, and improved battery, cameras, etc. The transfer process went effortlessly smoothly and I'm delighted with my new tablet. The old one, as has become standard practice, was gifted to a friend where it continues to get the job done.
One device that did come to the end of its useful life was my old Apple Thunderbolt display, a 27" computer monitor with integrated camera, speakers, and hub for various connectors. Too old to be repaired it's now destined for recycling once I can haul it to my local Apple Store. My work have supplied a smaller, simpler replacement but a few weeks of coping with just my laptop display has me thinking that I'll be fine with that once I retire.
I've had a strange fascination with bedlinen in my latter years, not just for comfy material but for its visual impact. At the start of the year I snapped up a set of the Fired Earth designs (in the sales, of course) and as the months passed I gradually added to my collection while releasing older linens to the local charity shops. The patterns are based on traditional designs and provide some (understated) colour in my otherwise quite spartan bedroom.
My musical creativity had fallen away over the second half of 2022 so I forced myself to sit down and write something, a tactic that has been surprisingly effective in the past. This proved more challenging than usual as my most recent instrument acquisition - an Aodyo Anyma Phi - used a very different synthesis method and I struggled to learn how to use it. However I persevered and in March released Corpus, an album produced entirely on the new machine. I managed to sustain my creative output over the summer although not with the Anyma Phi, I returned to my old Argon 8 to produce Crafted and Beneath.
Up to now I'd been releasing my music on Bandcamp where tracks could be bought or listened to but it was becoming apparent that buying individual songs or albums was something that fewer & fewer people were doing nowadays, expecting instead to sign up for a streaming service (usually Spotify) and find everything they wanted there. Word on the street was that income from Spotify was scandalously negligible for most musicians but I wasn't really earning much from my albums as it was so I signed up to DistroKid, paid my subscription, and saw my work popping up on Spotify, Apple Music, and a whole bunch of other services that I was too square to have even heard of. Needless to say I have received no income from this (and I don't really expect to) but it's become much easier to pass on links to my music to younger folk.
Packaging my music for streaming services made me realise that I'd been putting out solo synthesizer albums for over five years and prompted me to write up a summary of my process with the Renmei Project.
Although there's been a steady stream of new musical instruments over the past few years this has been matched (and often exceeded) by gear being released, leaving me with (in my eyes) a more select & focussed musical setup. This year I was tempted to upgrade my Arturia Microfreak to the improved & expanded Minifreak but after much consideration decided to sell it and forego adding a replacement. For now. I gave away a Kickstarter synth that I'd bought a couple of years ago and hadn't really gotten on with and I'm pondering whether to sell the Anyma Phi. New synthesizers usually stimulate my musical creativity but I feel that spending more time on my remaining instruments would give me the opportunity to unlock more of their (& my) potential.
Sadly my bass playing has diminuendoed to almost nothing since leaving the Rhythm Coalition a couple of years ago. I've been to a few gigs & blues nights at local venues but I've neither been able to find a new band or been recruited by an existing one - elderly bassists are not a scarce resource in my area. I miss playing live (& rehearsing - really!) and have resolved to find like minded musos in 2024, even if it's just to join in at open mic sessions. Not gigging has brought up the question of whether I still need two stage rigs (& the associated clobber) but divesting even part of my performance setup feels a bit too close to giving up on my dreams. Old man blues.
April brought scaffolding & ladders to our little cluster of dwellings as long-overdue repair work & repainting was carried out. For me this meant fixing the leaky velux windows, filling some flaking (Grade 2 listed) window frames, and getting all of the exterior woodwork repainted. We also had major improvements made to the guttering, repainting of several walls in the common areas, and a bright (but tasteful) yellow front door. The final effect was quite startling, a realisation that the development had become a bit shabby over the years as it now presented a much brighter face to the world. And to the residents.
The repairs, both to my skylight windows and the previously inadequate guttering, means that I can now look to get the water damage to my plasterwork fixed and think about (finally) redecorating. In the hectic atmosphere of buying an off-plan house I'd made the safe decision of 'magnolia' walls throughout and although this still makes sense in my open plan downstairs with its few windows I'm thinking that a bit more colour & variety might be nice in the very well-lit upstairs. I've been promising this for a while now so we'll see what ensues.
The rains of April brought some flooding to Bradford on Avon but luckily nothing that threatened my house. The South bank of the Avon (where I live) is appreciably higher than the opposite one and it's rare for water levels to rise high enough to impact this side. Having the river burst its banks has become almost routine but it remains an inconvenience rather than a serious hazard. For now...
In previous years most of my annual medical appointments came in January but for some reason my eye tests, both for vision & diabetes monitoring, have drifted into April. This year's results were broadly similar to before - my right eye is fine while my left is essentially non-functional - but I'd been starting to worry that my dud eye was starting to 'wander', no problem for me but a bit disconcerting for people I'm facing. Returning to my optician for a second opinion I was told that there was nothing that could be done but then the next morning she rang to say she'd been worrying about her diagnosis (which was initially very scary!) and that because I only had one functioning eye she would refer me for further investigation by specialists at the hospital. The follow-up has confirmed that my eye will almost certainly never recover but there could be options for more cosmetic treatments, from an eye-patch or contact lens through to minor surgery to align my eyeball forwards. Friends have assured me that the wandering eye is not (yet) apparent but it seems like there will be solutions if it drifts too far.
In May we had the second annual Green Man Festival in Bradford on Avon. This saw a wide variety of traditional dance groups performing at several stages around the town, well supported by vendors of drinks, food, and other bits & bobs. The format was similar to the previous year, a group would perform three or four dances and then move to one of the other venues, giving a nice variety of performances whether you chose to stay at one place or move around the town. The music was mostly performed live which helped limit the overspill between venues, most of which were only a few minutes walk apart. The dancing was predominantly Morris (ranging from very traditional to whimsical to full-on Tribal / Gothic) but also included Clog Dancing (several styles), Bavarian / Central European, Regency, and a Bulgarian group. There was also a family-friendly parade featuring a Green Man, St George & the Dragon, Queen of the May, and the assembled dance bands. It was a wonderful way to pass a late Spring day and even included some audience participation - I dusted off my old folk dance skills and managed to creditably join in a couple of the Bulgarian dances!
Spring saw another perk of ageing - my free bus pass. So far it's not seen much use as we have good train connections (where I can use my Senior rail discount) and not so many bus routes but it provides a useful fallback for local travel.
Before the pandemic my mother, sisters & I would meet up for birthday meals at fancy or funky restaurants, usually in central London which was easy for us all to get to. This family tradition began as a way to support Vi (my mother) after my father died and had grown from just her birthday to include the siblings' days too. Covid had put a dampener on these gatherings but this year Kay invited us to join her at the suitably offbeat Brother Marcus restaurant in Spitalfields Market, just outside the City (of London). I'd been visiting Vi so we travelled up together and browsed the indoor market before sitting down to a splendid lunch.
Another of my activities that had been stifled by the pandemic was taking holidays. Last year I'd managed a short break with my dear friend Linda and we decided to take another one this year, a seaside getaway to Weymouth on the Dorset coast.
In July my work arranged a week-long get-together for the Digital (IT) department at the company's headquarters in Dorset. Most of us worked from home so this was a rare opportunity to meet up IRL (as the kids say) with colleagues that had otherwise only existed as video portraits & text messages. It was a really fun & enjoyable week, not much actual work was done but having this loose, social connection really improved subsequent communications & interactions, especially with people outside our immediate team members. An unexpected surprise was seeing people's heights - something that gets lost in video conferencing.
Sadly things had not been going well in day to day working. At the start of the year the department had gone through a fairly major reorganisation with widespread changes to management roles & team structure. I'd been through this sort of thing many times before during my working life and normally it had little effect on me, as a techie I have a fairly specific set of skills and from my perspective the purpose of the organisation is to provide me with a steady stream of tasks to work on. However this time there was an almost immediate change - my workload progressively shrank and the tasks were much more vaguely defined, never a good thing in IT. On top of which the new organisational structure was so loosely defined that it was harder than ever to find someone who had the knowledge and/or authority to answer questions or make decisions. Being paid to do less work sounds like a lowly worker's dream but in practice it quickly becomes dispiriting & demoralising. The slump in morale and regular circulation of farewell cards suggested that I wasn't the only person feeling that things were on a downward trend.
I'd talked with my company about working part-time but this had been in a very theoretical, "At some point..." sense with no specific start date in mind. With job satisfaction reaching new lows I decided to take the plunge - fears around paying the bills after losing a large part of my income were viscerally real (and have been for most of my life) but it was clear (even to me) that I couldn't prevaricate about this forever. On top of which the HR people had said that I could go back to full-time work after a trial period if it didn't suit me. So I filled out the paperwork and chose a start date in September that would allow my full-time salary to be used in the summer bonus calculations. Needless to say there was no bonus.
Events later in the year meant that I've not had a real chance to evaluate the impact of working three days per week on my work/life balance but initial impressions are good. The extended weekends have made it easier to put work aside until I return to 'the office' and it's starting to feel like I have a solid chunk of time for myself with breaks for work, rather than the other way around. It's helped that the team are fine with me changing the actual days I work from week to week, with some nice give & take on both sides. I'm hoping that my hobbies & interests will expand into the new free time, we'll see how things develop.
September brought a novel experience - a restaurant where the menu is not presented until after the meal has been eaten. My dear friend Shay & I meet up on a semi-regular basis to try out some of Bath's more interesting eateries and we'd finally managed to make a reservation at the very exclusive Menu Gordon Jones. Inside the small, cosy restaurant the only questions were whether we wanted the seven or nine course meal (we went for the more restrained seven) and what drinks we would like (there was a 'different drink with each course' option that we also passed on). Each course was announced as it arrived so they didn't come as complete surprises and the portions were small which definitely helped get through it all.
The meal was one of the best I've ever had, fascinating combinations of flavour & texture prepared to perfection. I ended the evening feeling nicely full without being stuffed, even wondering whether I'd made a mistake in not going for the full nine course option. I can sometimes err on the side of caution with food so it was nice to take a walk on the wild side and be (very) pleasantly surprised.
I (and friends & family) had been visiting Vi more often through the year and it was apparent she was becoming increasingly frail at quite a dramatic rate. In May she'd happily taken the train home from London on her own but by early Autumn I was pushing her around in the small collapsible wheelchair that sister Terri had thoughtfully provided. At home she seemed content to stay on the sofa with her techno devices (iPhone, iPad, and TV & cable remote controls) to hand and her crochet wool & needles at her feet, watching the ongoing interplay of life in the garden. While her mobility was reduced she remained in touch with a wide circle, happily juggling landline & mobile calls, video calls to family in Australia, text, Messenger, and Facebook posts. I would chat with her around three times per week and she remained the nexus for family news & gossip.
A dramatic change came when Vi fell and broke her arm while at home alone. The break turned out to be a very minor fracture, requiring just a sling to hold her arm across her chest, but without the use of both arms she needed assistance for virtually any movement and getting up & down the stairs was clearly out of the question. Her bed was brought down to the living room, the small downstairs toilet was set up as a washroom (so far as this was possible), and a rota of family & friends was set up so there would always be someone with her in the house. After a couple of days we arranged for carers to visit morning & evening to help with Vi's daily routine. I'd started working part-time at this point which made it much easier to visit for longer stays, often working from her home through the week on my laptop.
While this was going on Vi's memory began to fail quite alarmingly. This mostly manifested in asking for confirmation about her basic living conditions - "Did I have a fall?" and "When did it happen?", right through to "Is this my house?". Her tone was more puzzled than alarmed and if pushed she (almost) always knew the answers without being told, it was more like she'd lost faith in her ability to keep track of what was going on around her. It was still possible to have a regular conversation with Vi and at times she would talk about moving into a care home (her sister had been in one for a while and Vi had visited her there many times) but it was becoming apparent that she'd often not retain what had been said and would cycle back to the same questions again & again.
We'd set up a functioning system for supporting Vi at home but it was clear that this was not sustainable over the long term. After Terri had taken Vi to look at some local care homes she found one that they both liked and we arranged for a four-week respite stay.
Having Vi in full-time professional care relieved the strain at home but added another level of uncertainty for her. I began to get calls throughout the day asking "Where am I?" and "What's happening?", along with worries about whether she had enough clothes with her, where her phone charger was, what was happening about the house, and so on. The repetition was getting worse too, she would repeat questions multiple times in the same conversation and often ring me less than ten minutes after I'd been visiting her or had just hung up on a call. There were still lucid periods when she would calmly state that she didn't think she'd be able to move back home but these were growing rarer by the day.
All this was taking a huge emotional toll on me. I began to dread hearing the phone ring and having to go over the same few details again & again, being reassuring & loving to this eternal presence in my life who now only appeared to be herself in brief glimpses. We still connected - I remember laughing together when I pointed out that she'd apologised for calling so many times for the tenth time that day - but the lingering feeling was of soothing the symptoms for an incurable affliction.
What made it bearable was having family & friends step up and share the burden, in both direct & supportive ways. This was particularly true with my sisters but extended to the wider family (across the generations), friends & neighbours, and even to my drinking buddies who let me talk my feelings through and provided unexpectedly deep empathy & parallel experiences. I had a sense of everyone doing what they could and assuming that others were doing the same, filling the gaps rather than looking for scapegoats. This was a profoundly positive affirmation of how people can work through challenges together and in some ways feels like the legacy I've received from Vi (& John) - you do what you can because you can.
As the end of the respite stay approached we had to decide what to do next. The care home was doing its job but Vi wasn't really engaging with the staff or other residents, it was clearly a temporary solution to a longer-term issue. There was another care home in the town that we all agreed would be a better fit (the one where Vi's sister was living) but there were problems with availability & funding. Terri was in contact with the local Social Services department but they were clearly working within very constrained resources and couldn't offer much help until Vi's situation was seen as urgent, which wasn't the case while she was in a care home. In the end our only solution seemed to be to move Vi back into her house while making it clear to social services that this was hopelessly unsustainable.
At the last minute things were taken out of our hands. Vi had been developing a persistent cough and the care home doctor said she needed to be taken to hospital for further tests. Once she was there we went through a pattern of getting varying (but generally worrying) reports on her condition, being told she'd be kept in for another night, and asked to call back the next day. A few days later she was formally admitted and we were advised to come in and see her as soon as we could. By strange conincidence (or magical hand of fate) my sister Marina had planned a surprise trip from her home in Australia to visit Vi for her 91st birthday, coming straight from the airport she joined the family group at Vi's bedside. As the test results continued their downward trend it seemed clear that although we'd not yet reached a critical stage she would not be coming home from this and I volunteered to stay with her while domestic arrangements were being made for the rest of the family.
When I'd arrived at the ward Vi had a mask over her nose & mouth (to boost her oxygen levels) and was clearly in some discomfort but by the time the others had left she had a simple air tube under her nose and was much more relaxed. We sat holding hands as the activity in the ward fell away, I spoke a little but it was mostly just assurances that all was well, we exchanged smiles and lightly squeezed fingers as Vi drifted in & out of sleep. When I left to catch the last train it was with a sense of peace and on the journey home I realised that on some level I had said my goodbye.
And so it turned out. A day later Vi passed away in the night.
The days that followed weren't exactly spent in a daze but it did feel like being in a bubble, isolated from the regular flow of time. My company immediately offered me two weeks of compassionate leave which left me free to deal with whatever came up (both practically & emotionally) without needing to fit into a schedule. We agreed on a direct cremation (without a service) and instead had a small gathering at Vi's house where family & friends swapped stories in a muted but warm atmosphere - something I'm sure Vi would have loved. I spent time with Marina & caught up with other relatives, we began the process of winding up Vi's estate and dealing with the associated bureaucracy, and slowly life carried on. I went through periods of grief (& occasional angry rage) but for most of the time it felt like I was living through persistent rain, dreary & dispiriting. But eventually some sunny intervals began to appear.
And through all this life did continue. November brought Covid & flu jabs, although for some reason these had to be taken on different days at health centres in different towns (this did give me another opportunity to use my bus pass). The local council put on a splendid Guy Fawkes firework display where the rain held off just long enough for us to enjoy the pyrotechnics while standing in a muddy field - what could be more traditional? In early December I awoke to find a sharp hole in a tooth at the back of my mouth, the good news was having it swiftly repaired (for free!) at my new dentist, the bad was making an appointment for an expensive crown in the new year. Sigh!
Throughout the year I continued with my habit of taking long walks in the countryside around the town, something I'd started during the pandemic. Although it's not exactly a walking meditation - I'm all too ready to pounce on a moment of beauty with my phone camera - it provides a similar function, a place of calm where the 'stuff' of my life takes a back seat to the serene presence of the world. It's all good.
I've been reading as avidly as ever with 74 titles bought during 2023 and only a handful being too bad to finish. My favourite was probably The seven imperfect rules of Elvira Carr by Frances Maynard which featured a neurodivergent protagonist having to cope with a sudden immersion into the 'normal' world and did so with both humour & empathy, a delightful book. In a similar vein I enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine by Gail Honeyman. I continued exploring Australian crime stories with novels by Jane Harper, Garry Disher and Peter Temple, and enjoyed some retellings of Greek Myths by Madeline Miller, Costanza Casati and Claire Heywood. Other notable authors include T. Kingfisher (for both her fantasy and 'horror' titles), Anne Leckie and Joe Abercrombie.
Once again it's been a thin year for music purchases with just three albums, from Node, Dave Bessell and Esoterica (curiously I know at least one person in each group personally). Singles have been a bit more diverse with artists from the USA, Turkey, Russia, Germany, France, and the UK. I'm still finding that most of my 'new' music comes from old sources (1937 in one case!) and for most of the time I'm content to browse through my collection rather than seeking out new tunes. Interestingly a couple of my purchases were prompted by hearing them in soundtracks for films or TV shows. Track of the year was probably Buena by Morphine.
I've made it to the cinema eight times this year, a considerable increase on 2022, including one viewing in a screen with seating for just twelve people. My favourite by far was Everything everywhere all at once which I loved, although it had much less of an impact when I rewatched it on video. I also enjoyed Oppenheimer and, to a lesser extent, Across the Spider-verse, Barbie, and Killers of the flower moon.
And so from retrospective I turn to looking forwards, to a year that seems certain to be very different from the previous ones. Losing Vi leaves a huge hole in my life that I'm only starting to grapple with and make sense of, a fixed reference point I could always rely on. She was also the central point that held so many of the family's connections together (not just for me) and I worry whether I'll be able to maintain those links or if I'll be losing my family as well as my mother. Work seems impossibly dysfunctional and I wonder whether my dissatisfaction will drive me away before the whole thing collapses in on itself, and whether I'll want to continue programming at all into the future. On a more positive note I've set up much more free time for myself with space for established activities, new hobbies, and more frequent travelling. My finances are well in order, the house is in a (mostly) good state, and I remain reasonably fit & healthy for my age. After a very dark end to the year I find myself surprisingly upbeat about the future, the many unknowns looking like potential opportunities rather than secret pitfalls and the lack of plans presenting a blank space to be scribbled on. Here's to the next steps!
(Click on the pictures for larger versions.)