A look back at 2017

Festive lights, Bradford on Avon, December

Vietnamese embroidery

Recording with the Rhythm Coalition, January

Vi back from Australia, Regents Park, April

Artwork by Terri

Rhythm Coalition gig, Bath, May

Dilated pupils after retinal screening, July

Halloween gig, October

Outdoor artwork or synchronised Rovers? York, November

2016 had ended on a very promising note for me. Work had settled into a nice blend of challenging & rewarding; my musical ventures, both solo and with the Rhythm Coalition, were providing lots of creative satisfaction; and my new home had reached the point where I could confidently host Vi (my mother) for the Christmas holidays. I was still flush with the experiences of my Indochinese adventure and although my 2017 calendar was mostly empty I felt sure that events would fill it as the year progressed.

One of the first tasks of the year was a hangover from that South-East Asian holiday. When in Vietnam we'd visited a workshop where victims of chemical weapons could make & sell artworks to provide a livelihood for themselves, one of the embroideries had caught my eye with its rich colours & semi-abstract design and once home I set about having it framed & mounted. Something I've discovered about homemaking is how much of a difference pictures on the walls make and my new addition provides some warm colour and a poignant reminder of rebuilding after tragedy.

The Rhythm Coalition, the band I'd been playing with since 2013, had been picking up a few more gigs of late and in January we decided to spend a day in the recording studio putting together some demo tracks. The ostensible purpose was to have some samples to play to potential venues & bookers but underneath that was the desire to hear just how we sounded - from on stage or at rehearsals it's hard to get an overall impression (not to mention the sharp focus on what you're actually playing) and our live recordings were usually made on a simple voice recorder at the back of the hall. This would be a chance to hear the result of our efforts in the cold light of day.

The recording process was fairly intense - after having a jungle of cables & microphones woven around our gear we played each song 'live' (no overdubs) three or four times before moving on to the next one. If someone made a huge mistake we would abandon the take and start again but in general we just played through, at times a nerve-wracking process. At the end of the day we had nine tracks in the can and the results were rather good - definitely demo quality rather than slickly polished (even after several of us had taken turns remixing them) but still decent recordings of a rather good band. If I say so myself.

We played a handful of gigs through the year, the most notable being a charity fundraiser in Bath where we had a good sized stage, a professional 'stage crew' and even a light show! After years of pub gigs & parties it was a real delight to have room to move around and have all the technical stuff done for us, as a result we put on one of our best shows to date.

Playing with the Rhythm Coalition remains a joy, after being together for so many years there's an ease & confidence in my playing and an increasing appreciation of my bandmates. The only downside is not getting as many gigs as I would like, hopefully we'll find more in the future.

There are recordings & videos on the Rhythm Coalition page.

For the past few years Vi has been making trips to Australia to visit family & friends over there, an annual event which had become routine and unexceptional even as she entered her 80's. So it came as a huge shock when I received a brief email from my sister Marina in Australia saying that Vi had been taken sick and was having blood tests to identify what she was suffering from. After several days of communications going back & forth, complicated by the 11-hour time difference, the initial panic abated and it emerged that Vi had a chest infection but was now on antibiotics and well on the road to recovery. Phew! However we now had a logistical problem - the Australian doctor had recommended that Vi not fly until her condition had improved so we had to rearrange her return flight for a month later. This led to what felt like an endless series of phone calls & emails to the airline, the insurance company, and family members in both the UK and Australia before the details (and tickets) were safely delivered. In hindsight, though, it just took a week or so to reorganise the trip, pay the various fees, and inform the relevant parties, who knows how we'd have managed before the Internet? It had been a scary experience but all came well at the end - we even got most of the extra expense back from the insurance.

Shortly after Vi returned home we (myself, my sisters Terri & Kay and Vi's sister Carol who'd accompanied her back from Australia) met up in London to mark Kay's birthday with a family lunch. My sisters & I had been taking our mother out for her birthday since 2009 and we decided that not only would it be nice to meet up more often but it was a good opportunity to see how Vi was doing. Kay had organised lunch in a friendly, Brazilian-run café and after a splendid meal we took a turn around Regents Park together. Vi seemed a little shaken by her travels & travails but over the rest of the year she worked her way back to her old self.

During the meal Terri presented Kay & I with birthday presents - a pair of her drawings mounted & framed. Mine now hangs in my kitchen, a funky addition to my collection of original artwork and a nice reminder of family connections.

Having reached my 60th year I now qualify for regular NHS health checks and through March, April & May I went through a series of medical exams, blood tests and even an ECG. The end result came as something of a shock - I was diagnosed with diabetes. This wasn't totally out of the blue - my blood sugar levels had been in the 'at risk' band in a couple of my recent tests - but I'd managed to persuade myself that so long as I was reasonably sensible in my lifestyle things would always sort themselves out OK. To be bluntly told I was now diabetic and would almost certainly be on medication for the rest of my life set me emotionally reeling, I'd never had any serious medical issues before and although I was certainly slowing down with age I didn't think of myself as any type of invalid. Slowly digesting this news I awaited my appointment with the diabetes specialist.

After the initial shock the news got better. My Type II diabetes could be treated with pills and by working on my diet, weight & fitness I could prevent its further development and, possibly, even reverse it. My eating habits were pretty good as they were so exercise was the first thing to work on - I dusted off my bike and began daily runs along the canal towpath. As the weather began to descend into rainy autumn I sought out an indoor alternative and ended up buying a rowing machine that fitted neatly under the stairs when not in use. It turned out to be one of the most boring forms of exercise in the world but equipped with my iPod Shuffle I have made it part of my daily routine.

The results have been impressive - in the six months since my diagnosis I've lost ten kilos and a couple of inches off my waistline. When I returned for my follow-up session my blood sugar level had dropped back out of the diabetic range and my blood pressure was back to normal levels. I'm still on medication so this is symptom management rather than a cure but it's good to know that condition isn't progressing further. To add to the exercise regimen I've started going to Pilates classes to work on my flexibility and I'm feeling more comfortable in my body that I have for a long time. Shame that it took such an extreme wake-up call to get me onto this track.

Music making & programming setup in my office

Work is going very well. There continue to be a series of challenges & problems to solve (which is essentially what my job is) but despite my regular lapses in self-confidence I'm getting into the habit of looking back and noticing that I've solved them. The nature of our app Foldr - remote access to server files from mobiles & iPads - means that there are innumerable ways for things to go wrong and it's very satisfying when weird & obscure bugs are solved and fixed. After two appraisals (at the start & end of the year) It's clear that my employers are happy with my work too. I've established a pattern of going in to the office about once per month and working from home the rest of the time, which seems to suit everybody. It's all good.

In June I added a new instrument to my home recording setup, a Waldorf Blofeld synthesizer. This is a considerably more complex and professional device than my Volcas and it's taken me a while to start to appreciate & use its manifold capabilities. The sonic possibilites have opened up new areas for me to explore and my compositions continue to grow in breadth & sophistication, at least to my ears. Creating my own pieces continues to be a delight and my way of working - making up new elements as I go along - often leads me to unexpected destinations.

After eighteen months of posting compositions on my website and SoundCloud I decided to make things a bit more polished and set myself up on a modern streaming service. Rather than using my own name I created a new virtual 'band' - Renmei - and put out three short albums. As well as creating the music I had fun making cover art for these. So far I've had two sales so I'm not giving up my day job.

There are some thoughts on my earlier creations in A year with the Volcas and the Renmei albums can be heard on Bandcamp.

The house has had a few small incidents through the year. In February the roof sprung a leak and I spent a week emptying buckets and wringing out towels before someone came round to replace a cracked tile. During the summer I started finding more and more wasps in the bathroom which a council worker traced back to a nest in the roof cavity. Donning an all-over insect-proof suit (which I sadly failed to catch on camera) he poked his head out of one of my velux skylights and sprayed the nest into extinction. And after repeatedly asking the neighbouring housing group to do something about the branches overhanging my garden a pair of workmen arrived with a strange device like a chainsaw on a stick and methodically trimmed the greenery back.

These little maintenance & upkeep tasks have taken over from the snagging list of the past couple of years, a sign that my house has moved from being a construction project to an actual home. it's not finished - the concept of a home being 'finished' is a bit creepy - but I find myself looking for possible improvements & changes rather than spotting faults & defects. Which feels like a very positive development.

My reconnection with old friends continued when I received an email from Steve, guitarist from my university band Ithica who I hadn't seen for over forty years. Conveniently he'd ended up living in Bristol, just a short train journey away, and we arranged a reunion rendezvous in a pub. Arriving there we both immediately recognised each other - no mean feat after such an interval - and settled into filling in the details of the missed years. A strange coincidence was that we'd both become folk dance teachers and musicians, French for him, Balkan for me. And in some strange cyclic convergence my first dancing experience after retiring from leading my own groups was at a French dance session in a pub where Steve was playing & teaching.

It's been a good year for friends with Steve joining my rota of regular drinking buddies and a thin but steady stream of visitors making use of the comfy sofabed in my office. My relaxed working schedule has given me the opportunity to take extended breaks and over the year I've visited Cindy & Adrian near Warrington, sister Terri in Deal, and Paul & Diane in York. This last one was particularly special, Paul & I had known each other purely through dance teaching so it was an unexpected surprise to be invited up for a non-dance event - a festival of short films held in York. Since giving up teaching I'd swiftly dropped out of the network and it was a nice to see that friendships made then could continue on, in different forms. And the festival itself was great, a marvellous collection of all sorts of styles, subjects and viewpoints.

A regular visitor through the year has been my dear friend Saille, resident in northern Scotland but participating in a series of movement workshops on the Dorset coast. She'd drop in on her way there or back every month or two, staying for a night or three and becoming a regular feature at home. As someone who lives alone it was a nice change to have a regular housemate and some long, chatty evenings at home.

Vi's birthday tea, November

November brought Vi's birthday and this year my sisters & I took her out for afternoon tea at Brigit's Bakery in Covent Garden. There's a brief description of the day at Vi's Birthday Tea 2017. Having gone out for Kay & Terri's birthdays as well this year - it's been nice to have the excuse to meet up as a family more often - we shall be convening for my own event early in January.

I thought that my four week trek through Indochina in 2016 would have satiated my urge for exotic holidays but apparently not - in a moment of impulse/weakness I booked a similar (although shorter) holiday in Myanmar for February of 2018. Having the news report atrocities against the Rohingya people almost immediately afterwards was a bit alarming but I'm assuming that by the time I travel things will either have calmed down or refunds will be being offered. I have a few ethical qualms about visiting a state showing such dubious behaviour but despite this I think it's good to make personal connections with people in distant lands before tarring them with the brush of their governments.

An extra reminder of how my diabetes will have widespread effects on my life came when I had to pay a surcharge on my travel insurance to cover my 'preexisting medical condition". It didn't amount to much but it feels like something that will crop up again, a big change after so many years of just saying 'no' to every question on medical history forms.

December saw me offered a flu jab now that I've crossed into the land of the elderly. At first I wasn't going to bother - I rarely get serious winter illnesses - but after some research I found that flu is still a major cause of death and that getting vaccinated not only helps you but gives less opportunity for the virus to spread to other, more vulnerable victims. And so I took a needle for the greater good. What a hero.

In some ways it's been an uneventful year with no real change in my home & work situations and no major excursions or adventures. And yet at the same time the diabetes diagnosis is an enormous change to how I live and one that will potentially continue to affect me for the rest of my life. The news of my condition has prompted me to make big changes in my day to day lifestyle, an illness leading to me feeling healthier than I have for many years. It seems like whenever I take stock of my life there are areas of calm stability and areas of turbulent change, it's just that for 2017 these were more extreme than usual. Will the next year bring greater or lesser eccentricity? Only time will tell.

December 2017