It's the afternoon of New Year's Eve, I've got the Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack playing on the stereo, and as I have a new computer keyboard to try out (more on that in a moment) I am posting one last blog update for this year.
I'm not going to write a review of the year, though. It really doesn't deserve one. I lost so many heroes and influences this year, from Allan Holdsworth to Jim Baikie, Chris Cornell to Peter Sallis, Walter Becker, Tom Petty, Clyde Stubblefield, Sam Shepard, Adam West and Fats Domino and many, many others. It's been a grim year.
So instead I will simply wish you all the best as we prepare to set sail into 2018. May you ride its choppy waters with grace and compassion. I hope that I remember to do so myself.
Since I tipped a glass of red wine into the previous model, I've been using a Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 on this PC, but I noticed almost immediately after installing it that the change in key layout more than doubled the number of typos in any text that I typed. I've stuck with the keyboard for more than four years, waiting to see if matters improved as my muscle memory adapted to the change, but they haven't, so last week as I copy-edited what I'd written on the blog and fixed one mis-type after another, I decided that enough was enough. I've switched back to a standard-layout model. One of my colleagues recently acquired a very spiffy Fnatic model with backlit, Cherry MX keys which I really liked, so I have followed suit. And I guess that I will now discover whether or not the key layout really is what's at fault here, or if I'm just going senile.
I love the key feel already, though. And after using a Microsoft Sidewinder keyboard on the studio machine upstairs for the past four years, I'd always go for a backlit keyboard by choice these days. I even bought an aftermarket illuminated keyboard for my laptop this year, I'm that much of a convert.
And you know what? I think the number of typos I'm making has already decreased...
Well, how are we all, now that the festive season is building up to its grand finale of the New Year celebrations? Have you eaten and drunk too much? Are you currently thinking, "I must go easier next year" or is it closer to "I'm never doing that again"? Did you get stuck in the snow?
On Wednesday there was some snow here - the sticky, wet heavy variety that snapped off a bough on the tree by my garage and had brought several large branches down on the road to Dursley as I nipped to the supermarket. I had decided to take advantage of the fact that I'd woken up at 7am to go shopping, but when I got there, the staff were apologising to people for not having much fresh stuff in stock - their supply lorry had overturned somewhere near Cheltenham. That didn't come as much of a surprise; the British have never bothered to learn how to drive in snow. One driver I followed was stamping on the brakes at every patch of snow they encountered. I suspect that the only reason they hadn't ended up in a ditch was that they never exceeded 20 miles per hour...
Despite the fact that the snow had closed the A14 for most of the morning, I set off for Norfolk that afternoon so I could spend a few days with my father. In the event, the news appeared to have scared people off the roads - I had an easy trip over. While I was there, I also caught up with my brother Dave and my sister Annabelle and her family, so I've managed to deliver most of the Christmas presents before the end of the year, which is much more efficient of me than last year!
It was lovely to see everyone, and after spending another quiet Christmas on my own here at home, it was nice to be in a room full of people and find out what everyone has been up to. Especially when one of those rooms was in a pub, the pub was serving Woodforde's "Wherry Best" bitter, and I wasn't driving (thanks, Dave!)
Dad is a little more focused since he stopped drinking, which was good to see, but he is increasingly frail and in considerable pain from a hip that he does not want to have replacement surgery on. With regular visits from his carers he is managing to remain independent, although he no longer shows much interest in going out and prefers to listen to the radio or watch TV - at blistering volumes, because he can't be bothered to use his hearing aids. He can't be bothered to use them when he has visitors, either. He has no interest in hearing what people are saying to him, either, although there's no real change there; he has only ever paid attention to other people's parts of a conversation in order to identify the point when they stopped talking, because that meant it was time for him to start. The result of all this is that every conversation starts several times before he realises that he should actually be paying attention to what someone else is saying for a bit. But as his short-term memory has gone, the process will then start up again a few minutes later. He does retain some things you tell him, but the gaps are getting bigger and bigger.
I got back yesterday evening after driving home through weather that varied from sleet to brilliant sunshine. I have enough food to last me the weekend, and the car is full of petrol, so with luck I won't have to leave the house again until I return to work next year.
And that feels like a good thing at the moment. I'm still tired and run down and despite being on holiday for over a week, I don't feel particularly rested. I never sleep well at Dad's place - he has always had a thing about leaving lights on in the house all night, and the curtains in each bedroom are thin and unlined. I'm the complete opposite: I prefer to sleep in the pitch dark and I have a blackout blind and lined curtains in my bedroom. Now I'm home, I hope I can catch up on sleep...
The new issue of my favourite magazine, the Fortean Times was waiting on the doormat when I got home. The most entertaining news story I've discovered in its pages so far concerns the members of the Canadian rock band Rush, who recently had the dubious honour of having three species of microbes that live in the guts of termites named after them. They were chosen it seems, because the microbes concerned have long hair and wiggle about.
I have a new single out on Bandcamp today called I Want to Know and I've been promoting it on Facebook and Twitter. Extra-special thanks go to Jack Womack and William Gibson for helping to give it some traction on social media, as they are exactly the sort of people I wrote the songs for. As are you, dear reader, as are you.
I'm still working on the rest of the album and have set myself a target ot April 1st to have the whole thing finished and released.
Last night I was at the Crofters Rights down in Stokes Croft to see the wonderful She Makes War (a.k.a. Laura Kidd) for the second time this month (the venue this time was a bit smaller than the Hammersmith Odeon, but it had a giant disco glitter ball, which really set the scene nicely!)
I'm loath to admit this, given that I've lived here for nearly 23 years, but I'd not been to the Crofters before. It's a fascinating building. It looks like they've had the roof relined recently, as there was fresh pine and ironwork aplenty in evidence. The floor must be a nightmare after an evening's drinking, as it's not even remotely flat. Instead it is riddled with ramps and sudden steps up or down to other levels of the pub. It plays host to regular club nights, one of which was directly after Laura's gig, so there was a 10 pm curfew on live music. I was driving, so I could only try one of the many beers on offer, but I intend going back again when I can sample a larger selection.
I bumped into my pals Russ and Rachel, a.k.a. Engine One and Engine Two from local band Fourth Engine, and caught up with things musical before Laura started her first, acoustic set. After a brief interval she returned to the stage for the second set, with a full band that really filled out the sound. We got a selection of numbers from the new album (which you should totally support over at PledgeMusic) as well as plenty of old favourites, including the beautifully melancholy Slow Puncture which has been a favourite of mine since the very first time I heard it.
It was all over far too quickly, and we had to make way for the Young People to movie in and enjoy their dance music, but I stayed and chatted outside afterwards for a little while before making my way back to the car and driving home through surprisingly quiet streets. That was a good way to start Christmas off properly.
The winter solstice takes place at 16:28 UTC this afternoon, so today is the shortest day of the year. The Sun rose at 08:14, and it'll set at 16:02. While sunset tomorrow will be at 16:03, sunrise continues to get a little bit later each day until the beginning of January, when it rises at 08:16. And ten days ago, sunset was taking place at 16:00, a couple of minutes earlier than it does this week. So what's going on?
The first thing to understand is that the Earth doesn't travel around the Sun in a perfectly circular orbit. Instead, our orbit is an ellipse. As the astronomer Johannes Kepler discovered back in the 17th Century, this means that the speed of the Earth around the sun changes over the course of the year (it's slowest when we're furthest away from the Sun, and speeds up as we get closer). That means that the time between when the Sun is at its highest point in the sky from one day to the next must increase or decrease too.
To complicate matters further, the tilt of the Earth's axis also has an effect: it doesn't point straight up at right angles to our orbit, but instead is inclined at 23.5°. It points towards the Sun in the summer and away from the Sun in the Winter. If you live close to the equator, the earliest sunset for you takes place in November! This tilt is also what gives us our seasons.
The result of all this is that if you measure time using a sundial (which is known as Apparent Solar Time), and compare it to clock time (which is known as Mean Solar Time), you'll discover that at the solstices, Apparent Solar Time lags behind clock time and at the equinoxes, it leads clock time. Astronomers refer to this variation as the Equation of Time and in the UK the difference between the two can be as much as sixteen and a half minutes.
Today in Charfield the Sun didn't reach its maximum height in the sky until eight minutes past noon. But there are two separate factors that affect when this happens, and the Equation of Time only accounts for one minute and 49 seconds of the difference today. The other, more significant factor is that Charfield lies over a hundred miles to the West of the Greenwich Meridian, which is the site chosen to determine clock time for the whole of the UK. "True" local time here is about ten minutes behind Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), and down the road in Bristol, there are still relics from when the city ran on Bristol Mean Time. The advent of the railways (and railway timetables) made it more sensible to adopt a single time standard for the country, and here we are.
For the first half of the year, I hardly went to any gigs at all. Then I decided I ought to make a conscious effort to get out of the house in the evenings and enjoy myself once in a while. As a result, the last month has been one great show after another. Last week I braved the mother of all traffic jams as well as sleet and torrential rain to go and see Fish at the O2 Academy in Bristol and catch up with the support band, the fabulous Lazuli:
It was the third time I've seen them play live, and they've become huge favourites of mine. After the show I was lucky enough to catch up with Gederic, Vincent and Romain and say hi...
Unfortunately Domi was unwell and had to be flown back to France for treatment later in the week, forcing the band to drop out of the tour. But they're hoping to play Bristol again in October, and I plan on being there.
Fish was in fine form, too - although thanks to his continuing back problems, he'd brought one of the chairs from his kitchen to sit on in between songs. "Look at me," he said. "I look like the Val Doonican of prog..."
I finished work for the year on Friday, and since then I've been busy getting ready for Christmas. I had a massive pile of ironing to get through (because I hadn't bothered to do any for a month, so it was totally my own fault) and I didn't get round to assembling the tree or putting up decorations until Monday afternoon. I only finished the Christmas shopping yesterday. I still have to wrap the majority of presents for folks. This is still an improvement on the year back in the early 1980s when I found myself doing my Christmas shopping at lunchtime on Christmas Eve in the branch of W H Smiths at the western end of Cheapside in London because it was situated directly underneath the office where I was working at the time...
It wasn't until Monday that I realised just how tired I am. It's been a busy year and I've spent much of the last few days trying to regain a sense of equilibrium. The prospect of spending a few days at home, on my own, feels like a much more attractive prospect than it would have ten or fifteen years ago. I have stuff to do here, too; I'm finishing off my next album - more about that in a moment - and I have the pop video I shot in Bruges in November to edit as well...
I'm not quite done with going out yet, though. I've got one more gig lined up before the end of the year and I'm really looking forwards to it. There will be more about that on the blog after it's happened.
I will be releasing the first single from my next album on Saturday. The album is called "Fort" and is inspired by my lifelong interest in Fortean phenomena.
More details to follow...
The cold weather continues, and has reached "tiresome" status. When I got up this morning it was -5°C outside and the temperature had fallen a degree further than that overnight. Despite this, the house wasn't particularly cold, and once the heating had been on for an hour it warmed up nicely. The AA described driving conditions this morning as hazardous and given the way people were driving on Sunday I decided I was better off working at home.
I was involved in a marketing discussion for work this afternoon during which I was amused to learn that the latest generation of students view personal social media accounts on platforms like Twitter and Facebook as being things for "old people". I remember the old days when Twitter and Facebook were applications that helped bring people together, as opposed to their current roles of spreading hate or destroying society. Times change...
This evening the forecast is for rain, and the temperature should get slightly warmer. Perhaps it's time for the social climate to thaw, too.
Interstellar asteroid Oumuamua may be racing away from us faster than we can catch it in a straight chase, but science is still trying to find out as much about it as possible. And now, that includes using radio telescopes to monitor it very carefully, just in case it's emitting radio signals.
It seems unlikely, but then again, just how much weirder could this year get?
It's teatime on Sunday afternoon, it's getting dark, and actual genuine snow is falling outside. It's been falling for most of the day. It made this morning's drive back from Orpington a bit of a challenge, particularly as the M4 was reduced to two lanes between Membury Services and the Swindon West junction because lane three was under several inches of snow. Traffic was stop-start for miles.
As I sat in the car I was thinking about a similar journey - but in the opposite direction - that I made back in 2010 when I ended up stuck at my brother's house for several days after London was hit by heavy snow and, as this only happens every ten years or so, all of its travel infrastructure - air, roads, and rail - massively failed to cope. It sounds like it all massively failed to cope again today, as the travel news on the radio gave the impression that most overground rail services in the capital had stopped running, and so had flights into and out of Heathrow, Luton and Stanstead. The snow seems to have stayed north of the M4, but the temparature outside is dropping and I really don't fancy my chances of trying to get in to work at 6 tomorrow morning. There were enough nutters on the road this afternoon. At least this time I'm at home. I switched the heating on as soon as I got in, and the house is lovely and warm.
Yesterday I'd gone into town to meet up with friends for the afternoon and we spent several hours chatting and drinking coffee in a bakery that was so goo, I'm not going to tell you where it is, because I intend going back there whenever I go to London and I want to make sure that I can get in.
In the evening I went to the Dome in Tufnell Park for an evening of top-grade metal. First on stage were My Propane, from the Netherlands. They were really good - and when they left the stage, it wasn't the last we'd see of guitarist Jord Otto (on the left) as he also plays guitar for Vuur...
Next up were one of my favourite bands, the extraordinary Scar Symmetry from Sweden.
They roared through a blistering hour-long set and when they'd finished, the two gents standing next to me were obviously mightily impressed. "Why are these guys not massively famous?" one was asking the other. "They're one of the best metal bands I've ever seen!" He wasn't wrong. I caught up with Per afterwards, who reminded me that one reason that they haven't been particularly active recently is that he's been filling in as guitar player for another notable metal band you may have heard of, called Meshuggah. If you haven't checked out Scar Symmetry, you really need to do so, and do it now!
The main act were Vuur from the Netherlands. Lead singer Anneke van Giersbergen has an amazing voice and aside from her band The Gathering she's also released a number of solo projects like The Gentle Storm, as well as contributing vocals for many of Devin Townsend's recent projects, but Vuur is the first time that she's put together her own metal band. The debut album only came out about three weeks ago but London was in a singy mood and she was rather taken aback to discover that the crowd were familiar with the material: "You already know all the words? Holy shit!"
Four hours went by in the blink of an eye. It was a cracking gig for the start of the festive season and the whole day was a real shot in the arm for me, as I'd been flagging after an intense week at work. I didn't sleep particularly well that night, as I was buzzing from all the coffee I'd drunk together with the adrenaline boost you get from a good day. My phone tells me I walked over six miles during Saturday, and nearly five the day before, so it's no wonder I feel tired this evening.
I paid a nostalgic visit to this building on Friday. No matter how many times it changes its name, it will always be the Hammersmith Odeon to me. I've been going to gigs here for nearly forty years; the first concert I ever saw here was Devo, back in 1978. Back then, my ticket cost me the princely sum of £4.50. Friday's ticket was a little more expensive than that, but it was all in a good cause as the event I was attending raises money for the Sophie Lancaster Foundation and Medecins Sans Frontieres.
The evening had got off to a great start even before I got inside, when I heard that Ruth had successfully defended her thesis in viva at Bangor University and was now Doctor Ruth Dickson! Hooray!
It was the third time in a ropw that I've gone to Robin and Brian's Christmas Compendium of Reason; it's become a bit of a Christmas tradition for me. As you can see from that link, once again I was treated to a heady mix of science, comedy and pop music. This year it was a delight to see Bristolian Laura Kidd take to the stage to sing her song "Stargazing" backed by the Hackney Colliery Band:
The rest of the evening flew past and left me with a bemused but happy grin on my face. Hannah Fry had written a program that generated a convincing (if rather dark) Queen's speech. Andrew Steele's presentation on medical sort codes left me giggling in disbelief (there is a code for injuries caused by space-based laser weapons, as well as one for injuries cause by being crushed between two ships in which no damage is caused to either vessel). Ben Goldacre once again gave an hour-long presentation in something approaching six minutes. Adam Rutherford's examination of just what the Habsburg Chin signified in terms of the Spanish Royal Family's family tree left me boggling, as did Charlotte Church's medley of popular dance numbers that included Prince's "Get Off" but also strutted over to metal territory, mugged Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" and then gave Rage Against The Machine's "Killing In The Name" a thorough seeing to. Utterly bonkers.
Chris Lintott was on hand to discuss Oumuamua, the recent visitor to the solar system that I blogged about last month...
Chris Hadfield was on hand to explain that while you can't see the Great Wall of China from space, you can see the M25. Stewart Lee revealed that he too had spent several years in space after developing his own space programme. Grace Petrie sang for us to the accompaniment of an exhuberant tap-dancer. Astronaut Terry Virts talked about his experiences in space. Brian broke the projector, but still regaled the audience with tales of gravitational waves. And the Festival of the Spoken Nerd folks cracked scientific one-liners galore, explained what a hyperbolic function was, and set fire to things. And finally, Sophie Ellis-Bextor sang "Murder on the Dancefloor" while Jim Al-Khalili, Doctor Karl, Brian Cox, Chris Hadfield and Dara O'Briain did crap dad-dancing at the back of the stage.
As a way of kicking off December, Robin and Brian's shows are hard to beat. They're doing a sequence of Nine Lessons shows over the rest of this month, and you really ought to go along. They'll be huge fun.
The only trouble with going to shows in London is that it results in a rather late night. It was 4am before I got to bed. And I was back on the road a few hours later to drive up to Penwortham to help celebrate my Aunty Joan's 90th birthday.
We went out for cream tea. There was cake. And prosecco. I got to see my siblings and hang out for a while - we don't do that often enough.
By the time I got home on Sunday afternoon, I'd driven more than 700 miles since setting out for work on Friday morning.
I was really glad of the memory stick full of podcasts that I keep in the car - when you're crawling through the roadworks on the M5 towards Birmingham, it's good to have something upbeat and optimistic to listen to, because the traffic was brutal.