It doesn't feel like New Year's Eve today. The weather is unseasonably mild and the temperature in my conservatory is 15°C right now. Given the massive hike in energy prices this winter (thanks to yet another Brexit triumph), the less I need to use my central heating system, the better.
It's been a weird year, to say the least. It's not been great, but I will grudgingly admit that it's been a slight improvement on 2020. For a start, the Covid pandemic no longer feels like it's the dire existential threat that it seemed to be for most of last year. I've had two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine as well as a booster shot of the Pfizer one. And while we're discussing existential threats, the political climate in the West isn't quite as unstable as it was, with a change of incumbent in the White House. As a result, television news is no longer greeted quite as frequently with an exasperated cry of "oh, what's he done now?" as it was this time last year. The situation in the Ukraine is still a cause for concern, however.
I might not have seen any of my close family since August last year, but in the summer I did manage to hang out with some of my friends, which was lovely. I even paid several visits to more than one pub. For the most part though, I stayed at home, preserving what's left of my sanity by spending most of my waking hours shut away in my bedroom recording studio. The best illustration of just how focused I've been on music this year that I can give you is to point out that the album which I will be releasing next week will be the twelfth full-length work I've recorded since the beginning of December last year. I have very much taken to heart the old maxim that the best way to get better at doing something is to do it a lot and in my opinion, it works; this year I reckon that my skills as a songwriter, composer, musician, vocalist, mixer, recording and mastering engineer, and producer have all noticeably improved—if you listen to any of the recent releases I've made through Bandcamp, I hope you'll agree with that assessment.
In my last blog post of 2020, I said that I'd become a physical wreck. That may still be so, but this year I decided that I needed to start doing things to slow down my accelerating decline. I've been getting more exercise, and as a result my resting heart rate has dropped by three beats per minute. After realising last year that even a prolonged session of guitar playing could cause me physical pain, when I found myself suffering from what felt like a case of tennis elbow (or something similar) for most of the summer, I got my weights and the multigym back out of the loft, gave them a thorough clean (the multigym, I'm ashamed to admit, had been up there a very long time) and started putting them to use. I have focused on developing my core strength and trying to build up my arms a bit so that I don't cripple myself playing guitar too much. Much to my surprise, it worked; I'm now a noticeably different shape compared to this time last year, and I have been able to sail through multiple four- or five-hour guitar playing sessions without so much as a single twinge. Building up my core strength has also helped to mitigate the worst of the pain I've been in thanks to the kidney stones I've been suffering from for the last eighteen months or so. Now I just generally ache all over...
But I have yet to hear anything further from the NHS regarding possible treatment for my kidney stones. It'll be four months on Monday since I discovered that they'd "forgotten" to contact me for a follow-up consultation that was due in October 2020.
And I just walked to the village shop to get some milk, and every step there and back hurt. I don't know what I did to my right leg when I went to London before Christmas, but it's not been right since. It feels like I've pulled a muscle, but I suspect that walking nearly four miles wearing my posh pair of shoes for the Royal Albert Hall show wasn't one of my brightest recent ideas. When I got to the shop today I bought myself a bag of pickled onion flavour Monster Munch as a compensatory treat, because I think I earned it. Now I'm back home and I've just finished the bag, and it was delicious. Much to my surprise I've only put on a pound in weight over the Christmas period, but when you're only cooking for yourself it's much easier to keep the menu away from the more highly calorific seasonal fare (even if I intend having roast potatoes again tomorrow).
Whatever your plans are for this weekend, I hope that you will enjoy them safely. I will be staying in on my own, and will probably have gone to bed before midnight. It feels like it's been a long year.
It's the day after the day after Boxing day. The chicken I cooked for Christmas has been consumed and even the carcass was put to good use: I have four servings of home-made soup in the freezer. After three decades of cooking my own Christmas dinner, I think I'm beginning to get the hang of things. This year's innovation was to drain the roast parsnips and roast potatoes after parboiling them and letting them dry out in the pan for an hour before drizzling olive oil and salt over them, rolling them around in the pan to make sure they were well-coated, and then sprinkling roughly chopped thyme leaves over them before I put them in the oven. The results tasted closer to my imagined Platonic ideal of roast veg than anything I've previously managed.
It feels like I've eaten more in the last week than I usually do in a month, and after another dinner accompanied by roast potatoes, parsnips, bread sauce and cranberry jelly yesterday, I decided that next year I will lay off the carbs. In fact, I might not bother with the traditional "big meal" at all. Feeling torpid and bloated might have had festive appeal when I was younger, but I've slowed down a lot since then and my metabolism can no longer handle the sudden avalanches of calories that Christmas can bring. I will be seeing in the New Year with considerably more frugal fare. Apart from anything else, I've just given the kitchen a thorough clean and it would be a shame to immediately turn it back into its usual messy state.
So here we are, in the middle of the gap between Christmas and the New Year. These are an odd collection of days that feel like they ought to be significant but which don't have specific titles to them. Instead, they're lumped together under the nondescript title of The Twelve Days of Christmas. The old festival of Saturnalia finished on the day before Christmas Eve; Yule goes on for nearly two weeks; it feels like we ought to be doing something significant, but exactly what that might be has temporarily escaped us.
The strange feeling that we get in the week between Christmas and the New Year runs deeper than just a mild unease over the interruption to our habitual schedules, though. It's a properly spooky time of year. The tradition of telling ghost stories at this time of year (admirably continued by Mark Gatiss at the BBC, who produced a new adaptation of one of Montague Rhodes James's most famous stories The Mezzotint which has been getting good reviews) taps in to a fount of weirdness that somehow becomes more noticeable while we're not as preoccupied with work and the frantic schedules of modern life. The fact that in the Northern Hemisphere the nights are at their longest at this time of year adds a frisson of fear to the thought that there might be strange things lurking in the darkness beyond the fireside...
Talking of which: Scarfolk creator Richard Littler modernised the Christmas ghost story delivery mechanism by transferring it to social media. His creation incorporates digital technology and the hoary old image enhancement trope beloved of writers for NCIS. The result has been a highly entertaining thread that he began on Christmas Day. It's been great fun, although he alarmed a few people who didn't get what he was doing, leading him to 'fess up in a tweet.
But the fact that Richard's tale could be considered entirely plausible by some people is an interesting one. One side effect of lockdown which I've noticed quite regularly both this year and last is that people have started seeing things again. I'm sure that they've always seen them; it's just that the zeitgeist means that people are paying more attention to the world that surrounds them at the moment.
They're seeing their environment—particularly their homes—in a new context, in a fresh light. When you're stuck at home, you're isolated from many of the distractions of modern life (and as someone who has spent most of his time at home since the summer of 2019, take it from me: modern cities can be an utterly overwhelming sensory experience). At home, the noises and sights of our close environment are—if we're fortunate—more manageable. We no longer have a commute in which we are bombarded by advertising, we are no longer crammed together on trains and buses in a way that pressures us to scale back our awareness of each other and of where we are; and if we're really lucky, we may even be able to ease off on our workload and relax a bit. In most of the Western hemisphere, Christmas is the principal opportunity that we get each year for just unplugging and chilling out. Without the demands of work occupying first, second and third place in our list of priorities, at least temporarily, we can take a moment to look up from the grindstone and see what was there all along.
With the pandemic continuing to reduce opportunities for socialising, this Christmas break can allow us to take a breather (mask free) and take stock of things. It's a time to reconnect with a world that for the rest of the year we're either shutting out in order to stay sane or that we're just too stressed out to give our attention. Christmas is a time when we start to notice the weird things that we would otherwise ignore: the way the house creaks as it cools down at night; the strange cold spot in the bay window; the house keys that you randomly find in a completely different place to where you remember leaving them; the faint strains of music, heard late at night, that sound like somebody left a radio on somewhere...
And when we're warm and safe and settled, and full of roast potatoes, that sense of strangeness is ameliorated to the point that it can be enjoyed, and even savoured. Which is, I guess, the whole point.
I've been amusing myself by reading the Christmas edition of the Fortean Times this week, and the article on how "the stomach rules the world" in particular had me wincing. Frank Gonalez-Crussi's very entertaining article discusses the gastronomical antics of the Reverend Dr William Buckland (1784–1856), whose principal ambition in life was to eat his way through the entire field of biology. He was renowned for his soirées, where he would serve his guests all sorts of exotic fare such as crocodile steaks, roast ostrich, boiled hedgehogs, and mice on toast.
Mice. On toast.
You don't get that on Celebrity Masterchef.
Buckland's son Frank (1826–1880) continued the family tradition, preferring to serve his mice battered. He also served up such delicacies as roast giraffe nack, boiled elephant trunk, and squirrel pie. Buckland junior called his pursuit "zoophagy".
I bet their Christmas dinners were quite something.
Although I took a break on Christmas Day, I've been back in my bedroom studio this week, working hard on my next album of instrumental music, which will be called Excursions.
I'll be releasing it next week. If Bandcamp continue their policy of waiving their take on revenue on the first Friday of each month, then it'd be great if you got a copy then, but at present it's unclear if Bandcamp Fridays are going to continue.
If they don't it won't stop me releasing music there. I have made more money from Bandcamp than I have from all the other online music services put together, and their platform is thoughtfully designed and well managed. There is no spam, for example; that's a big factor when you're trying to get real people to listen to your work (and yes, Soundcloud, I'm looking right at you.) There's no limit on the amount of music that you can upload either (I';m looking at you again, Soundcloud) which has meant that I've been able to build up quite a discography there. Just looking at all those covers I designed gives me a lovely little buzz of achievement, but what would be even nicer would be if all that music got more listens. Please spread the word!
Once again I have updated the development platform I use to create this blog. Apache NetBeans is now at version 12.6. And once again, I made sure to consult my earlier blog post before I did so in order to remind myself what I needed to do to get things running the way I wanted them (although I had forgotten that I needed to run Notepad ++ in administrator mode before Windows will let me save changes to the Netbeans netbeans.conf file so that I can actually make out the text it uses on my 4K monitors.) I even updated Notepad++ in the process, which makes me feel much more organised than I really am.
This time around, Netbeans noticed that I had been using the Darcula LAF plugin with the previous version (which I'd uninstalled, because if you don't do so you get a stack of different versions in your program files directory, and space is getting a bit tight on my C: drive these days) and asked me if I wanted to install it again and import my settings, which I very definitely did want it to do. So I was back up and running in less than five minutes, and here I am editing the blog with it.
And yes, I know that maintaining an IDE just so that I can edit a bunch of HTML and CSS files is overkill, but NetBeans is free and it's not part of the Microsoft ecosystem in the way that VS Code is...
The winter solstice occurs at 15:59 UTC this afternoon, marking the lowest declination of the Sun in the sky for the year (imagine drawing a straight line between the centre of the Earth and the centre of the Sun. The angle between that line and the Earth's equator is called the Sun's declination and at the solstice, it's equal to the Earth's axial tilt. The value is -23° 26' 8", if you're wondering. The value is negative because the Sun is below the equator.)
It's that tilt that gives us the seasons. If the Earth's axis was absolutely perpendicular to the plane of its orbit round the Sun, its axial tilt would be zero and every day would be the same length (twelve hours of sunlight followed by twelve hours of darkness) all year. But because the Earth's axis is at an angle to its orbit, we get long days in the summer and short days in the winter. Today, on the solstice, we get the shortest period of daylight in the northern hemisphere during the whole year. The amount of daylight we get during winter decreases the further away you are from the equator, because the Earth is a sphere (it's actually something called an oblate spheroid, but that's quibbling) and at the North Pole, there's no proper daylight today at all. Here, which is just over 51° north of the equator, civil twilight began at 07:33 this morning; the Sun rose at 08:14. This afternoon the Sun sets at 16:02 and civil twilight will end at 16:43.
Which might be why I feel like hibernating today.
It's been a really up and down week this week. The "up" part was definitely Tuesday, which was when I went to the Royal Albert Hall to see Robin and Brian's Christmas Compendium of Reason once again. There's a full report here (together with much better photographs than I seemed to be capable of taking with my phone, despite the fact that I was only five rows from the front) so I won't do a recap here beyond saying that it was a very enjoyable night with an excellent array of stars participating which included Boy George, Marc Almond, Nitin Sawhney, Tanita Tikaram, and more Professors and Doctors than you could shake a stick at. I got to bed at 5 am the following day (there'd been an incident on the line at Boston Manor which meant that trains on the Piccadilly line were terminating at Northfields, so I had to walk from there back to where I'd parked the car at Osterley, which took me just under an hour; I also stopped several times on the way home to have a drink, because sitting in a car for extended periods of time turns out to be very bad for my health.)
I was expecting to be sitting in the car again right now, making my way over to Orpington to see my brother and his family and deliver their Christmas presents. I had also planned on seeing Robin and Brian again tonight at King's Place for the final Nine Lessons show, but the Omicron variant of Covid has put paid to all of that. The reproduction rate (usually referred to as the "r" rate) of the latest variant is estimated to be between 3 and 5 at the moment in the UK, which means that each person infected with the virus will in turn infect between three and five other people and you don't have to be a maths wizard to figure out that this means that a lot of people are going to catch it, and they'll do so very quickly. As information about Omicron's spread became clearer this week, Robin and the team took the very painful decision to postpone the remaining shows until April next year. So here I am on my own at home, with no further plans for the year beyond going out at some point next week to get in the Christmas supplies.
Which kind of sucks, but I'd rather stay well—that's relatively speaking given my current physical state—here on my own than hang out with family and friends and risk catching Covid (or, even worse, giving it to somebody else.) And big commiserations to Rob, who tested positive this week and has to self-isolate at home over the Christmas period.
But I did draw some festive cheer from seeing the Tories getting, as one party member described it, "a good kicking" in the North Shropshire by-election. A thirty-four per cent swing away from the Tories, in a safe seat which they had managed to hang on to for two hundred years is, perhaps, a sign that the old Benny Hill routine is wearing a bit thin on the electorate.
I don't know if I've forgiven the Lib Dems for their behaviour during the coalition yet, though. They've got an awful lot to do before they get my trust back.
Last night's curry appears to have managed to loosen the grip of the lurgy which has laid me low for the past couple of weeks. I'm still not back to my usual form, but I don't feel as much of a wreck as I did yesterday. I might even admit to feeling very slightly festive, too—after watching Fish on Friday and seeing what a splendid tree Mr Dick had erected in his living room, I clambered into the loft and retrieved my Christmas decorations. My artificial tree has been assembled and is now gracing the living room with its presence. This year I've gone for the multicoloured lights rather than blue or white. I used to have a chain of 200 red LED lights on the tree, but that broke a couple of years ago and I haven't been able to find decent replacements for it. There are only 120 lights in the set I've used this year though, and the tree looks much sparser. In keeping with that vibe, I've scaled back the rest of the decorations: no tinsel on the bookshelves, no lights elsewhere in the room or on the front door. I did say that I was feeling slightly festive, after all; there's no sense in getting carried away.
I had promised myself that I wouldn't crack open the stollen until the tree had been decorated, and when I had the first slice with a large mug of tea yesterday, it felt every bit as restorative as last night's curry. It's one of my favourite Christmas things.
What are the odds that Boris will have moved out of Number 10 by Christmas Day, do you think? 3:1? 2:1?
His position looks less certain with every news cycle at the moment. While the number of "worst PM ever" memes doing the rounds at present isn't a reliable indicator of public opinion, they are certainly highly suggestive. This tweet from the Canterbury Labour Party is quite something. Maybe that's why I'm feeling better this morning...
Yesterday I took the decision not to run my regular Thursday night live stream. I have yet to shake off the cold or flu or whatever it was that I've had for the last few weeks. After trips to the supermarket and the doctor's yesterday, I was running on fumes (and there weren't too many of those to be had, either.)
I was really tempted to just stay in bed today and have done with it, but the sensible, grown-up side of my character (yes, I do have one, and it occasionally surfaces at moments like this) insisted that doing so would only make things worse, so I got up instead. As a result, I have just completed the enormous stack of ironing that I've been avoiding for the past month. I couldn't believe the number of t-shirts and handkerchiefs that were awaiting the attention of my trusty steam iron. I listened to several CDs while I was ploughing through the pile of laundry, which should give you an idea of how much there was.
But even though it's just 16°C in the living room at present, I'm sweating like a pig. I still feel very rough, and returning to bed is still not entirely off the cards...
Instead, I will probably shut myself away in the studio for the rest of the afternoon. My work rate has really slowed down in the last month or so, but the results that I've been getting seem to be better (although I am clearly biased when it comes to opinions about my musical output).
I'm continuing to focus on instrumental music at present but it's the production side of things that feels like it's really coming together for me these days. I think that I'm getting a much more cohesive sound from what I've been recording lately. Aside from temporary problems like my recent ear infection I've noticed not only that how I listen to music has changed, but also that I am starting to recognise things that need fixing much more frequently. And rather than pretending that they don't matter, I've been going back and getting rid of the things that shouldn't be there. That's counter to the philosophy of "FAWM it and move on" that we adopt in February, because FAWM focuses on quantity first, quality second—it's all about getting the rate at which you write songs above zero, after all—but if you want people to listen to a piece of your music more than once, you want to give it your best shot when you put it on your music site of choice, right? It shouldn't have annoying things in it at all.
One of the most common questions that is asked in discussions about setting up home recording gear is one variant or other of "why doesn't my stuff sound good?" I'm fortunate enough to be living at a time when putting a recording made at home up against one that was recorded in a multi-million pound studio and not being found wanting is not the ludicrous prospect that it would have been even thirty years ago. Getting my recordings to approach the sound quality of a project that has been professionally produced, mixed, and mastered has been an obsession of mine since the day I installed the first piece of software that allowed me to work digitally with music. I want my tracks to sound like they've been recorded by a full band; I want my recordings to sound focused and coherent. And somewhat ironically, it turns out that the best way that I've discovered of achieving this cohesion is to turn everything down by quite significant amounts (in some cases by 10 or 15 dB) and let the maximiser (usually iZotope's Ozone 9) on the master bus take care of whether or not everything's too quiet for the listener.
Because it's all about the LUFS, after all (and I don't know about you, but I had an "oh bless, he thinks they're new!" moment when I read that blog post; Loudness Units Full Scale were one outcome of the infamous loudness wars (which I've discussed on this blog before) and were introduced by the European Broadcasting Union back in August 2010). I have talked about the varying standards for the maximum loudness that different online and broadcast services set for content they carry on their platforms several times on my live streams, as well as showing how I use iZotope's Insight plugin to check whether or not my final master will be up to scratch or not. Knowing what LUFS are is a vital part of the practice for anyone working with audio, and being aware of how loudness affects the way we hear music (and that goes right back to the hoary old favourite of the Fletcher-Munson curves) is one reason why I think my music sounds better today than it did ten years ago when I first started to get seriously interested in Digital Audio Workstations.
Knowing your craft inside and out might not help you write a top-ten chart hit, but it will help you to sound better. Trust me on this.
This week will see the arrival of the second named storm of the winter season, Storm Barra. It won't get here until tomorrow (when the Met Office is forecasting gale- or even severe gale-force winds) but today it's gloomy and raining. It's so dark where I'm sitting that my cuckoo clock isn't sounding the half-hour, because it thinks it's still night time. I have nowhere else to be today, so I will be retreating to my studio to make music and keep warm. My hearing has now fully returned and I intend to put the fact to good use.
I'm still not sure about the need to name storms. It's an initiative taken by the Met Office together with Met Éirann and the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) and this year the names which will be used are ones that were suggested by the public (which means that it would not have surprised me in the slightest if one of the names turned out to be Stormy McStormface—instead they went with the somewhat safer Sean for the storm name beginning with the letter S.) The need to anthropomorphise anything that appears in the media smacks of infantilism to me.
I might be wrong on that point, although the odds seem to be in my favour.
According to the WMO, residents of the Caribbean islands have been giving names to their hurricanes for several hundred years. However it wasn't until 1953 that the practice became widely used, because that was when the National Hurricane Center in the United States adopted the practice. To me, it feels like someone here in Europe came down with a bad case of weather envy, developing an attitude that "Our paltry little storms have as much a right to be given names as your monstrous, island-eating behemoths do" and here we are. It's embarrassing.
I understand that the names help news organizations to communicate the impact that such storms can have in a more appealing manner. Given that their impact can involve extensive property damage and even death, the use of cute names seems ill-advised. Storm Arwen killed three people in the UK earlier this month, so not every storm we get these days falls into the "paltry" category and the number of truly violent storms battering the UK is increasing, thanks to anthropogenic climate change. Then again, as most of the UK's television programming these days seems to be aimed at people with a mental age of six, I guess I shouldn't be surprised.
And when the tempest that takes your roof off finally hits you, I'm sure that you will be able to draw some consolation from knowing that there will be somebody out there sitting at home, feeling absolutely chuffed to bits that the thing that did it was named after their deceased Border Collie.
...to everyone so far who has listened to or downloaded my latest album. It's very much appreciated.
And if you haven't done so yet, it is still available on Bandcamp!
It's Bandcamp Friday once again, so of course I'm going to have another full-length album of music prepared ready for you to listen to. Since I released The Geometry of Sleep exactly a year ago, I've released eleven full-length albums. That's a crazy hike in my work rate, considering that not so long ago I used to be a musician who would only record three new tracks every decade. The new release is called Speechless.
This one got its name from the fact that it is an album of instrumental music, although it makes extensive use of vocal samples and voice-like synths in its arrangements. Listening to it again after the fact, I can hear the strong influence of both Jan Hammer and Mike Oldfield in the production. That's not really surprising, as they're two of my favourite musicians and musical heroes both. I don't think I'd ever have harboured ideas about making my own music if it wasn't for Mike.
As with all the albums I've released this year, this one doesn't have a price set. Instead, you can choose what you want to pay for it, and as before that includes getting it for free. That's totally fine; the important thing is that you give it a listen, so here's a sample track to whet your appetite:
The cold I've had for the past week has finally broken. This morning, my hearing is beginning to come back, which sounds like somebody is turning up the treble and gradually increasing the stereo mix of daily life. I'm still full of snot, but I can feel my immune system getting things back under control once more.
And so, because my subconscious is clearly a spiteful, vindictive bugger last night I had one of the most depressing dreams I've had in quite a while. When I woke up I felt terribly down and the realisation that it had all been a figment of my imagination hasn't done much to lighten my mood this morning. The fact that people I loved and trusted treated me in a way which has left me an emotional wreck even thirty years later is appalling, but that's where I'm at these days.
I should probably see a therapist.
After feeling miserable all yesterday with a bad cold, I had a hot bath, made myself a large mug of orange-flavour drinking chocolate (it was Sainsbury's own brand, made with steamed, whole-fat milk done in my espresso machine, and it turned out to be far better than I expected it to be—lush, creamy, and genuinely tasting like orange-flavour chocolate) and retired to bed.
I slept for fourteen hours.
Even for me, that's kind of excessive, but I suppose I must have really needed a rest. It seems to have done the trick, anyhow; my cold is much abated today, and my nose has stopped running. I still feel a long way below par, and I haven't really done anything particularly challenging on the cognitive front today, but I did manage to get in a few thousand steps by walking to the Post Office to send a birthday card off to my Aunty Joan, and I also did a wheely-bin's worth of gardening, raking up the leaves in the front garden (they were a good fifteen centimetres deep in places.)
Last month I let lethargy get the better of me. I suspect that it's one reason why I came down with the cold I've had for most of the last week. I risked losing all the fitness gains that I've made over the past few months, and I really don't want to do that, so my resolution for this month is to resume those activity levels. Staying in bed all day and step counts that don't even make it to four figures need to stop. I need to get fit—or at least as fit as I can manage, given my kidney stones.
New month, new me. Let's see how I get on.